As I speak to different audiences and at various conferences, the question comes back over and over again: why should Evangelicals bother engaging Roman Catholicism? Let me suggest four reasons.
It’s a Global Issue
Wherever you go in the world – North and South, East and West – you will find people who call themselves Roman Catholics and with whom all of us will interact in one way or another on matters of faith. You will also encounter the Roman Catholic Church through its institutions and agencies: parishes, schools, hospitals, charities, movements, etc. According to the 2020 edition of the Pontifical Yearbook, Catholics around the world amount to 1.329 billion people, by far the largest religious family within Christendom and the biggest religious organization on the planet. The Pope, though living in Rome, is a global figure who attracts a lot of attention from the media. The Roman Church, through its documents and initiatives, is a world-level player in major debates related to inter-faith relationships, mission, the environment, ecumenism, etc. Whether you live in a majority Roman Catholic region or in an area where Catholics are few, the presence of the Roman Catholic Church is pervasive. Unless you crouch in your little corner, not wanting to engage the world around you (wherever you are), you must deal with Roman Catholicism.
It’s a Theological Issue
In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation was a movement of God that recovered and reaffirmed the biblical gospel centered on the authority of the Triune God in biblical revelation (Scripture Alone); the sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ (Christ Alone); the free gift of salvation for those who believe (Faith Alone); and the call to live for God and worship Him in whatever we do (To God Alone be the Glory). Roman Catholicism stood against these truths and condemned those who embraced them. After Vatican II, Rome has somewhat changed its posture; the tones are friendlier and the lines are blurred. However, Roman Catholicism is still NOT committed to Scripture alone, Christ alone, or faith alone, and its devotions are not dedicated to God alone. The Roman Catholic gospel is different from the biblical one. None of the non-biblical dogmas, practices, and structures have been obliterated, although they may have been reframed or developed. The Reformation is not over, the gospel is still at stake, and all those who want to stand firm in the truth should grasp at least something of what Roman Catholicism stands for.
It’s an Evangelistic Issue
Because of the massive number of Roman Catholics around the world, there is a high probability that all of us have neighbours, friends, family members, and colleagues who are such. In majority Roman Catholic contexts, this often means that people identify themselves as Catholics because they were born into a religious family or because the cultural milieu they live in was shaped by Roman Catholicism, but there is no basic gospel awareness. Many Catholics believe and behave like most Western secular people do: without any sense of God being real and true in their lives. In other words, they are not born again, regenerated Christians. Devout Catholics may be religious, yet entangled in traditions and practices that are far from the biblical faith. This brings wide-open evangelistic opportunities. The gospel can and must be taken to them too. We must try to enter the Roman Catholic mindset and gently challenge it with the gospel. In order to do so in a spiritually intelligent way, we must come to terms with what Roman Catholicism is all about.
It’s a Trying Issue
Roman Catholicism brings a further challenge to evangelicals today. In the past, Rome considered other forms of Christianity (e.g. Eastern Orthodox and Protestants) as heretical or schismatic; it was Rome that distanced outsiders from itself. After Vatican II (1962-1965) they are thought of as being still defective but “imperfectly united” with Rome. Rome has become very ecumenical, wanting to come alongside other Christians in order to bring them cum Petro (“with Peter”, i.e. in peace with the Catholic Church) and sub Petro (“under Peter”, i.e. somehow embraced by its structures). The same is true with other religions. Prior to Vatican II they were condemned as pagan and heathen; now they are viewed as legitimate ways to God and their followers are called “brothers and sisters”. Rome is working hard to bring all religions together around its leader, the Pope. This is no conspiracy theory: it is the universalist agenda of present-day Roman Catholicism which has been in operation since Vatican II. Evangelicals should be aware of where Rome is going. We don’t want to become part of a “catholic” project that curtails gospel mission aimed at the conversion to Jesus Christ of people who do not believe in Him. The unity we aspire to is the unity of God’s people under the Lord Jesus, not the generic unity of the whole of mankind under Rome.
For missiological, theological, evangelistic, and strategic reasons, Evangelicals must engage Roman Catholicism in today’s world.