Reformed, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians share a
great deal. They share, above all,
a belief in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, and the infallible
guidance of the Holy Spirit in the early Church, determining and inspiring the
formation of Holy Scripture and the decisions of the early Councils about the
two natures of Christ (divine and human), reflected in the Apostles’ Creed.
this common foundation, many Christians are striving for a greater degree of
visible unity between the diverse Christian communities.
They are also praying together, and working side by side in many
practical, apostolic ways. This
process is helped by a greater readiness on the part of both sides to admit
faults and mistakes, even crimes and atrocities, committed in the past, and to
there are differences which need to be addressed, and these notes are an
attempt to clarify where some of these differences lie.
‘Evangelicals hold that the Catholic Church has gone
beyond Scripture, adding teachings and practices that detract from or
compromise the Gospel of God's saving grace in Christ. Catholics, in turn,
hold that such teachings and practices are grounded in Scripture and belong to
the fullness of God's revelation. Their rejection, Catholics say, results in a
truncated and reduced understanding of the Christian reality’ (from
‘Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third
Millennium’, First Things 43, May 1994, 15-22).
difference between Catholic and Evangelical Christians concerns the whole idea
of mediation. Catholics
tend to see the Church, the Virgin Mary, the Saints, and the Sacraments as
bringing Christ nearer to the soul, whereas Protestants regard them as getting
in the way. As a result,
Protestants tend to emphasize the relationship of the individual soul to God,
whereas for Catholics it is important that God saves individuals as members
of a community. Yet it is not true that Protestants believe in Jesus
Christ as the only mediator between God and men.
do allow for one mediator other than Christ, namely the Bible. They give to
the Bible the role that Catholics give to the Virgin Mary and the Church (with
the Bible as the Church’s book) – that of bringing the soul to Jesus.
In the following
document I have done my best to present both sides fairly, but it is primarily
an attempt to explain Catholic belief to Protestants – disposing, along the
way, of some common misunderstandings. It
is a working document, and therefore remains open to revision and
terms are described first from an Evangelical
in blue, and the Catholic response
follows. The Evangelical voice is
based on material taken from a range of web-sites and publications.
inauthentic books to the canon of Scripture in the 16th century in
support of doctrines such as prayers for the dead.
Evangelicals use the true Bible, which is the foundation of the Church.
Thus it should be normative for all Christians, and each and every Christian
has the right to read and interpret the Word of God for him/herself with the
help of the Holy Spirit. The
Catholic Church prevented lay Christians from doing this until the twentieth
To the contrary, Catholics use the Bible that
early Christians agreed was inspired.
It was the Protestants, much later, who left out books
which they decided were less authentic (books sometimes called “deuterocanonical”).
These books were Sirach, Tobit, Wisdom, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and
Baruch, as well as longer versions of Daniel and Esther.
[For details of
what was left out of Protestant Bibles and why, read Mark
Shea’s online article.
Church existed before the Bible, and created the Bible. The Bible is a
collection of documents written over a long period of time by people whose
names we often do not know. It was
the early Christians, united in one Church, who had to select from among all
the writings available to them (many of which were inaccurate) those which
were most authentic and inspired, in order to form the official “canon” of
Scripture. They had to decide
which of several texts that may have taught different or even contradictory
things belonged in the Bible.
did the early Christians make that decision? Of
course, they applied their human intelligence to the task, based on the best
information they could find at the time, but that alone would not have given
them the confidence and authority to decide something of such importance for
all future generations. What gave
them the confidence was a promise of Christ to His disciples at the Last
Supper. He told them that “the
Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach
you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
And He also said: “I still have many things to say to you, but you
cannot bear them now. When the
Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth…” (John
the Church felt confident that she was guided and protected by the Holy Spirit
in selecting and editing the Scriptures, just as Christ promised.
These same Biblical promises of Jesus also indicate that the Church
will be assisted by the Holy Spirit in interpreting the Scriptures
(=deciding what they mean), which is a way of being guided “into all the
truth”. One difference
between Protestants and Catholics seems to be that Catholics believe that the
Church still exists, and is still protected today when she has to decide
between rival interpretations of these writings, because Christ promised that
the Holy Spirit would be a Spirit of unity, against which the gates of hell
would not prevail (Matthew 16:18). On
the other hand, Protestants seem to believe the Church ceased to exist
(as an infallibly guided community) as soon as the Bible came into existence,
having outlived her usefulness.
have a very high esteem for the Bible (the Catechism of the Catholic Church
says in para 133 that “The Church ‘forcefully and specifically exhorts
all the Christian faithful . . . to learn “the surpassing knowledge of Jesus
Christ,” by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures,’ ‘Ignorance of
the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’”), but they also know the Bible
did not fall from the sky, nor is it the be-all and end-all of Revelation.
