Now that everyone calls themselves ‘evangelicals’, Bible-believing Christians are left to cast around for a new, distinctive name that captures their emphasis. Perhaps that old chestnut ‘Protestant’ could be a candidate. But these days, is Roman Catholicism still worth protesting about?
The signs of the times
Protestant is such a negative word. It doesn’t describe what I believe, just what I object to. And today, it doesn’t even do that, since most people have forgotten what we were protesting about.
It wasn’t always like this. The first 150 years of white settlement in Australia were marked by bitter wrangling between Catholics and Protestants. Passions ran high, fuelled by convictions that were social and cultural as much as theological. Catholic-Protestant conflict helped shape the political and social landscape, significantly affecting, among other things, our education system. It is not all that long ago that Protestant and Catholic apologists fired broadsides at each other across the airwaves on rival radio stations (notably Sydney’s 2CH and 2SM). Many Briefing readers will no doubt remember a time when attendance at Roman Catholic services (and vice versa) was forbidden, and inter-marriage between Protestants and Catholics a matter of social scandal.
However, these sectarian fights have now largely disappeared. In 1990, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and the Orthodox meet together to celebrate Easter with city marches and open air gatherings. Christian conferences now often include both Protestant and Catholic delegates, as if there were no fundamental division between the two. These days, Roman Catholicism is regarded as just another denomination within Australian Christendom, with its faults and strengths like all the rest.
The decisions we make
At different times, and in different ways, most of us are called upon to make decisions about relating to denominations (such as Roman Catholicism) where this new-found fellowship seems to exist.
Sometimes these decisions are made for us, such as when denominational leaders commend one another in print, or join together in ecumenical media events. Whatever we think of these occasions, we are forced to live with their repercussions.
However, we have to make our own decisions at a number of levels. For the pastor, there are numerous occasions on which the issue has to be resolved. At the local ministers fraternal, do we go along with the proposal for a joint Carols by Candlelight or not? Should the Catholics be invited to participate? Should we run a joint mission? Should we hold joint Scripture classes? Most parish ministers, in dealing with baptisms, marriages and funerals, also have to deal with an array of problems caused by widespread marriage across traditional denominational lines.
Those of us who are involved in interdenominational (or non-denominational) organizations will also be familiar with these issues. Given that our organizations have been set up to run along ‘evangelical’ lines, what involvement should there be with Roman Catholic groups? Should we have any problems about Roman Catholics becoming active members?
On a personal level, many of us have friends or family from Roman Catholic backgrounds. How should we relate to them? As fellow Christians with a slightly different way of doing things, or as non-Christians needing to be converted? And if we are convinced that our Roman Catholic friend is a Christian, should we encourage him to leave his Catholic church, or to remain and reform, or just remain and be happy?
On all these levels, we are left wondering how to categorize Roman Catholicism. Is it like being a Baptist or Anglican—that is, a denominational culture in which a Christian can participate? Or is it more like Judaism or Mormonism, with which we can live in tolerance as fellow citizens, but whose religious views are erroneous and, at bottom, un-Christian?
In other words, as we encounter Catholics and Catholicism we are forced, yet again, to hone our definition of what it means to be a Christian.
Has Rome changed?
In Briefing #36, we looked at some of the changes that have occurred within Roman Catholicism since Vatican II. Our conclusion was that although Rome has certainly changed course, it has not been in a biblical direction. The shift has been towards liberalism rather than towards an evangelical or biblical understanding.
The issue of authority and tradition continues to be a problem for Roman Catholicism. To a certain extent, authority within the church has been passed from the hierarchy to individuals. A growing number of Roman Catholics feel that it is their prerogative to devise their own theology, and this was encouraged implicitly by Vatican II. However, among the clamour of competing voices in the new Catholicism—traditional Papal authority, ‘progressive’ theologians, the Bible, and individual Catholics—the power of the central organization has remained strong. Indeed, with the increase in diversity, the central organization of the church is one of the few things left to unify Roman Catholics.
