Wednesday, June 5, 2013

On the Catechism of the Catholic Church


I recently finished reading the “Complete and Updated” Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York : Doubleday, 1995. 845 pages!) which is the definitive statement of what the Roman Catholic Church believes. I thought I’d give my impressions and analysis from an Evangelical perspective.

First, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I probably agreed with 80-90% of it! For example, as I expected, it affirmed the deity and the physical resurrection of Jesus (# 654, 643). It also affirmed the reality of hell and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, i.e. the idea that Jesus died an atoning sacrifice in our place for our sins (#1035, #615).

I was surprised to see that the Catechism affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture and the importance of authorial intent in interpreting Scripture (#107, #109, #110, #136). I was even more surprised to find that the Catechism affirmed belief in a coming tribulation period (of unspecified length) during which the Antichrist will offer men apparent solutions to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth (#675).

On repentance, faith and grace

I was somewhat surprised, to discover what the Catechism says about salvation, grace and faith. Although the Catechism says that “It is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone…that…salvation can be obtained” (#181, #816, #1445), it also paradoxically affirmed the salvation of people who belong to other Christian churches (#818, #819, #838, #1271) and possibly even some from other religions (#841-843, #947).

The Catechism also affirms that conversion “is first of all a work of the grace of God” (#1432) and that “Our justification comes from the grace of God…the free undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God” (#1996). This comes through faith which is also “a gift of God” (#153, cf. #154, #162, #179). Faith includes not only “assent to his words” (#1122) but also love for God (#1033) and the “personal adherence of the whole man to God” (#176) in which man “seeks to know and do God’s will” (#1814; cf. #546). Such faith is preceded by repentance which is,

A radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with the hope in God’ mercy and trust in the help of his grace (#1431).

These statements on repentance and faith would sound positively Evangelical were it not for some other statements that give Evangelicals significant concern. For example, the Catechism teaches that the sacraments, and the “service and witness to the faith” are all necessary to salvation (#980, #1129, #1816, #1256, #1257; emphasis mine). The Catechism says that “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by…concern for the poor, exercise and defense of justice and right…revision of life…endurance of persecution…” etc. (#1435; emphasis mine).

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul strongly condemned the teaching that circumcision and good works were necessary for salvation. So when the Catechism teaches that the sacraments and the “service and witness to the faith” are necessary to salvation, this sounds very similar to the Galatian heresy. 

Evangelicals argue that “service of and witness to the faith” are the fruit of salvation, not the means to salvation. We would insist that conversion is evidenced by concern for the poor, the exercise of justice, etc. not the result of such good works.

This may seem like splitting hairs but the difference is absolutely crucial. Over and over again Paul taught that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, not by any good works we do. Paul writes, “For by grace are you saved through faith, and not of yourselves, not of works lest any man should boast.” Paul is quick to add, however, that “we are his workmanship created for good works” (Ephesians 2:8-10).  Works are the necessary fruit of faith, not the cause of salvation.

Sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism

One of the sacraments seen to be necessary for salvation is Baptism. The Catechism says that in Baptism “all sins are forgiven, original and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin” (#1263, cf. #405). According to the Catechism, baptism “communicates…the life that originates in the Father” and baptism “gives us the grace of the new birth” (#683, cf. #405).

In Catholic theology baptism is the New Testament counterpart to circumcision. Paul specifically argues, however, that circumcision was a sign of the covenant, not a prerequisite to salvation (Romans 4:9-11). Paul argued that those who were trusting in circumcision for salvation were not saved at all (Galatians 5:1-4). Evangelicals see little difference between insisting that circumcision is necessary for salvation and insisting that baptism is necessary for salvation. This is not to say that baptism is unimportant, indeed, the informed refusal to be baptized may be evidence of an unconverted heart. But baptism is the initial sign and evidence of salvation, not something that communicates or brings about salvation.

The Eucharist is another sacrament seen by the Roman Catholic Church as necessary for salvation. The Catechism teaches that the Eucharist is a literal sacrifice of Christ in which he “gives us his very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (#1365). The Catechism points out that the Old Testament priesthood was “powerless to bring about salvation, needing to repeat its sacrifices ceaselessly…” (#1450). On the other hand, the Catechism teaches that Jesus instituted the Eucharist to “perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again” (#1323).

First, it seems a bit odd that the Catechism should criticize the perpetual nature of Old Testament sacrifice while teaching the perpetual nature of the sacrifice of Jesus in the Eucharist. Second, the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist seems to downplay the “once for all” nature of Jesus’ sacrifice (Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 10:1-10). Finally, to take Jesus literally when he said, “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” appears to Evangelicals like insisting that when Jesus said, “I am the vine” he was affirming that he was vegetation.


