I have never attended a Catholic Mass. The first inside glimpse I got of Catholicism occurred during one of the memorial services following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I observed a man – an archbishop, being trailed by a cadre of priests and altar boys. The bishop was dressed elegantly, and was the object of unusual (to me) veneration. When I saw the priests kneel before the bishop (who was seated on what can best be described as a throne) and kiss a ring on his hand, I felt extremely uncomfortable. It seemed so sacrilegious to me to afford another human being of what seemed like worship. It brought to my mind the Pharisees whom Jesus chastised in the gospels. It was then that I started researching Catholicism.
In other sections, I have tried to define Catholicism by its history, doctrines and practices. Another effective way to define Catholicism is to study how Catholics define Protestants. To do so, I have selected several excerpts from the definitive Catholic work, The Catholic Encyclopedia. As a reference for rebuttal, I will frequently quote from another Book – the Bible. As you will see, even the Catholics see the Bible as one of the definitive differences between Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. So what are the main differences as defined by the Catholics?
The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three, main categorical distinctions in Protestant beliefs: Sola Scriptura (recognition of the Bible as the only infallible Word of God), Sola Fide (the belief in justification by faith alone), and the priesthood of all believers, as opposed to a few, select men.
It is true that Christians recognize the Bible as the only infallible Word of God. It contains the fullness of the Gospel, and was divinely inspired. Catholics believe in the Bible (or at least their version of it, with several extra books added), but contend that Catholic Tradition (decrees of the various popes and councils) shares an equal footing with the Bible. Moreover, the Catholic doctrine holds that the laity (non-clergy) are incapable of properly discerning and interpreting the Bible without help from priests and church authorities. The Catholic Encyclopedia says this of the Christian view of Biblical infallibility:
“The [first] objective [or formal] principle proclaims the canonical Scriptures, especially the New Testament to be the only infallible source and rule of faith and practice, and asserts the right of private interpretation of the same, in distinction from the Roman Catholic view, which declares the Bible and tradition to be co-ordinate sources and rule of faith, and makes tradition, especially the decrees of popes and councils, the only legitimate and infallible interpreter of the Bible. In its extreme form Chillingworth expressed this principle of the Reformation in the well-known formula, “The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants.”
“The belief in the Bible as the sole source of faith is unhistorical, illogical, fatal to the virtue of faith, and destructive of unity.”
“Again, it is illogical to base faith upon the private interpretation of a book. For faith consists in submitting; private interpretation consists in judging. In faith by hearing the last word rests with the teacher; in private judgment it rests with the reader, who submits the dead text of Scripture to a kind of post-mortem examination and delivers a verdict without appeal: he believes in himself rather than in any higher authority.”
“Private judgment is fatal to the theological virtue of faith. John Henry Newman says “I think I may assume that this virtue, which was exercised by the first Christians, is not known at all amongst Protestants now; or at least if there are instances of it, it is exercised toward those, I mean their teachers and divines, who expressly disclaim that they are objects of it, and exhort their people to judge for themselves” (“Discourses to Mixed Congregations”, Faith and Private Judgment).”
These excerpts clearly demonstrate the Catholic belief that common men are incapable of rightly discerning the truth by reading the Bible. Only select men with supernatural gifts (priests) are allowed to interpret the Bible among Catholics, and the Catholic Church hierarchy acts as its sole authority. In other words, “You’re too dumb to understand the Bible, so we’ll tell you what it means.” The Catholics are not through insulting your intelligence yet, though. The passage continues:
“The first limitation imposed on the application of private judgment is the incapacity of most men to judge for themselves on matters above their physical needs.”
“By pinning private judgment to the Bible the Reformers started a book religion, i.e. a religion of which, theoretically, the law of faith and conduct is contained in a written document without method, without authority, without an authorized interpreter. The collection of books called “the Bible” is not a methodical code of faith and morals; if it be separated from the stream of tradition which asserts its Divine inspiration, it has no special authority, and, in the hands of private interpreters, its meaning is easily twisted to suit every private mind.”
To contend that the individual believers are incapable of understanding the Bible is the height of arrogance. In Matthew 11:25, Jesus said, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” In writing to the church in Corinth, Paul said, “When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). These are not the words of an elevated man in flowing robes. These are not the words of a man who sits on a jeweled throne while subjects kneel before him and kiss his ring. These are the words of Paul, a simple man who carried the greatest message the world has known. Pay special attention to what he said in verse 5: “so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” And let us not forget the Bereans that were praised in Acts chapter 17, verse 11 because they “searched the scriptures daily” to see if what Paul told them was true. The Bible is not an obtuse document reserved for an elite few; it is the Word of God for all His followers.
