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Roman Catholicism: Diverse worldwide religious tradition that officially looks to the Pope and his predecessors/successors as God’s human leader of world Christianity.

Because of its size and scope—both in membership (about a billion people worldwide) and geographically, the actual beliefs held by devout Catholics are widespread and eclectic.

Catholicism has been influenced by liberation theology, especially in parts of South America. In Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, attempts have been made to blend Catholicism with spiritism, creating a type of Catholicism with occult elements. In addition, since the 1960s there has been a small but significant element of charismatic Catholics who have been influenced by the larger charismatic movement.

A small percentage of Catholics are doctrinally evangelical, and others (such as Matthew Fox) are part of the New Age movement.

As a whole, however, the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are still seen most clearly in the issues of the Reformation. The 16th century reformers distinguished themselves from Catholicism in two key ways. First, they saw the Bible as the sole foundation for authority (sola scriptura) rather than the Pope, church dogma or tradition. Second, the reformers taught salvation by “grace alone” (sola gracia). They also insisted that sola gracia could be faithfully maintained only by understanding the gospel to be the message of a free pardon and righteous standing with God through ''faith alone'' (sola fide) in the imputed righteousness of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church claimed (and still claims) to affirm sola gracia, but anathematized sola fide, teaching instead that grace is received and maintained by a combination of faith plus works (religious rites, sacraments, or human endeavor).
Index of Cults and Religions, Watchman Fellowship

In their book, Protestants & Catholics: Do They Now Agree?, John Ankerberg and John Weldon write:

Categories of Roman Catholicism

The issues surrounding Catholic belief and authority are compounded by the fact there are some ten categories of Roman Catholicism around the world. The distinctions between them are often not clear because they may tend to overlap and merge or blur into one another. Nor would individual Catholics necessarily appreciate or agree with such labels. But they will serve as a convenient grouping for purposes of illustration:

Nominal or social Catholicism

The Roman Catholicism of the largely uncommitted -- perhaps those born or married into the Church but who have little knowledge of Rome's theology. In practice, they are principally Catholics in name only, although still Catholics ''in Christ'' because of baptism.

Syncretistic/eclecti Catholicism

The Roman Catholicism that is, to varying degrees, combined with and/or absorbed by the pagan religion of the indigenous culture in which it exists (e.g., as in South America and Africa).

Traditional or orthodoxy Catholicism

The powerful conservative branch of Roman Catholicism that holds to papal authority and historical Church doctrines such as those reasserted at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Among this group may be classified the ultratraditionalist Catholics who adamantly reject Vatican II and generally distrust modern changes (e.g., abandoning the Latin Mass -- something Trent pronounced an anathema upon). [1]   Also included are traditionalist Catholics who, while adhereing to the entirety of creedal Catholicism and papal authority, more or less accept Vatican II reforms while yet staunchly rejecting liberalism.

''Moderate'' Catholicism

The Roman Catholicism of post-Vatican II which is neither entirely traditional nor entirely liberal.

Modernist, liberal Catholicism

The post-Vatican II ''progressive'' Roman Catholicism that to varying degrees rejects traditional doctrine.

Ethnic or cultural Catholicism

Often retained by migrants to American who use ''their religion to provide a sense of belonging. They feel that not to be Roman Catholic is not to belong and to lose [their] nationality and roots.'' [2]

Lapsed or apostate Catholicism

The Roman Catholicism which involves alienated, backslidden, or apostate Catholics who are largely indifferent to the Catholic Church and its God.

Charismatic Catholicism

The Roman Catholicism which seeks to accept the ''baptism of the Holy Spirit'' and speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts as signs of a deeper Catholic spirituality. (This illustrates the related, if largely distinct, category of mystical Catholicism, undergirded by the mystical Catholicism, undergirded by the mystical and not infrequently occult writings of the Catholics mystics).

''Evangelical'' Catholicism

Former Protestant Evangelicals who may retain some of their former beliefs but whyo now accept Roman Catholicism as the one true Church and its doctrines as authoritative.

