I recently finished reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (The word catechism means “instruction.”) It is a thorough grounding in Roman Catholic belief and practice. While I have read and benefitted from a few Catholic authors (St. Augustine, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Greg Boyle, Raniero Cantalamessa), most of what I’ve heard about Catholicism has come through Protestants, which is undoubtedly biased and selective. It has been a joy to get such a broad summary from an official Catholic source. Contrary to uncharitable comments I’ve heard from a few Protestants, practicing Catholics are our sisters and brothers in Christ. We are united in the ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Definition, etc.) We all believe salvation is in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith. We are united in God as creator, as Almighty, and as our Father. We are united in the saving work of Jesus in the cross and resurrection, the sending of the Holy Spirit, the unity of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, Christ returning to judge the world, and eternal life. Our consensus in doctrine and practice is much greater than our differences, but it’s often the differences that get the most attention. Here are some of my brief takeaways concerning pleasant discoveries, the most fundamental difference I see between Catholics and Protestants, and a list of some of the other differences that stem from this fundamental difference.
The Catechism is thoroughly biblical, in spite of common Protestant accusations that Catholics basically don’t care about the Bible. Biblical references are teeming throughout.
The Catechism is kinder toward Protestants than I was expecting: we are followers of Jesus and the Spirit does much good through Protestant churches, though they would say we aren’t properly related to God’s true church.
The best and most thorough discussion of angels I’ve ever read is in the Catechism.
There is a healthy respect for science and natural reason, and official teachings of Catholicism are much more open to evolution than some Protestant bodies are. I think we could learn a lot from them in this regard.
There is a rich spiritual tradition with many encouragements toward a life of prayer and discipline. I see more emphasis here in Catholicism than I do throughout Protestantism.
There is a continual focus on the poor and God’s love for them, and an appreciation for vows of poverty and singleness, which many Protestants tend to ignore.
There is a lot of modern moral and political wisdom in the Catechism.
The Fundamental Difference: How Should We Do Theology?
The differences between Catholics and Protestants ultimately root in different ways of doing theology. We Methodists like to use the acronym STER to talk about the different ways people come to know God: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Every person and every denomination weighs and uses these four sources of theological knowledge differently. For instance, charismatic and Pentecostal Protestants tend to give more emphasis to Scripture and experience (what I learned in the practice of prayer, what the Spirit told me, my experience trying to live out a particular biblical principle). The Reformed tradition tends to weigh Scripture and reason more heavily (what is the best way to go about interpretation, how does background of a particular Scripture inform our understanding of it, how does this interact with other sources of knowledge like science, philosophy, psychology, etc.) Anglicans would employ Scripture and tradition more heavily, while still giving primacy to Scripture. Roman Catholics put holy tradition (the ecumenical creeds, what Christians and teachers have said in the past, how the church has interpreted Scripture throughout history) on an equal level with Scripture, with the authority being given by God to the Magisterium (the pope and his bishops) to interpret Scripture and holy tradition, sometimes infallibly. See Article 2: The Transmission of Divine Revelation (paragraphs 74-95) of the Catechism to get the Catholic perspective of how they do theology. One of the reasons why they proceed this way is that the Scriptures themselves were given to us by the tradition of the church. The New Testament wasn’t finally canonized by the church until the 4th century, and the New Testament documents themselves were produced by individuals of the early church. Thus, this is used as an argument for the highest authority being given by God to the leadership of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, to decide what God’s inspired and authoritative revelation is.
We Protestants would agree that we are dependent upon the tradition of the church for the initial production of the Scriptures by the apostles and their associates as well as the later canonization of the Scriptures by church leaders in the 4th century, but would differ on how much weight we gives these different sources when it comes to doing theology. Protestants would put Scripture as the more important and the most foundational source for how we come to know God, more so than tradition. Thoughtful Protestants aren’t anti-tradition, they simply are more critical of tradition, especially where later tradition has moved beyond the data from the earliest tradition of Scripture. We would say that the Holy Spirit gave the church the ability to recognize the Scriptures as the earliest, most pristine traditions of Jesus, the apostles, and their associates, but the church does not finally imbue all authority into those texts. In other words, the authority of Scripture doesn’t finally derive from the church, even though God used the church to give us Scripture, but final authority belongs to the God who inspired the Scriptures and who reigns over all existence.
