Why Protestants Cannot Be Catholic Today: Why Are We Still Protesting?

chapel_communion[1]I spend a significant amount of time explaining Roman Catholic beliefs to my evangelical and Protestant friends. As a theologian it is part of my calling to illuminate and clarify. So much of what non-Catholics say about Catholicism is intended to obscure.

I also think it is a profoundly eschatological act to work for the unity of the church. Put another way: Jesus prayed for the unity of the church (John 17) and I believe his prayer will come to fruition in the New Heavens and New Earth. In the meantime, we pray and work toward a unity that will likely not be achieved until he returns.

But there are still some significant reasons why I don’t think the Protestant churches can reunite with the Catholic Church. Clarity about those differences are also important. So consider this a Protestant guide to understanding the Catholic Church.

All the talk of Catholics believing that salvation comes from anything but Jesus is dead wrong. Sometimes Protestants talk like Catholics believe that the rituals of the Church have some kind of salvific power on their own. Catholics believe that the sacramental system is the way that God has given to meet Jesus. Most Protestants would not believe that as strongly as Catholics.

But I suspect that many Protestants that are most prone to criticize Catholics have led someone in a “sinner’s prayer” and told them that this somehow assured their salvation. That is an infinitely more heretical position than any Catholic notion of the efficacy of the sacraments. At least since Vatican II and in most places long before that, the Catholic Church has insisted that the sacraments are dependent upon faithful reception of them. That means that the Catholic Church agrees that the sacraments only “work” in the life of the believer to the extent that they are received by a faithful heart. I would encourage any Protestants that are concerned about whether Catholics are sufficiently dependent upon Jesus to read The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that was written by the Lutherans and Catholics.

That said, there are a few problems worth quibbling over. Catholic theology regarding Mary is problematic from a Protestant perspective. Catholics regard Mary as the first Christian, having said “Yes” to Jesus even as he is conceived. This isn’t problematic. But some Catholic theologians (though is not official dogma) call Mary Co-Redemptrix. Christ is still the one who gives grace to sinners in this thinking, but Mary’s obedience to God is somehow involved in making salvation possible by her receiving Jesus. Co-Redemptrix is a fringe theology among Catholics but it points to a variety of ways that Mary is given authority in the economy of salvation that Protestants will reject. Similarly, though official theology is such that prayers to Mary and the saints are only asking them to pray for you to God, even the Popes sometimes ask Mary to do things that only God can do.

The practice of intercession whereby a Catholic asks a saint (or Mary) to offer prayers on their behalf is not an issue that is ultimate. That is, it is a difference between Catholics and Protestants but it is not a matter of salvation or heresy. Catholics are simply asking deceased Christians to pray for them.

Some Protestants claim that the Pope is considered equal to the Bible in Catholic teaching. This is just an issue of different categories obscuring the truth. Catholics too believe in the final authority of Scripture. But that notion is configured differently for them. Catholics give authority to the whole Tradition of the Church’s apostolic teaching, of which the Bible is the key piece. They would say that the Bible, the teaching of the Popes (not everything a pope says, but when he is specifically acting as “pope”), the liturgy of the church, the Creeds, etc., are all saying the same thing that the apostles said.

Protestants typically speak of the Bible as authority because it is a special revelation (Catholics would agree with this but it isn’t their main point). Both place the Bible in authority but for different reasons, and the Catholic reasons are such that the Bible stands alongside other teachings. There is no need to put the Bible and the Pope (or any teaching tradition) in opposition to one another because (according to Catholics) they are saying the same things. Many Protestants think that the authority given to the Pope (and the bishops) makes them a higher or equal authority to Scripture. Rather their interpretation of the Bible, which is their authoritative book, is considered the official or authoritative interpretation.

If interested, read the preface to the Assemblies of God’s doctrinal statement and you will hear them regard their interpretation to be an official/recognized interpretation of Scripture. I don’t think such a distinction is problematic, unless you happen to disagree with contents. Those that disagree with the contents are likely to say that the other group is placing that teaching equal with Scripture (just as many Protestants accuse the Catholics of doing).

I think the celibate male priesthood alone is enough to prevent Protestants from becoming Catholic. I have written extensively what I think about women’s ministry, so enough said on that. As had been pointed out to me, their are a number of social teachings (abortion, birth control, etc.) which are also not likely reconcilable between Protestant and Catholics. These differences are likely not reconcilable. I don’t think any would deny that. But I think Protestants would do well to consider whether a disagreement about birth control, papal authority, and the like are good reasons to regard Catholicism as something other than Christian.

The differences named here closely parallel reasons that many Protestants give as markers of Catholic unfaithfulness to what they consider to be basic Christian truth. I hope I have explained these such that the actual Catholic ideas are illuminated as similar to but different than what all Christians believe. These reasons may be good reasons for Protestants not to become Catholic, but not good ones to defame our Catholic brothers and sisters. Put another way, these are good reasons that we cannot reunite. However, our differences are not ones which prevent us from meaningful fellowship.

If you really want to understand Catholicism, I recommend the works of Robert Barron. Barron is a theologian and priest that has a knack for making Catholicism clear.

Related Post: Is Pope Francis Changing the Teaching of the Catholic Church? A Theologian’s Commentary on His Open Letter to Eugenio Scalfari


  1. says

    I’ve had many discussions with another Roman Catholic blogger (http://lonelypilgrim.com/) about Protestants and Roman Catholics. We’ve discovered that we have a great deal in common, and that not all Protestant traditions are cut from the same cloth. Many are cut from their “own” cloth, while others, like the Lutheran tradition, are cut from the Roman Catholic cloth, and that makes a huge difference.