The next distinction listed is Sola Fide – the belief in justification by faith alone. In Roman Catholicism, justification is a lifelong process that can only be achieved by participation in the seven catholic sacraments. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains the doctrinal difference this way:
It has reference to the personal appropriation of the Christian salvation, and aims to give all glory to Christ, by declaring that the sinner is justified before God (i.e. is acquitted of guilt, and declared righteous) solely on the ground of the all-sufficient merits of Christ as apprehended by a living faith, in opposition to the theory — then prevalent, and substantially sanctioned by the Council of Trent — which makes faith and good works co-ordinate sources of justification, laying the chief stress upon works. Protestantism does not depreciate good works; but it denies their value as sources or conditions of justification, and insists on them as the necessary fruits of faith, and evidence of justification.
This definition alone is quite telling. Why shouldn’t all glory be given to Christ? Nevertheless, let’s continue with the Catholic viewpoint on justification by faith:
This principle bears upon conduct, unlike free judgment, which bears on faith. It is not subject to the same limitations, for its practical application requires less mental capacity;….On the other hand, as it evades coercion, [it] lends itself to practical application at every step in man’s life, and favours man’s inclination to evil by rendering a so-called “conversion” ludicrously easy, its baneful influence on morals is manifest….As a matter of history, public morality did at once deteriorate to an appalling degree wherever Protestantism was introduced.
What the author is saying here is that justification by faith is an easy way out. The implication is that a person will accept salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, then ignore the Word of God and live sinfully in the world. If an individual truly places their faith in Jesus Christ, then they will desire to do His will. If someone makes no effort to repent from sinful behavior after becoming a Christian, their faith would then be in question. That’s what James referred to when he said that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). If good works and participation in the sacraments were necessary for salvation and justification, then Jesus lied to the criminal on the cross next to Him when he said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” This criminal was justified solely on the basis of his faith in Jesus Christ. He did not have the opportunity to participate in ritualistic sacraments, nor did he have time to do “good works.” Moreover, Paul told the church in Ephesus: “8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9not by works, so that no one can boast” Ephesians 2:8-9. If that were not convincing enough, consider the following passage, Romans 3:23-28:
23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
The final doctrinal distinction listed in The Catholic Encyclopedia is what it refers to as the universal priesthood of believers. In Catholicism, ordained priests are believed to be imbued with supernatural spiritual powers of mediation. Let’s take a look at what the Catholic book has to say on this issue:
The “universal priesthood of believers” is a fond fancy which goes well with the other fundamental tenets of Protestantism. For, if every man is his own supreme teacher and is able to justify himself by an easy act of faith, there is no further need of ordained teachers and ministers of sacrifice and sacraments. The sacraments themselves, in fact, become superfluous. The abolition of priests, sacrifices, and sacraments is the logical consequence of false premises, i.e. the right of private judgment and justification by faith alone; it is, therefore, as illusory as these. It is moreover contrary to Scripture, to tradition, to reason. The Protestant position is that the clergy had originally been representatives of the people, deriving all their power from them, and only doing, for the sake of order and convenience, what laymen might do also.
Sects which are at best shadows of Churches wax and wane with the priestly powers they subconsciously or instinctively attribute to their pastors, elders, ministers, preachers, and other leaders.
It’s important to take a look at just what a priest is. Quite simply, a priest is a mediator and an intercessor. 2 Timothy 2:5 tells us, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Jesus became the mediator for all of mankind, disposing of the need for a priesthood. Under Jewish law, the temple priests conducted the sacrifices for the cleansing of sin. When Jesus took our sins upon Him and died on the cross, he became the final sacrifice. The following passage from Hebrews chapter 7 clarifies the eternal priesthood of Jesus:
11If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come–one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. 13He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. 14For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17For it is declared:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”
18The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19(for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
20And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him:
“The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
‘You are a priest forever.’ ” 22Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.
23Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
26Such a high priest meets our need–one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. [Emphasis added]
The passage is clear that Jesus is our priest. The priesthood claimed by the Catholic Church is extraneous and – as it says in verse 18 – useless.
The passages from the Catholic Encyclopedia do a good job of demonstrating the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. The passages from the Bible illustrate clearly that the doctrines espoused by the Roman Catholic Church fly in the face of what the Bible tells us. The Bible is the complete and inerrant Word of God, and was meant to be read and understood by all of God’s children, we are saved by grace through faith, and our only priest and mediator is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.