Lately, I have been engaged in a variety of discussions in which both Roman Catholics and Protestants have been involved and I have noticed something very interesting. Protestants are very quick to reject what Catholics contribute, even on topics that are not related to Catholicism. In fact, I have observed a projection on the Catholic regarding their doctrine when their doctrine had nothing to do with the discussion. It is as if the Protestant is telling the Catholic they have nothing meaningful to contribute simply because of the doctrinal positions that they hold.
It is not lost no me why this happens since at one time, I too would be very quick to dismiss Catholics and Roman Catholicism, wholesale. The primary reason I believe is because Protestants have embraced a model of Christianity that leaves no room for practices ascribed by Catholicism. In fact, I think if you were to ask the average evangelical Protestant about Catholic faith and practice, you might get these kinds of responses
- they promote a works-based system of merit
- they have elevated the Pope to same status of Christ and scripture
- they engage in practices that are contradictory to scripture, such as prayer to others rather than God
These were my responses at one time that demonstrated an ignorance of Catholic doctrine and its historical development. Taken at face value, it does seem that Catholic doctrine flies in the face of what we Protestants hold dear with respect to Soteriology and Ecclesiology. This includes
- Salvation is through grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone.
- Jesus Christ is our advocate and prayer is conducted to God through him; we don’t believe in praying to Mary or to others
- Jesus Christ and Scripture is the final authority for faith and practice, not the Pope.
However, I have come to realize that what appears to be contradictory practices of Roman Catholicism must be examined in context of the historical development of the Catholic church and how their doctrine is sourced in a rich tradition of early church practice. It is only through this understanding, that I believe Protestants can be more accepting and understanding of Catholic doctrine and practice. Absent that understanding, we will always measure the practices of Catholicism against our own and deem them unorthodox at best and heretical, at worst.
It is important to recognize that the first few centuries of the Christian church experienced a universality of doctrine and church practice. From the doctrinal perspective, there was a unified front on what was deemed authentic Christianity appropriate to the revelation of God and the apostolic witness of Christ. It is why in the early church writings, the word ‘catholic’, which means universal, was commonly used as a reference to one church. In protection of the one church, ecumenical councils were formed to combat false or distorted teaching that were attempting to infiltrate and distort the apostolic message.
In the absence of a solidified canon, writings were circulated to provide instruction to the various assemblies that were emerging. Church practice was an evolution that centered around interpretation of the apostles teaching and the instructive letters. Overtime, these elements would be transformed into a solidified practice incorporated into doctrine of church and shape liturgical practices that are very much apart of the RCC.
The doctrine of the church is a key element in understanding Catholic theology and why liturgical practices are deemed an important element related to the justification and sanctification of the believer. Affirmed at the Council of Trent, the church is the conduit through which Christ manifests his presence and authority. It is not simply the invisible church comprising all believers in Christ, but the visible organization established by Christ and maintained through apostolic succession based on Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:18. The revelation of God, unveiled in Christ is not simply inscribed in writings of the apostolic witness (scripture) but is carried on through tradition established by the church. This is otherwise known as Sacred Tradition, which is just as valid as scripture, according to Catholic theology and it is the church who serves as the authoritative interpreter of both. It is not as though the overseers of the church would arbitrarily decide to incorporate elements into the church to bolster man-made practices, but to uphold an historic tradition that is reflected in the inception of church practices transmitted by the apostles themselves.
Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, had this to say in an interview with Christianity Today regarding his conversion to Roman Catholicism
“Looking at tradition would also help evangelicals learn about Christian liturgical traditions, like Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, that many evangelicals reject because they say liturgy is unbiblical. When did these practices come to be? It turns out many of them came to be very early on in church history when people were close historically to the apostles themselves. There must be something to these practices that the early Christians thought were perfectly consistent with what they had received from the apostles.”
He further goes on to say that it was through his study of the church fathers and the development of liturgical traditions that liberated him with respect to his views on church tradition. To be honest, the Catholic doctrine of the church has garnered a greater appreciation for me of not only church tradition but the significance of the visible church. I think we protestants have been historically too dismissive of tradition and tend to undermine the authority and presence of the ecclesiastical body. Upholding scriptural authority has somehow created a laissez-faire attitude with respect to the unity of body that Christ sought (John 17:20-21) and that the RCC seeks with respect to doctrine and church practice. When Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door, he had no intention of dismantling the church but reforming practices that had been corrupted. While I do not agree with the authoritative status of the Pope as the succession of the apostolic witness, I do think there is something to be said for the preservation of historic Christianity and ecclesiastical unity that the papal office seeks to uphold.
With respect to the model of justification and sanctification, it might appear to be a meritorious works-based system, which sorely contradicts the Protestant understanding of justification by faith. However, the liturgical elements are not a set of rituals contrived to produce mechanics of symbolism, but are an active way in which members of Christ’s body participate in the union with Christ. Grace is dispensed through participation in the sacraments thus fostering this union. When the Catholic receives the eucharist, it is believed to be the actual presence of Christ. Therefore, I think it is unfair and not very accurate to label the RCC a system of works-based merit but one in which the model of participation in the union of Christ looks different than that of Protestants.
With the advent of the Vatican II Council, there has been a greater focus on scriptural authority in the RCC. I have witnessed that first hand in some recent viewings of Catholic masses on EWTN. I actually was impressed with the amount of scripture being read and taught and found little that I disagreed with in the messages. Yet, I wonder how many Protestants would even receive messages delivered by a Catholic priest, let alone watch a Catholic channel. I can’t help but believe that would only perpetuate ignorance and disharmony.
It too amazes me the backlash that I have heard from ex-Catholics who have converted to Protestantism who have joined the chorus of nay-sayers against the RCC vocalizing the same opposition as listed above. I wonder too if it was because of a failure to fully understand Catholic theology and doctrine that they at one time were actively engaged in. I do recognize that just because one actively participates in Roman Catholicism does not necessarily mean they are believers in Christ and it could be that the ex-Catholics who rail against Catholicism do so because they saw it as a detriment to the salvation they now have. However, there’s no sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water. Perhaps a greater consensus could be gained by ex-Catholics through an revisitation of the catechism that has now been wholesale rejected.
Because Catholicism does yield some very faithful and devoted believers in Christ. I have encountered some wonderful Catholics whose belief in and love for Christ matches, if not surpasses, Protestants that I know. And it is because of belief in Christ, not the practice of Catholicism, that allows for the unity that I believe some Protestants reject simply because the brother or sister in Christ is Catholic.
So I propose to my Protestant brothers and sisters, that rather than rejecting Catholics and Catholicism outright, that we take the time to understand where they are coming from. That does not mean we will necessarily agree with all the doctrine. I certainly don’t. But being quick to reject them or their contributions I believe does a disservice to the body of Christ and undermines the unity that we should seek to foster.
Here is an interesting interview with Mark Noll that I think fosters greater dialogue and cooperation between Protestants and Catholics