In 1962, Presbyterian theologian Lorraine Boettner published his classic work, Roman Catholicism, in which he explains in detail what evangelicals consider Rome’s most significant errors. Though written almost 50 years ago, much that Boettner said continues to apply just as much now as then.
Since the book pre-dates Vatican II (1965), some of the material is, however outdated, such as statistics about church demographics. At one point, Boettner says that in predominantly Catholic territories laypeople are not encouraged to study Scripture themselves (and this was certainly true in the past). However, Vatican II, with certain qualifications, emphasized the need to study the Word.
Boettner also insinuates that Roman Catholicism is inherently more favorable to Communism. We know today, though, that such allegations are false. It was precisely the Roman Catholic Church in Poland that helped bring communism down. John Paul II is remembered for his undying crusade against communism.
Let’s now move onto specifics. In his opening chapter, Boettner begins where one might expect such a book to begin: with a discussion of the nature of the Christian Church itself. Several strong points are made:
1. Roman Catholicism as much a sect as other denominations. The Church’s official title is the “Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church”, but Boettner argues that the title itself is misleading, since “Catholic” denotes universality and “Roman” denotes locality. In equating itself to more or less be the Church (though this understanding was tweaked somewhat at Vatican II), Roman Catholicism is, at its essence, un-ecumenical (i.e. more sectarian). What ecumenism does exist, Protestants suspect is based on a desire to re-Catholicize Christendom, not a desire to genuinely recognize other churches’ legitimacy.
Those outside Rome that have any communion with Christ’s Body at all are said to be in very “imperfect communion”. The desire to see all churches, Catholic and Protestant, respect each other as equal it itself an inherently Protestant outlook on the church. It is here where Boettner makes the good observation:
“In the professedly Christian world she has cut herself off from and broken communion with perhaps more than half of Christendom so that there are probably more professed Christians who reject her authority than acknowledge it… The Roman Church is outnumbered by the effective membership of the various Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Churches.”
Elsewhere he points out to the reader that, “The Eastern Orthodox Church is older and has a more direct connection with apostolic Christianity than does the Roman.” Whatever is good or best about Catholicism, from an aesthetic view, is found more purely and wholesome in Eastern Orthodoxy. That the Church of Rome is itself a schism, having broken from the Eastern Church in the 11th century, is quite easily proven from history. To call the Church of Rome the church of the apostles is simply revisionist history of the worst sort.
One thing that serves as an obstacle between Protestant and Catholic cooperation is the Catholic perception that Protestantism is hopelessly divided. Catholics “have been taught to believe that each Protestant denomination claims to be exclusively the true church (as does their own) and that one cannot be saved unless he belongs to that church,” Boettner said. “The puzzle looks insolvable.” One often hears Catholics argue that if the Bible was clear and understandable—as Protestants say it is—and if the Bible alone was intended to be the Church’s authority, there would be one Protestant church. Doctrinal division renders the evangelical claim untenable for many Catholics exploring Protestantism.
This overlooks the fact that Catholicism itself is divided, as Boettner brings up. Dominicans and Franciscans have historically been rivals, and today the modernist/traditionalist divide is strong. Some Catholics take the official Catechism itself with a grain of salt because it allegedly only represents “conservative” Catholicism. The EWTN variety of Catholicism, on the other hand, often dismisses liberal Catholicism (think Nancy Pelosi) as invalid.
Protestants substantially agree in general on the essentials—the deity of Christ, his atonement, resurrection, second coming, as well as other key things such as the sacraments. The most notable exception, regarding sacraments, would be Lutheranism, which has a view of the Lord’s Supper unique among evangelicals.
Here Boettner argues that Protestantism, in general, is actually much less sectarian than is Rome. “Mechanical and organizational unity is a secondary thing with them. The great proportion of Protestant denominations do not claim to be the only true church, but readily and gladly acknowledge that salvation is to be found in any church where the Gospel is faithfully preached.”
2. Tracing lineage back to the apostles doesn’t prove one is “apostolic” in teaching. The Church of Rome often attempts to validate itself as the “true” church by pointing to an unbroken line of succession of bishops, from the apostles down to the present day. Early church fathers that appear to have believed in modern day Roman dogmas are appealed to in an effort to show that Catholicism is historical and Protestantism the comparatively recent innovation.
It is here that Boettner shows that antiquity doesn’t, in itself, add up to orthodoxy. Even if the present Bishop of Rome had succeeded from Peter (and this itself is far from conclusive), this wouldn’t prove that he was the universal pastor of all Christendom. As Boettner says: “Caiaphas was in the line of Aaron and was the successor of many pious priests, but that did not make him and the Jews who crucified Jesus the true church.”
* On Tuesday, November 23, Briarwood Presbyterian Church will be participating in a Community Thanksgiving Service at 7 p.m. To learn more about this event, click here.