Yes, the question at the head of this post is one that I am still asked. Admittedly, it is asked of me less frequently these days, since most who really know me realize how amazed I am that people still ask the question.
Dave Lipsiea, an encouraging Catholic reader of this blog, recently (July 14) thanked me for my commitment to true ecumenism and then asked: “Do you see wasted effort and money by different Christian denominations who try in earnest to steal sheep from other Christian groups?” Dave added that Muslims, atheists and pagans are not evangelized in some countries, as much as they should be, because so much effort is focused on missionaries reaching Catholics. He added that part of his frustration is “with those who believe Catholics are not really Christian.” He added that he meets “friendly evangelicals” but when push comes to shove they “really believe Catholics are not Christian. Until that changes true ecumenism will be stifled.”
Well, I have to agree with Dave. I want to respond to his question but I also want to reflect on the evangelical impulse, both pro and con.
First, it utterly amazes me that there are evangelicals (more likely they are fundamentalists if this distinction is properly nuanced) who still think Catholics are not members of the Christian church. Some even think Roman Catholicism is a massive cult or “the synagogue of Satan.” This was not the view of the magisterial Reformers. And it most certainly was not the view of many Protestants since the 16th century; e.g. Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, etc. The eccentric stance of fundamentalism played a huge role in promoting an anti-Catholic stance in America and thereby kept the prejudice and hatred of Catholics in America alive until the present century. Slowly this has changed but one of America’s most virulent dirty secrets is the hatred of Catholics throughout our history. (Catholics could not vote in Massachusetts until 1833 and until my lifetime held no high national office or served on the Supreme Court.)
The language used about Rome in the sixteenth century often fell into the trap of heated and unfortunate rhetoric. But Rome’s response to the Reformers, especially at Trent and in the centuries following, did not help either. Catholic polemicists have also stoked the fires on many occasions.
On the whole the earliest Protestants saw Rome as a church that had lost, or fallen from, certain important aspects of biblical doctrine; e.g. justification and the authority of Scripture over the church. But the Protestant Reformers, and many of their heirs, knew that they came from Rome, not from some a-historical (mythological) past. Calvin and Luther make interesting reading here since they struggled against Rome yet still held some doctrinal beliefs that modern evangelicals remain uncomfortable with (views about Mary, etc.).
Second, it amazes me to still hear anti-Catholic rhetoric and misunderstanding. I have never met an evangelical who really knows the Catholics that I personally know who remains persuaded of this type of response. The Catholics I know personally love Christ as their Lord and remain faithfully Catholic. But certain evangelicals think this is simply impossible, preferring their form of logic to love. Their reasoning proceeds in this way: Catholics deny justification by faith alone thus they deny the article that the true church stands or falls upon. No Catholic can truly know Christ unless they renounce the Catholic Church or (odd as it really seems) remains a poor Catholic who doesn’t really know what the Roman Catholic Church believes. (As odd as it seems, this becomes salvation by ignorance of the church and her faith!) The one experience that most changed my perspective about this was meeting real Catholics who clearly love Christ! Add to that my reading of thousands of pages of reputable Catholic theology, as well as modern Catholic magazines and popular papers, and you have the two most powerful influences in my life for change: knowing all of Christ’s people, regardless of their church communion, and reading theology with an open Bible and a teachable spirit. I came to my understanding by two routes: listening and learning. It really isn’t that difficult if you are willing to put yourself in the place of your brother, which Scripture commands you to do. You can then say, “I want to learn from you what it means to follow Christ as you understand his call in your life.” You do not have to agree about every doctrinal issue if Christ is truly at the center of your faith and life. You are both being drawn toward him alone.
Third, evangelicals are part of a renewal movement inside the church. The very word evangelical means “people who love and share the gospel.” Thus evangelicals can be found in every church. We have limited this word to “our” group when we think that we alone know the truth, all of it and all the time. Evangelicalism is a renewal movement, thus is it not particularly given to serious ecclesiology. It has been used by God to renew Anglicanism, Lutheranism, the Reformed (and others). It is really more of an impulse of the Holy Spirit leading people to return to the simple, biblical message of Christ’s love and grace and thus to his kingdom being advanced through loving action and gospel proclamation. Many Catholics are evangelicals in this sense of the word, though only a few like the term since it has been used against them for so long.
