Why Becoming A Roman Catholic Might Not Be The Best Path: An Insight
Though it rarely happens in Italy, in the US there are moments of trending when Protestant Evangelicals cross over to become Roman Catholics. For a missionary in Italy, where everyone is Roman Catholic and yet almost no one is a practicing Roman Catholic (5%), this is indeed very strange to consider. Rarely do we encounter Italians who either read the Bible or have any firm understanding of what the RCC teaches… Today, we will dive into a brief exploration that seeks to answer the befuddling question, "Why not become a Roman Catholic?" We lay the groundwork for our discussion by considering various factors that often draw individuals towards the immense old institution known as the Roman Catholic Church.
Attracting Factors: A Major Misunderstanding
The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) holds a certain appeal to some owing to its historical gravity. For some, transitioning from being Protestant Evangelical to Roman Catholic can seem like a path toward a deeper, more historical understanding of the faith. However, there are profound reasons why this path might not be as fruitful as it initially appears.
The Ungrounded Foundations
The RCC basis in Scripture is often misunderstood. The RCC forces the marriage of tradition and Scripture. While the Church's believers accept the Scriptures, they equally honor the tradition, combining these to form their spiritual base. They place their faith in an ever-changing foundation, with doctrines that vary as new Popes are instituted. These doctrinal shifts, often contradicting previous teachings, bring forth inconsistency and confusion. Ultimately, though they acknowledge Scripture as God-breathed, they believe only the RCC’s Magisterium can interpret its meaning properly.
The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him. - Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 100
Rampant Idolatry: Losing The True Essence
The RCC tends to sway towards rampant idolatry, leading its followers away from true worship. In the Italian culture, which is predominately Roman Catholic, forms of idolatry are embedded into the walls. Shrines are scattered all over the towns and villages so people can light candles, say prayers, and hope for a form of intervention or to gain favor with God… The erroneous emphasis on veneration of saints, lighting candles for the dead, and the mystical representation of Mary as an intermediator dilute the understanding of personal connection with God through Jesus Christ, the sole mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). The principle foundational idea of salvation by grace through faith, and not works, is often lost amidst these complex layers of worship forms. There may be a good reason that the RCC has chosen to modify the 10 commandments...
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. - 1 Tim. 2: 5-6
The Ambiguous Sacraments
The extra sacraments held by the RCC contribute another level of intricacy. Baptism and Communion, the two central faith affirmations and the ordinances actually given by Christ for the church, hold diverse meanings in the context of the RCC. Infants are baptized under the belief that the act removes original sin. This notion of 'baptismal regeneration' masks the actual significance related to personal affirmation of faith. Saving faith is something God sovereignly grants to His elect at the moment they are born again (regenerated). The RCC’s mystical transformation (transubstantiation) of bread and wine into Christ's body and blood during the Eucharistic celebration deviates from the intention of Christ's atonement and His command for His disciples to remember His finished work on the cross as well as His certain return at the consummation of the ages. Believers are commanded to partake of the elements in a right manner, thus the act naturally moves us to a right position of submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the true head of the church. The RCC has 5 additional "sacraments" as well which are worth discussion, but will be for another occasion.
Transubstantiation - with respect to Catholic theology of the Eucharist, the view of the presence of Christ, "whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament… Under the forms of bread and wine. The bread is transubstantiated [changed] into the body in the wind into the blood by the power of God" (Fourth Lateran Council). Aquinas explained this conversion of one substance (bread, wine) into another (body, blood), while naturally impossible, takes place by divine power. The accidents – the smell, taste, feel, and appearance of bread and wine – remain the same; their nature changes. Protestantism rejects transubstantiation. - Greg Allison, The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms, pg 214
The Overarching Papal Authority
Another point of contention is the overarching Papal authority, which contradicts Peter's actual role portrayed in the Scriptures. RCC followers usually view the Pope as infallible and uncontestable, resulting in uncritically accepting teachings that lack Biblical foundations or that contradict previous teachings. Simply put, Scripture reveals Jesus Christ Himself as the true head of the church (Eph. 5: 23; 1: 23, Col. 1: 18). Much can be said on this point as well, but this too will be for another occasion.
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. - Col. 1: 18
The Gospel: Lost In Translation
Most importantly, in my estimation, the RCC’s interpretation of the Gospel itself, and God's plan of the salvation of sinners (as well as the growth of the Kingdom), is often misguided and conflated with additional rules that shift the focus away from simple and true faith. This complex system leaves followers shrouded in uncertainty and despair and ultimately leads to spiritual starvation or malnourishment. The premise of true faith, salvation by grace, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper, tends to get lost in the heavy rituals, tradition, and man-made doctrines. In reality, the gospel preached by the RCC is a different gospel; one based on works. It's man-centered, not God-centered.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. - Galatians 1: 6-9
The beauty of the true Gospel is also its simplicity. Even children can understand it. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3: 23). We are all guilty before our Holy God and Maker. Before being saved and born again, we are under His righteous wrath and condemnation (Eph. 2:3). Jesus lived a sinless life in our place. He then endured the cross, the Just for the unjust (1 Pt. 3: 18), and took both our sins and God the Father’s wrath upon Himself in our place. He died, was buried, and rose again. He now reigns and rules and commands all to repent and believe. We are to bow to His Lordship, repent of our sins, and believe (trust) in His work done for us and receive freely the gift of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins. We are saved by Christ’s work on our behalf, not on any works performed by us (Titus 3:5).
The trendy shift towards Roman Catholicism, ultimately, won’t last. Eventually, true catholicity will lead all of us to eventually see and understand both the truth and beauty of the true Gospel once and for all handed down. As time goes on, it should always be our prayer that the numerous counterfeits and deceptions become exposed and left behind. The true church of Christ, a body of true believers, is to be always reforming in alignment with the unchanging Word of God. Steps towards the RCC should be cautiously considered and questioned. A personal connection to God doesn't necessitate uniting to the RCC. On the contrary, it is grounded in true union with Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior; the only Mediator between man and God.
When we know Him rightly, we submit to His word and we seek, by His grace, to live lives that show our eternal gratitude. We seek His power to honor and obey our Lord in every sphere of life. Understanding the Roman Catholic Church's intricacies, and those of any other faith, demands careful exploration and constant questioning to avoid getting lost in a spiritual maze. Let us aim for the right comprehension of true saving faith and love for God, untainted by complexities orchestrating confusion and misunderstanding. Let us return to the source (ad fontes), the living Word and there remain for life, nourishment, and instruction as to how to worship and honor God.
Doing church planting in Italy, requires knowledge of the teachings of the RCC, but in reality, we deal much more with atheists and agnostics than Roman Catholics in Italy, since so few practice the religion. For those interested in learning more about Roman Catholicism, here are some highly recommended resources from today's top scholars:
Sermon: Is The Reformation Over?
John MacArthur | Sermon & Blog Series on RCC
Gregg Allison | Course | Essentials of Catholic Theology
Gregg Allison | Book | 40 Questions About Roman Catholicism
Gregg Allison | Book | Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment
RC Sproul | Course | Roman Catholicism
RC Sproul | Book | Are We Together?: A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism
Written by Jesse Schreck | founder, director, and missionary church planter with Practical Missions Cohort
To hear more on this topic you can listen to ep. 313 of Missions Incorporated
Or you can watch the video ep. 313