Does Protestant Truth Still Matter? (5) Contemporary Roman Catholicism

On Reformation Day 2023 we returned to a series of posts we started in 2021 but never finished – the text of ‘Why Protestant Truth Still Matters: A Biblical Perspective’ by Garry Williams. This is the fourth post in the series. (The first post is here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.)

The printed version of the full publication can be obtained from the Protestant Truth Society.

The piece is structured like this:

1. Introducing the Five Solas

2. The Solas Stated:
            Sola Scriptura
            Solus Christus 
            Sola Gratia and Sola Fide
            Soli Deo Gloria

3. Roman Catholicism before Vatican II:

4. Contemporary Roman Catholicism:
            In with the New
            Out with the Old?
            More of Mary
            Understanding Contemporary Roman Catholicism 

5. Protestant Truth Still Matters 

4. Contemporary Roman Catholicism

In with the New 

Is Rome today simply the same as she was in the sixteenth century? She is not. Prior to Vatican II the pronouncements of the Papacy had been increasingly vehement not only against Protestantism but also against the secular world and modernizers within the Church herself (see for example Pius IX’s Syllabus of 1864 and Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis of 1950). At Vatican II, however, Rome changed. This claim may be uncomfortable for some among both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Rome is committed to her own continuity in preserving an unchanging deposit of doctrine, and some Protestant polemics rely on the simplicity of believing that Rome cannot change, since this allows the existing critique of her theology to stand unchallenged forever. Nevertheless, the facts of change in Rome are clear. A few examples will suffice to introduce the kind of change that has occurred in the last fifty years. 

            The opening Message to Humanity from the fathers of Vatican II and Pope John XXIII is unique in the history of church councils for its open greeting to all humanity: 

We take great pleasure in sending to all men and nations a message concerning that well-being, love, and peace which were brought into the world by Christ Jesus, the Son of the living God, and entrusted to the Church.1

The tone is immediately different from the stern anathematizing voice of Trent: the Church ‘was not born to dominate but to serve’.2 The desire of the Council is to foster all that is good, wherever it may be found: ‘As we undertake our work, therefore, we would emphasize whatever concerns the dignity of man, whatever contributes to a genuine community of peoples.’3 The Church should seek peace more than anyone else, given that she is ‘the Mother of all’.4 The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World makes the same point: ‘this Second Vatican Council, having probed more profoundly into the mystery of the Church, now addresses itself without hesitation, not only to the sons of the Church and to all who invoke the name of Christ, but to the whole of humanity’.5

Traditionally, Rome has insisted that there is no salvation beyond her own bounds: ‘There is indeed one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all is saved’.6 Formally at least, Vatican II agrees with this sentiment: ‘the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation.’7 But in practice, the bounds of salvation are exploded beyond the Roman communion. In the opening Message we find this statement which can only astonish us in the light of Rome’s history: 

Hence we humbly and ardently call for all men to work along with us in building up a more just and brotherly city in this world. We call not only upon our brothers whom we serve as shepherds, but also upon all our brother Christians, and the rest of men of good will.8

Here there is an acknowledgement of brother Christians beyond the Roman fold, an acknowledgement that is explained in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter.9

This link is specified as the shared work of the Holy Spirit: ‘Likewise, we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them, too, he gives his gifts and graces whereby he is operative among them with his sanctifying power.’10 This kind of stance toward non-Catholics explains the booming industry in ecumenical dialogues with other churches that followed Vatican II. 

The positive stance extends not only to other Christians, but even to adherents of non-Christian religions:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the Last Day will judge mankind.11  

We might think that this means only that Muslims are not beyond conversion, but the idea is evidently that they can be saved as Muslims, because the text continues to say of the next group of those who acknowledge the creator: 

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.12

A second change at Vatican II is a greater emphasis on the role of the college of bishops and the laity in the life and work of the Church, producing a much more ‘democratic’ tone than the decree on papal infallibility at Vatican I.13 In particular, the ‘secular’ work of lay people is endorsed as part of their spiritual work for God: ‘the laity consecrate the world itself to God’.14

            A third change in contemporary Roman Catholicism at both Vatican II and in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church based upon it is the more exegetically sensitive use of some biblical texts. Trent quotes the Bible constantly, but it does so in ways that make it say what it does not say. Much of the use of the Bible at Vatican II is more accurate, and the Catechism contains sustained pages of exegesis that could pass under the radar of the sharpest Protestant if they were presented without their context. In a related change, Vatican II encourages the laity to read Scripture, requiring that ‘easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful’.15

Out with the Old?

It is thus clear that Rome has changed in some important ways. It will not do to say that she is semper eadem (always the same). Any Protestant who insists that there is nothing new in Rome runs the risk of being taken for an ignoramus. Given the undeniable reality of the changes, we must ask how they can be understood. Most importantly, do these new elements mean that the traditional doctrines that offend against the biblical Solas have been removed? 

Most of the content of pre-Vatican II theology remains entirely intact at the points where it departs most clearly from the biblical Solas. The old errors are differently framed and differently voiced, but they remain as they were. Picking up the topics that I considered when discussing pre-Vatican II Rome, we can see that there is no movement on the issues regarding revelation (the co-equality of tradition with Scripture, the infallibility of the Pope and the Magisterium), on justification (the contribution of works to justification), or on worship (the adoration of bread and wine in the mass). This analysis may be sustained by considering the evidence of Vatican II, and also the 1994 Catechism, written to provide a template for disseminating the teaching of the Council.16


Vatican II presents its own innovations not as changes to the traditional position, but as organic developments of it, as expansions, not retractions. This is evident in the teaching on revelation. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation echoes Trent on the coequality of Scripture and tradition: ‘both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence’.17 Referring to the doctrine of the Papacy taught at Vatican I, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church states unequivocally: ‘all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning, and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman pontiff and of his infallible Magisterium, this sacred council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful’.18 And even as Vatican II emphasises the collegial role of the bishops, it makes them entirely dependent on the Pope:

The college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact.19

At each turn the developments at Vatican II on the doctrine of revelation stand alongside the traditional positions. 


