Saturday, August 22, 2015

Evangelical Christians and Anti-Catholicism

I am startled when my evangelical Christian friends continue to show a strong anti-Roman Catholic bias. To continue to define Catholicism by the abuses of the late medieval period means that we are all still fighting the battles of the sixteenth century. Honestly, you would think someone was selling indulgences on the street corners of every major American city given the vehemence of the anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Roman Catholicism - like Christianity in general - is a historic faith; it grows, matures, and changes with time. As much as any of us might strive to mirror biblical religion, no Christian church has perfectly reflected the "New Testament pattern" since the first century. And while it is true that the Roman Catholics across Europe "struck back" at the rebellious Protestants in a "war of words" after the 16th century Protestant Reformation - that sometimes escalated in to real, extended wars across Europe - it is equally true that Roman Catholics "heard" the Protestant criticisms, rid themselves of offending abuses, and modified their language/understanding of grace and justification. This is clearly seen at the Council of Trent (1545-73).

It would be very enlightening for my evangelical Protestant brethren to actually READ the Catechism of the Catholic Church on "Grace and Justification." BEFORE YOU DISAGREE WITH IT, IT JUST MAKES SENSE TO READ IT. Click here to download the section of the Catechism on "Grace and Justification."


Yes, there is some vocabulary here that gives my Protestant heart a pause - words like "merit" and "cooperation" make me uneasy. But these words of the Catechism are consistently cast in terms of divine initiative and providence that allays my Protestant fears. Look at these quotes:

"Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion."

"With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator."

"The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit."

"Our merits are God's gifts."

The entire section of the Catechism on "Grace and Justification" is replete with the language of divine initiative in justification and empowerment in sanctification. (Admittedly, there are differences from many Protestants about when the work of justification is complete in the life of the Christian, but this in no way undermines the language of divine initiative in the Catechism.) As a Protestant, I might not choose the vocabulary used in this document, but I do not disagree with its overall "grace through faith" message.

To download a complete copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Edition), click here.


The real issues that divide some 21st-century evangelical Protestant Christians from Roman Catholics are these:

Sacramentalism - Catholics believe - on a strong biblical basis - that God has ordain certain ceremonies such that the grace of God is communicated to those humans who correctly participate in them. Simply put, the sacraments are "means of grace" - formal, structured ways in which the grace of God comes to human beings. While Protestants may differ on the nature and number of the sacraments and how they should be performed, to see these ceremonies as acts of "works righteousness" in which Roman Catholics seek to justify themselves through human action is to miss the point entirely. The anti-sacramentalism of the Protestant "free churches" and other groups influenced by the free church tradition is an intra-family disagreement and not a reason to disallow Catholic Christian commitment.

Issues of Human Will - The language of "cooperation" with God in sanctification is particularly troublesome to Protestants - especially to those who deny any semblance of human free will. For those Protestants who affirm the "total depravity" of human will (the total corruption, or even destruction, of the image of God in sinful humans), by definition, any talk of human wills doing anything of themselves is impossible. But the Catholic Catechism - along with many other Protestants who do not share this understanding of the human will, the Orthodox churches, the "forgotten" churches of the east, and all of the church fathers before Augustine - understands that the human will - corrupted, but not destroyed - comes to serve God by "the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit' - that is, through prevenient grace (that comes before any human decision or action) by which God justifies and sanctifies humans. From this view, divine initiative empowers the human will to do what it could not do of itself - to love God and His ways and to move toward a life of holiness.


The sixteenth century is over and all its theological battles with it. It is time to stop fighting battles that have long since been settled. In an age of post-modern secularity where Christians are now a minority voice and where western social and cultural norms have been "cut free" from their Judeo-Christian roots, it is imperative to UNITE not further divide Christians.

But honestly, my evangelical Christian friends, if you truly believe that Roman Catholics "do not preach the Christian gospel" - if you believe that there are some Catholics that are Christians only in spite of their Catholic faith - then I fear, in the words of the apostle, that you have not correctly "discerned the Lord's body."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Joe, for postring this very relevant perspective. I, too, think we as evangelicals need some revision in our thinking, if for no other reason than we believe that salvation is by grace through faith. If salvation is by grace through faith, then it is NOT by impeccable theology, even our own perceived impeccable theology. Vatican II took down the wall of the Catholic Church, but many evangelicals are still building it. To be sure, there are elements of Roman Catholic theology to which I cannot ascribe, such as, the elements of Mariology, the sacrifice of the Eucharist, purgatory, etc. and etc. However--and this is a really big however--even these theologies are not any worse than some of the wormy stuff with which we grew up!

    I find it much easier to discern other folks heresies but so difficult to weed out my own, so it seems to me that I really should err on the side of mercy. If I knew what my own heresies were, I'd get rid of them, but alas, my human finitude keeps getting in the way.

    One of my favorite passages is from Corrie ten Boom as she describes the prayer services she and her sister Betsie had in Barracks 28 at Ravensbruck concentration camp during WWII. She writes, "They were services like no others, these times in Barrack 28. A single meeting night might include a recital of the Magnificat in Latin by a group of Roman Catholics, a whispered hymn by some Lutherans, and a sotto-voce chant by Eastern Orthodox women. With each moment the crowd around us would swell, packing the nearby platforms, hanging over the edges, until the high structures groaned and swayed. At last, either Betsy or I would open the Bible. Because only Hollanders could understand ther Dutch text we would translate aloud in German. And then we would hear the life-giving words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech and back into Dutch. They were little previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb."

    I think Corrie ten Boom got it exactly right!