‘Being Catholic’ is becoming almost a matter of social or cultural identity, rather than a description of a particular theological stance—almost like ‘being Jewish’. Increasingly, what Catholics believe is less important than staying within the fold—remaining Catholic. This can be seen in the difficulty experienced by Christians who do decide to leave Catholicism and join an evangelical or Protestant congregation. If there was true interdenominational fellowship, this sort of switch should cause no problems—to either the individual or the church. It would be as routine as an Anglican deciding to join a Presbyterian church, or vice versa, as is common these days.
However, leaving Catholicism—that is, leaving the organizational church—is far from routine. In many cases, it is the one idol that the emergent Catholic Christian cannot give up.
This is especially true among ethnic minority groups in Australia. For many of these groups, Roman Catholicism is part of their national identity. Children from these families who are converted to biblical Christianity often suffer fierce persecution, even from parents who haven’t been to mass in twenty years. Catholicism, in this situation, is more an ethnic rallying point than a system of belief.
It also must be said that despite the welcome changes wrought by Vatican II, and putting to one side the word games practised by theologians, many of the old Catholic errors remain. The mass still occupies a central place, Mary is venerated as much as ever, the sufficiency and centrality of Christ’s atoning death is still denied (in doctrine and in practice), the idolatry of statues and medals and pictures continues, and God’s Word (the Bible) is not allowed to have its reign. As an organization, Roman Catholicism continues to be sub-Christian in its doctrine and practice.
The role of the media
This perception that Roman Catholicism is basically not Christian is out of step with what most Australians—and even evangelical Christians—believe. It is rare these days to hear Roman Catholicism criticized for its teachings. When criticism is voiced, it provokes a powerful counter-reaction, and one can only wonder why this is so.
The public relations efforts of the present globe-trotting Pope probably have something to do with this. Popes are now seen as saintly characters who go around the world doing good, bearing the name of Christ. Historically speaking, this is a gigantic lie.
In 1988, Peter de Rosa, an ex-Jesuit priest who still belongs to the Roman Church, wrote a book called Vicars of Christ: the Dark Side of the Papacy. He details the historic errors of the papacy in terms of its lust for power, contempt for the truth, and distortion of sexual love. He recounts the horrors of centuries of papal immorality, heresy, incompetence and corruption. He rightly sees the present papacy as a media sanitization of a story too wicked to bear the name of Christ.
Our community—both within Catholicism and without—tends to think that there is a long unbroken line of godly men, standing in the ‘shoes of the fisherman’. It is not true. Roman Catholics are discouraged from finding out the truth about their organization lest they leave in disgust. Protestants are being encouraged to forgive and forget the past, and unite with an unrepentant persecutor of the gospel. And the average Australian pagan is being led to believe that genuine Christianity is to be found within the Roman tradition, with all its authoritarian power, distortion of the truth, and perverse attitude towards sexuality.
In all this the media has been a catalyst, thanks to its love-hate relationship with disunity. Media commentators often criticize political or religious groups for their disunity. People who are unable to get along with each other, or who promote conflict by criticizing others, are disparaged as small-minded, doctrinaire and sectarian. Why can’t we live in peace and harmony, for God’s sake?
However, disunity and conflict are the media’s bread and butter. The essence of a good story is conflict or tension. And what better or easier way to promote that tension than to get two people who disagree with each other and set them arguing.
Consequently, there is some pressure on the Christian community to stand united. When we divide over trivial disagreements or past hurts, we are put down by the media. Yet, we must ask—if we ever did manage to be completely united, would the media be interested? Would it be reported? Judging by their record till now, we would have to say no.
The point of all this is that we should not be too concerned about negative media reporting. Denominational leaders, who tend to be quite sensitive to media coverage, go out of their way to present a united front. We must be wary of thinking that we will achieve anything positive or lasting by wall-papering over the cracks. Public association with people with whom we disagree can cause far greater problems than merely receiving some bad press.
The consequences of association with Roman Catholicism
Whenever Protestants and Roman Catholics get together for some joint expression of faith—be it the carols service or the Easter rally—evangelism is set back and the preservation of Christians is hampered.
Evangelism is a hard task at the best of times. It is difficult in our semi-Christianized society to cut through the confusion that surrounds the gospel. Most Australians mistakenly think that they know what Christianity is about, and accept it or reject it on that basis. When we add to this confusion (by being seen to unite with Roman Catholics), we set the cause of the gospel back.
