The Catholic Church is in the news a lot lately: from the ongoing battles of religious freedoms concerning the HHS contraception mandate, to same-sex marriage, to Gary Wills’ grilling from Saint Stephen Colbert, to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Such media attention may cause some to consider the beliefs of the Catholic Church and how it is fundamentally differentiated from Protestantism. It would be difficult to boil this down to a simple response because of many factors, not the least of which includes the fragmentation of Protestantism with many (e.g. mainline Protestant liberalism) jettisoning the central doctrines that made Protestants “protestant” in the first place. Nevertheless, in the clutter of my news and blog and Twitter feeds one title caught my eye that may provide one helpful distinctive: “What is the Greatest of All Protestant ‘Heresies’?” by Sinclair Ferguson.
Ferguson opens with a statement from Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), who was a very important theologian in the Catholic Counter-Reformation and who has been canonized as a “Doctor of the Church”. Ferguson writes:
Let us begin with a church history exam question. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) was a figure not to be taken lightly. He was Pope Clement VIII’s personal theologian and one of the most able figures in the Counter-Reformation movement within sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. On one occasion, he wrote: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is _______ .” Complete, explain, and discuss Bellarmine’s statement.
How would you answer? What is the greatest of all Protestant heresies? Perhaps justification by faith? Perhaps Scripture alone, or one of the other Reformation watchwords?
Those answers make logical sense. But none of them completes Bellarmine’s sentence. What he wrote was: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is…”
You just might be surprised to discover how “Catholic” you really are… and how many so-called “Protestant” or “Evangelical” churches betray the Gospel itself.