At the last CrossCulture monthly RoundTable session, Rev. Shane Rogerson from St Matt’s Prahran church came to speak on this topic. This article will draw heavily from the talk, as well as my own personal reflections as well.
I chose that title for the RoundTable event because of two things: (1) It is indeed provocative, as Shane himself acknowledged, and (2) The title forces us to think not just the similarities of the two, but the strong distinctions between them. Why do we distinguish Catholicism from Christianity? Aren’t they the same? Does it really matter? Well, it does, and it matters a lot. It matters not because we want to make a big deal of a small thing. It matters because truth matters, and we don’t want truth misrepresented. The two religions, if you want to call any of them ‘religion’, are very distinct. However, our discussion here should be driven not by the desire to placating one over the other, but by the desire to search for the truth.
Of course, when we mention ‘Catholicism’, then we have to be clear which one we are talking about. Just like there are many denominations or traditions within Christianity, Catholicism is not homogenous. Yes, if you go to Catholic masses around the world, they look the same. They have very similar structure. Although they are mainly the same, there are some slight variations here and there. For example, there is a branch within the Roman Catholicism that is ultra conservative who wants to return to 16th century Catholicism, while there are some who want some reform within. Some even embrace some aspects of Pentecostalism in their worship and practices. Furthermore, just because one goes to a Catholic church, it does not necessarily mean that he or she embraces the official doctrines of Catholicism. Many are ‘Catholics’ because they are simply born in a Catholic family. It is not uncommon to hear the phrase “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” In many Catholic families, moving away from Catholicism is almost equal to moving away from the family. This is what we may term as ‘Folk Catholicism,’ a form of Catholicism that is more shaped by traditions and familial values more than the official doctrines of Roman Catholicism. It is not easy to engage with so many variants of Catholicism, especially the Folk Catholicism that does not subscribe to any doctrines. Therefore, for the purpose of this post, we are going to focus on the official Roman Catholics teachings.
In 16th century, Reformation swept through Europe. We heard of Martin Luther as the main figure of Reformation, although he was not the only one. Historians may even argue that he was not the first one who arouse the idea to begin with. There were already seeds of reformations within the various monasteries that call for the purification of Catholicism, mainly reacting to the abuse of power by the higher-ranked religious leaders. Be that as it may, we are not going to look at the historical figures as much as the important points of Reformation. If you are familiar with Reformation, you would have know the Five Solas of Protestant Reformation: (1) Sola Scriptura or by Scripture alone, (2) Sola Fide or by faith alone, (3) Sola Gratia or by grace alone, (4) Solus Christus or through Christ alone, and (5) Soli Deo Gloria or glory to God alone. For the purpose of this post, we will look at only three in a very brief manner, and each is going to be framed in comparison to one important teaching of the Roman Catholicism.
1. Solus Christus vs. The Sacrifice of the Mass
In Roman Catholicism, mass is central, and mass essentially is a sacrifice. The heart of catholicism is the sacrifice of the mass by the priest. You cannot have the mass without the priest because sin cannot be dealt with without the priest. Therefore, priest is very central because they mediate blessings between the people and God.
In the Old Testament, there is indeed a special category of people – priests – who offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. God sets them apart from the people of Israel to stand between God and His people. However, the Old Testament priesthood is never the final way. Rather, it was meant to be a shadow of what is to come (Hebrews 8:5). The priesthood in the Old Testament has significant limitations, and it is merely pointing to the true and perfect High Priestly work of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:6). So, the author of Hebrews laboured to show us that Jesus is better than the Old Testament priests. His work and His sacrifice on the Cross is once for all. He is the perfect High Priest, and at the same time He is the perfect sacrifice. He is the mediator as well as the sacrificial lamb of God. Hebrews 10:11-14 clearly says:
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
That is why the author of Hebrews is pleading the readers not to go back to the Old Testament sacrificial system which he deems to be obsolete with the arrival of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, the sacrifice of the mass in the Roman Catholicism is the attempt to reinstate the Old Testament type priesthood where the Bible has deemed obsolete. In the mass, the priest would take the host (the communion emblem – the ‘bread’) and would re-offer the host which symbolises the ‘re-offering of Jesus’ to gain the atonement for sins. The mass is seen as re-presenting of the Cross. Therefore, many Catholics believe that if they fail to go to the mass, the forgiveness of their sins is in jeopardy.
I am by no means claiming to be an expert in Catholicism, and I am happy to be corrected should someone be able to point me to the right direction. If the mass is simply a ‘reenactment’ of Christ’ sacrifice and/or a ‘remembrance’ of His Death on the cross, then as Christians we should do them as Christ commanded us to remember His death and resurrection. However, if my understanding is right and the mass is more than just a reenactment – that’s why the Roman Catholicism believes that the host and the wine are not merely symbols but will become truly Jesus’ body and blood as we consume them -, then we must know for sure that the Bible says that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is once for all. The cry ‘It is finished’ by Jesus means that His sacrifice is done once, and never again.
