What do Roman Catholics believe?

This is the second in a four-part series on Roman Catholicism.

Read part one: Who are Roman Catholics?

RosaryWhile Roman Catholics and evangelicals agree on a number of Christian doctrines, as we learned in the last column, there are profound differences between the teachings of Rome and the revealed word of God in Scripture.

As Protestant theologian Harold Brown once warned, 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.”

Roman Catholics embrace at least seven doctrines that evangelical Christians reject as inconsistent with Scripture. In this article, we explore five of these divergent doctrines, with two more doctrines to follow in the next installment.

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, which include Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1st and 2nd Maccabees. 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.

While evangelicals acknowledge the value of tradition, they argue that it must always be subject to – and measured against – the Bible.

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.

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 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.

Next: What do Roman Catholics believe? (continued)


  1. Patrick E. Devens

    The RCC, was the only Christian church up till the Reformation.

    Works, in themselves do not save us; we are saved by God’s grace. But at the same time, obedience is required. If a person was to put his faith in Christ, and then decide to not obey him, what would happen? At the end of his life, that person would be judged by what he DID. His works. Good works are necessary.

    Yes it is an argument from silence. The point is that you cannot say she had children with Joseph when the text is not there. Wouldn’t that coincide with Sola Scriptura? You Protestants take whatever Scripture solely has to say. Scripture does not say Mary had children with Joseph.

  2. rphilli

    Patrick, thanks for your comments. If, by “entire Church,” you mean the Roman Catholic Church, then I agree that the Apocrypha was accepted (but non canonized) long before Trent. However, your statement on salvation is self-refuting. You say that works don’t save, and then that good works are necessary for salvation. Scripture teaches that Christ’s sinless life, and His sacrificial and substitutionary death on the cross, were the sufficient works necessary to pay our sin debt. As a result, we are saved by His grace, through faith, apart from works (see Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9; and Titus 3:5-7). Last, your statement about Mary is an argument from silence. Numerous passages of Scripture refer to the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Just because the Bible doesn’t specifically say Mary and Joseph had sexual relations, resulting in other children, gives the RCC no justification for a doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

  3. Patrick E. Devens

    It should be noted that the entire Church accepted the Apocrypha long before Trent…The RCC does not teach that works save, but that good works, aka obedience, is necessary for salvation…And nowhere does the bible say Mary had children with Joseph…

  4. Kevin

    Roman Catholics are not taught to Worship Mary, we are taught to Honor her as the Mother of our Redeemer. She was chosen by God, not the Catholic Church. She humbly accepted and lived her life accordingly. When we pray to Mary to intercede it is no different than praying to a loved one that has predeceased us and gone to the Heavenly Father. We are all asked to pray for one another and praying to Mary is no different.

    Respectfully with Blessings and Humility