It is fair to say that the Roman Catholic Church has rarely, if ever, been entirely free of scandal. This especially holds true for the hierarchy. Especially during the Middle Ages, the practice of priests, bishops and even popes having concubines drew the Church’s commitment to clerical celibacy into serious question. In more recent times, the Roman Catholic Church has been besieged by allegations of sexual misconduct. In Canada, the Mt. Cashel Orphanage fiasco remains a shameful episode. Another low point was the barbarism inflicted upon Canada’s First Nations at many residential schools. In modern-day Italy, numerous nuns have been infected with HIV/AIDS because of clerical lusts. We could go on to the point of nausea.
However, it would be wrong for us to judge the Roman Catholic Church based on these scandals. The Roman Catholic Church is a global institution with millions of members. Scandals of lesser and greater notoriety have occurred in Reformed churches as well – perhaps even in disproportionate numbers. Would we want our churches to be judged solely by the misbehaviour of a proportionately small number of its members or ministers? No, there is a better way: we should examine the doctrine of the Church in question and compare it with Scripture.
So, let’s now look at what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about several important points and compare these with the teaching of Scripture. In doing this, we’ll take the modern standard of Roman Catholic doctrine as our guide. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in several languages in 1994 and is an excellent compendium of Roman Catholic teaching. If you regularly have contact with Roman Catholics with an eye to evangelism, it would definitely be helpful to have this book in your library.
The Most Important Issue
Let’s start with the most important issue. In my experiences with educated Roman Catholics, this is where any discussion will lead you. We tend to focus in on hot-button issues: Mary, the Mass, purgatory, and the like. However, when we get into some heavy discussion on these issues, appeals are made to authority. The Reformed person appeals to Scripture. But the Roman Catholic is not persuaded by appeals to Scripture. In his mind, Scripture belongs with tradition and tradition stands on an equal footing with Scripture. The two will never contradict each other. Thus, in any discussion with Roman Catholics, things will always get bogged down over the question of authority.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) maintains that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture come from the same source: God. There is one common source, but two distinct ways in which God’s revelation comes to the Church:
“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit…Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.”
Those statements come from article 81. Then we read the following in article 82:
“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.’”
Tradition is more tightly defined in the eighty-third article as what has been handed down from the apostles via oral transmission. The apostles, in turn, received the tradition from the Lord Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church also distinguishes between the great Tradition, which is unchangeable, and “various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time.” The latter “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium [body of authoritative teachers].” In short, the Roman Catholic view can be defined as Scripture plus tradition – but both are regarded as having a divine origin and so both are equally authoritative.
Oftentimes, the biblical or Reformed view is defined as “Sola Scriptura,” Latin for “by Scripture alone.” Unfortunately, this often degenerates into what some have called “Solo Scriptura.” “Solo Scriptura” is the caricature of the biblical view and it is maintained by many evangelicals. It is the reason why one writer stated, without hyperbole: “…Evangelicalism has created far more novel doctrines than Roman Catholicism.” [i] With this view of Scripture, the Bible stands with me all by itself. I will come with my private interpretation of the Bible and it is valid and authoritative for me. This “Solo Scriptura” view is not biblical.
The biblical view is that the Bible alone is the most clear and authoritative source of revelation – the only other source being “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” (Belgic Confession, article 2). The Bible alone is where God reveals all we need to know for our salvation. Scripture must be acknowledged as the ultimate and infallible norm for Christians. However, Scripture must always be interpreted in an ecclesiastical context – after all, it is the Church which has been entrusted with the Scriptures. We may not have an individualistic approach to the Bible. The Bible always has to be understood not only in its own context, but also in the context of the true Church. This is why astute Bible students (including ministers) place great value upon commentaries. Good commentaries (like those of John Calvin) give Bible students an excellent sense of how the Scriptures have been understood by those who have gone before us.
At the same time, it is clear in our Belgic Confession (article 7) that we cannot consider “any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures.” According to the same article, we may not place custom or tradition on the same level as God’s Word either. This is a direct jab against the teaching of the Roman Catholics. The reason given is biblical: “for all men are of themselves liars, and lighter than a breath.” So, the biblical view of the authority of Scripture acknowledges several things: the supreme and ultimate authority of the Bible, the importance of the Church in interpreting the Bible, and the sinfulness of man has an impact on his interpretation and understanding of the Bible.
This biblical view can be truly labelled as Catholic in the good sense of the word. This was the view held during the first three centuries of the Church. It was the view that found acceptance by the majority of the Church through most of the Middle Ages. Finally, this was the view that re-emerged during the Great Reformation under men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.[ii] The Roman Catholic view as it stands today actually originates around the twelfth century. As Keith Mathison puts it, “The historical novelty [of this view] is simply not in debate among patristic and medieval scholars.”[iii] In other words, the view expressed in CCC may be Roman, but it is certainly not Catholic.