A Friendly Critique of Roman Catholicism — The Three Most Erroneous Doctrines

Title: A Friendly Critique of Roman Catholicism – The Three Most Erroneous Doctrines

Text: Romans 3:28, Romans 3:10, 23

Time: July 14th, 2012

 

To begin a critique of the teachings of Roman Catholicism I must first state how much I appreciate the last two popes that have led the church. Beginning with Pope John Paul II and continuing on with Pope Benedict the XVI, I have enjoyed how they both bring an intellectual clarity to Christianity. I’ve read a few books of Pope John Paul II, but I’ve particularly enjoyed reading the works of Pope Benedict XVI or Joseph Ratzinger, who in my opinion is perhaps the greatest intellect to ever lead the Roman Catholic church.  At a time in Protestantism where church leaders seem to fleeing theology and opting for business management, politics or entertainment, it’s refreshing to have a Christian leader who isn’t afraid to rationally explain Christianity. In particular, he’s written three or four books where he does nothing but answers questions posed to him from a journalist about a wide range of topics. Instead of dodging questions, he answers them forthrightly and with depth. This I appreciate. So I have the greatest admiration for the current pope and also great admiration for the late Pope John Paul II. In addition, I have friends who are Roman Catholic. I’ve had the opportunity to attend different Roman Catholic church services over the years, and I’ve experienced the wide range of different styles of Catholicism from the very formal services found in large cathedrals, to the very informal services found in small local churches. I have nothing against Roman Catholics per se, nor do I hold any animosity towards the institution of the church due to any bad experiences of the past. My critique has to do with some of the doctrines and teachings of the Roman Catholic church as expressed in its official documents, such as church councils, papal decrees and other formal church pronouncements. Even so, I don’t consider Roman Catholicism a cult or false religion. I’m aware that some Protestant church leaders, authors and scholars do classify Catholic teaching as heretical enough to label it as a false religion or cult. I do not. My understanding of Roman Catholicism is that it is an ancient expression of Christianity that has departed from the biblical Christian faith in a number of key areas. It is still in need of reform, but it is not a false religion or a cult. That is too harsh a critique. It holds to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, the atoning sacrificial death of Christ on the cross for our salvation, the virgin birth of Christ, and so on and so forth. In other words, it affirms all the most important orthodox and historic creeds of Christianity, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. I fail to see how one can affirm so many sound, Christian teachings and be called a cult or false religion. Yes, there is error in Roman Catholicism, but I would like to point it out in a friendly way – which is why I am calling this message, “A Friendly Critique of Roman Catholicism – The Three Most Erroneous Doctrines.” Let me start with the three greatest errors of Catholicism.

 

First, Roman Catholicism teaches salvation by works. Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” In the early chapters of the Book of Romans the Apostle Paul specifically teaches that spiritual salvation is obtained from God through faith alone, apart from any works. In the 16th century Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin explained this point carefully, yet the counter-reformation Roman Catholic Council of Trent specifically states, “Let anyone who says that the Bible teaches salvation by faith alone be anathema!” Here’s the problem. Over the many, many years since the time of the early Christian church and the writing of the New Testament, there was a clear and definite move away from Paul’s teaching of justification by faith and towards an emphasis on human works as justification for one’s salvation. Now the problem for the established Roman Catholic church at the time of the Reformation was that it had vested authority in the church itself instead of in the Bible alone, so that the church basically couldn’t reform itself by God’s Word. Catholicism had officially recognized and sanctioned a position on salvation that was not entirely biblical – or in other words, didn’t line up with the teachings of the Apostle Paul, for example, in the Book of Romans. But because the church was the authority, because it had already established and sanctioned its official position on salvation to include works, it practically couldn’t change it to conform to the strict biblical teaching. So instead of reforming, it resisted reformation. Instead of welcoming and honoring men like Luther, Calvin and Zwingli for prophetically calling the church back to its true faith, the Roman Catholic leadership condemned them as heretics and excommunicated them. Now that is truly unfortunate because it essentially locked Roman Catholicism into an unbiblical position, which it still officially holds. Ask the present pope about salvation by faith alone and he’ll have to qualify the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans with some comments about works and love. But if one simply goes to the Book of Romans and simply reads what the Apostle Paul says about salvation, one will come to essentially a Protestant Reformation understanding of it. Why? Because that is what Paul taught. Yet Roman Catholicism can’t reform itself, can’t correct itself because it had taken on a false emphasis on human works in connection with salvation so early and continued for so long that to admit error now would be call into question another false teaching – church infallibility. So rather than admit error, Catholicism must continue to rationalize and qualify its teaching on salvation to include both faith and works, even when the Bible teaches contrary. So the first and most erroneous teaching of the Catholic church is that salvation is, in some degree, by human works.

 

