Roman Catholics often feel demonized by Evangelicals. In fact, the debates between these two theological camps often become so heated that productive dialogue can easily be forfeited in the process. Before we explain our disagreements with Roman Catholicism, we thought that it would be wise to focus on our agreements first. As you will see, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals have much on which to agree. In their book Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, Geisler and MacKenzie summarize a number of theological similarities:
1. Revelation: We agree on one Bible, and the basic creeds of the Christian faith. While we disagree on the Deutero-canonical books (i.e. the Apocrypha), we agree on the 27 books of the New Testament and 39 books of the OT.
2. God: We agree on the nature and character of God, including the Trinity.
3. Human Beings: We agree on the origin, nature, and fall of humans.
4. Christ: We agree on the person of Christ, including his humanity, deity, incarnation, virginal birth, death, resurrection, and his second coming.
5. Salvation: We agree on common core beliefs about salvation—namely that our salvation rests on the work of Christ. As we will note later, we disagree on how to access this finished work.
In each of these areas, Evangelicals are much closer to Roman Catholics than we are to liberal Protestant denominations! Moreover, while we do not hold to many Catholic traditions, we don’t hold to many Protestant traditions either. So, the “Protestant” labeling isn’t very helpful in many ways.
Additionally, while we have doctrinal disagreements with Roman Catholicism, this isn’t to say that we disagree with everything the Church has done or is doing. For instance, the Catholic Church has done much for social justice and the welfare of the poor and marginalized. Pope John Paul II (in our opinion) was one of the best popes in recent history. We admire him as a world leader and figure for peace in the world (particularly his work on “just war theory”)—even if we don’t necessary agree with every aspect of his theology.
Evangelicals often make pivotal and offensive errors when dialoguing with Catholics on doctrinal differences, when they fail to appeal to official Catholic sources. We feel that the Catholic Church is often misrepresented because Evangelicals are ignorant of the differences between Catholic writing and official Catholic dogma. A short explanation is in order.
The Catholic Church will often stamp Catholic unofficial literature with the terms “Nihil Obstat” or the “Imprimatur” approval. Nihil Obstat is Latin for “nothing stands in the way,” and Imprimatur means “let it be printed.” Often, Evangelicals believe that this makes a document official Catholic teaching. However, this is not the case. This designation merely means that this doesn’t openly contradict the Catholic Church’s doctrine, and often, it contains the personal opinion of the author—not the Catholic Church. Catholics should not be faulted for this, and Evangelicals should be careful not to quote this sort of literature as authoritative. Otherwise, they will be guilty of a straw man argument—not really engaging with the true teachings of Roman Catholicism—merely with the personal opinions of some individual Roman Catholics.
In our article below, we only cite from official dogmatic statements of the Catholic Church, so as not to misconstrue Roman Catholic teaching. We cite from Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) to avoid mischaracterizing Catholic teaching. While we do cite from Catholic apologists throughout our study, we do not cite them as authoritative. We cite them to illustrate their view.
I grew up Catholic. I had many great experiences in the Catholic Church, and I still have many friends and family who still belong there. I have no hatred or malice for the Catholic Church—only doctrinal disagreement. Therefore, I hope to write on these issues without being accused of “Catholic bashing.”
However, this being said, it would be unfair to ignore all doctrinal differences as unimportant. It is more honest to discuss differences, rather than trying to meld views together. This being the case, we offer a number of commonly debated doctrinal disagreements with Roman Catholicism. We hope that we have fairly represented the Roman Catholic perspective, and also hope that it leads to thought provoking discussion and dialogue in perspectives:
Sola Scriptura Sola Scriptura comes from Latin which means “Scripture alone.” This means that Scripture is the sole, infallible rule of faith.
The Apocrypha Should the Apocrypha belong in the canon? Roman Catholicism has accepted these books as canonical, while Evangelical Christians have rejected them.
Interpreting Scripture Do we need an interpreting authority (or “teaching magisterium”) to understand and interpret the Bible?
Sin: Venial and Mortal “Venial” sins are so-named from the Latin root venia, which means “pardon.” According to Roman Catholics, venial sins impede our sanctification. By contrast, “mortal” sins are called “mortal” from the Latin word for death, because they can result in losing our spiritual life.
The Sacraments What role do the sacraments play in the Catholic view of salvation?
Transubstantiation Roman Catholic theologians argue that the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper literally become Jesus’ body and blood. Catholics use the term transubstantiation to describe this event (trans means “to change” and substantiate means “substance”).
Eternal Security Catholic theologians argue that believers cannot have a certainty of salvation. Can we lose our salvation?
Purgatory This doctrine teaches that purgatory is a place of purging before heaven, that exists for believers.
Indulgences Roman Catholicism teaches that the treasury of the Church can help pay for the sins of sinners.
Baptismal Regeneration Roman Catholics—and some Protestant denominations—teach the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, whereby an individual needs water baptism to be saved.
The Catholic View of Justification Catholics and Evangelicals differ over the subject of justification. We explore these differing views here.
Mary: Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix? Prayers to Mary are permitted and even encouraged by the Catholic Catechism. Should we pray to Mary?
Praying to Dead Saints Should we pray to dead saints?
The Immaculate Conception In 1854, Pope Pius IX formally defined the doctrine of the immaculate conception. The immaculate conception doesn’t refer to the virgin birth; instead, it refers to the sinlessness of Mary. Was Mary sinless?
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary Evangelicals and Catholics agree that Mary was a virgin before she gave birth to Jesus (Mt. 1:23), but what about after?
The Assumption of Mary The Roman Catholic Church teaches the assumption of Mary. This means that Mary was taken bodily into heaven after her death. Is this the case?
Papal Infallibility In Roman Catholicism, the Pope is the “Vicar of Christ.” Vicar means “substitute.” Students of the Bible are often familiar with the term “vicarious atonement” which is another way of saying “substitutionary atonement.” Since the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth, Roman Catholicism has taught the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Papal Succession Papal infallibility goes hand in hand with the doctrine of papal succession. According to the Catholic Church, Peter was the first pope (based primarily on Mt. 16:18), and his divine authority has been passed on from pope to pope down to the present day.
Bibliography on Roman Catholicism We have compiled further reading here on the subject of Roman Catholicism.
 See chapters 1-8 in Geisler, Norman L., and Ralph E. MacKenzie. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995.