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What Think Ye of Rome?

An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism

(Part One)

by Kenneth R. Samples


A crucial starting point in an appraisal of the Roman Catholic church is to understand some of the unique sociological features of contemporary Catholicism. Erroneous classifications of Catholicism frequently fail to grasp the significant diversity within the church. While the church's unity is of central importance, Catholicism possesses incredible diversity -- the church is anything but monolithic. This diversity is illustrated by the six major theological types of Catholics: ultratraditionalist, traditionalist, liberal, charismatic/evangelical, cultural, and popular folk. A Protestant appraisal of Catholicism should then examine the areas of genuine doctrinal agreement between Catholicism and Protestantism (especially evident in the creeds), before moving on to analyze the significant areas of difference.


Counter Reformation: A period of reform and revival in the Roman Catholic church following the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The goal was to stem the tide of Protestantism by genuinely reforming the Catholic church. This reform included among other things the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the establishment of The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1540.

fundamentalist: This term, like "evangelical," suffers from ambiguity, and has changed much in meaning since its first usage early in this century. Fundamentalists have always stood in opposition to liberalism within the church. But today the term conveys certain additional characteristics which set fundamentalists apart from other evangelicals, including: a general suspicion of scholarship, a separatist mentality which includes a rejection of the entire ecumenical movement, an anti-historical (anti-creedal) or restorational view of the church, and a rigid approach to what constitutes appropriate Christian conduct.

papal encyclical: A letter of instruction from the Pope which circulates throughout the church.

Reformation: A wide-ranging, predominantly religious movement of sixteenth century Europe which attempted to reform Western Christianity, but in effect resulted in (1) the rejection or modification of some Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, and (2) the establishment of Protestant Christianity. See Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

One of the most perplexing issues evangelical Protestants face is how to understand, evaluate, and ultimately classify the Roman Catholic church. Few topics prove to be as controversial as the question of just how Protestants view and relate to Catholics. There exists no universal agreement or consensus among conservative Protestants in this regard. The spectrum of opinion ranges from one extreme to another.

On the one hand, some people hold to an optimistic but seemingly naive ecumenism that sees no essential or substantial differences between the church of Rome and historic Protestantism. This camp views Catholicism as authentically Christian, but largely ignores the doctrinal controversies that sparked the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. They seem to only take into account the vast areas of agreement between Protestants and Catholics. At the other extreme is a band of Protestant fundamentalists who are literally rabid in their denunciation of Catholicism. This assemblage (usually led by vociferous ex-Catholics) dismisses Catholicism outright as an inherently unbiblical and evil institution. They not only consider the Roman church to be doctrinally deviant, but also the efficient cause of many or most of the social, political, and moral ills evident in the world today. Genuinely "anti-Catholic," this faction views the Catholic church as the "Whore of Babylon," a pseudo-Christian religion or cult. They seem to concentrate exclusively on those various doctrines that sharply divide Protestants and Catholics.

I believe most evangelical scholars who are knowledgeable about Catholicism would feel uncomfortable with both of these positions. Unfortunately, however, these two camps often operate as if their own views are self-evident and exhaustive. Both camps (especially the anti-Catholics) virtually anathematize anyone who is not squarely in their camp. If one is critical of Catholicism because of Reformational doctrinal distinctives, the first camp accuses that person of being divisive, not supporting Christian unity in this important age of ecumenism. In contrast, if one defends certain Catholic beliefs as being authentically Christian, the second camp accuses that person of being a betrayer of the Protestant Reformation and fraternizing with the enemy. Both camps fail to see that there is an acceptable alternative position between the two extremes.

This series of articles will attempt to provide some needed balance to this important discussion by doing several things. First, we will seek an accurate understanding of contemporary Catholicism by exploring some of the unique sociological features of the Catholic religion. We will consider the Catholic church's size and sphere of influence, as well as its unity and contrasting diversity. We will look at the major theological types or classifications of Catholics, and explore the uniqueness of the American Catholic church. Second, we will begin our theological appraisal of Catholicism by probing the common areas of agreement between classical Catholicism and historic Protestantism.