2. Sola Scriptura vs. The Authority of the Church
We must firstly acknowledge that when we talk about this, we are not saying that the Roman Catholicism has a low view of the Scripture. The Roman Catholicism acknowledges the authority of Scripture in all areas of life. However, when two people argue over the interpretation of a part of the Scripture, the way they resolve the tension is by asserting that the church has the final say on how we should interpret the Bible. It was perhaps well-meaning, however, it ‘transfers’ the authority from the Scripture to the interpretation of the church leaders (whoever the leaders were at that time). Furthermore, the Roman Catholicism also goes one step further. They believe that not only God reveal Himself through the scripture, God also reveals Himself through the traditions being handed down from the Apostle, particularly Peter, to the popes. For example, in 1854, the Roman Catholicism declared that Mary was not born in sin and lived sinless life, although this finds no basis in the bible. Of course, some protestants need to repent of their dishonour or disregard toward Mary. We should honour her as someone that has faith and aims to serve God wholeheartedly. But not more than that. At one point, Mary and Jesus’ brothers tried to take Jesus home because they thought Jesus has gone out of his mind. So, Mary lived a respectable life, but far from being sinless.
So, it is unfortunate that even though Roman Catholicism has two sources: scripture and the traditions, they end up affirming only one authority: the church, or to be precise, the Pope, who determines the way we should read and interpret the Scripture and the traditions. Whatever the Roman Catholic Church teaches (i.e. the Pope teaches), you must obey it as God’s own words. It is unfortunate that at times it also means that if the church says this is true, then this is true, regardless of what the Bible says. This has further developed to be an official doctrine called the Papal Infallibility which was defined dogmatically in the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870. Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error (not just preserved from error). Therefore, unfortunately the Roman Catholicism has become an unreformable body thanks to this official dogma.
On the other hand, as Christians, the Scripture must always trump over the traditions, the experience, and reason. The final authority must be God and his voice in the scripture. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17,
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Traditions can inform us. The church leaders and scholars can help us understand and interpret the Scripture faithfully. History can help us understand how people have approached the Scripture in the past. Our experience can help inform and affirm the relevance of the Scripture in our lives. However, in the end, the Scripture must be our ultimate authority. We must always come back to the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and nothing else. Moving away from that would mean moving away from the worship of the one true God.
3. Sola Fide vs. Salvation by Works.
Both Catholics and Christians believe in final judgment. The question then is: How will God judge you on the last day? Who will God declare ‘righteous’? In other words, what is the basis of our justification?
In Roman Catholicism, justification is a process. It begins with the infant or initial baptism. Then we grow more and more acceptable as we observe traditions. In the end, God will judge each of us partly based on what Jesus has done, and partly based on how good we have been. It is justification by faith in Jesus plus our works.
In Christianity, however, justification is not a process. It is an event. Like our marriage, our marriage status is declared at an event, namely our wedding day. It is not based on how good a spouse we are. Whether or not we are a good husband or wife afterward does not change the fact that we are married to our spouse. Of course, we are not saying that our good works are not important. In fact, we are saying that they are important. But no matter how important they are, good works follow faith, not establish our relationship with God. Good works are evidence of living faith. In our firm belief of justification by faith, we must not shy away from calling people to radical devotion and obedience to God. In fact, our justification is the basis for our total and counter-cultural obedience to our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ. However, our obedience is not the basis of our justification. Jesus’ is. We are justified simply when we put our faith in Jesus Christ. That is why we have assurance of our salvation because it does not depend on our obedience.
In Roman Catholicism, in any other religions for that matter, one can never be totally assured of one’s salvation, because one can never say that he or she is good enough. There are always uncertainties. There is no genuine Catholic that can say that they are absolute about their salvation. At best they say that they have been good, they go to the mass and they have done their best. Paul, on the other hand, says in Ephesians 2:8:10,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Faith in Jesus results in us doing good works which God has prepared for us. Faith is the mother of repentance. However, we must be crystal clear that faith alone in Jesus alone saves.
Coming back to the provocative title above, we must then summarise that the God that we know in the pages of the God-breathed Scripture has revealed clearly that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. Understanding otherwise and living otherwise will mean that at best we misunderstand God, or at worst, we might be worshipping a different God.
Of course, I must say that not all Catholics fall into the above categories. Like I mentioned, some are ‘Catholics’ simply because they are born in a Catholic family, and they might as well be believing and embracing the right doctrines of Christianity. So, I am not going to judge any Catholics. I am simply trying to point out the consequence that embracing the official teachings of the Roman Catholics as stated above would mean that we are embracing false teachings that find no basis in the Scripture.
Again, as I mentioned above, I am by no means an expert in Catholicism. Therefore, I am happy to be corrected and to hear your thoughts.