Is Roman Catholicism a Creedal Faith?

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The Roman Catholic Church has had a long tradition of two forms of a profession of faith being regularly used during various liturgical rites. The Apostles’ Creed has traditionally been associated with baptism, and the Nicene Creed has traditionally been associated with the Eucharist. The point is that at every single Mass, an ancient Creed is recited.[1] Does it make the Roman Catholic Church a creedal church, then? In its own way, yes, but less so from an evangelical viewpoint.

1. When I refer to “the Creed” throughout this article, I am referring interchangeably to either one (the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed).

At least two questions must be considered to assess Rome’s creedal commitment, and these relate to the theological meaning and use of the Creed.

The Roman Catholic Meaning of the Creed

The vocabulary of the Creed is well known: God the Father, Jesus Christ, salvation, the Holy Spirit, the virgin Mary, the holy apostolic catholic church, baptism, remission of sins. But while the signifiers (the sounds) are the same, the same cannot be said of the theological meaning of the words used. When a Roman Catholic refers to the “virgin Mary,” to “salvation,” to “the church,” etc., the Roman Church means its distinctive way of understanding these words. Think of the word “salvation”: a Roman Catholic would understand it as a sacramental journey under the authority of the church and with the help of the intercessions of Mary and the saints; an evangelical understands salvation as being grounded solely on Jesus Christ and received by faith alone; a liberal would tend to understand it as the attempt to be a better person who lives in a better society. The word is the same, but its meaning is substantially different. The fact that the same word is used does not mean that the meaning is the same. Rome is creedal in that it uses the right words of the Creed, but its creedal commitment is disputable if one grasps the theological framework that gives meaning to them.

The issue goes theologically deeper in that it touches on the Trinitarian framework of the faith. The Creed is embedded in the Roman Catholic magisterium’s 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, i.e., the exposition of what Rome believes in this present-day codified form.[2] The first section of the Catechism is a commentary on the Creed and is structured under the following Trinitarian headings:

2. The text of the Catechism can be found here online. For an evangelical assessment of the Catechism, see Gregg Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
  • “I believe in God the Father,” nn. 199–412 (sections of this chapter include God, the Father, the Almighty, Heaven and Earth, Man, the Fall);
  • “I believe in Jesus Christ, the Only Son of God,” nn. 422–679 (sections of this chapter include the incarnation, the birth of the Virgin Mary, the life, crucifixion, burial, descension into hell, resurrection, the ascension of Jesus Christ and the last judgment);
  • “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” nn. 683–1050 (sections of this chapter include the Holy Catholic Church, including hierarchy, laity and consecrated life, the communion of the saints, Mary, the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting).

On Mary

At a closer inspection, in the context of the chapter on Jesus Christ, the Roman Catholic teaching on Mary is presented in terms of her immaculate conception (nn. 490-493) and perpetual virginity (nn. 496-507). In the subsequent chapter on the Holy Spirit, the Roman Catholic Mariology is further expanded in terms of her being the Mother of the Church who was bodily assumed and is to be venerated (nn. 963-972) to the point of arguing that “the Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship” (n. 971).

What does the insertion of Catholic Mariology in the articles on Christ and the Holy Spirit mean? For Rome, Mariology stems from its appreciation of Trinitarian doctrine. The Catholic confession of Christ and the Holy Spirit requires the Roman Catholic elevation of Mary. Mariology is not a separate attachment to the Trinitarian foundation but an organic part of the Roman Catholic account of it. For evangelicals, much of Roman Catholic Mariology is an unwarranted development away from Scripture and, therefore, in contrast with the biblical revelation of God as One and Three. Despite the intention not to divert attention from the Son and the Spirit, Mariology tends to be an intruder into Trinitarian harmony and an obstacle to fully appreciating who the Triune God is and what He has done for us.[3] Evangelicals and Catholics may phonetically recite the same Trinitarian formulations of the Creed, but there are fundamental differences in how they appreciate its significance. The reason is that the roots of Roman Catholic Mariology are found in the Roman Catholic view of the Trinity, not elsewhere.

3. More on how Roman Catholic Mariology undermines the Trinitarian account of God can be found in my book Mary. Mother of God? (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2017) pp. 83-87.

On the Church

The other important offshoot of the Roman Catholic understanding of the Trinity is its doctrine of the church. In the Catechism, the blueprint of Rome’s view of the church stems from the chapter on the Holy Spirit (nn. 748-959). Roman Catholic ecclesiology is embedded in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Spirit not only in its general contours (e.g., the church as people of God, body of Christ, temple of Holy Spirit) but also in the specific Roman features (e.g., its hierarchical constitution, the papacy).

