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What Think Ye of Rome?

An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism

(Part One)

by Kenneth R. Samples


A crucial starting point in an appraisal of the Roman Catholic church is to understand some of the unique sociological features of contemporary Catholicism. Erroneous classifications of Catholicism frequently fail to grasp the significant diversity within the church. While the church's unity is of central importance, Catholicism possesses incredible diversity -- the church is anything but monolithic. This diversity is illustrated by the six major theological types of Catholics: ultratraditionalist, traditionalist, liberal, charismatic/evangelical, cultural, and popular folk. A Protestant appraisal of Catholicism should then examine the areas of genuine doctrinal agreement between Catholicism and Protestantism (especially evident in the creeds), before moving on to analyze the significant areas of difference.


Counter Reformation: A period of reform and revival in the Roman Catholic church following the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The goal was to stem the tide of Protestantism by genuinely reforming the Catholic church. This reform included among other things the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the establishment of The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1540.

fundamentalist: This term, like "evangelical," suffers from ambiguity, and has changed much in meaning since its first usage early in this century. Fundamentalists have always stood in opposition to liberalism within the church. But today the term conveys certain additional characteristics which set fundamentalists apart from other evangelicals, including: a general suspicion of scholarship, a separatist mentality which includes a rejection of the entire ecumenical movement, an anti-historical (anti-creedal) or restorational view of the church, and a rigid approach to what constitutes appropriate Christian conduct.

papal encyclical: A letter of instruction from the Pope which circulates throughout the church.

Reformation: A wide-ranging, predominantly religious movement of sixteenth century Europe which attempted to reform Western Christianity, but in effect resulted in (1) the rejection or modification of some Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, and (2) the establishment of Protestant Christianity. See Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

One of the most perplexing issues evangelical Protestants face is how to understand, evaluate, and ultimately classify the Roman Catholic church. Few topics prove to be as controversial as the question of just how Protestants view and relate to Catholics. There exists no universal agreement or consensus among conservative Protestants in this regard. The spectrum of opinion ranges from one extreme to another.

On the one hand, some people hold to an optimistic but seemingly naive ecumenism that sees no essential or substantial differences between the church of Rome and historic Protestantism. This camp views Catholicism as authentically Christian, but largely ignores the doctrinal controversies that sparked the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. They seem to only take into account the vast areas of agreement between Protestants and Catholics. At the other extreme is a band of Protestant fundamentalists who are literally rabid in their denunciation of Catholicism. This assemblage (usually led by vociferous ex-Catholics) dismisses Catholicism outright as an inherently unbiblical and evil institution. They not only consider the Roman church to be doctrinally deviant, but also the efficient cause of many or most of the social, political, and moral ills evident in the world today. Genuinely "anti-Catholic," this faction views the Catholic church as the "Whore of Babylon," a pseudo-Christian religion or cult. They seem to concentrate exclusively on those various doctrines that sharply divide Protestants and Catholics.

I believe most evangelical scholars who are knowledgeable about Catholicism would feel uncomfortable with both of these positions. Unfortunately, however, these two camps often operate as if their own views are self-evident and exhaustive. Both camps (especially the anti-Catholics) virtually anathematize anyone who is not squarely in their camp. If one is critical of Catholicism because of Reformational doctrinal distinctives, the first camp accuses that person of being divisive, not supporting Christian unity in this important age of ecumenism. In contrast, if one defends certain Catholic beliefs as being authentically Christian, the second camp accuses that person of being a betrayer of the Protestant Reformation and fraternizing with the enemy. Both camps fail to see that there is an acceptable alternative position between the two extremes.

This series of articles will attempt to provide some needed balance to this important discussion by doing several things. First, we will seek an accurate understanding of contemporary Catholicism by exploring some of the unique sociological features of the Catholic religion. We will consider the Catholic church's size and sphere of influence, as well as its unity and contrasting diversity. We will look at the major theological types or classifications of Catholics, and explore the uniqueness of the American Catholic church. Second, we will begin our theological appraisal of Catholicism by probing the common areas of agreement between classical Catholicism and historic Protestantism.