We may gain some short-term kudos or goodwill by being united, but in terms of sharing the gospel of Christ we do ourselves harm. We reinforce the notion that all the denominations are saying the same thing. We add weight to the conviction that is expressed by many: “Because I am a Roman Catholic, I am all right with God”. We thus confirm people in their institutionalized unbelief.
Furthermore, we stop preaching the gospel to Roman Catholics on the grounds that we are all on the same side. We turn our eyes only to our unchurched contemporaries, who may be no further from the kingdom of God than the Roman Catholic marching next to us.
For Christians who have come from Roman Catholic backgrounds and who have suffered family division, persecution and much heartache, the public association of Christians with Roman Catholics is seen as a betrayal. Their families ring up to attack them for splitting the family and abandoning their ethnic tradition. They say, “See, there was no need for it—it’s all the same anyway!” The preservation of these Christians is seriously hampered by thoughtless association with the historic enemies of the gospel of Christ.
Why do we misread the signs?
In one sense, it is easy to be confused about associating with Roman Catholicism. Since Vatican II, many Roman Catholics have come to a living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Although some of these people have not yet worked out all the inconsistencies between their new-found beliefs and their association with Roman Catholicism, they can be great friends in the gospel. During the recent controversy over Barbara Thiering, a Roman Catholic spokesman was among the ablest and most persuasive opponents of her ideas.
It is always hard to distinguish between the person and the ideology. Warm, personal relationships make it hard to sort it all out. Roman Catholics can certainly be Christian—Roman Catholicism is not. This is a difficult distinction to maintain at times, but is no different from saying that homosexuals can be Christian, but homosexuality is not.
Theological liberalism has also beguiled us into false associations with Catholicism. Liberalism has subtly entered our thinking and misled us. We are finding it harder to maintain the conviction that there is such a thing as ‘true’ and ‘false’, and that Christ’s sacrificial death is the only way to the Father. Our own latent ‘liberalism’ is our worst enemy.
What the Bible says
The New Testament contains two balancing principles which we must bear in mind in relating to Catholics and Catholicism.
On the one hand, we are exhorted to try to live at peace with all people. There is no virtue in division or tumult. We are also encouraged to become all things to all men so that by all means we might save some. We should bend and adapt as much as our conscience (and the truth) allows in order to win our Roman Catholic friends for Christ. This is much the same as becoming a Jew to Jews, or adopting Moslem customs to reach the Moslems and so on.
However, on the other hand, when false teachers arise we are to warn and contend for the truth. In these ‘last days’, we should expect plenty of false teachers, with no shortage of ‘itchy-eared’ followers. Our task is to continue to preach the gospel, to keep a clear head, to teach the truth, correcting and rebuking with integrity and perseverance.
We must also remember that Satan is the Father of Lies, who seeks to counterfeit the gospel by putting forward alternatives disguised as angels of light.
Christians are not called to passive indifference towards those who would pervert the great truths of the gospel. We are not called to public displays of fellowship with the enemies of the gospel. We are called to live in harmony and peace with our fellow citizens, and we are called to love those who are being entangled in false, deceptive teaching. We know that “there but for the grace of God …”.
The end of protest?
Yes, Protestantism is coming to an end. Roman Catholicism no longer dominates society as it did in the 16th century, and so there is little sense in defining our essence as being ‘anti-Rome’. Our protestations might now equally be against Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Orthodoxy.
Yes, ‘Protestantism’ is a negative word. We must proclaim the gospel, not simply protest against error.
And yes, Protestantism has become an institution, with many unconverted churches and individuals comprising it. In many respects, historical Protestantism can hardly point the finger at others. It is as full of lies and entrenched unbelief as Roman Catholicism. Wit the increasing influence of liberalism amongst Protestant theologians and pastors, Protestantism has lost touch with its historical distinctives. Today, the only unity amongst some Protestants is a common uncertainty about the gospel and what it means to be a Christian.
But no, the protest must continue as long as Rome continues to propagate its claims for authority. While it does so, millions of people throughout the world will continue to live under its deception. We may not want to make ‘protestant’ our calling card, but we must maintain the protest, for the sake of the glory of Christ and the salvation of Christians and non-Christians everywhere.