Differentiating Roman Catholicism
In a surprising change from my usual tack, today I'm in the mood to write about my personal religious beliefs. While these are liable to offend many people, especially in our ecumenist day and age, religion is by nature an incendiary topic. This isn't a polemic meant to convert or convince anyone, though. I'm not asking you to believe what I believe (although in my belief system, if you don't believe what I believe, you have a good chance of living in a lake of fire for eternity). This is an exposition on what I believe, and how I've reached my conclusions about it, with a specific emphasis on what I think of this funny sect of Christianity that makes old men dress up in gowns and funny hats.
And if you thought that statement was offensive, brace yourself for this: I don't believe Catholics - at least under the definition of Catholic as set out by the Roman Catholic Church - can be considered Christians.
To understand how this conclusion was reached, first we have to see what is the Christian definition of salvation. This can probably be summarised by the oft-quoted John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." In short, if you die and you believe in Jesus and that he died as a sacrifice for your sins, and that he is the only saviour of mankind (John 14:6), congratulations, welcome to paradise. Otherwise it's welcome to hell, heathen.
Obviously it's not nice for me to be using such stark language, but I figure that if you're going to be honest about what you believe, there isn't a point in sugarcoating it. Anyhow, the basic problem with Roman Catholicism is, yes, that it doesn't really fit that basic definition of salvation. Actually, it contradicts the Bible on a number of points.
Before continuing, it may be worth pointing out that I have nothing personally against Catholics or Catholicism. People often conflate criticism of Catholicism and Catholic theology with anti-Catholicism. The difference is that the former addresses problems with Catholics' beliefs, while the latter deals in conspiracy theories about the Vatican plotting to take over the world. Unfortunately, the two tend to be conflated because the same people likely to point out the inherent problems with Catholic theology are also likely to believe that there's some Catholic plot to take over the world or that Catholics are all evil minions of the devil. So, just to get that out of the way, I'm not one of those types.
Still, it is a bit irritating to me when the media and its portrayal of Christianity conflates Catholicism with Christianity in general. Most Christians would disagree with Catholics on a number of crucial theological issues - heck, a large number of Catholics don't even believe in some illogical Catholic doctrines (such as the one forbidding usage of condoms). I have heard some people argue that the differences between Catholicism and other denominations are purely "political", and mainly have to do with the Pope. I have met some people of other faiths who refute problematic Catholic doctrines and think they have thus crushed all of Christianity. However, these people appear completely ignorant of the fact that the differences between Catholics and other Christians are more than skin-deep.
Now, if we're going to discuss the thorny issue of Catholic theology in a rational manner, it might be good to have a basic syllogism underlying our discussion. That is:
1. The Bible is inspired by God;
2. Therefore any doctrine contradicting the Bible is in error.
It should be noted that although this sounds rather like the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (scripture - the Bible - alone), it is consistent with the Catholic belief in prima scriptura (that the Bible is superior to other sources of doctrine). Although I don't believe in using anything other than the Bible as a source, this isn't a debate I'm interested in dealing with at the present.
Working from the principle that the Bible is the ultimate source of all doctrine, it is surprisingly easy to see that a lot of Roman Catholic beliefs aren't really grounded in the traditional source of Christian doctrine.
One doctrine unique to Catholicism is its emphasis on the Church (with a capital C). Unlike most other schools of thought, Catholic theology places a lot of emphasis on the power of the Church - namely, the Vatican. No other denomination is as bureaucratic in its approach to faith as Catholicism is. How Catholicism works seems to be that either one man at the apex of the hierarchy issues an order, or a group of central planners get together to craft doctrine (for instance, the second Vatican Council modernised Catholic liturgy). Whatever the case, Catholicism bears a lot of resemblance to the rigid Soviet bureaucracy that crumbled with the Berlin Wall (that, ironically, supposedly crumbled because of Pope John Paul II's support for the anti-communist movements in Eastern Europe). Essentially, in Catholicism, someone on top tells you what to believe, instead of you deciding for yourself. You might say that the Catholic Church interposes itself between man and God.
Now, the problem with this is that there's very little (if any) Biblical support for the institution of the Catholic Church or the Papacy. Oh yes, the Catholic Church can tell you all about why it is the one true Church and why you ought to listen to their interpretation of scripture and follow their rituals. But the Bible is curiously silent about the establishment of a unified church - especially one as bureaucratic as the Catholic Church. And if we are to agree with the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, "In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church." As can be demonstrated, the Catholic Church won't be getting a very favourable decision if you judge it by the Bible.
For one thing, the Bible's depictions of early Christianity don't resemble the rigid hierarchy of the Catholic Church today. It seems apparent that the focus was at the individual church level - the churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Jerusalem, they all acted as independent bodies. There were, of course, ecumenical councils, as the book of Acts relates. However, no church dominated the discussions; there was no apparent submission to the Roman church. The system of the early church, if anything, resembles that of the Anglican Church, which places its nominal head, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as merely the first among equals. Doctrine is discussed by peers, without the spectre of Papal infallibility.
In any case, circumstantial evidence in the Bible weighs strongly against the veracity of the Vatican's claims. Paul's epistle to the Romans, surprisingly, does not even mention Peter, supposedly the first Bishop of Rome (and thus the first Pope). Why is this so? The Bible states that the early churches agreed that Peter would be the apostle of the "circumcised" (i.e. Jews) - meaning he wouldn't have any business in Rome, the centre of the Gentile world. This discrepancy weighs against the Papacy and its authority heavily, since the Pope claims to be a member of the "Apostolic succession" from Peter.