In Part Two we will consider serious problems with both the anti-Catholic and uncritically ecumenical Protestant views of Catholicism. Then, in Parts Three and Four, the most important doctrines on which Catholics and Protestants disagree will be carefully examined. At the close of this series the necessary groundwork will have been laid to reach some conclusions about how evangelical Protestants should view Roman Catholics.

Our goal will be to steer clear of the extreme and erroneous classifications of Catholicism described above by providing an evaluation which is fair and representative of Catholicism, but genuinely evangelical in its perspective, and squarely rooted in the central theology of the Protestant Reformation.

Defining "Evangelical"

Before we begin our evangelical appraisal of Catholicism, we need to give some definition to what is meant by the often vague and ambiguous term "evangelical." The term is derived from the Greek noun euangelion, which has been translated "good news," "glad tidings," or "gospel." Therefore, at the most fundamental level, being an evangelical Christian means being a believer in and proclaimer of the gospel (the good news that sinful humanity can find redemption in the doing and dying of Christ [1 Cor. 15:1-4]).

If this were all there was to being an evangelical, however, virtually every Christian group would claim this title. Obviously, the term carries a deeper historical and theological meaning. Lutheran theologian and apologist John Warwick Montgomery has summarized well the historical roots and doctrinal foundations that stand behind evangelical Christianity:

To my way of thinking, "evangelicals" are bound together not by virtue of being members of the same Protestant confessional stream, but by their firm adherence to certain common theological tenets and emphases. These latter would summarize as follows:

(1) Conviction that the Bible alone is God's objectively inerrant revelation to man;

(2) Subscription to the Ecumenical creeds as expressing the Trinitarian heart of biblical religion;

(3) Belief that the Reformation confessions adequately convey the soteriological essence of the scriptural message, namely, salvation by grace alone through faith in the atoning death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ;

(4) Stress upon personal, dynamic, living commitment to Christ and resultant prophetic witness for Him to the unbelieving world; and

(5) A strong eschatological perspective. Whether a member of a large "inclusivist" church or of a small "separated" body, whether Anglican or Pentecostal, an evangelical regards himself in home territory where the above theological atmosphere exists.[1]

This concise summary cogently sets forth the belief system that stands behind authentic evangelical Christianity. And it is this broad base that evangelicals affirm to be the very bedrock of Christianity itself. It is from this historic evangelical perspective that we begin our appraisal of contemporary Roman Catholicism.


Some of the more striking features of Catholicism include its imposing size, its vast sphere of influence, its unity, and its contrasting diversity. Gaining an appreciation of each of these characteristics can help us better understand contemporary Catholicism.

Size. The size of the Roman church is astounding. Just less than eighteen percent (17.7) of the entire world population is Roman Catholic (a whopping total of over 928 million people, soon to be a billion).[2] Additionally, the church is truly universal in scope, having parishes in virtually every major part of the world. There is a significant Catholic presence on every continent, with the possible exception of Asia. The following are some percentages of Catholics in the world: Africa, 13.9; North America, 24.2; Middle (central) America, 86.6; South America, 88.9; Europe, 39.9; Oceania, 26.5; and Asia, 2.7.[3]

In terms of other religious bodies, the Roman Catholic population is larger than the other two main branches of historic Christianity combined (Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism). There are approximately the same number of Catholics in the world as there are Muslims. The Catholic population in the United States is presently well over 55 million (approximately 22 percent of the U.S. population),[4] and by some Gallup estimates may actually be significantly higher.[5] By comparison, the second largest Christian denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptists with approximately 14 million members.

Sphere of Influence. The influence that the Catholic church has had on the world is incalculable. One of Western civilization's greatest influences has undoubtedly been Roman Catholicism. In many respects, European culture has been directly shaped and molded by events surrounding the Vatican. From the fourth century to the present, Roman Catholic thought has had a momentous influence in the areas of politics, economics, history, science, education, theology, philosophy, literature, art, and numerous other areas of culture. The church has wielded great power over the centuries, often spreading enlightenment and benevolence among