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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Is Rome a True Church?

March 14th, 2024 | 20 min read

By Chris Castaldo

When my grandfather, our family's esteemed patriarch, died, I spoke at his funeral. The parlor at Moloney’s was jam-packed with Roman Catholic friends. Like the pensive Michael Corleone (of The Godfather), I sat near the casket eyeballing visitors.

An acute feeling of loss coupled with the realization that we’ll one day stand before Almighty God and consigned to either ineffable bliss or agonizing terror for eternity heightened my emotions. At the appointed time, I approached the lectern and delivered an animated message (imagine Billy Sunday wearing a double-breasted suit, pinky ring waving). The congregation sat motionless, eyes like saucers. I concluded my homily with an invitation to receive Christ.

And then there was silence.

No one moved. Everyone simply stared at me. After a moment, it became palpably awkward, and then unnerving. Another moment passed before Monsignor Tom, my childhood priest, stood up at the back of the room and began walking forward. Everyone’s eyes followed him until he was directly before me. With a warm smile that I had come to know over the decades, Monsignor Tom exclaimed, “Christopher [you’ll have to imagine the Long Island accent], what a fine message. This is precisely the good news that we need at a time like this. I am so proud of you and thankful for the way you have served your family.”

It was a kind gesture. By putting his personal (and clerical) imprimatur on my message, Father Tom delivered me from the familial scorn that would have inevitably followed. But it was more than that. It was also a statement about the Roman Catholic capacity to recognize Christian faith in the Protestant tradition. The question, however, is whether evangelical Protestants can reciprocate.

The Status of Roman Catholicism

Protestants understandably have strong opinions about the Roman Catholic Church. For example, in response to my article on Pope Francis’s declaration, Fiducia Supplicans, a “friend” on Facebook left the following comment: “Let’s pray that this cult repents and turns from their false, accursing, different Gospel (Gal 1:6-9). And that Big Eva jellyfish quit trying to embrace them as fellow believers.”

The uncharitable and serrated edge of this comment, it seems to me, is less common today (outside of fundamentalist circles, at least), but it nevertheless contains underlying ideas common to many Protestants. Before trying to disentangle them, let me offer one more example of how the question has recently asserted itself.  

When Bryan Zhang, host of the That’ll Preach podcast, wrote to thank me for being on his program, he included the following note: “One particularly popular question from our listeners is whether Protestants ought to consider Rome a true church, i.e. a church in the New Covenant. This is more about the corporate body of Rome rather than whether an individual Roman Catholic can be saved (which none of our listeners disputed).”

You’ll notice how the Facebook comment conflates the institution of the Roman Catholic Church (what he calls a cult) with the personal faith of Catholic individuals. Bryan, by contrast, distinguishes the two, recognizing (as most people do) that there are men and women in the Roman Church who possess a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. In other words, the controversial question is not whether there are Catholic Christians; it is, rather, whether Protestants should recognize the Roman Catholic institution (in her tangible structures, teaching, and practice) as legitimately Christian.

Prevailing Perspectives

Protestants tend to answer the question of Roman Catholicism’s status in one of two ways. Looking through the lens of the early creeds (i.e., Nicene and Apostles’), some understand it to be fundamentally orthodox. The rationale is simple: because the creeds uphold the basic tenets of Christianity, and Rome upholds those creeds, her apostolicity is affirmed. Roman Catholicism is thus regarded as “inside the pale.”

An alternative reading, one that probably informed the Facebook comment, is to view the Roman Catholic Church through the lens of the sixteenth-century Reformation in which the Council of Trent anathematized (pronounced to be cursed) the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Because such faith is recognized as the driving center of the biblical gospel, and Rome forcefully repudiates the doctrine, the Roman Church is therefore considered incompatible with biblical faith.  

I recognize the logic in these positions, but in my opinion, both are incomplete. Yes, Roman Catholicism upholds the early creeds, but the way she receives and applies them in her imperial hierarchy, institutional organs, magisterial authority, or in accretions such as the requirement of priestly celibacy, treasury of merit, indulgences, venerating images, transubstantiation, role of Mary, and papal infallibility—to cite a few examples—is miles away from biblical teaching. In short, identifying the creeds as the basis of our unity when their appropriation leads to such divergent conclusions seems unsatisfying, to say the least.

But the second view, which affixes to Roman Catholicism a categorically non-Christian or heterodox label, also misses the mark. Before explaining why, however, we must first define precisely what we mean by the “Roman Catholic Church.”

What Is Roman Catholicism?

