How Should We View Roman Catholicism?
There's an apocryphal story in circulation about a pastor who incessantly preached against the Roman Catholic church until his elders, no longer able to tolerate this singular fixation, kindly instructed him, as a way of redirecting his interests, to preach on Genesis 1:1. He began his sermon, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And he didn't create the Roman Catholic church!”
There have always been those in Reformed churches who are obsessed with the errors of Roman Catholicism. It's my contention that we should not be among them. This is not to say that we shouldn't see the errors of Roman Catholicism for what they are; it is to say that our disposition towards Catholicism should be one of charitable concern.
Marks of the False Church
There is still, first of all, much reason for concern since many of the objections the Reformers registered against Catholicism are still valid. The Roman church, in many places, continues to preach a synergistic gospel. In this connection Karl Barth was correct to allege that the problem with Roman Catholicism could be reduced to the conjunction 'and' – Jesus and Mary Scriptures and tradition, faith and works, etc. We must erase every insertion of 'and' and replace with 'sola' – solus Christus, sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia.
Moreover, the Roman doctrine of the sacraments is still highly problematic. The baptismal theology is deficient because it construes the sacramental conferral of grace to be automatic and the eucharistic theology is deficient because it insists that (a) the body of Christ continues to be sacrificed to propitiate God's wrath and (b) the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the physical body and blood of Christ.
Furthermore, church discipline is hardly practiced in North American Catholicism, at least. When I lived in Grande Prairie, I meet periodically with a local priest. We talked about our respective parishes. Mine consisted of about 70 people and his of approximately 8,000. I knew everyone of my parishioners by name; he had never met his. It's an absolute disgrace that so many baptized Catholics never darken the door of a church.
Vestiges of the True Church
Yet I believe that we should be charitable toward Roman Catholics, first of all, in the recognition, that we can learn from them. I share in this regard the assessment of Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian and statesman who in his monumental Lectures on Calvinism wrote,
A so-called orthodox Protestant need only perceive immediately that: we have in common with Rome concerns precisely those fundamentals of our Christian creed … I for my part am not ashamed to confess that on many points my views have been clarified through my study of the Romish theologians.
I count Roman Catholics among my friends and teachers and I've learned a tremendous amount from First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus, for example, and Boston College professor Peter Kreeft and Catholic theologians Louis Bouyer and Hans Urs Von Balthasar whose reflections on the Trinity, for example, have been extraordinarily formative for me.
But isn't Protestantism under the anathemas of Rome and aren't we Reformed folk regarded as apostates? The documents of Vatican II make clear that Rome regards us as “separated brethren.” Moreover, the penal sanctions of the Roman Catholic church are only exercised against those who come under the proper jurisdiction of that church. Protestants who have never been Catholics have never come under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic church and are therefore not subjects to its penalties, including the anathemas of Trent.
We should be charitable to Roman Catholics, secondly, in sharing the assessment of the Reformers that vestiges of the true church remain in Rome. The Reformers noted, for example, that in spite of all her errors and heresies, Rome still continued to acknowledge and recite the truths of the ecumenical creeds and, more importantly, still incorporated people through water baptism into the Triune name of God. It was especially the latter reality which led early Protestants to regard Rome, on analogy to the northern tribes of Israel as idolatrous, but God's covenant people nevertheless.
In his Institutes (4.2.11) John Calvin wrote, “Of old, certain peculiar prerogatives of the church remained among the Jews. In like manner, today, we do not deprive the papists of those traces of the church, which the Lord willed should among them survive the destruction … [The treachery of the Jews] could not obliterate his faithfulness, and circumcision could not be so profaned by their unclean hands as to cease to be the true sign and sacrament of his covenant.” Calvin goes on to argue that baptism remains valid in the church of Rome “despite the impiety of men” and that God's providence “he caused other vestiges to remain, that the church might not utterly die.”
In the very next section in his Institutes (4.2.12), Calvin writes, “To sum up, I call them churches to the extent that the Lord wonderfully preserves in them a remnant of his people, however woefully dispersed and scattered, and to the extent that some marks of the church remain – especially those marks whose effectiveness neither the devil's wiles nor human depravity can destroy.”
Similarly, the Genevan theologian Francis Turretin identifies in his Institutes three ways in which Rome can be regarded as a church (English vol.3:121):
“First, with respect to the people of God or the elect still remaining in it, who are ordered to come out of her, even at the time of the destruction of Babylon (Revelation18:4).
With respect to external form or certain ruins of a scattered church, in which its traces are seen to this day, both with respect to the word of God and the preaching of it (which, although corrupted, still remains in her) and with respect to the administration of the sacrament and especially of baptism, which is still preserved entire in her as to substance.
With respect to Christian and evangelical truths concerning the one and triune God, Christ the God-man Mediator, his incarnation, death and resurrection and other heads of doctrine by which she is distinguished from the assemblies of pagans and infidels.”
Lastly, closer to home, there is Charles Hodge, the great Princeton theologian, who in the Princeton Review (April, 1846) wrote,
We argue from the acknowledged fact that God has always had, still has, and is to have a people in that church until its final destruction; just as he had in the midst of corrupt and apostate Israel. We admit that Rome has grievously apostatized from their faith, the order and the worship of the church; that she has introduced a multitude of false doctrines, a corrupt and superstitious and even idolatrous worship, and a most oppressive and cruel government, but since as a society she still retains the profession of saving doctrines, and as in point of fact, by those doctrines men are born unto God and nurtured for heaven, we dare not deny that she is still part of the visible church. We consider such a denial a direct contradiction of the Bible and of the facts of God's providence.
Thus we should view Roman Catholicism with charitable concern: concern in relation to the marks of the false church and charity in relation to the vestiges of the true church.