Evangelical ''Catholicism''

The branch of former Roman Catholics who are truly Evangelical and who have largely rejected the unbiblical teachings of Rome, often deciding to remain in the Church as a means to evangelize other Catholics or help reform their Church.


The major broad areas of theology include the following:

Bibiology The doctrine of the Bible
Theology Proper The doctrine of God (Theism, Trinitarianism)
Angeology The doctrine of angels
Anthropology The doctrine of man
Hamartheology The doctrine of sin
Ecclesiology The doctrine of the Church
Christology The doctrine of Christ
Pneumatology The doctrine of the Holy Spirit
Eschatology The doctrine of last things
Soteriology The doctrine of salvation

In all of the above categories, Roman Catholic teaching historically (to one degree or another) has distorted these key theological doctrines. To the observer having only a general familiarity with Catholic teaching and conservative Protestant theology, this may not at first seem evident. Yet, it would be possible to write an entire text on each one of the above doctrines revealing how Catholicism has distorted what the Bible teaches on these subjects -- either through tradition, its approach to biblical interpretation, or other means.

In other words, whatever truths Catholicism may teach in theology generally, serious errors are also encountered. We can see this, in theology proper (the Catholic Church as the continuing incarnation of Christ); in bibliology (Catholicism as the only true Church of Christ); in hamartheology (aspects of pelagianism; moral and venial categories); in Christology (Mariology; the Church as continuing incarnation; the Mass); and in soteriology (Catholic teaching on justification, sanctification, regenerarion, and the sacraments).

No single doctrine is more important to each of us personally than the doctrine of salvation. In examining the component parts of the biblical portrait of salvation, we find the following:

  1. Depravity -- the spiritual condition of man before God.
  2. Imputation -- to reckon sin or righteousness to another's acocunt
  3. Grace -- the fact of God's nature making Him spontaneously favorable in His dealings with man.
  4. Propitiation -- the satisfaction of God's justice and righteousness through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
  5. Atonement -- the vicarious (substitutionary), efficacious (producing the desired effect) death of Jesus Christ for human sin.
  6. Renconciliation -- to restore to fellowship with God by removing the barriers preventing this.
  7. Calling (efficacious) -- the work of God drawing men to Himself.
  8. Regeneration -- the miraculous work of God making the human spirit alive to Himself and the imparting of eternal life to the individual believer.
  9. Union with Christ -- the spiritually living union of the believer and Jesus Christ.
  10. Conversion -- the human side of regeneration; turning to Christ in faith and repentance (leading to a change in both attitude and behavior).
  11. Repentance -- changing one's mind (mental) and turning from sin (behavioral) (i.e., a change of attitude and action).
  12. Faith -- trust in God, leading to right belief about Him, dependence upon Him, and right behavior toward Him.
  13. Justification -- the forensic or legal declaration of God concerning the believer's absolute righteousness before Him as a result of his faith in Jesus Christ.
  14. Adoption -- to be brought into the personal family of God.
  15. Sanctification -- to be set apart to God's purposes (i.e., growth in relationship to and holiness toward God).
  16. Eternal security -- the absolute security of the true believer with respect to his salvation from the point of regeneration.
  17. Perseverance -- the continuation of the saints in faith unto death.
  18. Election/predestination - to be chosen by God for salvation.
  19. Redemption to remove one from slavery to sin and Satan by payment of a ransom (i.e., the atonement of Christ).
  20. Death, resurrection, and the final state -- involving the physical/spiritual nature of death, the intermediate state, resurrection of the body, immortality, heaven and hell (the physical resurrection of the believer to eternal glory and the unbeliever to eternal ruin).
  21. The church -- the collective body of true believers called out of the world by God for His glory who are joined together visibly in worship and invisibly in union with Christ and one another.

Again, if we were to examine each of the above doctrines in detail, examining what the Bible teaches about them on the one hand and what Catholic tradition/doctrine teaching about them on the other, we would discover that Roman Catholicism has denied, altered, or confused all but one or two.

