How to Witness to Roman Catholics

Roman Catholics have a very distinctive view of Christianity. This lesson explores the best ways to engage and share, with a Catholic, a more biblical approach to the Christian faith.
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Both my mother and father were Catholic, as was every one of my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. They still are to this day. I've never succeeded in having a Bible study with them. I know from experience that sharing your faith with a Roman Catholic person is difficult, this is why I'm providing a few insights that I have gleaned over the many years spent evangelizing Roman Catholic people.

Roman Catholics are the second largest group among those who identify themselves as Christians in the United States of America. Twenty-five percent of those who claim to be Christians in the United States are Roman Catholic. Twenty-eight percent claim to be Pentecostal and Charismatic, and ten percent Baptist. Two percent of those who claim to be Christian in the United States are members of the churches of Christ (tied with Mormons, ahead of Jehovah Witness).

When sharing your faith with Roman Catholics here are some things you need to remember and do:

1. Remember that they think that they are the true church and speak for Christianity.

  • Large numbers / richest
  • Oldest traceable history
  • More church buildings and para-church organizations such as hospitals, orphanages, schools, social programs for the poor, etc. than all others combined.
  • Greatest numbers of clergy and support personnel.
  • Highest profile and most powerful politically.

They see themselves as the only true church and have the statistics to prove it. Any discussion that begins by attacking this position or a suggestion that the church of Christ is really the true church (a group that most Catholics have never even heard of) will immediately make you look like a cult in their eyes and they will dismiss you. They'll still make polite conversation but won't take you seriously.

So don't attack the Roman Catholic church itself. Even if a Catholic person complains or criticizes it, don't you do it. It's like family. A member can criticize it but not an outsider. You might say that all religious groups have flaws, even your own, but don't join in or begin by tearing down the Roman Catholic church - it's tempting and easy and there is so much to choose from, but don't do it.

2. Remember that you speak the same words but they have a different meaning for a Catholic.

Catholics are difficult to teach because they use the same language as we do but don't realize that it means something totally different to them. Here are some common "religious" words and images that these evoke in a Catholic mind compared to the images seen in the mind of a member of the church of Christ:

  • Baptism: babies, parties, ritual with a priest / Adult believers being immersed in water
  • Holy: ritual, quiet, special / pure, dedicated to God's service and purpose
  • Church: place, institution / people, organization
  • Bible: product of the church / product of God's Holy Spirit
  • Saved: a relationship with Roman Catholics / a personal relationship with Christ
  • Jesus: baby, corpse, figure head / Lord, personal Savior

It goes on and on, the same words mean different things to Roman Catholics than they do to us which causes difficulty in having a meaningful and productive conversation. Trying to convert them using the "5 steps" approach or convincing them that the word baptism doesn't mean what they thought it did may correctly indoctrinate them, but it won't convert them or wean them away from their Catholic loyalty. So we must remember that similar words have different meanings.

3. Understand the difference between where they are coming from and where you are coming from.

The biggest difference between them and us is the way each is governed.

In the Roman Catholic church the basis of authority is shared by three equally authoritative sources:

  1. The Bible is the basis for much of the Catholic church's teachings and core beliefs. For example, the divinity of Christ, the sinfulness of man and the need for salvation are all teachings that Catholics take directly from the Scriptures.
  2. The history of the practices of the Roman Catholic church. Many practices are allowed or forbidden based on the tradition of the church. A good example of this is baptism because the Bible teaches about baptism. Infant baptism, however, is practiced because the tradition of the church has done it this way for over 1,000 years.
  3. The teachings of the Pope. When the Pope issues an "official" teaching or interpretation, then it is binding. For example, the Pope decides what the Bible teaches, where the Bible is silent, the Pope has authority.

These three sources are the basis for Roman Catholic doctrine, practice, and belief. If there is confusion or uncertainty, the Pope has the final word.

In the church of Christ the base of our authority is the Bible and only the Bible.

