A survey of Roman Catholicism

Jesus with lambThe Roman Catholic Church traces its beginning to the apostle Peter, claiming he is the rock upon whom Jesus built His church (Matt. 16:18). As the first pope, Peter is followed by an unbroken line of successors stretching to Pope Francis today. Non-Catholics establish the beginning of the Roman Catholic Church at A.D. 590 with Gregory I, who consolidated the power of the bishopric in Rome.

In any case, the Catholic Church is the world’s largest Christian church, with 1.2 billion members. The Catholic hierarchy includes cardinals and bishops and is led by the bishop of Rome, also known as the pope.

The Catholic Church teaches that it is the one true church divinely founded by Jesus Christ. In addition, it teaches that its bishops are the successors of Jesus’ apostles, and that the pope, as the successor to the head of the apostles (Peter), has supreme authority over the church.

Categories of Catholics

While the Catholic Church claims to be the one true church, Catholics worldwide hold to a diversity of beliefs. Researcher Ken Samples has concluded that there are six primary categories of Roman Catholics:

Ultratraditional Catholics defend historical Catholicism and are critical of recent changes such as those coming out of Vatican II in the 1960s.

Traditional Catholics resist liberalism and modernism within the church, yet they generally accept the reforms of Vatican II.

Liberal Catholics celebrate human reason over the authority of the church; they also question the infallibility of the pope, church councils, and the Bible

Charismatic/evangelical Catholics emphasize the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the importance of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit-filled life.

Cultural Catholics are “womb-to-tomb” Catholics – born, baptized, married, and buried in the church. However, they essentially go through the motions of their faith without much regard for its meaning.

Popular folk Catholics predominate Central and South America. They combine elements of animistic or nature-culture religion with traditional medieval Catholicism (Christian Research Journal, Winter 1993).

Common ground

Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians agree on a number of Christian doctrines. For example, Catholics generally defend:

  • The doctrine of the Trinity – the truth of one true and living God who exists as three distinct, co-equal, co-eternal persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • The full theistic attributes of God, from His holiness and love to His jealousy and wrath
  • The truth of God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe
  • The deity of Christ
  • Jesus’ virgin birth and incarnation
  • His sinless life, death on the cross, burial, and physical resurrection
  • His ascension into heaven and his imminent return
  • The doctrine of the Holy Spirit, including His deity, personality, and involvement in redemption
  • Other key tenets of the Christian faith

Historically, the church has emphasized that union with the Catholic Church is essential to salvation. The Council of Trent in the 16th century affirmed a long-held belief that anyone holding to the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone is anathema. However, the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s declared that non-Catholics are “separated brethren,” even though the church continues to hold to the findings of its historical councils. In other words, the church insists that Rome is the narrow way to eternal life.

It’s important to caution evangelical Christians not to paint Roman Catholics as unbelievers. The Lord judges the heart, and some practicing Catholics today clearly hold to an evangelical understanding of scripture while remaining active participants in Catholicism.

However, some differences between Catholic doctrine and evangelical beliefs are profound.

Divergent doctrines

Protestant theologian Harold Brown once warned that while Catholicism holds to key fundamental articles of the faith, the church “so overlays them with extraneous and sometimes false doctrines that the foundations are no longer accessible to the majority of Catholic believers.”

Ron Rhodes, author of Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics, writes, “If the ‘gospel’ of Rome is a different gospel than that of Scripture, if Mary is not the exalted personage Roman Catholics make her out to be, if the pope is not the visible representative of Christ on earth who makes ‘infallible’ statements on matters of faith and practice, if the doctrine of the Mass has no biblical support whatsoever, then those who place faith in such doctrines have a false hope for the future. They may believe they have been made right with God when they are not right at all.”

Here are some key Roman Catholic doctrines that evangelical Christians reject as inconsistent with Scripture:

The Apocrypha. While evangelicals hold to the “canon” of 66 books in the Bible, Catholics argue that the apocryphal books – seven books and four parts of other books – belong in the canon. They call them deuterocanonical – literally, “second canon.” The Council of Trent (A.D. 1545-1563) canonized these books. Among other things, these books support such Catholic teachings as prayers for the dead and justification by faith plus works.