I was puzzled by the fact that although the Catechism teaches that the Sacraments are necessary for salvation and that baptism actually imparts salvation, yet paradoxically the Catechism also held out hope that unbaptized infants might be saved (#1261). It also affirms that

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst who are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, an together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day” (#841-843).

Muslims certainly do not undergo Christian baptism which, according to the Catechism, removes sin and imparts salvation. In fact, the Qur’an not only denies the Trinity in general (Sura 4.171; 5.173) and the deity of Jesus in particular (Sura 5.72, 116), it even insists that those who worship Jesus will go to hell (Sura 9.30-35)! It is a mystery how those who adamantly deny and denounce the cardinal teachings of the Roman Catholic Church can be seen by the Church to have eternal life—especially in light of First John 2:23 which says that “no one who denies the Son has the Father….” That alone is enough to cause Evangelicals to question the infallibility of the Pope and bishops, which raises the next issue.

Final authority

One of the biggest disagreements between Protestants and Catholics concerns the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Ever since the Reformation, Evangelicals have regarded the Bible as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. The Catechism, however, is clear that “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (#82) and that “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (#97).

First, this seems to contradict tradition itself. Ignatius (d. AD 110), for example, is careful to distinguish his writings from those of the apostles. In his letter to the Trallians he writes, “…I did not think myself qualified for this, that I, a convict, should give you orders as though I were an apostle” (3). To the Romans Ignatius writes, “I do not give you orders like Peter and Paul: they were apostles…” (4).

Similarly, in about AD 110 Polycarp writes,

For neither I nor anyone like me can keep pace with the wisdom of the blessed and glorious 
Paul, who, when he was among you in presence of men of that time, accurately and reliably taught the word concerning the truth. And when he was absent he wrote you letters, if you study them carefully, you will be able to build yourselves up in the faith that has been given to you…” (3).

The same attitude toward the apostles seems to be found in Clement of Rome (AD97; To the Corinthians, 42, 47). It appears that authors of the very earliest post-biblical tradition did not consider their writings on par with the apostles and other writers of New Testament books. Instead, they regularly quoted from books now collected in the New Testament as their authority. This was even more true of later church Fathers. The idea that the Church would later lift their writings up to the level of Scripture would have been scandalous to them.

Second, the church fathers sometimes exhibit strong disagreements and outright contradictions among themselves. In other words, the only traditions that are treated as inspired are those selected by later Church leaders.

Finally, the Catechism is clear that “The task of giving authentic interpretation of the Word of God…has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone” (#85). More precisely, “the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (#85). The Catechism teaches that the Pope and bishops have infallibility with regard to faith and morals (#890, #891, #2035).

Infallibility of the Church

To Evangelical ears this is especially puzzling. First, there is nothing in Scripture that would teach infallibility of the Church. Second, this doctrine seems to create problems for the Church itself. For example, the Catechism strongly affirms that Christians should continually read the Scriptures for themselves. It says, “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful” (#131). The Catechism goes so far as to say that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” (#133).

On the other hand, in times past the Catholic Church, as a matter of official policy, was instrumental in the imprisonment and even execution of those who insisted that Christians should read Scriptures for themselves, e.g. Wycliffe, Tyndale, and hundreds if not thousands of ordinary Christians whose only crime was the possession of the Scriptures in English. That raises the question: Which Church is infallible? Was it the modern Church which insists that Christians should read Scriptures for themselves, or the Church in times past that persecuted Christians who read the Scriptures?

Another example would be that the Church once taught that there is no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church (vestiges of this teaching are still found in the Catechism, e.g. sections 181, 816, and 1445). On the other hand, the Catechism now affirms that many Protestants (and possibly even some in other religions) are saved. Which teaching is infallible; the teaching in the Catechism of today which holds out salvation for non-Catholics, or the Church’s teaching in the past which confined salvation to the Roman Catholic Church alone?

Yet another example is the fact that the Catechism condemns torture and killing (#2297).  The catechism even acknowledges that “In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals of the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture.” The section continues, “Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood” (#2298).

Many will undoubtedly find this section misleading if not outright deceptive. First, while it may be true that clerics were forbidden to personally shed blood, it was the bishops of the church who handed the “heretics” over to civil authorities to be tortured and/or executed for their opposition to the Church. I’m sure it made little difference to the victims whether they were being tortured directly by the Church, or by civil authorities on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. Second, it is simply not true that these practices were always used “to maintain law and order.” Torture was often used simply to weed out and punish otherwise law-abiding and peaceful “heretics.” 

The point of this discussion, however is to ask the question: Which Church was infallible, the modern church which condemns torture, or the Church in times past which, for hundreds of years,
made it a regular practice?

