Welcome to this week’s “Throwback Thursday” installment! Today, we’re revisiting a post that was originally published back on October 1, 2015, and has been slightly revised.
By Loraine Boettner
Presbyterian & Reformed, 1962, 466 pp.
“Roman Catholicism” is a classic, evangelical Protestant assessment of Catholicism in general and American Catholicism in particular, written at the pinnacle of that church’s power and influence in this country. Reformed theologian, Loraine Boettner (1901-1990, photo right), expresses the early-1960s viewpoint of evangelical Protestantism, which feared the encroaching catholicization of the nation at that time, epitomized by the election of John F. Kennedy to the White House. Boettner’s tone approaches draconian hyperbole at times and is quaintly alarmist in contrast to today’s ecumenically-correct standards, but it’s important to note that the Catholic church at the time this book was written was far more militant than today’s version. In 1962, one could cite Spain and Portugal along with most Latin American countries and the still-vivid memory of the European Catholic clerical fascism of the 1920s and 30s as concrete examples of the reality and danger of Catholic hegemony. Boettner quotes Catholic clerics and writers of the period who still claimed Rome’s God-given right to suppress Protestant churches in cooperation with civil governments in countries where Catholics were in the majority. Since those days, the Catholic church’s political influence has waned dramatically.
Boettner outlines how the Catholic church evolved from New Testament Christianity into apostasy and examines the ritualism and legalism of Catholic belief and practice in comparison to Holy Scripture and Protestant evangelicalism. His sources include theologians as well as pamphleteers, which makes for some entertaining if not always objective reading. Catholic apologists attempted to completely dismiss “Roman Catholicism” over a few questionable dates, but for many of his arguments Boettner references Catholic sources. Boettner doesn’t shy away from detailing some of Catholicism’s most bizarre and superstitious beliefs and practices, material that today’s religiously-correct evangelical apologists are apt to avoid lest they be accused of being uncharitable.
For several decades “Roman Catholicism” remained as the primary resource on Catholicism for evangelical Protestants. Catholics referred to it spitefully as the “anti-Catholic bible” but there have been several important changes to the religious landscape since this book was first published in 1962:
* Both the orthodoxy of the mainline Protestant denominations and the American public’s interest in organized religion have declined tremendously.
* Vatican II softened the Catholic church’s outspoken militancy towards the Protestant “separated brethren.”
* The Catholic church no longer wields anywhere near the degree of political power and influence it had in some parts of the world.
* Catholic religious vocations have rapidly declined resulting in a severe shortage of priests. The number of priests in the US: 58,534 in 1981, 52,227 in 1991, 45,713 in 2001 and 38,275 in 2014. More than 40% of today’s priests are over the age of 65.
* The mushrooming scandal of pedophile priests, including the cover-up by the hierarchy, has rocked the RCC to its foundations and demoralized its membership.
* Fewer and fewer Catholics actively attend services leading to the closing of a high number of churches. Recent research shows that only 24% of Catholics go to obligatory weekly mass compared to 75% in 1958. That’s a LOT of “mortal” sin. 1000 American Catholic churches have closed since 1995.
* 4000 U.S Catholic parochial schools have closed since 1965.
* A rising percentage of Catholics either question, disagree with, or ignore official church doctrine (see birth control, divorce, male hierarchy, unwed cohabitation, obligatory participation in the sacraments, etc.). A New York Times survey revealed 70% of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 44 do not believe the “consecrated” eucharist wafer is the literal body of Christ. Only 12% of Catholics go to confession at least once a year as they are required to do. That’s a LOT MORE “mortal” sin.
Boettner could not have possibly foreseen the lowly depths American Catholicism has sunk to only 57 years after his book was published.
However, while Catholicism faces many daunting challenges at the local and national levels, the current pope enjoys worldwide prestige and popularity (excepting conservative Catholics). News sources run to the pope for his comments following every major catastrophe to get the “religious” perspective. Are there any thoughts on how that will all play out down the road?
While many of Boettner’s other-era arguments are no longer applicable, this book provides a valuable glimpse into early-1960s Protestant angst when Catholicism’s power and influence crested in this country. There certainly is no danger these days of a weakened Catholic church gaining political control over America as Boettner repeatedly warned against. Such a notion is now completely outside the realm of plausibility. The real danger to Christian witness began decades ago when some evangelical pastors and para-church leaders began embracing Catholics as co-belligerents in social causes, which transitioned to compromising the Gospel of Jesus Christ and embracing works-righteousness Catholics as fellow Christians (see Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, Rick Warren, etc.). Catholicism currently teaches the same fundamental doctrines that it taught at the time of the Reformation. Most importantly, the Roman church teaches salvation by sacramental grace and merit while Gospel Christians hold to salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Given this irreconcilable difference, how can some evangelicals now embrace Rome?
For more-current critiques of Catholicism I recommend:
The Gospel According to Rome by James G. McCarthy
The Roman Catholic Controversy by James R. White
Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment by Gregg R. Allison