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Even with the significant areas of doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Protestants (see Part One), a notable number of Protestant fundamentalists insist that Catholicism is an anti-Christian cult. Organizations and individuals (some of them quite popular) who classify Catholicism as a cult include: Chick Publications, Alberto Rivera’s Anti-Christ Information Center, Tony Alamo’s Christian Foundation, Bill Jackson’s Christians Evangelizing Catholics, Albert James Dager’s Media Spotlight, and Dave Hunt’s The Berean Call. (This is not to say that all of these people belong in the same category — the latter three are more respectable than the former three.) Actually this is just a few of many individuals and organizations that classify Catholicism as an anti-Christian cult. Because their position receives a wide hearing in some evangelical circles, we must address their claim.
Is Catholicism a Cult- Ten Reasons Why Catholicism Is Not a Cult
What those who label Catholicism a cult do not seem to understand is that even if one considers Catholicism to be unscriptural and greatly mistaken on many important doctrinal issues (certainly this writer does), it is simply misplaced and erroneous — for a variety of reasons — to classify Roman Catholicism as an anti-Christian cult. Let me give ten reasons why I say this.9
(1) Cults, generally speaking, are small splinter groups with a fairly recent origin. Most American-based cults, for example, have to a greater or lesser degree splintered off from other Christian groups, and emerged in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Catholicism, on the other hand, is the largest body within Christendom, having almost a two-thousand-year history (it has historical continuity with apostolic, first century Christianity), and is the ecclesiastical tree from which Protestantism originally splintered.
(2) Cults are usually formed, molded, and controlled by a single individual or small group. The Catholic church, by contrast, has been molded by an incalculable number of people throughout its long history. Catholicism is governed by creeds, councils, and the ongoing magisterium.
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(3) Cults typically exercise rigid control over their members and demand unquestioning submission, with disobedience punished by shunning and/or excommunication. While Catholicism has exercised a triumphalism and an unhealthy control over its members in times past, this is far less true today, especially since the Second Vatican Council. Contemporary Catholicism’s broad diversity as illustrated in Part One of this series certainly proves this point.
(4) An appropriate description of a cult is “a religious group originating as a heretical sect and maintaining fervent commitment to heresy.”10 Regardless of one’s criticism of Catholicism, even if it is heretical at certain points, it does not fit this description. It does not originate in heresy, and, as was mentioned before, it possesses a structural orthodoxy that other cults simply do not have (see comparison chart).
(5) Cults (when defined as heretical sects) are classified as such because of their outright denial or rejection of essential Christian doctrine. Historically, this has principally been a denial of the nature of God (the Trinity), the nature of the incarnate Christ (divine-human), and of the absolute necessity of divine grace in salvation (the Pelagian controversy).11 While Protestants have accused Catholicism of having an illegitimate authority and of confusing the gospel (two serious charges to be examined later), Catholicism does affirm the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and that salvation is ultimately a gift of God’s grace (a rejection of Pelagianism).12 I challenge anyone to name a recognized cult that affirms the Trinity or the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ (see comparison chart).
(6) Cults frequently have a low view of the Bible, replacing or supplementing it with their own so-called “sacred writings.” In fact, cults often argue that the Bible has been, to some extent, corrupted and therefore their writings are needed to restore the truth. While Catholicism’s acceptance of noncanonical writings (the Apocrypha) and placing of apostolic tradition on par with Scripture are fundamental problems to the Protestant, Catholics nevertheless retain a high view of the Bible (inspired and infallible) and see it as their central source of revelation.
(7) Cults usually have some kind of authoritarian, totalistic leader or prophet. While some feel that the pope fits this category, in reality the pope governs the church with heavy dependence upon the bishops (college of cardinals), and within the restrictions of the official teaching of the church. Protestants clearly disagree with the authority and exalted titles given the pope, but he still does not fit the category of a cult leader.
(8) A frequent characteristic of cults is their emphasis on a “remnant identity” — that is, they claim to be God’s exclusive agent or people who restore “authentic Christianity,” which has been corrupted or lost. Usually this type of restorationism has an accompanying anticreedal and antihistorical mindset. While Catholicism has at times been guilty of an unfortunate exclusivity13 (some Protestant churches have also), they emphatically deny restorationism, and strongly emphasize the continuity of God’s church throughout history.
(9) Those who classify Roman Catholicism as a cult (an inauthentic and invalid expression of Christianity) usually also give the Eastern Orthodox church the same classification. What they do not realize, however, is that if both of these religious bodies are non-Christian, then there was no authentic Christian church during most of the medieval period. Contrary to what some Protestants think, there was no independent, nondenominational, Bible-believing church on the corner (or in the caves) during most of the Middle Ages.14 Additionally, the schismatic groups who were around at the time were grossly heretical.15 So much for the gates of hell not prevailing against the church (Matt. 16:18).
Some try to sidestep this argument by reasoning that as long as there were even a few individuals who remained biblically orthodox apart from the institutional or organized church, then those select individuals constituted God’s authentic church (a remnant) — thus the church was never truly overcome. This thinking, though containing an element of truth, is not completely correct. It is true that the church has an invisible16 and local dimension to it, but it also has a visible and organizational dimension (John 17:21). While the church is primarily a community of believers, it also functions as an institution through which believers encounter the ministry of the Word and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Scripture does not allow for the sharp distinction between the spiritual and organizational dimensions of the church that some would like to draw.17
(10) Even with the serious problems evident in Roman Catholic theology from a Protestant point of view, Catholic doctrine overall does not fit the pattern of the recognized cult groups (see comparison chart). Catholicism affirms most of what the cults deny and possesses an orthodox foundation which all cult groups lack.
Is Catholicism a Cult- A Conclusion
In summary, a cult generally emerges as a group that rejects orthodoxy and remains fervently committed to heresy. Catholicism’s problem, by contrast, is of a different nature. It affirms teaching which is both extraneous and inconsistent with its historical affirmation of orthodoxy. From an evangelical Protestant viewpoint, Catholicism is definitely “too much” — but the cults are clearly “not enough.”
Roman Catholicism is not a cult. The classification of Catholicism as given above is much more accurate and preferable to the overly simplistic and misguided classification of Catholicism as a non-Christian cult.