True and False Catholicism
“Swimming the Tiber” is a popular way of saying that a Protestant has defected to Roman Catholicism (the Tiber River flows through Rome). If you’re paying attention, periodically you hear of someone “swimming the Tiber.” Especially if it’s someone who has been extensively trained in Reformed theology, you might be left wondering if the Reformation actually got it all wrong. You may wonder if perhaps we have misunderstood Roman Catholic doctrine. You might doubt whether the Reformation is something to be celebrated, or whether it should be deplored as having been unnecessary. Should we celebrate the 500th birthday of the Reformation or mourn it?
When those sorts of doubts arise, it’s good to take a careful look at exactly what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. It’s good to compare these teachings with the Word of God. That’s what I’m going to do in this post. I’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. From our side, I’ll refer to the Reformed confessions alongside Scripture. I do this because the Reformed confessions are faithful summaries of what Scripture teaches. Good editions of the confessions have Scripture proof-texts accompanying and you can always look those up should you question whether a particular point is actually taught in the Bible.
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 their minds, 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.”  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. The Bible alone has been “breathed out by God” and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Scripture must therefore be acknowledged as the only 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 very 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” (cf. Psalm 62:9). 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. 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.” In other words, the view expressed in CCC may be Roman, but it is certainly not Catholic.
The Doctrine of Man
We spent a lot of time on that question of authority because it is so critically important. It lies at the root of most of the other doctrinal problems in the Roman Catholic Church. We could touch on many other issues, but let’s stay where the fire is hottest. Let’s briefly examine what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about man. The Roman Catholic Church holds to a position called “Semi-Pelagianism.” Pelagius, a fifth-century British monk, taught that man is not conceived and born in sin. Man is born essentially good and he learns evil by imitation. Augustine of Hippo opposed Pelagius and insisted on man’s corruption. Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church adamantly maintains that Pelagius was wrong. They maintain a doctrine called “Original Sin” and assert that “original sin is transmitted with human nature by propagation, not by imitation.” (CCC, art.419)
Though the Roman Catholic Church holds to original sin, it is defined in a special way:
“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of the original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted; it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’ Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.” (CCC, art.405)
Take note of the view of human nature here: it “has not been totally corrupted,” it is wounded, inclined to sin. This is a more pessimistic view than Pelagius, but more optimistic than the biblical view of man as dead in sins and trespasses (cf. Eph. 2:1). For this reason, we rightly label this doctrine semi-Pelagianism. Under this doctrine, man is given a significant role in his own salvation. He is weakened, but once he is baptized, original sin disappears, though its effects may still be seen. At the end of the day, man retains some good within him. With a little push from God’s grace, man can help to save himself.
The true Catholic view is quite a bit different. In article 15 of the Belgic Confession, the truth of Scripture is summarized like this:
“We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race. It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother’s womb…It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”
The direction of the Belgic Confession seems clear enough. However, in the seventeenth century, the followers of Jacob Arminius tried to weaken the interpretation of the Belgic Confession. The Synod of Dort in 1618-19 answered with its Canons that make very clear that man is pervasively depraved. The Canons of Dort, following Scripture, state without reservation that all men are not merely wounded, but “dead in sin, and slaves of sin. And without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they neither will nor can return to God, reform their depraved nature, or prepare themselves for its reformation.” (CoD, 3/4.3). This view is the truly Catholic one, for it encapsulates the doctrine of the apostles (cf. Col. 2:13) that has been maintained by true believers around the world (including Augustine, Calvin and others) for centuries. This view alone gives all the glory for man’s salvation to God.
The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the place of Mary, the saints, the Mass and other sacraments, and the use of images are especially objectionable to Bible-believing Christians. All of these teachings can be lumped together under the general heading of worship. It has often been noted that worship was one of the central issues in the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century. It only makes sense, then, that we ask what the Roman Catholic Church believes about worship.