The Word of God is in fact not a book.
God revealed himself most fully not in words on a page, but in a living
Man, Jesus Christ. From that
primary Revelation – i.e. the life, deeds and words of Christ – stem both
Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.
In fact Scripture can be seen as just one expression of the Tradition,
another being the Creeds which were produced by the early Councils to define
have always been encouraged in the Catholic Church to read and study the
Bible, if suitably qualified to do so. It
is true that up until the Middle Ages this would normally have meant training
as a priest or entering the religious life to receive the requisite level of
education, since literacy was not universal, but this does not mean that those
who were illiterate were excluded from salvation.
Catholics do not believe that personal salvation depends on being able
to read the Bible, as long as the teaching that the Bible contains is
preached and available in other ways – as it was to the faithful in the
Middle Ages through the preaching of their priests, the pictures and
stained-glass windows in their churches, the miracle plays they performed, the
rituals they participated in, and so on.
was in fact no general ban on translations into the vernacular; indeed
Jerome’s Vulgate (Latin) Bible was itself a vernacular translation at the
time it was made because Latin was the common language of educated
Death, Judgment, Purgatory
after death all men face judgement. Those
whom God deems justified will go to heaven and the rest to eternal damnation
in hell. There is no intermediate
state, and nothing is to be gained by praying for the souls of the dead, for
their state has already been decided once and for all by God.”
like Evangelicals, believe that all men face judgement by God after death, and
that there are only two final destinations: heaven and hell.
Purgatory is not an “intermediate state” but just part
of the process of going to heaven. Many
who are “justified” are still not perfect, and they need to be purified
before they are ready (or able) to see God face-to-face.
Catholics call them the “holy souls”, and although time no longer
exists for them in the same sense as it does for us, sometimes describe their
purification metaphorically as spending “time” in purgatory.
From their unique
vantage-point as members of the Church freed from many of the limitations of
earthly life, the holy souls are in some sense aware of what we are
experiencing, and they may help us by their prayers, just as we can help them.
Thus our prayers and sacrifices for them, empowered by the grace that
God shares with us, may contribute to their purification (although we may
leave the exact details of this to God).
course, Catholics admit that Holy Scripture does not talk about purgatory in
detail. Like the Holy Trinity and
so much else of what we believe, the doctrine is not spelled out – that is
to say, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy
Spirit, can deduce the doctrine of purgatory from the words of Scripture.
For example, the Bible speaks of a “cleansing fire” after death (1
Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7) and of prayers for the dead (2 Macc. 12:46).
the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1030, says: “All who die
in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed
assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification,
so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”
Christians tend to say that when we are saved God clothes us with his
righteousness (see “What God Does for Us” below), so that nothing else is
needed. In a sense Catholics
agree: purgatory is simply our word for this “clothing”, which we see as a
process. Part of the clothing
process is a cleansing, because who wants to put on clean clothes over a
God Does for Us
“Salvation is the instantaneous reception of an
irrevocable right-standing before God. There is nothing we can do – no
‘works’ – to secure it. Romans
3:23 tells us that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’
Salvation is secured by faith, through the grace of God. It requires a
personal acceptance of what God has done for us on the Cross”
us, salvation means incorporation into Christ and the life of the Trinity.
Salvation from sin is made possible by the one redeeming sacrifice of
Christ. We are incorporated into
Him (into His death and resurrection) by Baptism, but we remain free to sin
and thus free to reject the salvation offered us.
Salvation is a lifelong process, because it is not until our death
that the salvation imparted by Baptism becomes fully secure.
At that point we are no longer “free” to sin.
That is why we pray for the “grace of perseverance”, meaning by
this the strength to continue in the true faith until death.
means the legal declaration of Christ's righteousness reckoned to the believer
at the point of faith, solely as an act of God's mercy.”
don’t use the word as much as you do, but we would understand it to mean the
“making just” of the believer, which is no mere legal declaration but a
real transformation into the righteousness of Christ, albeit one that takes
place over time.
“Reconciliation means that all sins are forgiven
at the point of salvation, because Christ's death satisfied all God's wrath
against sin (see Colossians 2:13,14). It
is only God who can forgive sins.”
believe that Original Sin is indeed washed away at Baptism, together with any
personal sins (if one is baptized after attaining the age of reason and
maturity of conscience). However,
the baptized person retains the freedom to sin again.
