What is Roman Catholicism?





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by S. Michael Houdmann

Question: "What is Roman Catholicism?"

Answer: The Roman Catholic Church portrays itself as the one legitimate heir to New Testament Christianity, and the Pope as the successor to Peter, the first bishop of Rome. While those details are debatable, there is no question that Roman church history reaches back to ancient times. The apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans about AD 55, and addressed a church body that existed prior to his first visit there (but he made no mention of Peter, though he greeted others by name).

Despite repeated persecutions by the government, a vibrant Christian community existed in Rome after apostolic times. Those early Roman Christians were just like their brethren in other parts of the world—simple followers of Jesus Christ.

Things changed drastically when the Roman Emperor Constantine professed a conversion to Christianity in AD 312. He began to make changes which ultimately led to the formation of the Roman Catholic Church. He issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which granted freedom of worship throughout the empire. When doctrinal disputes arose, Constantine presided over the first ecumenical church council at Nicaea in AD 325, even though he held no official authority in the churches. By the time of his death, Christianity was the favored, if not the official, religion of the Roman Empire. The term “Roman Catholic” was defined by Emperor Theodosius on February 27, 380 in the Theodosian Code. In that document, he referred to those who hold to the “religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter” as “Roman Catholic Christians,” and gave them the official sanction of the empire.

The fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Catholic Church are really two branches of the same story, as the power was transferred from one entity to the other. From the time of Constantine (AD 312) until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, the emperors of Rome claimed a certain amount of authority within the church, even though it was disputed by many church leaders. During those formative years, there were many disputes over authority, structure, and doctrine. The emperors sought to increase their authority by granting privileges to various bishops, resulting in disputes about primacy within the churches. At the same time, some of the bishops sought to increase their authority and prestige by accusing others of false doctrine and seeking state support of their positions. Many of those disputes resulted in very sinful behavior, which are a disgrace to the name of Christ.

Just like today, some of those who lived in the leading cities tended to exalt themselves above their contemporaries in the rural areas. The third century saw the rise of an ecclesiastical hierarchy patterned after the Roman government. The bishop of a city was over the presbyters, or priests, of the local congregations, controlling the ministry of the churches, and the Bishop of Rome began to establish himself as supreme over all. Though some historians tell these details as the history of “the church,” there were many church leaders in those days which neither stooped to those levels nor acknowledged any ecclesiastical hierarchy. The vast majority of churches in the first four centuries derived their authority and doctrine from the Bible, and traced their lineage directly back to the apostles, not to the church of Rome. In the New Testament, the terms “elder,” “pastor,” and “bishop” are used interchangeably for the spiritual leaders of any church (see 1 Peter 5:1-3 where the Greek root words are translated “elders,” “feed,” and “oversight”). By the time Gregory became pope in AD 590, the empire was in a shambles, and he assumed imperial powers along with his ecclesiastical authority. From that time on, the church and state were fully intertwined as the Holy Roman Empire, with the pope exercising authority over kings and emperors.

What are the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church that distinguish it from other Christian churches? Whole books have been written on this subject, but a sampling of the doctrines will be outlined here.

1.   Roman Catholicism
The bishops, with the Pope as their head, rule the universal Church.

Biblical Teaching
Christ, the head of the body, rules the universal church (Colossians 1:18)

2.   Roman Catholicism
God has entrusted revelation to the bishops.

Biblical Teaching
God has entrusted revelation to the saints (Jude 3).

3.   Roman Catholicism
The Pope is infallible in his teaching

Biblical Teaching
God alone is infallible (Numbers 23:19; Acts 17:11)

4.   Roman Catholicism
Scripture and Tradition together are the Word of God.

Biblical Teaching
Scripture alone is the Word of God (John 10:35; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; 2 Peter 1:20,21; Mark 7:1-13).

5.   Roman Catholicism
Mary is the co-redeemer, for she participated with Christ in the painful act of redemption.

Biblical Teaching
Christ alone is the Redeemer, for He alone suffered and died for sin (1 Peter 1:18,19).

6.   Roman Catholicism
Mary is the co-mediator, to whom we can entrust all our cares and petitions.

Biblical Teaching
Christ is the one mediator to whom we can entrust all our cares and petition (1 Timothy 2:5;  John 14:13-14; 1 Peter 5:7

7.   Roman Catholicism
Initial justification is by means of baptism.

Biblical Teaching
Justification is by faith alone (Romans 3:28).

8.   Roman Catholicism
Adults must prepare for justification through faith and good works

Biblical Teaching
God justifies ungodly sinners who believe (Romans 4:5). Good works are the result of salvation, not the cause (Ephesians 2:8-10).