We can do this by looking at how the Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with the first and second commandments. The RCC traditionally puts the first and second commandments together and calls them the first commandment. Yet, the Catechism does divide the explanation. What we call the first commandment is explained as forbidding the honor of other gods as well as a prohibition against superstition and irreligion. What we call the second commandment is first explained as prohibiting the “representation of God by the hand of man.” (art. 2129). However, the doors are quickly opened with the following articles:
“2130 Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.
2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images.”
What is striking about the Roman Catholic understanding of the second commandment is that there is no recognition that this commandment originally pertained to the worship of God through graven images. This is exactly where the Roman Catholic Church goes wrong in its understanding of worship. In art. 2132 of CCC, it is stated plainly:
“Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”
In other words, the Roman Catholic Church worships God through these images. Roman Catholics will say the same about their “veneration” of Mary and the other saints: we are worshipping God through them and thus the “veneration” is no idolatry. This is nothing less than a violation of the second commandment.
This was recognized during the Reformation. The Heidelberg Catechism states that we may not have images “in order to worship them or to serve God through them” (QA 97). Further, this Reformed Catechism also asserts that the second commandment gives us a basic principle for our worship: we are not “to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” (QA 96) The same principle is found with the Belgic Confession in article 7, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length,” and then also in article 32, “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.” This is the application of Sola Scriptura to our worship.
The Roman Catholic Church follows a different route when it comes to worship: we may add to or take away from the worship of God as we please. Thus, the RCC has an elaborate ritual for baptism that obscures the simplicity of the sacrament as found in Scripture: sprinkling or immersion with plain water. Following their unscriptural worship principle, the RCC adds images and countless other innovations. The whole procedure and doctrine of the mass, though it often uses the words of Scripture, not only twists those very words, but also adds or takes away from the teaching of our Lord Jesus.
Numerous books have been written documenting the differences between the teaching of the Papacy and the teaching of Scripture. This article could quickly turn into one of those books! Before we finish off, here are two more examples of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted with the teaching of Scripture as summarized in our Confessions:
Regarding justification, Rome teaches:
“Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” (art. 1992)
But the Bible teaches:
“Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we are justified by faith apart from observing the law (Rom. 3:28). Meanwhile, strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith as such justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness; He imputes to us all his merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” (Belgic Confession, art.22)
Note the difference between an infused justification (“conferred in Baptism”) and an imputed justification that is by faith alone.
Regarding the extent of Christ’s atonement, Rome teaches:
“The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.” (art.605)
But Scripture teaches us:
“For this was the most free counsel of God the Father, that the life-giving and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect…This means: God willed that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and tongue all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and were given to Him by the Father.” (Canons of Dort, chapter 2.8)
Here the difference is between a universal atonement, and an efficacious atonement restricted to God’s elect. Only the latter is the teaching of Jesus, the only head of the church (e.g. John 10:15).
On these and so many other points, the Roman Catholic Church has departed from the teaching of Scripture. We may say without hesitation that the RCC represents the spirit of Antichrist. In fact, the Westminster Confession is not off the mark when it implies that the Roman Catholic Church is a synagogue of Satan (25.5). And certainly we may agree that the Pope is not in any sense the head of the church of Jesus Christ, “but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.” (25.6).
Through the Apostles’ Creed, we continue to confess that we believe a Catholic Church. Through the course of our brief examination, we have seen that there is a true Catholicism and a false Catholicism. There is a church chosen to everlasting life which experiences the unity of true faith – a true faith built upon submission to God’s Word alone. This is the true Catholic Church. There is also a church that “assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.” (BC art.29). This is the false Catholic Church – the Roman Catholic Church. We are the true Catholics and we should not be ashamed to say so. Moreover, we should also be eager to bring the true gospel to those enslaved to the many soul-endangering errors of Rome.
 The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison, Moscow: Canon Press, 2001, p.280.
 Ibid., p.211.