The Roman Catholic Challenge

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is growing in numbers and influence. In 1790 only one percent of the three million people in our country belonged to the Catholic Church. Today Rome claims that at least 40 million Americans are in her fold. Of course, that figure includes baptized children and many nominal Catholics. But even 30 million Roman Catholics are an influential factor in our national life, especially if these millions are well organized, controlled by a strong central authority, and have a definite goal. In the big cities their vote is something with which the politicians reckon.

That the group is well organized is common knowledge. Roman Catholics are not divided into 200 denominations and sects like the Protestants, hut are members of a strong and influential united Church, with one creed, one form of worship, and one system of government under the most autocratic ruler in the world. All this makes for strength and unity. What a power for the advancement of truth and righteousness the Protestants would be if they could be members of one Church—a Church firmly rooted in the Word of God and witnessing for Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Absolute Authority Centered in One Man

Another source of power is the centralization of all authority in the Pope. The Catholic Church is ruled from the top. Its head is believed to be the supreme representative of the supreme representative of the authority of Christ on earth. He is infallible when he speaks in his official capacity. He can sin as a man, but he does not err when he speaks as pope. Being infallible as pope, It follows that his word is law. Even the cardinals who appoint the pope, when a vacancy arises must obey him. When he is called upon to make an important decision he can call the cardinals together and consult with them, but he makes the final decision and the whole Church is bound to honor it.

The Church of Rome has a hierarchical, priestly, form of government. Under the pope are the cardinals, arch-bishops, bishops, and 400,000 ordinary priests. In the United States alone there are 42,000 priests and many thousands of monks and nuns. The Catholic people have no voice in the government of their church; not even in the calling or removal of a priest. The amazing thing is that in a democratic country like the United States. where the people elect the president, vice-president, and members of Congress, the 40 million Catholics have no voice in the government of their Church. We should keep these facts in mind if we are to understand the power of the Catholic hierarchy in our national life. The Catholic people are organized into a disciplined army whIch can sing: “Like a mighty army moves the Church of Rome.”

This concentration of authority in the pope and the hierarchy under him is a matter of historical development. There was no such clerical power in the early Christian Church. Even the apostle Peter called himself a “fellow-elder” and exhorted the other elders not to lord it over the congregation but to gird themselves with humility. In fact, there is very little resemblance between the Church of the apostles and the Roman Catholic Church of today.


The Rise of the Papacy

Most of the bishops in the church of Rome were able and devoted men to whom the other bishops and churches turned for counsel when faced with difficult problems. This gave the Christian church in Rome a certain prestige and pre-eminence. The city and its Christian congregation were often attacked by enemies from the north, and both the Roman citizens and the Christians turned to Leo, the arch-deacons of the congregation and a born leader of men, for protection against the hordes sweeping down upon Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries. While he was absent from Rome the people elected him as bishops an office he held with great distinction from 440 to 461. A Catholic historian says that “Leo may be justly termed the first pope…who betrays no sign of doubt regarding the assured position of the bishop of Rome. He is unquestionably the successor of St. Peter, the vicegerent of Christ. As Peter is above all the apostles, so the Roman pontiff is set over all bishops.”

Later popes continued to make the same claims. Gregory VII (1073–1085) dared to depose Henry IV of France, and in defending his action declared that God bad given him as the successor of Peter universal authority over all the kings and nations where the Christian Church had established herself. Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) reminded the clergy of Tuscany (Italy) that the kings receive their power and dignity “from the papal authority.”

Although she has reformed herself in some respects, the Catholic Church continues to maintain that the popes are the highest representatives of Christ. Pope Pius IX summoned the members of the Vatican Council to Rome in 1870 for the purpose of declaring that the doctrine of papal infallibility was to be accepted by all Roman Catholics as a permanent dogma.

No Council has been held since 1870, which mean. that Rome has never altered this dogma. In the Encyclopedia Britannica (1945) Professor Carl T. Mirbt of the University of Marburg makes the statement: “The general position of Roman Catholicism was consolidated by the Vatican Council in more respects than one; for not only did it promote the centralization of government in Rome, but the process of unification made further progress, and the attempts to control the intellectual and spiritual of the Church have now assumed dimensions which, a few decades ago, would have been regarded as anachronistic.”