9.   Roman Catholicism
Grace is merited by good works.

Biblical Teaching
Grace is a free gift (Romans 11:6).

10.  Roman Catholicism
Salvation is attained by cooperating with grace through faith, good works, and participation in the sacraments.

Biblical Teaching
Salvation is attained by grace through faith apart from works (Ephesians 2:10).

11.  Roman Catholicism
No one can know if he will attain to eternal life.

Biblical Teaching
The believer can know that he has eternal life by the Word of God and the testimony of the Holy Spirit who indwells believers(1 John 5:13; Romans 8:16).
There is salvation in no one but the Lord Jesus Christ, “for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

12.  Roman Catholicism
The Roman Catholic Church is necessary for salvation.

Biblical Teaching
There is salvation in no one but the Lord Jesus Christ, “for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

13.  Roman Catholicism
Christ’s body and blood exist wholly and entirely in every fragment of consecrated bread and wine in every Roman Catholic church around the world.

Biblical Teaching
The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Christ, and He is bodily present in heaven (1 Corinthians 11:23-25; Hebrews 10:12,13).

14.  Roman Catholicism
The sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Biblical Teaching
The sacrifice of the cross is finished (John 19:30).

15.  Roman Catholicism
Each sacrifice of the Mass appeases God’s wrath against sin.

Biblical Teaching
The once-for-all sacrifice of the cross fully appeased God’s wrath against sin (Hebrews 10:12-18).

16.  Roman Catholicism
The sacrificial work of redemption is continually carried out through the sacrifice of the Mass.

Biblical Teaching
The sacrificial work of redemption was finished when Christ gave His life for us on the cross (Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 1:3).

These doctrines don’t date back all the way to Constantine, except for perhaps in seed form, but were slowly adopted over many years as various popes issued decrees. In many cases, the doctrines are not even based on Scripture, but on a document of the church. Most Roman Catholics consider themselves to be Christians and are unaware of the differences between their beliefs and the Bible. Sadly, the Roman Catholic Church has fostered that ignorance by discouraging the personal study of the Bible and making the people reliant on the priests for their understanding of the Bible.

Catholic Questions

We receive quite a few questions from Catholics and about Catholicism. Let us be abundantly clear, GotQuestions.org is not a Catholic ministry. We strongly believe that the Bible is to be our guide for faith and practice. While we recognize the value of church traditions, we refuse to accept any tradition that is not clearly supported by the Word of God. Our “conflict” with Catholicism is in regards to the proper interpretation of the Bible. Listed below are the most frequent questions we receive from Catholics and about Catholicism.

We receive many “complaints” from Catholics that our articles about the Roman Catholic Church do not accurately present what the Catholic Church truly teaches and practices. We also receive many compliments from former Catholics stating that our articles about the Roman Catholic Church are absolutely true. For examples, please click here or scroll to the bottom of this page. All of our articles on Catholic topics were written by former Catholics who left the Catholic Church after comparing what the Catholic Church teaches and practices with the Bible, or by individuals with extensive experience with/knowledge of Roman Catholicism. The articles are thoroughly researched. We strongly believe them to accurately represent the doctrines of the Catholic Church. You may disagree with our conclusions, but they are the results of years of being Catholic, being taught Catholic doctrine, practicing Catholicism, studying Catholic theology, and conversing with Catholics. We are not bashing the Catholic Church, and we do not hate Catholics. We simply believe there are some serious doctrinal problems with the Catholic Church that need to be addressed Biblically.

There is also the issue that the practices of many Catholics depart from the “official traditions” of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, the Roman Catholic Church does not “officially” teach Catholics to worship Mary, but rather to honor and revere her. However, through observation, it is abundantly clear that many Catholics do in fact worship Mary. This is the result of the Roman Catholic Church not doing a good job of teaching and explaining its doctrines. Many Catholics are completely ignorant of what Catholic doctrines and practices truly mean and signify. Some of our Catholic-related articles may be responding more to the unbiblical practices of some (or most) Catholics, and not necessarily the “official positions” of the Roman Catholic Church.

Please note – GotQuestions.org is not a Christian debate site. Our ministry is to present what the Bible teaches on various topics. It is not our purpose to attempt to persuade you that all of our views are correct. We have presented what we believe to be the truth. If you have genuine questions about something we have said, we will be happy to answer them. However, if you only want to engage in debate, we will refrain from responding to your emails. Again, our ministry is to answer questions as Biblically as we can. We would much rather answer the genuine questions of people who are seeking for answers than engage in a fruitless discussion with someone whose mind is already made up. Thank you for understanding!