In any case, there is surprisingly little in the Bible that can explicitly corroborate the institution of the Papacy at all. The number one passage cited for this is the famous one in Matthew, where Jesus renames Cephas as Peter (meaning rock, although some Protestant theologians interested in semantics insist it means pebble), and proclaims that "on this rock I will build my church". By any standard, this is a very vague statement, which can be interpreted in a number of different ways - not all of which have to do with crowning one man as the Head Bureaucrat of Christianity. The supposed symbols of Peter's (and thus the Papacy's) authority, the keys to heaven and hell, which are granted to him shortly thereafter, and also given to the other apostles not long afterward. The institution of the Pope has hardly any basis in the Bible, to be frank.
But that is just one issue, and if we focus on it, we ignore the numerous other problems with Catholicism. The essential cause of the original schism between Martin Luther and the Vatican was the problem of the Church's emphasis on works over faith as a means to salvation. The idea was that you could purchase an indulgence, which could speed your passage to heaven, allowing you to skip the allocated time in purgatory meant for the saved-but-not-saved-enough crowd. You essentially could buy your way out of sin.
You might think that since the Church stopped the sale of indulgences a long time ago, this issue is dead and done with - but it's not. The underlying conflict about faith and works has not been resolved, and the issue of purgatory continues to fester.
The Catholic understanding is that first you need to believe, and after that, you need to perform rituals X, Y and Z or else you can forget about eternal life. And even if you do perform those rituals, you aren't assured of a place in heaven just yet because you might need to spend time suffering in purgatory to be purged of your unredeemed sins. The effect of this, basically, is to create a situation where dead unbaptised babies end up burning in hell for eternity because they weren't baptised (seriously - Catholics are supposed to believe this). In another instance of the Church interposing itself between man and God, penitents are expected to confess their sins to a priest (as opposed to directly to God), and even though the only passage in the Bible dealing with this does not make it a prerequisite for salvation, under Catholic theology, if you die without having confessed to a priest, and without the intention to confess to a priest, you go straight to hell.
Fortunately, you don't need those examples to fathom just how crazy Catholic doctrine is. All you need is to note one striking example from the account of Jesus' death, where he told a dying thief who proclaimed his belief in Jesus that "today you will be with me in paradise". This in itself deals a death blow to any belief one might have in purgatory, and to the suggestion that one must perform a series of rituals before being eligible for salvation. That man was never baptised, and he sure as hell never saw the inside of a church, but all he had to do was believe, and he was assured of salvation.
Still, one could argue a case for works based on the famous quotation from James that we are "justified" by both faith and works. The problem with this, however, is that we are not saved by works, as Ephesians tells us, "lest anyone should boast". (Incidentally, I recall visiting a Catholic shrine in the US, and being struck by all the statues of saints bearing prominent inscriptions of the names of the people who paid for them, with their requests for salvation/mercy from God. Something tells me these people didn't read Ephesians closely enough.) Reading the book of James as a whole in context, it seems clear that the message conveyed is that "faith without works is dead" - meaning that if you have faith, your faith will manifest itself in works, which will show and justify your faith.
As a sidenote, the strongest support for the institution of purgatory and works as a prerequisite for salvation can be found only in the Apocrypha - a collection of Jewish books included only in the Catholic Bible. Ironically, the Apocrypha became widely considered as canon only after the Council of Trent, which met to condemn Luther and his reforms. Apparently the Church's bureaucracy realised that the Bible as it stood didn't corroborate their beliefs, so their solution was to change the Bible.
The Catholic Church also believes in the intercession of saints - that the dead can pray for the living. While this does make sense on the face of it, there isn't much substantial Biblical basis for this either (although there are some implicit suggestions which could - depending on how you interpret them - support it). In any case, First Timothy seems to explicitly rule out this possibility, referring to Jesus as the "only" intercessor between God and man. There are also some odd logical loopholes in Catholic theology here; for instance, it is held that saints don't have any superhuman powers in heaven. It's never explained, though, how they can listen and pay attention to each of the several million prayers they must hear every hour. (And, please, have some pity on them - why do Catholics subject Mary to endless repetitions of the Hail Mary prayer? If she's like any other human, she must be bored of hearing the precise same words almost non-stop for a couple of millenia.)
There are a billion other differences, some superficial and some not, between Roman Catholicism and other variants of Christianity. Many of them, especially the major ones (as discussed above), clash directly with the Bible. Even celibacy of the clergy contradicts the Bible; First Timothy says that a bishop must be "husband of one wife" for "if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?" Simply put, there are enough troubling deviations in Catholic theology to justify serious doubts about its faithfulness to God.
And these are just the obvious differences, mind you. There are some more nuanced criticisms of Catholicism that I haven't bothered with, either because I don't understand them, or can't explain them. Transubstantiation (the belief that the communion bread and wine are transformed into the literal flesh and blood of Jesus) is a good example of the latter - I understand it, but I can't effectively criticise it because it's a rather complicated doctrine to discuss. If I've got it correct, however, basically its problem is that communicants end up venerating bread and wine as if it is God, based on a rather silly literal interpretation of Jesus' words in the Gospels. (If Catholics aren't expected to take the 6-day account of creation literally, why make an exception for this?) The Lutherans take a different tack, believing that the spirit of God enters the bread and wine, instead of believing that the bread and wine literally become God. Most other denominations go further and hold that the bread and wine are just symbols of God.
Whatever way you approach it, it's still undeniable that Catholicism is still grappling with the basic problem Luther uncovered in the 16th century - that of the Church coming between God and man. Instead of letting man speak to God and have a personal relationship with him, the Church slathers the relationship with bureaucracy and red tape worthy of the Soviet Union. Instead of holding true to Jesus' crystal clear pronunciation on salvation, the Catholic Church introduces rigid ritualism and works to a relationship meant to be based on faith. The gulf between Catholicism and other denominations of Christianity is wide - and it is a gulf that cannot and should not be glossed over.