This week a reader commented on my bio page, and I thought it best to redirect the conversation over here, where I can respond in greater detail to what is a great question. Here is his comment:
You mentioned that you consider yourself a Protestant rather then a Catholic. How important is that distinction to you and why? I’ve looked at your blog and find it interesting. I am a practicing Catholic, by my own choice, however I do not disregard others ways to believe in Jesus and God our Creator. I have a feeling that there is much more to our faith that currently escapes our attention and comprehension. That may be the reason why we are still looking for more explicit understanding of our faiths.
I do consider the distinctions between Catholicism and Protestantism to be vast and important, though I wouldn’t go so far as many from both camps do as to say that those in the other camp are not “Christian.” Catholics and Protestants both affirm the Nicene Creed but disagree on questions of authority, human merit, and the New Testament meaning of “priesthood,” which rightfully caused that notorious sixteenth-century split.
I describe myself as Protestant because I hold to the three major tenets of Reformed theology: (1) the Bible as self-interpreting and the only source of doctrinal knowledge (I do not hold Church tradition, as interpreted by the Pope, as authoritative), (2) salvation by grace through faith alone (not through a combination of faith and works), and (3) one priesthood—of all believers (Catholics believe in the universal priesthood too but also believe in a second kind of priesthood: an exclusive group of people who are spiritually distinct from laypeople in that they are given the power to act as Christ, by virtue of their apostolic lineage). In addition to professing the above distinctives, I also reject the Roman Catholic teachings of the Immaculate Conception (the belief that the Virgin Mary was sinless), prayer to and the veneration of saints, papal infallibility, Purgatory, and, of course, the teaching that salvation is available only to Catholics (extra Ecclesiam nulla salus). [Update, 3/29/21: A blog reader has told me that my paraphrase of this latter Latin doctrine is false, and she points to this article by canon lawyer Philip C. L. Gray for a more nuanced explication, as well as to Gaudium et spes I.30-32 (“All this holds true not only for Christians . . .”).]
One major hang-up for me is that the Catholic Church claims so much exclusive power for itself: the power to interpret truth, to receive confessions, to absolve sin, to remit the temporal punishments of sin (to grant indulgences), to dispense merit, to administer grace—in short, “to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1548). To me it seems like the Catholic Church obstructs the direct access to God in Christ that all believers are promised. Instead of confessing their sins directly to God, Catholics are taught that such confession is insufficient, that they must also confess their sins to an ordained priest. Instead of always lifting up prayer requests straight to God, Catholics are taught to seek the intercession of deceased saints. Instead of trusting the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth when it comes to matters of faith and practice, Catholics are taught to believe only what the Church tells them to believe, because only those who hold the office of Catholic priest or bishop are qualified to interpret Scripture and define doctrine. (“The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him” [CCC 85].) I don’t understand the need for all this extra mediation.
There are other distinctives, of course, but these are the main ones.
Thank you, Richard, for opening up this dialogue. I agree with you that there is room for growth and understanding on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide.
If you’re reading this and you are Catholic, please correct me if I’ve misrepresented any aspect of your faith tradition, or if you have light to shed on anything I’ve just discussed. I’m still learning myself.