It is in light of our study of such theology that we find it most difficult to reconcile the current movement on the part of many Catholics and Evangelicals to join themselves together as spiritual brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. For their part, Evangelicals characteristically maintain that they are not abandoning or glossing over important differences in doctrine between orthodox Catholicism and conservative Protestantism; they merely want to stress the unity of the true church, whether Catholic or Protestant. The problem, however, is that we are not going to gloss over important doctrinal differences, then it becomes impossible to maintain that Catholics and Protestants are genuine brothers and sisters in Christ.

Again, this is not to deny that many Catholics, individually speaking, are saved individuals because they have placed true faith in Jesus Christ and trust in Him alone for salvation -- not in their good works, the sacraments, or the Church. The problem arises when we say that all those committed to the traditional orthodox doctrines of the Catholic Church are saved individuals just as much as the simple believer in Jesus Christ. If so, it would seem that what an individual believes (i.e., whether it is either Catholic or Protestant teaching), has little or no bearing as to his individual salvation. But to say this is to abandon biblical authority and teaching entirely.

The bottom line is this: It is virtually impossible to claim to maintain important doctrinal distinctions on the one hand, and to simultaneously unite Catholic and Protestant believers into a spiritual fellowship on the other.

We can illustrate this by examining the following five doctrines and considering briefly how each doctrine relates to Catholic teaching:

  • Propitiation/atonement
    This doctrine demonstrates that the death of Christ fully propitiated or satisfied God's wrath and paid the full divine penalty for all the believer's sin past, present, and future, thereby proving that neither the sacraments, penance, purgatorial suffering, indulgences, the Mass, priests, nor any other aspect of the Catholic Church is involved in any way in the propitiation or remitting of sin.
  • Reconciliation
    This doctrine involves one result of the death of Christ for sin wherein the state of enmity between God and man is replaced by one of peace and fellowship, proving that final reconciliation between God and man is something accomplished by God on behalf of man, not by the Church on behalf of man.
  • Regeneration
    This doctrine involves the making alive of the human spirit toward God and the imparting of eternal life, proving that true spiritual life is eternal and a miracle of God, not something instituted by the Church through sacraments or good works.
  • Justification
    This doctrine constitutes the legal declaration of the believer's absolute righteousness before God on the basis of his personal faith in Jesus Christ, proving that our perfect standing before God is not dependent upon Church teaching, sacraments, personal character, or good works, but solely upon our faith in Christ.
  • Sanctification
    This doctrine involves being set apart to God for His glory. A correct understanding of its past, present, and future applications proves that sanctification does not lead to justification, nor should it be confused with regeneration, as Catholicism teaches.

A brief evaluation of the above doctrines illustrates our central concern: As a result of its tradition and/or interpretation of Scripture, the Catholic approach to biblical doctrine is characteristically colored in a nonbiblical fashion.

About this article

This material is excerpted from two of the apendixes in Protestants & Catholics: Do They Now Agree?, by John Ankerberg and John Weldon (Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR, 1995. p. 245-246; 267-271).

From the book's back cover:

The signing of a new agreement entitled ''Evangelicals and Catholics Together'... a remarkable achievement or a tragic compromise?

For centuries, Protestants and Catholics have battled over what is considered the most crucial issue on all of the gospel: how a sinful man is forgiven by a holy and righteous God.

Recently, however, a revolutionary new agreement between the two sides has utterly astounded many million of people worldwide: Some of evangelical Christianity's most respected leaders have linked hands with Catholics in an unprecendented accord.

- Have doctrinal differences been eliminated?
- What was decided about justification by faith -- the one issue upon which Martin Luther said the church stands or falls?
- Which side changed its views?

Current issues expert John Ankerberg and John Weldon provide urgently needed answers in response to what could be the most far-reaching change in all of Christendom since the Reformation.

Apologetics Index highly recommends this book. It can be purchased at Amazon.com.

- Footnotes -
  1. [Back to text] H.J. Schroeder, translator, The Canons and Degrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, Il: Tan Books, 1978) p. 150 (Canon 9 on the sacrifie of the Mass).
  2. [Back to text] Lausanne Committee, Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Roman Catholics, p. 10.

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