Yet another reason to question Church infallibility is the Catechism teaching that man “must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (#1782). In times past, however, the Church regularly sought to force people like Martin Luther, for example, to act or profess contrary to their conscience.


Catholics would no doubt protest that these were not official proclamations of the Catholic Church but such protestations would sound pretty hollow to Protestants who were often the victims of such official persecution carried out by the bishops in full communion with Rome. 

Therefore, while there is much in the Catechism that Evangelicals and affirm and celebrate, Evangelicals will insist that that the Pope and bishops are not infallible and that some parts of the catechism are merely “barnacles” of tradition, added by the Church on its own authority apart from the authority of Jesus and the apostles.

Take, for example the Church’s teaching on Mary. The Catechism teaches not only that Mary was devoid of original sin, but that she was absolutely sinless during her entire life (#411, #491, #493, #508, #722, #966). By contrast, the Bible teaches that “There is no one righteous, not even one” and that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”(Romans 3:10, 23). The Bible specifically indicates that Jesus is an exception to this rule (Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 9:14; 1 Peter 2:22; 2 Corinthians 5:21; John 8:46) but there are no statements anywhere in Scripture that would say or imply that Mary is also an exception. The sinlessness of Mary is a doctrine developed by the Church long after New Testament times and is in direct contradiction to what the New Testament teaches (It is interesting that the Catechism actually talks much more about the sinlessness of Mary than it does about the sinlessness of Jesus).

Similarly, the Catechism teaches that Mary was “taken up body and soul into heavenly glory” and was “exalted as Queen over all things” (#966, cf. #969, #974). The Bible knows nothing of this. This is another example of “barnacles” which attached themselves to Christianity long after the time of the apostles. Other “barnacles” include the Church’s teaching on indulgences (#1471, #1479), purgatory (#1030-1032, #1054, #1475, #1479), Mary’s perpetual virginity (#499, #500), and the teaching that 
Mary and the canonized faithful become intercessors for us (#1014, #828), none of which have any basis in the New Testament.

Veneration and Worship

One of the most serious “barnacles” is the doctrine of the “veneration” of Mary and of icons. The Church recognizes that if people were to worship Mary or icons they would be guilty of idolatry so the bishops are adamant that veneration is not the same as adoration or worship (#971). Unfortunately, the Catechism does not always make this distinction. For example, section #1378 refers to the “Worship of the Eucharist” in which “faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine” is expressed by “genuflecting, or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord.” The section goes on to say,

The Catholic church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during the Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hoses with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful” (#1378, emphasis mine).

First, in this section the words “worship,” “adoration,” and “veneration” are seemingly used synonymously, so when Catholics say that they venerate Mary and icons, but adore or worship Christ, Evangelicals hope Catholics will understand our skepticism, especially in light of the impression we have that many average Catholics don’t really seem to make much distinction between veneration and worship.

Second, in an attempt to explain that the “veneration” of the icon of Christ is not idolatry, the Catechism states that icons of Christ “can be venerated” because the one “who venerates the icon is venerating in it the person of the one depicted” (#477). Since the subject of this “veneration” is Christ himself, we can only conclude that the word “veneration” here is used synonymously with worship. It, therefore, appears to Evangelicals that the only distinction between veneration and worship is that if you “venerate” Christ, you are worshiping him but if you “venerate” Mary or icons you are not worshiping them. This is a distinction without a difference.

Third, section #2132 says,

Religious worship is not directed to images themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate.

So the worship is not actually directed to the images but rather to what the images symbolize. Unfortunately, this does little to ease Evangelical concerns that Catholics are engaged in idolatry. After Aaron crafted the Golden Calf he immediately announced a “festival to Yahweh.” He apparently saw the calf as a visual representation of Yahweh worship. According to the story, Yahweh saw it as idolatry and considered it to be a very serious offense (Exodus 32:1-5). Evangelicals generally fail to see much difference between the use of a golden calf in the worship of Yahweh and the use of a crucifix (or other icon) in the worship of Jesus.

It would be possible to argue that I am just quibbling over words, and that the Church is not really teaching the worship of Mary and that the sections in the Catechism that use the words worship, veneration and adoration synonymously were just unfortunate, unguarded statements. Similarly, it would be possible to argue that the Church is really not guilty of the Galatian heresy of requiring works for salvation, rather the Church really means that baptism, the Eucharist, other Sacraments and good works are the essential fruit of salvation and not something people must do in order to be saved. If this was the case, it would go a long way toward unifying Catholics and Protestants if the Catholic Church were to revise the Catechism with a view toward making these positions more clear.


I agreed with the majority of the Catechism and found it a joy and blessing to read. Nevertheless, some of the disagreements—like the infallibility of the Church, the “veneration” of Mary and icons, or the precise relationship between faith and works, are extremely significant and could be matters of spiritual life and death.