Thursday, August 23, 2012

Roman Catholicism, Part 1

Q: I have a friend who is considering joining the Roman Catholic Church. I've heard a lot of different opinions on Catholics... some people I know say it's just another denomination, others say they aren't really Christians, and still others say that they're the only true Christians! Any help you can give to clear this up for me?

A: Another great and potentially controversial question!

At the outset, I need to make a disclaimer: my intention in attempting to answer this question is to interact with the claims and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church and not necessarily the beliefs of individual Roman Catholics. This is a huge difference! Just like with any other system of beliefs, there is always some disconnect between the system and the adherents. Unfortunately, many who claim to be Christians treat their faith like a salad bar, picking what they like and ignoring or even discarding the rest!

Because this is true, we must separate at the outset the individuals from the institution. This is often difficult because adherents often form (at least part of) their identity based on their religious affiliation. Therefore, my comments below will be addressed at the official teachings and positions of the Church of Rome, and not directed at members of the Roman Catholic Church (who may or may not believe these official dogmas). It is not my intention to be offensive to individuals who hold these beliefs, but merely to interact with and offer a critique of the ideas and dogmas of the Roman Church. Any time closely held beliefs are challenged, the potential exists for offense, so please understand I am not trying to be offensive!

With that said, there are a number of issues which could be raised where "Protestants" and "Catholics" find disagreement. It would not likely be fruitful to attempt to bring out all of these issues here, but the person interested in seeking more information on this topic is encouraged to visit CARM's website which tackles this conversation from a number of different angles.

Instead of presenting a survey of issues in superficial form, let's focus on a few major issues in more depth. This will be the focus of Part 2 of this post. Before diving in to those, however, first let's set the table for why this is so important.

In full disclosure, I was raised and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church and currently have many family members who are still fully functioning members of this organization. Because of this, my interest in these matters is much more than theoretical. I have spent much time and sweat investigating these matters because of the importance to me personally. The reality is that neither side -- Protestant or Roman Catholic -- when fully understood can accept the other as genuinely "Christian." The divide is much wider than some would lead you to believe.

One of the major communication problems that human beings face is that our words don't always convey the same meaning. Context shapes the meaning of words, and so even when Roman Catholics and Protestants use words like "grace" and "faith", it does not necessarily mean that they are talking about exactly the same thing!

The reality is that the current Pope denies that Protestants are members of the true church and that they are practicing a deficient Christianity. According to this declaration, this deficient form of Christianity is separated from the means of grace in the sacraments, and therefore, Protestantism is a road to Hell.

This isn't new. What is extremely interesting to me is that, despite the claims of some that the divide is not that wide between Rome and Protestantism, the official teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the opposite.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”):
First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. "Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church." In her subsists the fullness of Christ's body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him "the fullness of the means of salvation" which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of the Parousia. (Paragraph 830, italics added for emphasis)

According to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, it is the Roman Catholic Church that is the Church. If this identification is true, then to be included in “the Church” you must be a part of the “Roman Catholic Church,” in order to have the “correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession.”

The implications for me as an individual come a little later in the CCC:
"Fully incorporated into the society of the Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who - by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion - are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but 'in body' not 'in heart.'"

The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter." Those "who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church." With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound "that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist." (CCC, paragraphs 837-838, italics added)

This plan of salvation includes Muslims:
The Church's relationship with the Muslims. "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day." (CCC, paragraph 841, italics in original)

According to the CCC, Muslims can be included in “the Church” and are said to worship and adore the same God as Christians... even though the Koran presents a much different view of God! In fact, the Christian God is revealed to be Triune in nature (that is, One God existing eternally in Three Persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) whereas the god of the Koran is a strict unity. Nowhere in Scripture can you find God being so lenient on worshippers of false gods (see Exodus 20:3-6), but the CCC says Muslims worship the same god as the God of the Bible.

Continuing on in the CCC:
“Outside the Church there is no salvation”

How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.

"Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men." (CCC, paragraphs 846-848, bold added for emphasis)

Notice that according to the RCC, I am not able to be saved because I have refused to remain in the RCC. However, Muslims and worshippers of other false religions are able to be saved, even though they do not accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Officially, the Roman Catholic Church sets herself up as the dispenser of God’s grace:
The Church was made manifest to the world on the day of Pentecost by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Spirit ushers in a new era in the "dispensation of the mystery" the age of the Church, during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church, "until he comes." In this age of the Church Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church, in a new way appropriate to this new age. He acts through the sacraments in what the common Tradition of the East and the West calls "the sacramental economy"; this is the communication (or "dispensation") of the fruits of Christ's Paschal mystery in the celebration of the Church's "sacramental" liturgy. (CCC, paragraph 1076, bold added for emphasis)

The sacraments “communicate” or “dispense” the grace of Christ. This further explains why I am not saved—because I have voluntarily rejected the idea that I can receive the grace of God needed for salvation that is dispensed by the RCC. We can both affirm that we are saved by “grace alone,” but I believe that there is no mediator of grace between me and God (1 Timothy 2:5), while the Church of Rome teaches that she is the mediator of God’s grace on behalf of Jesus Christ (not found in Scripture, only in Tradition – see the above quote, based on the “common Tradition of the East and the West”).

The issue is much larger than whether or not we both call ourselves "Christian." The gospel of the Roman Catholic Church is different than the gospel of Protestantism. Galatians 1:6-9 speaks clearly on this issue:

I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by (the) grace (of Christ) for a different gospel (not that there is another). But there are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach (to you) a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed! (NAB)

Much more is at stake in what we are discussing than simply “a decision on where we like to worship.” The issue is very much which one of us is accepting a different gospel. The implications are obvious.

Understanding that the stakes are high, in Part 2 we will turn our attention to what I perceive to be the greatest issues which will forever keep me from being a member of the Roman Church.

Click here to continue reading Part 2.

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