The village chief sat before me and firmly—immovably—declared that he is a Christian, a faithful Roman Catholic, and leading and elder member of the local Roman Catholic parish, and a teacher with a lengthy pedigree of instructing catechumens in their parish for decades. And so, he told me, he is happy to hear us telling stories about Jesus to the people of the tribe, but he himself has no real need for the gospel.
It was an interesting conversation to have in that particular setting, seated as we were right beside the outdoor shrine containing his family's idol to which he had recently sacrificed a young goat. He's a liar, right? No doubt, but beyond that, he seems not to perceive any substantial tension between being a faithful Catholic and being a worshipper of idols and fetishes and animistic spirits.
I know that bad missiology can bring about horrible perversions of the truth, and I realize that this man came to his particular variety of polytheism contrary to the official wishes of the Roman Catholic Magisterium, and yet maybe this chief sees something about Roman Catholicism that many of us don't see…or don't want to see. Maybe he thinks Roman Catholicism is compatible with his polytheism because Roman Catholicism itself is actually polytheistic.
Consider the following:
The Veneration of Saints: Since the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea, AD 787), the official position of the Roman Catholic Church has supported and encouraged Christians to offer worship (Lat. "dulia") to the saints. The Roman Catholics set aside particular days that are the holy days of particular saints on which they are to be worshipped particularly. Saints are associated with professions, events, situations, and themes, and people are encouraged to pray to the particular saints on particular occasions or for particular needs. Furthermore, people and churches are encouraged to have graven images made of these saints so that people wishing to worship the saints can worship these sculpted images of them.
And this is something other than polytheistic idolatry?
If you think otherwise, I'd love to hear you explain to an African chief how it is OK for someone to bow down, pray, and offer incense to a fourth-century Roman soldier who gave away half of his cape and became a bishop, but it is not OK for someone to bow down, pray, and offer a sacrifice to an idol in a shrine that his grandfather built.
The Veneration of Mary: Everything that Roman Catholics do for "saints" they also do for Mary…plus much more. It is common Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary's mother's conception of her was miraculously immaculate, that Mary did not sin, that Mary did not die but was bodily admitted into heaven, that Mary remained a virgin for all of her life, that Mary serves with Jesus Christ as co-Mediator, -Redeemer, and -Advocate on our behalf.
All of this is common Roman Catholic belief. Much of this is the official position of the Roman Catholic Magisterium. None of it is in the Bible, and most of it is in explicit contradiction to things that the Bible has said.
Yes, Roman Catholics say that Mary is less powerful than Jesus. But, then, Greeks said that Athena was less powerful than Zeus. The Greeks were polytheists nonetheless. How is it that Roman Catholics are not?
The Veneration of The Elements of the Mass: It is not as common today as it once was, but the Protestant Reformers reacted against an idolatrous Roman Catholic view of the elements of the mass that expressed itself in people filing lawsuits for closer seats to the front so that they could see the elements better or opening holes in church walls in order to be able to see the consecrated bread. (If you're interested to read more about this, see Joseph A Jungmann's 1961 work, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development).
Of course, this kind of idolatry regarding the Lord's Supper is nothing more than the natural and inevitable consequence of taking seriously the notion of transubstantiation. How is this worship of a loaf of bread and a cup of wine essentially different from the animism in African traditional religions?
'Tis an ill time for me to be writing this sort of thing. Because of our social and political landscape in the USA, Evangelical Protestants (including Southern Baptists) are friendlier toward Roman Catholics than we ever have been. Of all four people on major national electoral tickets this year, the one that Evangelicals support the most is a Roman Catholic. We don't hear much anti-Catholicism around these days, and I must admit that I myself have struggled to find just the right position on Roman Catholicism, considering the defection of high-profile Evangelicals like Francis Beckworth. Is Roman Catholicism a non-Christian cult or is it merely a false and apostate church?
Increasingly I'm coming to the conviction that Roman Catholicism not only isn't Christian, but that it's not even worthy to be grouped together with Judaism, Islam, and non-Catholic Christian as one of the major monotheistic religions.