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The Dividing Line
Chapter 11: Roman Catholicism

Vatican II and Catholic Change

If these are the views of Roman Catholicism, then why would any Evangelical Christian want closer ties with that church? Part of the reason is undoubtedly the weakening doctrinal stance of the major denominations and many Evangelical and Charismatic churches. Another major reason is an apparent change in Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), commonly called "Vatican II." The popular perception is that in Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church underwent major changes that opened the door to cooperation between Catholics and non-Catholics.

Vatican II did introduce significant changes to the Catholic Church. The council encouraged Bible study and authorized new translation work. It revised the church liturgy and dropped Latin in favor of the common languages of the people. Catholic liberals saw a new openness toward liberalism by the council. Most significantly, the Catholic Church began to call non-Catholics "separated brethren" instead of heretics and claimed that both sides had sinned in the Reformation controversy. The council's decree "Catholic Principles on Ecumenism" encouraged discussions about unity between Catholics and non-Catholics.7

Although Vatican II introduced changes into the Roman Catholic Church, what is often missed is that these changes did not affect the questions that have divided Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation. The tone was friendlier, but there was no change on essential points of doctrine. The decree on ecumenism, for example, still teaches, "All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ" (sect. 3). The decree calls non-Catholics "separated brethren" but chides many of them who "have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the Eucharist mystery" (sect. 22), that is, who do not believe in the physical presence of Christ's body in the Eucharist or that in the Mass is offered a real sacrifice of Christ's body.8

Just how little Catholicism had changed was illustrated some thirty years after Vatican II. In 1994 the Catholic Church published a new catechism summarizing official church teaching, the first such official summary since the Reformation.9 This catechism, although maintaining the friendly tone of Vatican II, reveals no major change in Catholic doctrine.

On authority, for example, the catechism says that "the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, 'does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence'" (para. 81). The "interpretation" of this revelation belongs to the church, in particular, "to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome" (85).

On the question of justification, the catechism does not differ from the Council of Trent. The catechism, in fact, quotes Trent on this point: "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man" (1989). "Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith" (1992), the catechism says, and "includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man" (2019). Salvation to the Catholic Church is still partly by Christ's merit and partly by human merit: "No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods" (2027). Essential to salvation are the church's sacraments: "The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation" (1129). In light of such statements, it is clear that the gulf between Rome and biblical Protestantism has not narrowed. Despite the reform of many Catholic practices, the doctrinal divide between Catholicism and Protestantism is as great as it ever was.

The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation. By Mark Sidwell. ©1998. BJU Press. Reproduction prohibited. This work is available for purchase at the Bob Jones University Campus Store (phone: 1-800-252-1927; web address:

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