My sister, who was helping with the inaugural ExCatholics For Christ Conference, met a friend while shopping. The conversation got around to what my sister was doing, and her friend, an evangelical, was dismayed that there would be such a conference. "After all," she explained, "my sister-in-law is a Catholic and she's saved. She has no intention of leaving the Catholic Church because that's where she's comfortable." It seems that this lady and her sister-in-law are uninformed concerning what the Bible teaches, or the Catholic faith, or perhaps both. They have a great deal of company among evangelicals who are asking: "Does it really matter?" and "Isn't TBC engaged at times in nothing more than veiled Catholic bashing?"
One of the most frustrating aspects of addressing the Roman Catholic gospel is the prevailing ignorance regarding what Catholicism actually teaches. Most evangelicals are clueless regarding Catholicism. And many practicing Catholics (including a surprisingly high number of priests and nuns) simply do not know the actual extent of the salvation requirements of their Church. Surveys of Catholics reveal the common understanding about attaining heaven: that it centers around doing works which are pleasing to God (i.e., living one's life as a basically good person), performing a preponderance of good deeds to outweigh the bad, and living up to most of what the Church teaches. Nearly all Catholics believe this affords them the best chance for getting to heaven. However, this hope falls far short of what their Church officially requires.
All Catholics "know" that it is the Church which saves them, but few understand what the Roman Catholic legalistic system of salvation demands. Foundationally, it is this: Refusal to obey the laws and decrees of the Church is a mortal sin which condemns one to hell if each such transgression is not confessed to and absolved by a priest before death. As Vatican II declared in the 1960s,
[When the Bishops are] assembled in an ecumenical council, they are, for the universal Church, teachers of and judges in matters of faith and morals, whose decisions must be adhered to with the loyal and obedient assent of faith.
...when the Roman Pontiff, or the body of bishops together with him, define a doctrine,they make the definition in conformity with revelation itself, to which all are bound to adhere and to which they are obliged to submit... (Lumen Gentium 252). [Emphasis added]
Considering all the laws of the Church (a task most lawyers would find overwhelming), it's doubtful that even the most zealous Catholics know and obey every one of them. Catholics more often than not take a "cafeteria" approach to their religion, picking and choosing what laws they want to obey. For example, many reject the Church's teachings and regulations regarding contraception (even abortion!), marriage to a non-Catholic, divorce and remarriage, annulments, etc. Many wrongly think the Church has done away with some of its infallible doctrines such as indulgences (yet Vatican II condemns with anathema those who reject this doctrine). Some Catholics don't believe that transubstantiation actually changes the communion wafer into the real body, blood, soul and spirit of Jesus Christ, and some refuse to believe that purgatory is a reality. Regardless of what individual dissenting Catholics think, they are condemned by their Church for rejecting its teachings.
In addition to the myriad doctrines to "all" of which Catholics are "bound to adhere" and "obliged to submit," an inordinate and often hopelessly confusing number of other requirements are imposed which also carry the penalty of damnation if not obeyed. For instance, it is the rare Catholic who attends Mass on all the holy days of obligation. Not to do so is a mortal sin, yet one would be hard pressed to find a Catholic who can name them. Recently in a debate, Dave Hunt asked a leading Catholic apologist, Robert Sungenis, to enumerate them for the audience. He offered only three, two of which were incorrect (TBC offers this informative audio tape set). Part of the problem here for Sungenis and every other Catholic (other than their Church making this a sin which potentially separates them from God forever) is the complexity of this manmade requirement. Ten holy days of obligation are recognized worldwide, but in the U.S. only six require attendance at Mass. The conference of bishops decides which ones are abolished and which feast days are to be transferred to a Sunday. It seems rather incredible, as well as unbiblical, that having a current liturgical calendar (in order to know what days of each year attendance is required) should be necessary to qualify one for heaven!
But it's far more complicated than that.
Few lay Catholics are familiar with the Code of Canon Law, containing more than 1,750 laws which dictate Church rules and practice. Most know the laws they agree with and which ones they reject, but few Catholics understand that they have no such liberty of choice in this comprehensive legalistic system. Any ongoing conscious disobedience with regard to the commands of the Church excludes one from "the state of grace"—thus condemning one to hell. This bondage to law brings to mind the rebuke Jesus directed at the religious leaders of His day. From their extrabiblical tradition they imposed on the people "the commandments of men" (Mat:15:9), i.e., a profusion of rules and regulations. As a consequence the people are put under tremendous legalistic burdens and shut out of the kingdom of heaven (Mat:23:13).
Unlike God's immutable laws, Catholicism's extrabiblical legalities are arbitrary and variable yet carry eternally damning consequences. For example, eating meat on Friday was once a mortal sin; today, it's not. Formerly, a divorced Catholic who remarried was excommunicated; that's not the case today where changes in the laws seem to have been made in order to accommodate changes in our culture. While it is claimed that these are rules ordained by God, would our Lord make hell the penalty for generations of people, and then remove the penalty for a subsequent generation committing the same act? Not the God of the Bible.