Second, Roman Catholicism teaches church infallibility. Romans 3:10, 23, “There is no one righteous, not even one. . . . For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Like I mentioned before, it is impossible for Joseph Ratzinger, the present pope, or any Roman Catholic church leader, to admit that the Bible teaches salvation by faith alone apart from works, because to do so would also be an admission that the church erred and is therefore not infallible. So the first erroneous doctrine taught by Catholics is tied to a second erroneous doctrine – the doctrine of church infallibility. If you read the new Roman Catholic Catechism, organized and approved by the present pope, Joseph Ratzinger, when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, you’ll find that it teaches in areas of doctrine and morals the Roman Catholic church cannot err when it leads and guides the faithful. I would advise a close examination of this Catechism because it is the most accessible and authoritative resource available for official Catholic teaching. What it teaches is that the Roman Catholic church cannot err in matters of doctrine and morals. In other words, when the Roman Catholic church teaches that salvation is not a matter of faith alone apart from works, it cannot be wrong. It cannot err. But this is simply wrong. The sad fact is that the Roman Catholic church, as well as any other kind of church, be it Methodist, Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Congregational, Episcopalian, and so forth, can and does err from time to time – and needs to be reformed from time to time. That’s the point of the Reformation; that’s the whole argument of Luther, Calvin and others. The Bible itself teaches against the doctrine of church infallibility by teaching that “all have sinned” and all err and all are mistaken and all fail and all fall, in great and small ways, from time to time. Furthermore, the idea of church infallibility simply cannot stand up to the evidence against it. At every level, in nearly every way, the Roman Catholic church has shown itself to be fallible. There is simply no way to look back at the long history of the Catholic church, with its heretical church councils, with its corruption, with its false popes, with its scandals that continue to the present day, there’s no way to view Catholic history and conclude that the church is infallible. The truth of God is infallible. God’s Word is infallible. Sound doctrine is infallible. But the visible, outward expression of the church is infallible? No. The Bible doesn’t guarantee an infallible church, but it does guarantee that the gates of hell will not defeat the church because of the Word of God. We have an infallible Bible but we don’t have an infallible church. So the second erroneous teaching of Catholicism is the infallibility of the church.

 

Third, Roman Catholicism teaches the infallibility of the Pope. Romans 3:10, 23, “There is no one righteous, not even one. . . . For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I repeat the very same biblical passage for point three as with point two because it applies to both. No one man is sinless and perfect, neither is any organization of men sinless and perfect. Neither is any man or group of men infallible. The infallibility of the pope is not only a problem for Protestant Christians; it’s a problem for Eastern Orthodox Christians as well. While Orthodoxy would embrace the notion that the church as a whole is infallible, which is what they teach, they would reject the notion that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is infallible. The irony is that in Roman Catholic history there were many Catholics who couldn’t subscribe to the idea that the Bishop of Rome was infallible either. The actual doctrine of papal infallibility is really rather recent, only receiving its official proclamation in the late 1800s. So as far as church history and tradition is concerned, this idea that the Bishop of Rome can proclaim infallible official church dogma is relatively new. Yes, the Pope’s powers had grown over the many years, over the centuries, to the position of chief authority in the church, but the further idea that one man could determine official Catholic teaching was still disputed even within Catholicism until rather recently. But the notion that the Pope is infallible is wrong for the same reason that the idea that the Catholic church is infallible is wrong – it fails the test of biblical authority and it fails the test of historical evidence. First, the Bible teaches nowhere that there was to be a pope, or that the church needed such an office. The New Testament describes a church council in the Book of Acts (15:1-31), but it doesn’t describe a pope. So the idea of an infallible leader in the church is not found in the Bible. Also, the Bible teaches that all men are sinners and in need of others for accountability. It would go contrary to the teachings of the New Testament to appoint one man with such vast powers so as to proclaim doctrine and official teachings. Because sin is a reality, no one man can be trusted with that kind of power. Second, in looking at the office of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, through the lens of church history, it reveals sin and corruption. Now how can there be sin and corruption in the office of the Pope if he is an infallible guide for the church? It’s a contradiction. What history shows is that some popes where good, some bad, some powerful, some weak, some faithful, some corrupt. Just as we might expect of any slice of fallible, sinful humanity. So we see that the third erroneous teaching of Roman Catholicism is papal infallibility. It just isn’t so.

 

I don’t have time to go into any details on the above points, although I wish I had the time. I’m aware that there are counter arguments to the arguments I’ve made. I’m sure some people will say that I’ve stated the positions unfairly. I’m sure some will say that I’ve misunderstood the church’s teachings. Let me say that I’ve read through the entire new Catechism of the Catholic Church, and gone back over sections in even more detail. I’ve tried to read widely from among the current pope’s books on a wide range of subjects. I believe that I have a firm grasp of the essential teachings of the Catholic church and that I’ve stated the teachings accurately, although because of time limits I’ve summarized them quickly. To be fair, each point really needs to be discussed in depth and in detail in order to show more clearly what I’ve been trying to say. But what I’ve done is outlined an agenda for further study and reflection, for anyone interested in pursuing it. But having said all that, I’d like to return to what I said at the beginning of this message – I don’t consider members of the Roman Catholic church enemies, but rather I consider them brothers and sisters in Christianity. There are many good, faithful Roman Catholic church members, priests and leaders who love the Bible and hold to its teachings, all the while remaining faithful to the Catholic church. What can we think of those who refuse to yield to the biblical teachings on salvation by faith alone? We must continue to pray for them that God would open their eyes that they might see his truth for themselves. Can there come about a unification of Protestantism and Catholicism in the future? Out of necessity there might need to be, since in today’s world the division is not primarily between Protestants and Catholics as it was in former centuries, but between belief and unbelief, between faith in the Christian God versus secular humanistic atheism. The great battle today in society is between a totalitarian secularism that is hostile to all of Christianity versus faithful Christians of all branches of Christianity. For practical purposes we might need to unite, Catholics and Protestants, as well as Orthodox believers, against a militant secularism that is rapidly capturing all of society. Does that mean that we sweep under the rug all the great issues we’ve been talking about today in order to unite against unbelief? No. But it means that we work together, Catholics and Protestants, to promote the Christian faith, while at the same time continuing to discuss and debate between ourselves in a spirit of love. We may never see a complete unity develop between Protestants and Catholics this side of heaven, but at least we can continue to work for it and discuss together, while we work together to defend Christianity against the common enemy of secular unbelief.

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