The challenge of defining the Roman Catholic Church grows out of her multiple layers. On one hand, in her adherence to the inspired Scriptures and the early creeds, she offers a foundational core of orthodoxy. This is what C.S. Lewis described as “an agreed, or common, or central, or ‘mere’ Christianity,” in his book by that name. Lewis explains how he had sent his manuscript of Book 2, What Christians Believe, to four clergymen, including a Roman Catholic, all of whom recognized the extent of doctrinal agreement in this Nicene core not as a watered-down, minimalist Christianity, but substantial, positive, and pungent.[1] 

At the same time, we recognize that Rome has surrounded this doctrinal core with a dense layer of tradition that easily obscures, undermines, or confuses biblical teaching. Here, the three-tiered crown and crossed keys of the papal emblem, representing the pope’s authority to rule as Christ’s vicar, is instructive. According to the Catechism, “The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, nothing less than ‘supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.”[2] Claims such as this, which overlay Scripture with totalizing statements that are binding upon the conscience of the faithful, lead Protestants to see the foundations of Christianity as no longer accessible.

In view of this multilayered reality, how are we to assess the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church? A serious application of truth and grace would have us recognize it as belonging to Christendom, and, inasmuch as it elucidates the orthodox core, see it as a true church, but one with major problems that often distort the gospel. In analyzing the Protestant Reformers’ response to Rome, Herman Bavinck states:

The Protestants, through firmly rejecting the church hierarchy of Rome, continued to fully recognize the Christian elements in the church of Rome. However corrupted Rome might be, there were still left in it “vestiges of the church,” “ruins of a disordered church”; there was still “some kind of church, be it half-demolished,” left in the papacy. The Reformation was a separation from the “Roman and papal church,” not from “the true church.”[3]

This nuanced perspective, as Bavinck noted, was the general position of Protestants from the earliest days. Martin Luther, for example, wrote: “In the papacy there is true Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints…. The Christendom that is now under the papacy is truly the body of Christ and a member of it.”[4] John Calvin maintained the same conviction, saying: “When we categorically deny to the papists the title of the church, we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them.”[5] Further examples may be adduced, whether it’s from the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge[6] or from J. Gresham Machen[7] These men, even after the Council of Trent, acknowledged an orthodox core in the Roman Church despite its less than biblical overlay of traditions.[8] 

What about the doctrine of justification?

The most common protest to this approach among Protestants is instigated by the Roman Church’s condemnation of justification by faith alone at Trent in 1547. As mentioned above, Protestants see this judgment, which Rome cannot formally retract, as a repudiation of the gospel, an error of such proportions that it undermines the Roman Catholic claim to Christian orthodoxy. But while Rome can’t retract the condemnation, it can reinterpret it.  And it has been doing just that.

The Catholic Church, it must be remembered, has a vast hermeneutical tradition of paradoxical subtlety—a “both-and” approach (“et-et” in Latin) that interprets and applies doctrinal development in unanticipated ways. For example, one remembers, says Henry Blocher, “the maxim Extra ecclesiam nulla salus [there is no salvation outside the Church], whose interpretation was reversed (by 180 degrees), in the course of history, from an exclusive to an all-inclusive understanding.”[9] In some respects, such developments have occurred in the Roman Catholic understanding of justification.

This development is illustrated by the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), the Roman Catholic Church’s most important contemporary discussion of the subject.[10] The document makes no pretense to having ended all the disagreements between Catholic and Lutheran doctrines of justification. Indeed, it doesn’t. For example, it fails to address imputed righteousness and offers only passing attention to issues such as purgatory and indulgences. But it does something new and significant for the question at hand: in the Annex, which possesses the same magisterial authority as the Official Common Statement (a detail that is sometimes misunderstood),[11] the JDDJ qualifies the condemnations of Trent by accepting the “faith alone” formula. It says, “Justification takes place ‘by grace alone’ (JD 15 and 16), by faith alone (emphasis added), the person is justified ‘apart from works’ (Rom 3:28, cf. JD 25).”[12] When Protestants (Lutheran and other ecclesial bodies that have later supported the declaration, including certain Methodists, Anglicans, and Reformed) remain in the limits set forth by the document, the condemnations no longer apply.

It should be noted that this affirmation of faith alone was also expressed by Pope Benedict XVI in Saint Peter’s Square on November 19, 2008, when he said, “Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason, Luther’s phrase: ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity in love,” as Paul insists in Gal 5:13. A week later on November 26 in the Paul VI Audience Hall the pontiff continued this emphasis: “Following Saint Paul, we have seen that man is unable to ‘justify’ himself with his own actions, but can only truly become ‘just’ before God because God confers his ‘justice’ upon him, uniting him to Christ his Son. And man obtains this union through faith. In this sense, Saint Paul tells us: not our deeds, but rather faith renders us ‘just.’” Lest you think the pope’s statements were an out of turn, momentary flash in the pan, you can also read them in his book Saint Paul.[13] 