Some Catholics have told me that they simply do not buy all the salvation requirements of their Church: "God will sort it all out in the end!" Rather than giving one peace of mind, however, this ill-founded hope raises a troubling question: For those Catholics who reject certain teachings of their Church, why would they nevertheless accept as valid the more agreeable doctrines Roman Catholicism promotes? For example, on what basis would one who rejects the teaching that contraception is a mortal sin be confident that receiving the Eucharist as Viaticum at the point of death assures one of eternal life? This quandary concerning one's eternal destiny is manifest for liberal and "cafeteria" Catholics, and especially for a rapidly growing, relatively new category of those who refer to themselves as "evangelical Catholics."
According to the pamphlet, "What is an Evangelical Catholic [EC]?" written by thirty Roman Catholics (mostly priests and nuns) and published "With Ecclesiastical Permission," ECs are those who
...have come into a personal faith in Jesus. They are evangelical in the strictest sense of the term in that they have received the basic gospel, accepted Jesus as personal Lord and Saviour and are manifesting the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their daily lives. [They] have a growing love and respect for Scripture as the Word of God....They would identify themselves variously as committed Christians, Charismatic Catholics, renewed Catholics, born again Catholics, or simply Catholics who love the Lord. Surely they are brothers or sisters in Christ of all true Evangelical Christians in the various Protestant Churches. (Emphasis added)
Are they, "surely?" Is it possible to truly believe in two diametrically opposed gospels at the same time?
Can a faithful Catholic agree with what the Bible requires for salvation—faith alone in Christ alone—while also agreeing that "the sacraments of the New Law [canons and decrees of the Church] are...necessary for salvation" and "without them... men" cannot "obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification..." (Trent, 7th Session, Canon 4)? "Faith alone" is condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Adding anything to faith is condemned as a false gospel by the Apostle Paul (Gal:1:6-9). Can an "evangelical" Catholic priest transubstantiate a piece of bread into the body and blood of Christ and then during the Mass "immolate" Him ("to kill as in a sacrifice," according to Webster's New World Dictionary)? Can this priest, while celebrating the Mass, also deny that the Eucharist is "truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ..." (Trent, 13th Session, Canon 1)? Evangelicals believe that the communion elements are simply symbolic, a view anathematized by the "infallible" Council of Trent. Can "evangelical" Catholic communicants believe that the Eucharist is only symbolic of Christ and at the same time believethat the bread and wine become "the Body and Blood of Christ"? Not while claiming to be rational!
The heartbreak in all of this is that every evangelical who loves Catholics wants to believe that they really have "received the basic gospel." But which one? Rome's or the biblical gospel? And with which Jesus do they have a personal relationship? The One who cried out from the cross, "It is finished!" (i.e., the debt is fully paid), or the one who continues to be sacrificed around the world (more than 120 million times per year) on Catholic altars? And what of charismatic Catholics who seem to manifest the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Does He energize their sacraments (which deny the gospel), rituals, prayers (rosaries?), and revitalize their devotions to Mary as nearly all of them claim? No, not the Spirit of truth!
What then do we make of all this "evangelical" Catholic talk? It's part of an aggressive strategy to subvert evangelical Christianity. But why would the Roman Catholic Church even consider such a thing? The Church of Rome views itself as the visible head of Christianity; it claims authority over all who would call themselves Christians. Evangelical Christianity, which rejects Roman Catholic salvation and Rome's control in favor of the true gospel and submission to Jesus Christ personally and directly, is Catholicism's most productive enemy. The primary reason? Catholics hear the biblical gospel of salvation; they believe it and are saved. They then leave the Church. These conversions have been taking place for millions of Catholics around the world, and especially in Latin American countries where the Pope has called evangelicals "sheep-stealing rapacious wolves" and dangerous "sects" (the Vatican term for cults).
To counter those losses, beginning with Vatican II, Rome has donned evangelical apparel and added some biblical accessories (although her unbiblical salvation remains the same). Her goal has been to seduce evangelical Christians into believing that Roman Catholicism is proclaiming the same gospel and the same Jesus, so converting Catholics is redundant at best, un-Christian at worst. Rome's success in this ploy has been astounding (see Part I for just a few examples). But haven't the modifications instituted by Vatican II, the ecumenical dialogues with Baptists, Mennonites, Assemblies of God, etc., the agreement on justification with Lutherans, and the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" accord at least demonstrated that the Roman Catholic Church is indeed changing, becoming more biblical? Augustin Cardinal Bea, president at the time of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and ardent suitor of leading evangelicals, makes clear Rome's intentions:
The Roman Catholic Church would be gravely misunderstood if it should be concluded that her present ecumenical adventuresomeness and openness meant that she was prepared to reexamine any of her fixed dogmatic positions. What the Church is prepared to do is to take...a more imaginative and contemporary presentation of these fixed positions. (Emphasis added)
Millions of former Catholics are now attending evangelical churches. I've spoken in one church (of more than 500 members) where more than 90 percent of them were born-again ex-Catholics. Most such believers, although thankful for their own deliverance from spiritual bondage, nevertheless grieve daily over their lost loved ones. Yet what compounds their sorrow is not only the animosity shown by Catholic friends and family members because they left the Church, but the fact that too often their evangelical churches offer little or no help in reaching Catholics for Christ; some even disdain the activity as offensive and unloving. Pastors! Elders! Ministry leaders! You and your church or organization must "offend" Catholics with the truth—that they are lost—and then with the good news of what they need to believe to be saved! It is our heart's cry that this would matter deeply to every evangelical who claims to love Roman Catholics. Anything less is real "Catholic bashing." TBC