Tradition. Evangelicals believe that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) speaks with God’s voice and is authoritative in matters of faith and practice. Roman Catholics, however, believe that both Scripture and tradition constitute the Word of God.

Papal authority and infallibility. Evangelicals believe Christ is the head of the church and that every believer is a priest, with the ability to go directly to God in prayer and confession of sin without the need for a human mediator because Jesus is our Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). In addition, God has given us the Bible as His written authority.

In the Roman Catholic Church the seat of power is the pope, “the Supreme Pontiff.” As the “Vicar of Christ,” he acts for and in the place of Jesus. He exercises authority over the cardinals, archbishops and bishops. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the pope has “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”

In addition, Catholics believe that when the pope speaks ex cathedra (“from the chair” in Latin) on issues pertaining to faith and morals, he is infallible. The bishops also are infallible when they speak “with one voice” – that is, when all the bishops agree on a doctrine, so long as they are in union with the pope and their teaching is subject to his authority.

Meritorious justification. Evangelicals believe the Bible teaches salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Catholics generally deny that their church teaches a works-based salvation, but in fact a life of meritorious works is required to gain eternal life in Catholic theology. In other words, grace alone is not sufficient without works to yield final and full justification. Further, the Catholic Church teaches that justification may be lost through serious sins; therefore, no Catholic is certain of everlasting life.

Sacramentalism. The Bible reveals that salvation is a gift of God received by faith in Jesus Christ. The Christian partakes of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as acts of obedience. Baptism by immersion publicly proclaims the believer’s identification with the crucified, buried, and risen Savior. The Lord’s Supper is a communal meal in which believers honor the sacrifice of Jesus and anticipate His return. These acts of obedience – often called ordinances, although some evangelicals call them sacraments or “means of grace” – have no saving value.

Roman Catholics, however, teach seven sacraments that are essential to an individual’s eternal destiny: baptism, penance, the Eucharist, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick.

Sacraments in Roman Catholic theology do not merely symbolize grace; they are said to be containers of grace, which the participant receives as he or she partakes of the sacraments. The Council of Trent declares that a sacrament has the power “not only of signifying, but also of efficiently conveying grace.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states plainly: “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.”

The sacraments convey two kinds of grace: sanctifying grace and actual grace. Through participation in the sacraments, the Roman Catholic is infused with sanctifying grace, which makes him or her holy and acceptable to God. Actual grace is God’s way of enlightening the mind and strengthening the will to do good and avoid evil; this grace becomes depleted and therefore must be replenished through the sacraments.

Understanding the Catholic view of the sacraments helps us see why the church historically has viewed salvation outside the church as impossible, although Vatican II softened that stance to some degree.

A brief summary of the sacraments:

Baptism. This is said to confer initial justification and the new birth upon the participant, purifying the person from sin, making him or her a new creature, and placing sanctifying grace in his or her soul.

Penance. If someone commits a mortal sin following baptism, that person must participate in penance or else be assured of going to hell at death. The sinner must confess his or her sins to the priest, be sorry for the sins, and then carry out acts of penance as prescribed by the priest to ensure that saving grace is restored.

The Eucharist (Mass). This is the single most important Catholic sacrament because it involves the re-presenting or renewing of the sacrifice of Jesus. During Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus (transubstantiation), whose continual sacrifice is said to appease God’s wrath and cover people’s sins. Catholics claim that the Mass does not diminish the work of Christ on the cross but rather is the primary means of applying the benefits of His death to the faithful. The Eucharist is the primary and most sacred channel of grace to Catholics. That is why refusing to attend Mass is a mortal sin.

Confirmation. This is the second of three Sacraments of Initiation (the first being baptism and the third being communion). It is regarded as the perfection of baptism because, as the Introduction to the Rite of Confirmation states, “by the Sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit.”  The bishop administers confirmation by laying hands on the head of the parishioner, resulting in the receiving of the Holy Spirit.

Matrimony. Through marriage, two people of different sexes receive grace to fulfill their special duties. There is a triple good attached to this sacrament; first, the begetting of children and their education to worship God; second, the faithfulness each party owes to the other; and third, the permanence of marriage, which represents the unbreakable union between Christ and His Church.