To play with an illustration given by Anglican Bible scholar N. T. Wright in his book Scripture and The Authority of God (p. 69), let’s use the example of receiving orders from your commander through the mail. Consider Scripture being like the message from your commander in the mail, and the postal worker who delivers it being like the church. Just because a postal worker delivered your orders to you doesn’t mean your postal worker has the same authority as the message or the commander, and therefore you give all allegiance and obedience to the postal worker. Nor does it mean you worship the letter that the worker gave you, though it contains the official message from your commander and is the best way to come to know your commander (this would be an idolatry of the Bible). Both the letter and the worker are helping us be better connected to the commander, but they fulfill different roles. Protestants would say the letter contains the most pristine presentation of the commander’s orders, not necessarily the thoughts of any postal worker about the letter. We would argue that the earliest traditions of Christianity we have in the Scriptures should be the most fundamental criteria by which we evaluate all doctrines and practices of the church, because these are the closest documents we have to Jesus and his apostles, and they are the ones the early church recognized as being consistent with the faith handed down to them. If a teaching of the church is not evident from the Scriptures, at the very least it shouldn’t be required as necessary for salvation, and if it runs contrary to the Scriptures, it should be abandoned as contrary to the earliest traditions of the church. This is what led to the Protestant Reformation–a desire to reform the Catholic Church to align with the earliest traditions and teachings of the church as revealed through Scripture, a return to primitive, early Christianity.
In some ways, Protestantism released great potential for transformation within the church, but it also created a huge fracturing within the church, paving the way for disagreements and even fresh entries into error. Luther quickly discovered that any hopes of unifying Protestants around a common interpretation of Scripture was dashed at the Marburg Colloquy in his arguments with Zwingli, and it’s undeniable that people interpret Scripture in a lot of different ways still today. There are hundreds of different denominations, all claiming to be “biblical,” but coming to different conclusions on points of doctrine. We have something similar to individualized Protestant Magisteriums in the various denominations, where each rallies around certain ways of interpreting Scripture, and each gives hierarchical authority for enforcing those views. This is where the STER acronym can once again be helpful for navigating the differences amongst Protestants, because often you can trace the source of the disagreements down to differences in valuing and interpreting Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and/or Reason. In spite of the fracturing it has caused, we Protestants believe a foundational reliance on Scripture is a conviction worth arguing for, even if it hasn’t been able to produce ecclesial unity, because of the desire to pursue primitive Christianity as best we’re able to understand it.
As you can probably tell, unlike the Roman Catholic Magisterium, most Protestants wouldn’t claim infallibility for the church. This may seem scary for those who want definitive answers. If you deny infallibility within the church, then can we reliably know God at all? I think we can. I believe Jesus is capable of making himself known to us in a way that is sufficient to God’s goals, though I may not fully understand how we come to know God. I also take comfort in there being a huge amount of consensus when you start to look at all the commonalities among Christians of various stripes–stuff that has been believed by all people, in all times, in all places. But the best we humans can do is humbly and prayerfully make arguments–be witnesses–for why we think God is a particular way. We may get it wrong, and all of us probably are wrong about certain things when it comes to God. We always run into the limits of our own finiteness in the ability to know things, which should showcase that human beings are not the source and judges of all truth. Scripture tells us that Jesus is the source of all truth (John 14:6). He is the one who has all authority, knows all things, is God’s infallible, inerrant Word, and will ultimately judge all things. So as fallible, finite human beings, we make our attempts and we seek to grow in our God-given understanding, but we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t obtain infallibility and if the church can’t obtain it. Perhaps our limits are meant to point us beyond ourselves to a God wiser and greater than ourselves, where in faith we humbly seek more understanding, to quote St. Anselm. God gives us enough knowledge that we might have faith in Christ and serve him. And if Paul’s Body of Christ language in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 2 is any indicator, perhaps God loves diversity concerning some things more than we theological types care to acknowledge at times.
I say all that to say this: what you think is “right” or “wrong” really depends on how you do theology. If you accept the Roman Catholic method for doing theology, everything makes sense and checks out. If you don’t, then you have another method for understanding God and would use that theological framework in making your critique. Ultimately, these arguments and questions come back to us as individuals and lead us to ask: what seems most reasonable, convincing, and beautiful? People who are a lot smarter than I am on both sides could take this argument deeper, but these are my musings after reading the Catechism.
Some Other Differences
All of the following observations are presenting issues that really come back to the core issue in the previous section. Some differences particular Protestant traditions would have with Catholicism would also be differences they would have with other Protestants, so I won’t talk about mode of baptism, infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, providence, predestination, sacramental theology, women in ministry, gifts of the Spirit, etc. The list below are things that most if not all Protestants would have trouble with based on their way of doing theology.
Mandatory Celibacy in the Priesthood
Praying for the Dead
Divorce as Always Impermissible
Consequences for Abortion–Why excommunication for abortion and not other mortal sins?
Birth Control–Many Protestants would question the opposition of the Church to other non-abortifacient forms of birth control (besides the rhythm method) and would differ slightly on God’s purposes for sex within marriage.
All in all, there is a lot of room for Catholics and Protestants to pray for each other, worship together, and work together for the evangelization and discipleship of our world. The Catholic Church is a huge and beautiful boat from which to fish. I have benefitted much from reading the Catechism, and I’m sure I will continue to learn from and serve with Catholics in the future. I think John Wesley sums up best how we ought to treat each other in his sermon “Catholic Spirit”:
But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.