Evangelicals tend to have a low-church view of the baptized community. They downplay sacraments and corporate responsibility because they favor personal faith. For this reason their faith and practice has done well in democratic societies but this is changing in the 21st century. Evangelicals strength has been their focus on proclaiming the gospel to all, both inside and outside the church. They generally do not think that being a baptized member of any church makes you a true follower of Jesus. I will develop this further tomorrow.
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John, while reading _Last Call,_ Daniel Okrent’s history of Prohibition, I was reminded of the degree to which American anti-Catholicism was driven by anti-immigrant sentiments. Nor did it help matters that Catholics didn’t have the theological problems with consuming alcohol that characterized so many American Protestants. I suspect, then, that in many quarters, the theological squabbles functioned as a proxy for xenophobic tendencies, and _vice versa_–if the two did not, in fact, go hand-in-hand.
I suppose that this suggests that the historical roots of American anti-Catholicism are far nastier than a doctrinal dispute. Perhaps evangelical Protestants need to reflect on this unsavory aspect of their history–that is, to complicate the picture by considering some of the nasty history of American anti-Catholicism. Doing so might provide a springboard for repentance and reconciliation.
Unfortunately the “spirit of ecumenism” has put the truth on the back-burner in our day and age. I am an ex-Catholic and firmly believe that any Catholic who truly holds to and belives sincerely all Roman Dogmas is simply not a Christian. I left Rome because I really understood Roman Dogmas and came to the conclusion that they are opposed to and are contrary to the Gospel. Rome had a chance to affirm the saving Gospel at the Council of Trent. Instead of embracing and accepting the Gospel Rome cursed and anathemised the true Gospel.
I have a question for you. I’m not trying to “score points” in any way, but I am interested in what you believe. Do you think that justification by faith is a core part of the gospel message?
I too am a former Roman Catholic, and I do understand where you are coming from. But a great deal has happened since the Council of Trent that simply cannot be ignored. For example, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1999). I do not wish to minimize the importance of upholding sound doctrine. But I do question the wisdom of using doctrinal statements produced 450 years ago, when historical circumstances were very different, as the primary basis for answering John’s title question, “Are Roman Catholics Christians?” which he expressed in the present tense.
For me, the relevant question is more like this: Is Jesus Christ embodied in the Roman Catholic community, and among individuals who self-identify as Roman Catholic, any less than he is embodied in me and in my own Protestant church community?
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that doctrines of salvation are unimportant. But John’s question was not about doctrines. It was about living flesh-and-blood persons. Some of these Roman Catholics are my own family members, my own flesh and blood. So for me the question is intensely personal.
Can I honestly look my Catholic brothers and sisters in the eyes and say, “You are probably not a Christian, but if you are, it is only because you are ignorant of, or completely at odds with, what your church is presently teaching you?”
When I peer into Catholic churches and communities today — and from time to time I able to do that — can I honestly say that Jesus Christ is not there?
When I look at the ancient creeds that historically define what it means to be a Christian — notably the Apostles’ Creed — and examine the statements line by line, can I honestly say that Protestants believe these lines to a much greater extent than Protestants do?
And if I walk into a Roman Catholic church on any given Sunday, what am I more likely to hear? The Apostles’ Creed, or the Council of Trent?
It is not hard to find Roman Catholic communities where the gospel message is loudly proclaimed. And it is not hard to find Protestant communities where that gospel is obscured, distorted or ignored.
Hi John and all,
When I listen to people’s stories of leaving one church or tradition or religion or whatever, I often hear two very opposite approaches.
1. One interpetation is the former spiritual community was a counterfeit community that kept them from seeing the truth. The problem was the deceived community. Feelings can go from apathy to anger when one dwells on it from this perspective.
2. Another interpretation is the former spiritual community was a stepping stone to deeper and greater faith. This usually has great love and respect for the former even though they have left it and moved on.
Now of course, depending on the community of faith left, both of these intepretations, one negative and the other positive have some merit.
I will simply say that I personally think a more positive approach is usually healthier or better in the long run rather than the former but then others theological mileage may vary.