One may ask, “How can the Roman Catholic Church draw this new conclusion?” Tony Lane offers insight when he writes, “The canons [of Trent] were deliberately not addressed against specific people and the statements condemned were derived from second- or third-hand compilations of the statements of the Reformers, taken especially from the earlier years of the Reformation and not seen in their original context.”[14] Thus, unlike Alexander V’s papal bull against Wycliffism in 1409 or Leo X’s Exsurge Domine against Luther in 1520, Trent’s Canons were aiming into a mist of hearsay. Moving forward in history, even to the present, Catholic theologians have said, in effect, that because the bishops of Trent didn’t accurately understand Reformation teaching, the object of their canons were different from what truly was or is Reformation theology.[15] Accordingly, the preamble of the JDDJ asserts, “…this declaration is shaped by the conviction that in their respective histories our churches have come to new insights.” The “new insights” include the realization of Trent’s misguided critique of the Protestant Reformers’ doctrine. Once again, this is not to say that there’s now consensus. But Roman Catholics can at least endorse a version of justification by faith alone.

Do all Catholics choose to speak this way? No. But, in truth, Catholicism has never been a strict monolith, and it’s even more diverse today. The 1.3 billion Roman Catholics around the globe, planted in virtually every culture, exist in a variety of forms, an ecclesial montage that comprises ultra-traditionalists (so-called “Rad Trads”), moderate traditionalists, liberals, charismatics, the nominal, and popular folk. “What you find in Spain and Latin America,” says Tom Howard, “differs greatly from what you find in The Netherlands or Norway. Sicilians do not order their worship as do the Watutsi; nor does Irish Catholicism yield just the look given things by the Filipinos.”[16] 

Furthermore, in some places, it’s simply harder to maintain a collegial relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. I think of evangelicals in the city of Rome who are actively persecuted and harassed, or in Spain, or perhaps in Ireland. It’s understandable why the Protestant outlook in those settings may look more strained or even adversarial.

As a rule, however, I find the nuanced position of the Reformers and their heirs, which recognizes the underlying orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church (albeit one that is covered by extraneous and at times false doctrines) to be the most honest and theologically precise way of responding to our question.

In obedience to Paul’s admonition to love in a manner that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7), I think this approach avoids the extremes of Protestant pugnacity and pride on the one hand, and sloppy doctrinal compromise on the other. Instead, it brings us closer to the grace and truth ethic of Jesus Christ. And isn’t that what we all desire?


[1] The other three ministers, says Lewis, were Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2023), xi.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 937.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation. Vol 4. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 314-315.

[4] Martin Luther, Luther Works, vol. 40, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1963), 232. Elsewhere, Luther asserted, “The Roman Church is holy, because it has God’s holy name, the gospel, baptism, etc.” Quoted in Gustaf Aulen, Reformation and Catholicity, trans. Eric H. Wahlstrom (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962), 76.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.2.12. Calvin expressed a similar sentiment in his letter to Cardinal Sadoleto, stating that despite serious differences of doctrine, “[it doesn’t mean] that Roman Catholics are not also Christians. We indeed, Sadoleto, do not deny that those over which you preside are Churches of Christ.” John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply, ed. John. C. Olin (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), 69.

[6] Charles Hodge’s Letter to Pope Pius IX,” (accessed on January 20, 2024).

[7] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923), 52.

[8] Protestants ought to acknowledge that we also have our share of less than biblical traditions.

[9] Henri A. Blocher, “The Lutheran-Catholic Doctrine of Justification” Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges. Ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 201.

[10] The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed at Augsburg on Reformation Day, October 31, 1999, by the Lutheran World Federation and the chairman of Rome’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Edward Cardinal Cassidy, with support from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and with the pope’s blessing. In other words, the declaration wasn’t merely the product of some progressive scholars but was officially accepted at the highest level.

[11] Anthony Lane. Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment, London: T & T Clark, 2002), 122. The Annex was signed along with the Official Common Statement on October 31, 1999. The stated purpose of the Annex is to elucidate and underline the consensus reached in the JDDJ.

[12] The Annex is accessible at:

[13] Pope Benedict XVI. Saint Paul. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 82-85.

[14] Anthony Lane. Justification by Faith in Catholic, 104-105. 

[15] The Tridentine Fathers saw sola fide as unbiblical (James 2:26) and feared that it led directly to antinomianism. Avery Cardinal Dulles provides examples of this disconnect in “Justification in Contemporary Theology,” in Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, ed. H. George Anderson, et al. (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1985), 256-277.

[16] Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997). 34.

Chris Castaldo

Chris Castaldo, Ph.D. is lead pastor of New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is author of The Upside Down Kingdom: Wisdom for Life from the Beatitudes (Crossway, 2023), and coauthor, with Brad Littlejohn, of Why Do Protestants Convert? (Davenant Press, 2023). Chris blogs at