Holy orders. This involves ordination to the offices of bishop, priest, or deacon, conferring on a man the spiritual power and grace to sanctify others.

The anointing of the sick. This sacrament is intended for those who are sick or near the point of death. It is said to remove the infirmity left by sin, and it is carried out for the purpose of commending to the Lord “the faithful” who are “dangerously sick” so He can relieve them and save them.

As important as the sacraments are to Roman Catholics, it should be noted that the sevenfold sacramental system was not initiated until the 12th century and was not a permanent part of Catholicism until the Council of Florence in A.D. 1439.

Purgatory and indulgences. The Bible teaches that Christ paid our sin debt in full on the cross. There is nothing a sinner can do to be forgiven of sins except to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, at which time that person’s sins – past, present, and future – are forgiven. He or she is declared in right standing with God (justified) and granted everlasting life. Believers’ sins after justification affect their fellowship with Christ and should be confessed, but justification is never revoked. Evangelicals believe that immediately upon death, the souls / spirits of Christians enter directly into the presence of God in heaven, where they await resurrection, final judgment, and glorification.

Catholic theology, in contrast, teaches that not all Christians enter heaven immediately upon death. The doctrine of purgatory became official Catholic dogma in A.D. 1438. Simply put, purgatory is a temporary place of suffering where the dead who are bound for heaven are purified from unpaid sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

In other words, purgatory is an intermediate state in which departed souls, bound for heaven, are purged of the stain of venial sins before receiving their final reward.

Catholics believe that the living can shorten the stay of a departed friend or relative in purgatory. Ron Rhodes writes, “You can say prayers, give alms, and perform a variety of good works. All of these are viewed as meritorious and can aid a soul in purgatory. But if you really want to help your loved one, ask the priest to say a Mass on his or her behalf. That yields big results.”

Catholics are taught that they may earn “indulgences” for themselves or departed loved ones to shorten the time spent in purgatory. By doing the sign of the cross, reciting the rosary in a family group, visiting a Catholic shrine, or performing other duties, a person may draw from the “treasury of the Church” – an inexhaustible fount of merit provided by Jesus, Mary, and the saints.

Incidentally, some Catholic theologians argue that unbaptized infants who die go to an eternal state known as limbo. They do not enjoy the glories of heaven because they are not baptized, but neither do they suffer the torments of hell.

The exaltation of Mary. Evangelicals hold Mary in high regard as the virgin mother of Jesus. Catholics, however, ascribe to Mary a much higher degree of admiration. She is said to have been immaculately conceived, or preserved from the stain of original sin, and therefore beyond sin altogether. She also is said to have been perpetually a virgin, meaning she never engaged in sexual relations although married to Joseph.

Other Catholic claims: Because she was sinless, Mary was taken to heaven bodily at the end of her earthly life. She has allegedly appeared to many people throughout history, including at Guadalupe, Mexico (1531); Lourdes, France (1858); and Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina (1980s). She bears numerous titles of honor that exalt her above mere humanity including “Mother of God,” “Mother of the Church,” “Co-redeemer of Mankind,” and “Queen of Heaven and Earth.”

Evangelicals contend that the Bible offers no support whatsoever for the veneration of Mary. She is a faithful servant of the Lord who humbly and obediently answers the call of God to be the vessel of His incarnation. At the same time, she acknowledges her need for a Savior (meaning she is a sinner, although Catholics assert her salvation is from original sin; see Luke 1:47); bears sons and daughters with Joseph (meaning she is not a perpetual virgin); and is nowhere in the New Testament found receiving worship, proclaiming herself a co-Redeemer, or claiming any exalted position in heaven. Mary deserves our respect and appreciation, not our worship.

Download the PDF: Roman Catholicism


  1. Marco

    Matt 24:24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. Matt 24:25 Remember, I have told you ahead of time. Matt 24:26 So then, if someone says to you, Look, he is in the wilderness, do not go out, or Look, he is in the inner rooms, do not believe him.

  2. Kinneth Parker

    A great article this will help in a Bible study class I lead at a retirement center with Catholics present