The greatest pope of modern times was Leo XIII (the same name as the first pope mentioned above) who occupied the papel throne from 1878 to 1903. Though weak physically, he was a giant Intellectually. He made himself familiar not only with theology and philosophy but with social and political problems. lie was “an arbiter in national disputes and be won for himself and the papacy the admiration of the whole world.” (Encyclopedia of Religion—Protestant.)

Leo XIII believed just as firmly as his predecessors in papal infallibility and the absolute authority of the papacy but he was too wise to emphasize such as unpopular position in his day when the world was still democratic in it. thinking and dictatorship was considered a thing of the past. In more than one encyclical Leo XlII made the statement that “there can be perfect harmony of Christian principles with any justifiable form of government that stood for personal liberty.” Protestants accepted such statements as being representative of what they thought was a modern Catholic position and this helped to change the attitude of millions of Protestants from that of rear and hostility to that of respect and even admiration. Leo XIII made an enormous contribution toward making the Catholic Church the most influential religious organization in the western world.

Due to all these factors the unity of the Catholic Church, the concentration of authority in the pope, the dogma of papal infallibility, the role of Leo XIII in popularizing Catholicism, the influence upon Protestant thinking of a brilliant Catholic scholarship—it is no wonder that Rome has regained much of the power and prestige lost after the Reformation.

“The conflict with Rome,” says Dr. Berkouwer of the Free University, Amsterdam, “is not merely a mailer of theology. It is a national problem, which raises the old question whether or not we are a Protestant nation.” This applies, he says, not only to Holland but also to the United States.

Would Make America Catholic

Believing that she is the true Church of Christ and that she is exercising his authority upon earth, Rome is determined to make the whole world Catholic, also the United States.

Rome has a vast and expensive missionary program which is designed to establish a Catholic church in every community of America. Even in new communities, with very few or even no Catholics, Rome establishes a chapel and a priest. Tons of Catholic literature, attractively printed and written, are distributed every week all over the United States.

Another source of growth and power is a strong educational system with 4 million pupils in the grades and high schools, and 300,00 students in 200 colleges and universities. Rome trains Catholic doctors, nurses, lawyers, journalists, philosophers, sociologists, who are loyal to the “one true Church and the Holy Fathers.” More Protestants are not aware of the far-reaching influence of Rome’s educational system. They had better wake up and realize that without a strong educational system of their own they will never be able to counteract the growing influence of Rome in our national life.

Rome is very active in American politics. It does not believe in our American separation of Church and State as an ideal and permanent policy. A leading Catholic editor wrote that “where the Catholics are in the overwhelming majority, it is theoretically better to have an official union of Church and State, with the State participating in public worship (Catholic, of course—T.) and using the machinery of government, when needed, to help the Church” (Catholic Register, 1948).

“When needed” is a very flexible expression and Rome does not hesitate to use “the machinery of government…to help the Church.” We cannot agree with everything the author says in American Freedom and Catholic Power but it is a fact that “in both Catholic and non-Catholic countries the Catholic Church has never ceased to be an aggressive state within a state, claiming as much of the area of community life as it can safely capture.” Wherever there is a big Roman Catholic vote the hierarchy knows how to make the most of the situation for the advancement of Roman Catholic interests. From the Catholic point of view this is perfectly legitimate, and even the duty of the Church. But it certainly is not for the best interests of what we believe to be the Reformed faith and of a Protestantism still loyal to the pure gospel of sovereign grace. In the kind of world in which we live, with true Christians in the minority, It is wisest and safest to maintain the American principle of the separation of Church and Stale. Dr. Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian and statesman, co-operated with the Catholics in obtaining justice for Christian schools and the Free University, but today Catholicism is so strong in the Netherlands that Dr. Berkouwer raises the question: “Are we still a Protestant nation?”

Rome, like Communism, is a totalitarian movement that aim, to control every sphere of life, and Protestantism must meet the challenge or perish!

We must meet that challenge with New Testament preaching in Pentecostal power and with a system of education that is God-centered and sees all of life in the light of God’s infallible revelation.