    There is still a great deal of misunderstanding between Roman Catholics and Protestants coming from both sides, even though great strides have been made. I think for me, the biggest issue we Protestants are still “protesting” is the power and primacy of the Pope. After that would come the role of women and the mandatory celibacy of the priesthood.

    • says

      Ken, what would you say to the prospect that (as I argue) most denominations have authority such as the Popes? That is, that there is a Lutheran magisterium, an Anglican one, and so on. Is it the power of the teaching authority that is problematic or is it having that power focused on an individual that is problematic?

      • says

        It is the concentration of the authority in a single individual that is most problematic.

        Regarding teaching authorities, yes, all churches do have some sort of teaching authority. Where it is centered is not always clear. There was actually a discussion of sorts when the ELCA was constituted about who would be “the” teaching authority, and there was a lot of disagreement. In practice, teaching authority rests with the Bishops and the teaching theologians, as we go to them for answers. But their decisions and opinions are not handed down as “the” unchangeable decisions in the same way that the Roman Catholic Magisterium’s are–if that makes any sense.

      • John Meunier says

        Have you read William J. Abraham’s work, Jeremiah? He argues that what we are all doing is trying to create an epistemic ultimate authority to resolve our doctrinal disputes. Roman Catholics use the Pope. Many Protestants use some version of “the Bible says.” Abraham thinks this whole program is mistaken as it turns the whole game of church into a project in epistemology — and a bad one at that.

        Just a thought that arose while reading your conversation with Ken here.

  2. says

    This was great! I wrote a series on what Roman Catholics believe on my site that mirrors a lot of what you say here. You can check it out here: http://nathanrhale.com/series/roman-catholicism/

    Another great book to check out is Alan Schreck’s Catholic and Christian: An explanation of commonly misunderstood Catholic beliefs.

    I agree with him when he says, “Satan as been able to use…lack of understanding (both among Catholics and others) to divide Christians from one another and to divert their attention and energies away from proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and advancing his kingdom on earth.”

  3. chansrodrigues says

    You know people have opinions about this or that, if only they could hear the Voice of the Lord through the Holy Spirit then they won’t need to have opinions no more, listen to what the Lord says about His Word. Most Christians either way need to tune into the Holy Spirit then they will realise the real Truth. Catholics deviate from the Truth, and that’s that. They also incorporated Christmas and that’s not from the Lord, scripture proves that, history proves how they did it (studied that at university). Catholics are more about tradition than God and I say this having married into such a family. We can only pray that the Lord open their eyes for they will argue until the end of time. We are not to argue at all. And no one comes to God except through Christ, that’s what the Bible says and that is that. Also, no one comes to Christ if God doesn’t will it, so the ones that will not go through Christ alone like the Catholics, we need to continuously pray for mercy and forgiveness for them. I will endure many attacks doing the Lord’s work, but I have to say the worst attacks from people came through atheists and Catholics, that in itself says it all. Atheists diligently have to prove they believe in nothing, if they believe in nothing what’s the hype about ? And Catholics makes sure that I understand my Jesus is not their Jesus, I’m not welcome to talk about Jesus, weird for people so religious. We need to pray for them and I hope your article opens eyes and hearts 🙂 looking forward to your next post:)

  4. says

    Thank you for your insights. I am a non-denominational charismatic Christian lay person. It can be difficult to reconcile much of what I see with my Protestant background. I have been really encouraged with this new pope and am excited by the response I have been hearing from people bc to so many the Pope represents the Christian faith. Sorry for all my Protestant friends but they are the source of most of what the media puts out so naturally the unchurched are looking at the most visible church. I am hopeful that many many will come to know Christ through the changes occurring within the RCC and my hope would be that it will spill over wherever. I don’t care what denomination believers choose, as long as they choose Christ.
    My hope is that Francis will reach out and soften the stance of many Catholics about their views on Protestants and make a public declaration about Mary as co-Redemptrix as unscriptural. I had a professor years ago that would carry on and on about Mary as co-Redemptrix and I just thought it was as pagan a belief as I had ever heard.
    God bless, andrea

  5. Larry Jones - Former AG minister that has spent some time with Conservative Mennonites... Currently attending an Anglican Church says

    I also like your points. However, I think that you may have been a little broad about the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and its implications. The idea of transubstantiation is enough to push away most Protestants. We would be quicker to accept a Lutheran or Anglican Eucharist before we would Catholicism’s weekly sacrifice. I felt you were fair with your treatment of Catholicism, but be careful not to take Protestant thought too lightly regarding Catholic culture. The Marian culture, irregardless of theology, would not be easily reconciled. Additionally, the use of icons, holy sites, appearances of stigmata, etc. would be troublesome. Also, I think that the whole idea of a liturgical order would be extremely difficult. In the mind of the Protestant (especially fundamentalist, pentecostal and charismatic), the liturgical order of service is extremely anti-Holy Spirit. Finally, as you know, many Protestants see the Catholic Church as the whore of Babylon in Revelation. As laughable as many may think this is… it is still a very real teaching among Protestants. So…. I think that unity is not possible for many many reasons.

    One question… If Protestants and Roman Catholics did unite, whose culture and practice would prevail?

    • Robert Shine says

      It was the prayer of Jesus that “they all may be one”. Regardless of all cultures and practices all Christians must be united in Christ. The Christ must be the supreme head of the Church. The Bible is the only one element that unites believers together. Instead of following the cultures and practices of so called Churches today, Let us follow the culture and practices of the ‘Word of God’ for building up the holy and catholic (Universal) church that unchurched people may be attracted to the body of Christ.


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