I was a “cradle-Catholic”, who left the Church for a number of years, came back to Christ through an Evangelical Bible Study (with a strong anti-Catholic bias), was a devout Evangelical Protestant for many years, and returned to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church just under 5 years ago. I have probably had to work through many, if not most, of the issues and questions you have against the RCC. I would simply recommend to you that you get a copy of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, and maybe the book “Jesus of Nazareth” by Pope Benedict XVI, and read these thoroughly. Then, at least you will be struggling with what the Catholic Church REALLY believes and teaches, not the misunderstanding and caricatures that abound in many evangelical circles. Then, after that, I highly recommend reading Dr. Armstrong’s new book “Your Church Is Too Small”, and see if you still believe the same way about whether or not Roman Catholics are truly Christians.
You have my profound gratitude for another charitable and loving post towards Catholics. I particularly appreciated argument #2 (the strange Evangelical notion that bad Catholics can be saved by not caring about what the Church teaches, contra Hebrews 3:17), because I’ve noticed this, but never been able to put it to words.
Catholics believe in justification by grace alone through faith. We disagree on the precise mechanism that takes, but on this admittedly-fundamental issue, we’re mostly in agreement. Or are you trying to argue that it’s not only important that we believe in justification this way, but also that it’s an absolutely fundamental issue that we accept the precise Protestant theories for how “justification by grace alone through faith” works?
If the latter, I’d question: who from the post-Apostolic age to the Reformation could be saved? Do we have any record of any Christians holding to this precise view? Alister McGrath, himself a Calvinist, calls Calvin’s take a “theological novum,” after all. And by what authority has the post-Reformation community declared this precise interpretation binding on all Christian consciences at risk of damnation?
I’d love to debate you on the particulars of Catholic dogma, if you’re as knowledgeable as you think you are. But out of respect for this being John’s combox, perhaps we should do so elsewhere. You may find that there’s more to learn.
My prayers for all.
Saying that Catholics aren’t Christians because the Catholic catechism is different, and in your opinion flawed, isn’t very fair. There are a lot of Protestants that may not have the exact same set of beliefs as your church, and there are a wide variety of Protestants, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t Christian.
As these comments demonstrate, the most outspoken anti-Catholics I’ve come across are former Catholics, who are always eager to describe the time they left the RC Church and “became a Christian….”
To Nick Morgan. My reading and study was not Jack Chic and other notorious “anti-Catholics”. I do have a copy of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”. My reading was and studies done by Academic Historians, Theologians, and Biblical Scholars, though two names on that list may raise your ire nonetheless the books I read by them focused on Theology and Biblical study. I suggest that you read “The God Who Justifies” by James White and “Faith Alone” by R.C. Sproul, other than that the things I read were by both Catholic and non-Catholic Scholars and BOTH agree that many unique Roman Dogmas have no Biblical or Historical basis.
I am intrigued by the twin pillars of biblical grounding or historical grounding. I find some of the most off the wall interpretations of the Bible come from the Bible alone basis and I find most people have not done the hard work of studying church history much less the early church fathers.
So in the end, when people say for example that Catholics are wrong for calling it’s priests “Father” because of a particular proof text without looking at all the other texts in the Bible or church history or that Protestants are wrong because they raise their hands, shout, and use contemporary music in worhsip rather than purely an older liturgical format, what biblical and historical basis are we grounding our claims in?
Often, depending on what theological tradition we come from, our biblical interpretations and views of history come from a certain theological tradition (which all various groups claim) go along with scripture and history.
I sometimes wonder if we really go to Bible college or seminary to be trained what our tradition teaches about the Bible and an apologetic to defend that tradition. Somehow we too often have lost both Scripture and history in the process.
PS – I just came from a Bible study among Protestant ministers on the Song of Solomon. The book is about sexual intimacy in marriage and really has little to nothing to say about our intimacy with God, church, or Israel. Really?
Thank you for your response. I have the two books you mentioned and have read them, along with other books by the same authors. Have you read any of the Early Church Fathers or St Thomas Aquinas? Just a question, not an assault.
And Chris, I’ve heard that same argument about Song of Solomon. Well, as you probably know, the early Church Fathers would definitely disagree with that interpretation.