There’s often a difference between official Roman Catholic Church dogma and what regular Catholics believe. This is why it’s impossible to read Roman Catholic statements of faith and on that basis alone conclude what most Catholics actually believe and practice. Nevertheless, it’s a good start to look at some of the major Roman Catholic teachings. What do Roman Catholics believe?
The Bible Plus Tradition
First, Roman Catholics essentially hold to the Bible plus tradition as their basic authority. That is, they don’t just believe in the Bible as Protestants or evangelicals do, at least in principle (sola Scriptura = Scripture alone). Instead, they’ve added a variety of ecclesiastical teachings that developed over the centuries of church history. By virtue of being added, these teachings have in effect often superseded the biblical teaching itself. This is troubling, however, as a distinction should be made between God’s inspired, infallible Word and human traditions. It is also troubling because following such traditions often proves misleading and moves faith away from the pure and clear teaching of Scripture.
What Roman Catholics Believe: Priestly Celibacy
A good example of this is celibacy, that is, the Roman Catholic requirement that priests (church leaders) remain unmarried. That is a major difference from Protestants and evangelicals who believe the Bible assumes that most church leaders will marry. Roman Catholics don’t get this primarily from Scripture – in fact, Scripture plainly contradicts the notion of priestly celibacy – but from subsequent church teaching which patterns the priestly office after the example of Christ, who was unmarried.
For priests to follow Christ’s example, Roman Catholics reason, they must remain ritually pure and thus abstain from sexual intercourse. However, Scripture teaches that church leaders (priests or pastors) will often be “faithful husbands” (i.e., married; 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). What is more, Peter himself, whom Catholic believe to have been the first pope (see below), was married, as Scripture clearly attests (1 Cor 9:5), and it is unlikely that Peter and the other apostles and early church leaders practiced continence (i.e., refrained from sex with their wife) as Roman Catholic doctrine maintains.
What Roman Catholics Believe: The Virgin Mary
Another example is Roman Catholic teaching on Mary, “the blessed virgin.” The Bible certainly teaches that Mary showed exemplary faith when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would be the mother of Jesus, the Savior (Luke 1:26-38). But the Bible also teaches that Mary needed Jesus to save her, because she, like all humans, was born as a sinner (e.g., in Luke 1:47, Mary “rejoices in God my Savior”). Later, like all humans, Mary died. And while Mary will be raised at the end of time like all believers, she is currently awaiting resurrection.
However, Roman Catholic doctrine teaches Mary’s Immaculate Conception (i.e. sinlessness) and her Ascension into Heaven, neither of which is taught in Scripture (note also that most Marian doctrines are very late). As part of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, Roman Catholics also claim she had no children besides Jesus while Scripture says Jesus had four brothers and several sisters (see esp. Matt 13:55-56, where the names of Jesus’ brothers are given as James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas, and “all his sisters” are mentioned, though not by name; cf. Matt 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35).
What Roman Catholics Believe: Papal Infallibility
Another area of doctrine where later tradition has supplanted Scripture in Roman Catholic belief and teaching is the role of the pope, the leader and head of the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics believe that Peter, the apostle, was the first pope and that there’s an unbroken line of apostolic tradition leading from Peter to today’s pope, Pope Francis. Roman Catholic teaching stipulates that the pope, when speaking officially and when teaching doctrine, cannot err (papal infallibility, also a very late development).
The problem with this view is, once again, that it is flatly contradicted by Scripture. Paul writes in Galatians 2 that Peter (supposedly the first pope) erred, so that Paul had to rebuke and correct him (Gal 2:11-14). It does not appear, then, that the first pope was infallible or could not err when teaching doctrine. Nor is it true that there is an unbroken line of succession between Peter and today’s pope. Note also that Scripture unequivocally affirms that Peter, whom Roman Catholics believe to have been the first pope, was married (1 Cor 9:5). This contradicts the celibacy requirement for priests.
What Roman Catholics Believe: Grace v. Works
A final concern relates to the gospel, which is central to Christian teaching. While Roman Catholics do affirm grace as well as the importance of works, in practice works are often emphasized while grace is neglected. This results in a truncated if not missing gospel in which Catholics inadequately realize that faith is not a synergistic exercise in which both God and they each do their part.
Instead, Scripture teaches that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” and that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6, 8). Paul also writes that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works …” (Eph. 2:8-9). Paul does mention works in the next verse (v. 10), but only as a natural outflow subsequent to salvation by grace through faith.
The biblical truth is that none of us can save ourselves; we need Christ to save us and contribute nothing to our salvation. Does your Roman Catholic friend understand this? Does she live by this truth? If so, she is tapping into the best of Roman Catholic teaching. If not, you’ll need to explain this vital, life-giving truth to her from the kinds of Scripture passages quoted above.
Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. Being a Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Roman Catholic doesn’t make you a Christian. The only thing that makes you a Christian is trusting Christ alone for salvation by accepting his sacrifice on the cross for you and me. Jesus, and what he has graciously done for us on the cross, is the only grounds of salvation, and the way we appropriate this salvation is by faith.
Romans 3:23 affirms that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and Romans 6:23 goes on to state that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In the end, therefore, what matters not is whether you’re a Baptist or Roman Catholic or belong to some other Christian denomination but whether you have trusted Christ, and him alone, for your salvation.
“On the Alleged Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy” (Andreas Kostenberger)