Therefore a special sacrament (called Reconciliation or Confession) was
instituted, based on the actions of Christ while on earth, when He forgave
sins and gave the Apostles (not all believers) the authority to do
likewise. When a priest
administers the sacrament, it is Christ who absolves the penitent through the
action of the priest. Only God
can forgive sins, and those to whom He delegates this authority in His
“Regeneration means the instantaneous imparting of
eternal life and the quickening of the human spirit, making it alive to
also believe in regeneration, but we regard it as a lifelong process by which
the grace (the gift of the Holy Spirit) received at Baptism transforms the
believer into a saint. Grace is
the power and free gift of God working in the life and soul of the believer to
make him or her worthy of heaven.
“For us, grace is simply God's disposition toward mankind,
wherein He expresses His mercy and love, so that the believer is now treated as
if he were innocent and righteous.”
believe that God does not have to pretend but can make us truly righteous.
He does so by joining us to His Son.
Lord’s Supper/ Mass/ Eucharist
churches which celebrate a Eucharistic service are enacting a symbol which has
no real power. The memorial meal
is not a sacrifice, and does not avail to free men from their sins, for the
one availing sacrifice is that of Jesus on the Cross, which was offered once
and for all. No other sacrifice is
needed, let alone one that is repeated every day.”
also believe that no other sacrifice than that of Jesus on the Cross is
That is exactly what the Mass is. At
the Last Supper our Lord gave His Apostles and their successors the gift of
His own Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine.
This was the first
may not think such a thing is possible (though God surely can do everything
that is not logically self-contradictory), but at least please do not assume
we believe something we do not. We
all agree there is only one sacrifice to take sins away: that of Christ on the
talk about the “Real Presence” of Our Lord in the Sacrament, and of the
process called “transubstantiation” by which the things that were bread
and wine become the body and blood of Christ.
For us the Eucharist is symbol, but also more than a symbol.
It is a symbol into which God has put the actual presence of His Son,
in a way that we cannot comprehend. We
believe this on the authority of the Church – in other words the authority
of the Holy Spirit (see above) – and on the authority of Scripture, since in
John 6: 35-66 Jesus tells His disciples that He will give them His flesh to
eat and refuses to let them interpret this in a merely “symbolic” way.
That is why many of them left Him: they could not accept the idea of
eating His flesh. They did not
know that He would invent a way to do this in the Last Supper that would
overcome their scruples, by making His body present for them under the forms
of bread and wine.
leader of the Roman Catholic Church claims falsely to have inherited the
position of Peter among the Apostles and to possess special powers such as
Bishop of Rome was always acknowledged to have a certain primacy of honour
among the other metropolitan Bishops of East and West, in view of the fact
that Peter and Paul were both martyred in
scope of infallibility is highly restricted.
It does not preserve the Pope from sin (that would be called
“impeccability” and has never been claimed), nor from errors in judgment
in administrative and political questions.
Many of the very obvious mistakes that Popes have made over the
centuries fall into these categories. Nor
does it allow the Pope to invent or promulgate brand new doctrines.
So the Pope cannot define white as black or contradict anything already
taught by Scripture and Tradition.
may sound very grand, but it applies only to solemn definitions intended to
define and preserve important beliefs concerning faith and morals that the
Church has always held, or which are corollaries of such beliefs.
(See Catechism, paras 88-90, 891.)
believers are priests. There
should be no special class of ‘clergy’ coming between God and the
do believe in the priesthood of all believers, but not in the ministerial
priesthood of each believer. (See Catechism,
is present in all the baptized. Christians
are therefore “priests, prophets and kings” by virtue of this presence, in
relation to the world as a whole, especially when viewed as a body.
But a body needs a Head, and certain men are called by God to be
ordained as priests not in relation to the world but as a whole but in
relation to the other baptized Christians; that is, to represent Christ more
fully within the Body of the Church.
these ordained ministers are reserved certain of Christ’s powers, such as
the power to forgive sins and to consecrate the Eucharist, which cannot belong
to individual Christians without a special consecration.
Priests therefore, far from separating the laity from Christ,
bring Him much closer. Christ
makes himself present to the faithful in the ordained priest by virtue of a
special choice of this man for this work, and a special grace from the Holy
Spirit. In this way Christ is able
to act within the Church to unfold the baptismal grace proper to all
is the word Catholics give to a set of superstitious ritual practices that
claim to have a quasi-magical effect on the believer.
Evangelicals have Baptism and Holy Communion, but these holy ordinances
are symbols or ‘testimonies’ rather than ‘sacraments’ or means of
grace, since regeneration and salvation are brought about by the reception of
Jesus into the soul by faith, which is an interior reality.”