The same is true of the doctrine of justification, on which there has been no magisterial revision of the Tridentine position. Indeed, the 1994 Catechism, written expressly to disseminate the theology of Vatican II, simply reiterates the substance of Trent in a gentler tone, frequently by direct quotation of the Decree on Justification. Justification is defined as ‘not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’.20 Like Trent, the Catechismteaches that justification itself entails the sanctification of the whole being.21 This sanctification can be sufficient to merit salvation:

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.22


The same is true of the contemporary teaching on the mass. The mass remains at the centre of Roman Catholic worship. The Catechism quotes Lumen gentium when it tells us that the Eucharist is the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’.23It explains that all the other sacraments are ‘oriented towards’ this sacrament, that it is ‘the Sacrament of sacraments’, and that in it is contained ‘the whole spiritual good of the church’.24 It is ‘the sum and summary of our faith’, ‘the centre of the Church’s life’.25 The mass is identified even as the ‘cause’ of the church’s communion with the divine life; in other words, it is the action of the mass which keeps the church ‘in being’.26 For all the debate among Roman Catholic theologians about more palatable notions such as ‘transignification’, the Catechism, the text that governs all the Church’s catechesis, still holds that the bread and wine ‘become Christ’s Body and Blood’.27 It uses the words of Trent to say that the change is ‘fittingly and properly called transubstantiation’.28 The Catechism explains that the transubstantiated elements are worshipped with the ‘adoration’ due to God, as opposed to just the ‘devotion’ due to Mary.29 The hosts are therefore to be reserved for veneration and carried in procession.30 In the words of John Paul II cited in the Catechism, ‘Let our adoration never cease’.31

More of Mary

Not only does Vatican II Catholicism continue the traditional positions on these three topics, it also affirms the Roman Catholic devotion to Mary that had grown since the Reformation. At the outset, the Message to Humanity set alongside the open address a statement of the credentials of the Council in terms of Mary and Peter: ‘we successors of the apostles have gathered here, joined in singlehearted prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and forming one apostolic body headed by the successor of Peter’.32 Lumen Gentium, arguably the most significant reforming text at Vatican II, ends with a section on Mary. Among other things, it affirms that she is ‘Queen of the universe’, ‘the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit’, who ‘far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth’, ‘a preeminent and singular member of the Church’, ‘Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix’.33 Mary co-operates with God in the work of salvation. She was ‘united with him by compassion as he died on the Cross’ and ‘in this singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the work of the Savior in giving back supernatural life to souls’.34 The Council repeatedly asserts her free cooperation in the work of salvation. One further way in which Mary shares the work of Christ is as an eschatological sign: ‘the Mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected is the world to come’.35 Being resurrected, Mary represents the union of body and soul that awaits the people of God. For all these reasons, the cult of Mary is to be ‘generously fostered’.36


[1] The Documents of Vatican II, ed. by Walter M. Abbott, trans. by Joseph Gallagher (New York: Guild Press, America Press, Association Press, 1966), p. 3.

[2] Documents, p. 5.

[3] Documents, p. 5.

[4] Documents, p. 6.

[5] Gaudium et Spes, 2, in Compendium, §4302.

[6] The Fourth Lateran Council (1215), c. 1, in Compendium, §802.

[7] Lumen gentium, 14, in Compendium, §4136.

[8] Documents, pp. 6-7.

[9] Lumen gentium, 15, in Compendium, §4139.

[10] Lumen gentium, 15, in Compendium, §4139.

[11] Lumen gentium, 16, in Compendium, §4140.

[12] Lumen gentium, 16, in Compendium, §4140.

[13] The term is that of Avery Dulles, in Documents, p. 12.

[14] Lumen gentium, 34, in Compendium, §4160.

[15] Dei Verbum, 22, in Compendium, §4229.

[16] Pope John Paul II explains that the Catechism was commissioned in order to bring the work of the Council to the people; Catechism of the Catholic Church (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994), p. 3.

[17] Dei verbum, 9, in Compendium, §4212.

[18] Lumen gentium, 18, in Compendium, §4142.

[19] Lumen gentium, 22, in Compendium, §4146.

[20] Catechism, §1989, quoting the Decree on Justification, c. 7.

[21] Catechism, §1995.

[22] Catechism, §2010.

[23] Catechism, §1324, quoting Lumen gentium, 11.

[24] Catechism, §§1324, 1330, 1324.  

[25] Catechism, §§1327, 1343.

[26] Catechism, §1325.

[27] Catechism, §1333.

[28] Catechism, §1376, quoting Trent, Decree on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, c. 4.

[29] Catechism, §1378; cf. §971 for the distinction from Mary.

[30] Catechism, §1378, quoting Paul VI in Mysterium fidei, 56.

[31] Catechism, §1380, citing Dominicae cenae, 3.

[32] Documents, p. 3.

[33] Lumen gentium, 59, 53, 62, in Compendium, §§4175, 4173, 4177.

[34] Lumen gentium, 61, in Compendium, §4176.

[35] Compendium, §4179.

[36] Lumen gentium, 67, in Documents, p. 94.