The Roman Catholic Church is the largest branch of Christianity and the world's largest religious organization. It is headquartered in Vatican City, which is contained in the city of Rome, and is led by the Bishop of Rome, called the Pope, in an episcopal form of church government.

The Roman Catholic Church shares many basic tenets with evangelical Protestants such as: the doctrine of the Trinity, the inspiration of the Bible, the deity of Christ, and His virgin birth, atoning death and bodily resurrection. However, there are many other tenets in which the Catholic Church differs from other Christians, many of which became historically relevant during the Reformation. Most significant are:

  • its understanding of justification, which denies the Protestant doctrine of justification through faith alone by grace alone
  • its understanding of the relationship between Tradition and Scripture which denies the Protestant doctrine that Scripture takes precedence over church teaching and tradition.
  • its mediatorial priesthood and the theology of its Mass.
  • its beliefs surrounding Mary and the saints.

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Brief Overview

The Roman Catholic Church claims direct apostolic descent from Peter and believes itself to be the truest authoritative expression of Christianity. Historically, Roman Catholicism became distinct in the Middle Ages when the Eastern church and the Western church split in what is called the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. The Eastern church is now typically referred to as Eastern Orthodoxy, while the Western church came to be referred informally as the Roman Catholic Church (Catholics call their church The Catholic Church, pointing to the many eastern Catholic rites which are part of it, thus denying that they are solely a Western church). However, both groups trace a lineage back to the time at which they separated, and from that point back, as a united church, to the time of the Apostles. Roman Catholicism specifically traces itself back to Linus, bishop and successor of Peter in leadership of the first century Church at Rome. This is supported by the writings of Irenaeus, who lived and wrote in the latter part of the second century.

The Roman Catholic Church subsequently encountered division of its own in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, led initially by Martin Luther, although Luther's intention was not to create a new Christianity but to internally reform the teachings of the church. Rather than accept radical reform, the Roman church excommunicated the "reformers" which thereby gave rise to Protestantism with its numerous denominations, many of which developed distinctive theological perspectives.

Roman Catholicism contains a number of doctrines which Protestants view as unbiblical, such as the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the veneration and intercession of deceased saints, prayers for the dead, purgatory, the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of Mary, and papal infallibility. These teachings evolved over time. While many were in place by the middle ages, some did not become Roman dogma until much later, e.g. Mary's immaculate conception (Pope Pius IV, 1854), and the bodily assumption of Mary (Pope Pius XII, 1950).

The most important medieval theologian of Roman Catholicism has been without question Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). His Summa Theologica is still considered one of the most definitive collections of Roman Catholic theology.^[1]^

Resources

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church: Second Edition. Doubleday, 2003.
  • Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. Baker Academic, 2005.
  • Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians. Wiley, 2007.
  • Norman Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. Baker Academic, 1995.

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