These ritual practices are instruments that God
uses to teach us about himself, but they are also occasions to transmit
particular graces to the human soul, beginning with Baptism which implants the
life of God within us. The
sacraments work, not by some kind of ‘magic’, but solely by God’s power,
always respecting the intention of the participants and the Church as a whole.
The precise form of the sacraments has changed over the years but they
simply extend the actions of Christ while on earth and conform to His
Statues and idolatry
second of the Ten Commandments specifically forbids making any kind of image
of any being either earthly or heavenly. Catholics
break this commandment and fill their churches with statues.”
The second commandment follows from the first. It does
not forbid the use of images in worship, but the worship of images instead of
God. God could not have
meant a total prohibition of images because he later commanded Moses to make
the image of a brazen serpent for the people to look to be saved.
He also commanded Moses to make two carved angels to be place on the
lid of the Ark of the Covenant. Imagery
of all kind abounded in both the tabernacle and Solomon's temple.
images in Catholic churches are not worshipped as gods.
They are simply the reminders and pictures of real people in whom God's
grace found complete fulfillment, and who were transformed into the full image
of Christ Jesus.
The Virgin Mary and the Saints
“Christians may be called ‘saints’, but this
does not mean they are to be venerated or prayed to.
The souls in heaven cannot pray for the living and do not intercede on
their behalf: the only ‘intercessor’ we need is our Redeemer.
mother of Jesus was a virgin and conceived miraculously, but was not free from
sin and needed salvation like everyone else.
As a mere creature she is not divine and not to be worshipped and
venerated. We can remember her,
and honour her, but not have a ‘devotion’ to her.
There is only one Mediator between Man and God, and it is Jesus
is a continuing relationship between the living and the dead.
God made us for community and friendship not just with Himself but with
each other. God delights to share
His love with us, so that we may lavish it on one another.
Though He knows all that we need, He loves us to tell him, and even
more to tell him of what others need, so that we may be perfected in unselfish
love for our neighbour, in the power of His grace.
mother of Jesus was the mother not just of His body but of His body and soul
together, whose unity was constituted by the Second Person of the Trinity.
Thus she was the “God-bearer” or Mother of God – that is, of the
one Person who was both God and Man - even though He was also her Creator and
view of the fact that He would take flesh from her, she was freed from sin
from the moment of her own conception. This
did not make her less human (for in fact all human beings were
originally intended to be free from sin), nor less free to co-operate with
God’s will (for sin and the damage wrought by sin makes us less free
rather than more).
she is His mother, His love for and intimacy with her does not end with His
own death and resurrection. We
believe she would have been the first of creatures to possess the blessings of
heaven, and so is described as ‘Queen of Heaven’.
Nor does her own care for her many children – all those who have been
baptized into her Son - end with her death.
She continually prays for the graces we need and so is described as
‘Mother of Mercy’. These
teachings are not derived directly from the words of Scripture, but are
implied by them. They are part of
what the Holy Spirit has led the Church to understand from Mary’s words,
“All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), and Christ’s words
to the disciple John: “Behold your mother” (John 19:27).
do not worship Mary, but venerate her.
“This very special devotion… differs essentially from the adoration
which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy
Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration” (Catechism, para 971).
More Christianity by Dwight Longenecker – explains the Catholic faith in a
friendly way to non-Catholic Christians.
Challenging Catholics by John Martin and Dwight Longenecker - A debate between an
Anglican Evangelical and a Catholic.
Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate
by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson.
Exploring the Catholic Church
by Marcellino D’Ambrosio – a good small introduction to the Catholic
Catholic and Christian by Alan Schreck - An explanation of Catholicism for
The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism
by Louis Bouyer - An explanation of Protestantism by a former Evangelical who
became a Catholic.
What Catholics Really Believe
by Karl Keating – exploration of the Catholic faith in a question and answer
Catholics and Evangelicals Do They Share a Common Future?
Thomas Rausch (ed) - a series of essays considering the new relationships
developing between Evangelicals and Catholics.
Fundamentalism and Catholicism
by Karl Keating - A Catholic apologist challenges the anti-Catholic
rhetoric of some extreme fundamentalists.
Where is that in the Bible? and Where is that in Tradition? by Patrick
Madrid – easy to read Catholic answers written in a punchy style.
Pope Fiction by Patrick Madrid - answers popular questions about the
Longenecker’s site has a number of helpful articles.
site is also designed to answer Evangelical objections to Catholicism,
including the Church’s alleged restriction of lay access to the Bible: