The Flexibility of Rome

A few years ago, I stopped by a friend’s church in Washington, D.C. to walk to lunch with him. He had just finished a gut-wrenching meeting where a recent church member explained he had converted to Roman Catholicism without informing the pastors of the church.

The church member’s main justification for the conversion was the intellectual dearth among Protestants and particularly Baptists. And he held this out as the force that drove him to cross the Tiber.

My friend valiantly attempted to share the gospel with the young man from God’s Word and to pull him back to the true faith. But the deed was done, and the excuse was that Baptists lack intellectual and academic validity. And this excuse was given to a pastor with a doctorate in church history from Cambridge.

The other day, I prepared a document for a Catholic neighbor who had returned to Rome because, he said, papal doctrine never changes. Included were citations from the Bible, Augustine, Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, all showing that Roman doctrine has changed and will change in the future.

At some point in our conversion, it became clear that her priest, whom she talked to about these things, was unaware of the role of Peter Lombard in the development of Roman dogma. And when I pointed this out, I was informed that unlike the scholarly and academic Protestant clergy, Catholic priests are much more about relationships and mystery.

I might add several more examples of Roman Catholicism’s flexibility: a Presbyterian who became a Roman Catholic because of the idea of consuming God in the Mass (utterly pagan though this idea is), feminists who feel affirmed by Mary devotion, communist priests in Latin America, and a nice director of the Newman Center in Iowa City who explained to me that papal bulls are like Paul’s epistles—one man’s opinion. On top of all that, my last two houses have had St. Joseph statues buried upside down in the front yard by the owner or the realtor.

Roman Catholicism is flexible! Her practice and doctrine is amorphous. She can be almost openly pagan while almost wholly scholastic. The local Catholic priest may be an ignorant redneck from Maine, a brilliant Nigerian trained in Rome, a feminist Charismatic, or still giving the Tridentine Mass of only the wafer in Latin. Your Catholic neighbor may be a Christeaster (one who attends church only on Christmas and Easter), a devotee to the rosary, mostly evangelical, a member of Opus Dei, or a faithful Vatican II Catholic.

Rome sits on her seven hills attempting to prove that all roads lead to her. She can be all things to all people, but using a rather different model than the Apostle Paul.

And this brings us to the problem of how to witness to our Roman Catholic neighbors, defend our congregations against her apologists, and inform ourselves and others about her doctrine and practice.

Three Resources

Allow me to suggest three resources: they are in order of importance—the Bible, Allison’s Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Bible First

We must begin and end with the Bible alone, because if folks are saved out of Roman Catholicism, it is by the Spirit of God drawing them through the Word.

Further, the Bible is something that we share with Rome. Yes, they have poor translations and some uninspired books—the point is that Rome continues to claim and tell her followers that her doctrine is based on the Bible, tradition, and the magisterium of the church.

As Protestants we share in some of the traditions—Christmas, Easter, and so forth;we share most of their Bible; but we abhor and reject the magisterium. Rome’s claim to authority and the weight of her gospel rests on the magisterium. The magisterium is the absolute authority of Rome to define reality for Catholics.

If we approach our neighbors as experts on the magisterium of the Roman Church, we may inadvertently teach them what their system teaches they ought to believe rather than what they do believe. We really have very little idea what an individual Catholic believes or knows about doctrine. And the last thing we want to do is teach a bad Catholic how to be a “good” one without having them confront God’s Word.

Our calling is to press God’s Word on the false beliefs of Catholic neighbors, and those false beliefs may or may not be taught by Rome. Would that all Catholics held to some of the true doctrine taught by her—that abortion is sin, the truth of the Trinity, the incarnation and deity of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, the imminent return of Christ, the virgin birth, and more.

The Catechism

Thus allow me to introduce you to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). It’s the first universal catechism for Catholics since era of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The main author—or at least the theological mind behind the catechism—is the man now known as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He completed the work in 1992 as Cardinal Ratzinger.

The CCC was designed specifically to assist Catholic congregations in implementing Vatican II (1962-1965). And Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) helpfully added these words, in the Prologue:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church…is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium…. [It] is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pt 3:15) and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes.

So the catechism is what Catholics ought to believe and what ought to be taught at the local Catholic church. The CCC provides what the current magisterium of the church is claiming. It’s written so that non-Catholics can grasp what the pope teaches. But please remember that the differences between individual Catholic priests and parishioners’ beliefs and sophistication are as great as among Baptist pastors and church members.

The most tempting thing for an aspiring apologist to do with the catechism is to dig up horrifying quotes like this commentary on praying to Mary in CCC-2677:

By asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the “Mother of Mercy,” the All-Holy-One. We give ourselves over to her now, in the Today of our lives. And our trust broadens further, already at the present moment, to surrender “the hour of death” wholly to her care. May she be there as she was at her son’s death on the cross. May she welcome us as our mother at the hour of our passing to lead us to her son, Jesus, in paradise.

While the catechism is full of such statements, proof texting out of the catechism tends to make non-Catholics feel vindicated, but it doesn’t explain how the system works. We can list a dozen places where Mary is granted divine attributes, but we don’t know the theological justification as to why she’s allowed such powers.

Further, we must also notice that the catechism carefully refuses to grant Mary full divinity:

Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men…[ellipses theirs] flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it.

No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a share in this one source. (CCC-970)

Charging into a Facebook discussion about the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary needs to be done with a bit of care, because a sophisticated Catholic can argue for the appearance rather than reality of idolatry.

Allison’s Assessment

And it’s here that we come to Allison’s Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment, published by Crossway in 2014.

Dr. Allison is a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, a former missionary to Italy and former Cru staffer to Notre Dame University in Indiana. He has written a scholarly and evangelical assessment of the CCC.

Allison carefully notes where Protestants and Catholics agree and disagree in theology, then works through the major sections of the CCC providing a Protestant critique of the Roman system. He carefully demarcates between Baptist, Presbyterian, Calvinist, Arminian, Covenantal, and Dispensational responses to Catholic doctrine. His individual comments are valuable, but the most important insight is explaining the coherence of the papal theological system.

Allison finds the fundamental difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants in the issues of nature-grace interdependence and the Christ-church interconnectedness.

The nature-grace interdependence allows grace within the Roman system to function as a spiritual substance that can be stored, traded, purchased, infused, and earned. Further, nature, including the human will, is considered receptive to grace without regeneration. The Christ-church interconnectedness allows the papal system to grant the attributes of deity to saints, clergy, and the church.

These two components taken together then provide a coherence to Roman Catholic theology which may be missed by more piecemeal assessments. Behind transubstantiation, intercessions of the saints, purgatory, papal infallibility, justification by works, and so forth are these two larger conceptions.

In our next article, Lord willing, I will attempt to exhibit how these two big ideas function in the CCC and why they are so important.

Shane Walker Bio

Shane Walker became the pastor of Andover Baptist Church, Linthicum, MD in June of 2007. Raised in Iowa, Shane graduated from the University of Iowa in 1996. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Kimberly, have four children: Hannah, Malee, James, and John.

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There are 6 Comments

TylerR's picture


I have Allison's book, and have browsed through it. I need to actually read it. I've spent much more time in the CCC, which I purchased and referenced in sermons while I was preaching through Galatians a few years back. 

Looking forward to the rest of this series. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thank you for this fine article. Looking forward to further reads.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

Regarding the initial story, one thing that strikes me is that, rightly or wrongly, the Catholics (and to a degree the conservative Presbyterians) have a culture of respectable intellectualism.  Now we might object that our pastor has an earned doctorate--not the honorary type but an earned one from a secular school--but in reality, that is not going to cut the mustard in such a discussion.

What the person we are talking with is referring to is not his pastor's education, be it BJU, Pensacola, Cambridge, Harvard, or wherever.  He is talking about kids from the ghetto learning Latin and Logic at St. Mary's school.  He is talking about who runs Notre Dame, Gonzaga, DePaul, and a host of other universities.  He is talking about the art at the Vatican Museums and the books in the Vatican libraries, and that sort of thing.

Now of course, a discussion of the Reformation Solas is not out of line here, but we will do well not to forget that being Catholic is almost as much a state of mind as it is a religion-identity as Catholic persists long after a person starts ignoring Rome on any number of moral issues, where it doesn't as often in our circles.  It has tremendous staying power.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

swalker's picture

A couple of thoughts:  the perception of academic astuteness among Roman Catholics can be overstated and the perception of anti-intellectualism among Baptist is both unfortunate and overstated.

Congregations like Capital Hill Baptist Church in DC or Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville bookstores put most Catholic bookstores to open intellectual shame. And I met an aged-intercity Baltimore Baptist pastor who had read Turretin’s (1623-1687) "Elentic: in the early 70’s.

Historically speaking the anti-intellectualism can be traced to the Stone-Campbell movement and an infusion of Keswick mysticism.  We might also pause to remember the exclusion of Baptists from the established Church schools in England.  

The current reigning political theory of separation of church and state is a Baptist philosophical/theological development.  The First London Baptist Confession of Faith, first edition, predates as a Reformed confession the much lauded Westminster Confession.  John Bunyan, while not an academic, stands in the forefront of English literature.  John Gill (1697-1771) was a respected Hebraist, and as a systematic theologian is noted as a scholastic Protestant by the likes of Richard Muller at Calvin.  A. T. Robertson’s (1863-1934) Greek grammar, while now dated, was authoritative in its day.

Baptist academics’ accomplishments often go unnoted as Baptist. For instance, the Baptist philosopher Paul Helm has made important modern contributions (cf. his Belief Policies) to both secular and Christian philosophy without being heralded for his convictions on believer’s baptism.   

 It is also frustrating to note that a number of former Baptists, such as Carl Trueman at Westminster, become Presbyterians in their academic ascent. 

Bert Perry's picture

While I concede fully that a stereotype generally exceeds the reality, the fact remains that outside of Southern Baptist schools like Baylor, Liberty, and Cedarville, you will be hard pressed to find evangelical and fundamental professors, especially fundamental professors, whose works are widely read outside the "fundagelical ghetto".  The same cannot be said for professors at the nation's Catholic colleges and universities.    They may be "Catholic in name only", but students at Catholic and even Presbyterian schools do not need to fear a steady diet of instructors who aren't published in their field.  

In the same way, graduates of Catholic high schools generally don't have employers looking askance at their diplomas; again, we can complain all day that the stereotypes are exaggerated, but at the end of the day, the survival of fundamentalism really requires that "our tribe" recognize we have a huge problem on our hands.  Whether the culprit is Keswick, the 2nd Great Awakening, or the simple fact that we got kicked out of "our" old colleges between 1880 and 1920 and hence view the academy with suspicion, but until we get our act together--not just isolated churches but rather large portions of our movement--we are going to get our clocks cleaned in this regard.

And the bright side here is--here's that "Catholic in name only" thing again--that over the past 50 years, the culture as a whole has moved away from real academic learning.  Hence the bar is a lot lower than it used to be to attain a degree of intellectual credibility.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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