In the church of Christ tradition can be changed, it's only "tradition." For example, in some congregations there is no Sunday evening service for various reasons. This is acceptable because an evening service is simply a tradition and traditions can be changed or eliminated based on convenience or need of the times. This is more easily done in a group that has no hierarchy of clergy that rules over the worldwide church and where each congregation is autonomous. For example, each congregation has its own individual structure of leadership:

  • Evangelists appoint elders where there are none
  • The congregation selects deacons
  • The elders ordain evangelists
  • In congregations where there are already elders in place, new elders are appointed based on their qualification and the approval of the existing leadership

The fact that we say that we're based only on the Bible may seem self-righteous if we don't qualify this with the idea that we use only the Bible as our attempt to practice New Testament Christianity. We're not perfect, but we believe that what we strive to do is more in line with what the Bible itself teaches concerning how the church should be established, organized, and function. If you understand the difference and are able to explain the difference without offending them, you've set the stage for the second step in witnessing and teaching Roman Catholics: getting them to read the Bible.

Reluctance to "Study" the Bible

The primary goal in sharing your faith with a Roman Catholic is to get them to read the Bible for themselves. This is difficult for several reasons:

Roman Catholics think that it is not possible for an ordinary person to understand and handle God's word.

The Pope and clergy do this for them and implicitly suggest that the Bible is too complicated and mysterious and dangerous for an ordinary person to handle by themselves. Their main argument is that the "Protestants" have tried to handle the Bible and the result has been disagreement and division for 400 years. The answer to that is that even the churches in the New Testament had division and disagreement, but they were still encouraged to grow in knowledge and unity through an understanding and obedience to the Word (Ephesians 4). Jesus commanded that we all learn to obey His commands.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
- Matthew 28:18-20

The apostles taught the disciples God's word each day at the temple.

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
- Acts 2:42

Here is another reason Catholics don't want to get into the Word:

They equate "Bible" with "cultism"

Many Roman Catholics identify people who use and read the Scriptures as cults. If you only base your church on the Bible, you're like the Jehovah Witnesses or the Mormons or worse. They see Bible-based living as an aberration or as fanaticism because of the bad press that some cults have received. You have to demonstrate that normal Christian lifestyle is not cultic. We can be zealous for God without being anti-social or fanatics; after all, Jesus wants us to be lights and salt, not explosions or hot peppers.

Here is another reason why they don't get into the Word:

They're afraid of leaving the "Mother Church"

Catholicism is tied into culture and nurtured from birth. Catholics, even if they are dissatisfied with their religion, are nostalgic about it nevertheless. Reading and studying the Bible is the first step away from this comfortable religion that may be several generations old within their families. They feel that they are betraying their families by leaving the church and the first step of this betrayal begins with Bible study. A Roman Catholic who studies the Bible is conspicuous among his Roman Catholic brothers so there is reluctance to take this first step.

Bible Reading with a Roman Catholic

If through careful conversation to explain the differences between Roman Catholics and the church of Christ you manage to create a dialogue with a Catholic person, then you're first invitation should be to read the Bible with you. If you invite them to a worship service they will usually decline because it is sinful for them to do so. If they accept and go, they are usually very confused and threatened because our service is very inclusive and confrontational (the invitation, etc.). A better "first" step is to ask them to "read," not "study," the Bible. Study means work; means that you will be the teacher and they the student; means that they will be at a disadvantage. Catholics rarely "study" religion except in school and feel that non-clergy persons are not qualified to teach them about religion. If you "read" together it is a shared experience by equals and the questions and answers that come from such activity are a dialogue rather than a teaching/learning experience.

Relying on the power of the Word is critical when reaching Roman Catholics because they need to experience for themselves the power of God's word and see for themselves how shallow and incorrect many aspects of their religion are when compared to the Bible.

In the end, the question for the Roman Catholic will become: what will I believe, the teachings of my church about my Christian faith, or the teachings of the Bible about these same matters of faith? If they are allowed to see the difference and inconsistencies between the Bible and their religion as they read the Word, they will be convicted by the Word and not your power of persuasion.

And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
- I Corinthians 2:1-5
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