Rome’s view of the church is also derivative of its Christology. If Jesus Christ is true man and true God (as affirmed by the Creed), the church, by virtue of a “not weak analogy” (Lumen Gentium 8) is “one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element” (idem). In the words of the encyclical Mystici Corporis of Pius XII (1943), the church subsists “almost like a second person of Christ.” Thus, the ecclesial self-understanding of Roman Catholicism is based on a Christological point. As Jesus Christ is true man and true God, so the church is a theandric (human and divine) organism united to Christ and one with Him. This is a serious Trinitarian problem. Of course, there is a sense in which Rome confesses the historical and creedal Jesus Christ, as the Son of God become man, and the Holy Spirit as God the Third Person. Yet, it is also true that Rome appeals to the same creedal “Christ” and the same “Spirit” to support other doctrines and practices that are not biblical.

On the one hand, then, there is an apparent Trinitarian orthodoxy based on the Creed; on the other, there is a use of the doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit (and therefore the Trinity) that evangelicals would say are deviating. Out of its understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, the church of Rome claims the prerogatives of Christ in administering grace (through the sacraments), in exercising authority (through the hierarchical institution), and in teaching the truth (through the official teaching of popes, councils, etc.). The Roman Catechism provides the theological meaning of the Creed as Roman Catholicism appropriates it. The Creed does not stand alone: evangelicals see it as an expression of Biblical faith under the Scripture Alone principle; Roman Catholics see it in the light of the fully orbed Roman Catholic theology. The latter gives meaning to the former. As Carl Trueman puts it, “Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches invest such authority in the declaration of the institutional church that the church creeds can seem to carry an authority that is derived from the church’s approval rather than conformity with the teaching of Scripture.”[4] Against this background, the alleged consensus on the Trinitarian framework of the Creed is much more limited than often thought.[5]

4. Carl Trueman, “This We Believe,” Tabletalk (Aug 1, 2008).

5. In this sense, as French theologian Henri Blocher argues, “Roman theology is too little Trinitarian,” La doctrine de l’Église e des sacrements, vol. 1 (Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2023) p. 156.

The Roman Catholic Use of the Creed

In using the Creed, Roman Catholicism pours the totality of its self-understanding in it. This applies to the theological meaning and how the Creed functions as an identity marker.

What does it mean to “profess” the Creed for Rome? To learn it by heart and recite it? To believe in the affirmations it contains? To identify oneself in the worldview to which it gives voice? To perform a conventional act linked to a traditional religious practice? To mechanically repeat a “jingle” that evokes our childhood? The range of possibilities for the appropriation of a Creed is wide. For example, how many liberal Christians (who would have no problem saying that the Creed is important) believe that God is truly the Creator of the heavens and the earth? How convinced are they that Jesus was really born of the virgin Mary, or that He bodily rose from the dead? If we have even a little acquaintance with contemporary theology, we will realize the many interpretations of these and other cornerstones of the Christian faith.

A similar observation is true of Roman Catholicism. As already observed, there is a sense in which Rome promotes a creedal religion in that the Creed is recited at every Mass. Yet, the Roman Catholic Church is not creedal in that, with an increased laxity after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), almost no disciplinary measure is taken for those who bypass, contradict, or oppose the creedal standards of the Church. I am not only talking about the masses of disengaged Roman Catholics in what used to be majority Roman Catholic countries who tend to have a cherry-picking approach to Catholic doctrine and ethics. They might continue to feel a sense of “belonging” to Mother Church without “believing” what she teaches (for example, the Creed), let alone “behaving” in a way consonant with her moral code. I am also talking of high-ranking officials, a pope like Francis, whose doctrinal naiveté over several topics has made people ask: “Is he Catholic?”[6] The point is that Rome is different from the doctrinal bulwark that people often imagine it is.

6. See my “Is the Pope Catholic?” Unio Cum Christo. International Journal of Reformed Theology and Life, vol. 9/2 (October 2023), 101–118.

The Catechism is still the official doctrinal reference point, and all the requirements for being Catholics in good standing are still in place. That said, the post-Vatican II tendency has been to dilute the traditional confessional expectations on the faithful and to invest in the expansion of the catholic embracement of all people, regardless of their confessional adherence and coherence with the Church’s standards. In other words, present-day Roman Catholicism is more “catholic” than “Roman” in the sense that it is more interested in expanding the “catholicity” of Rome (i.e., its inclusivity)—as it was envisaged at Vatican II—than in defending its doctrinal-institutional “Roman” markers (e.g. the correspondence between the professed faith in the Creed and the spiritual reality of daily life).

One of the fundamental decisions made at Vatican II was to maximize the sacramental threshold of how one enters the church (i.e., baptism) and the sacramental condition of staying in (in regard to the Eucharist), rather than the confessional integrity of the faithful. As sociologist Luca Diotallevi has argued, it was the end of the “confessional religion” Roman Catholicism used to be, at least since the Council of Trent.[7] For what it’s worth, as an evangelical pastor and theologian living in Rome for almost fifteen years, most Catholic people I know attend Mass only on rare occasions and mumble the Creed when they attend (if they remember it). Still, they have weird theologies and even weirder lifestyles. If at all retained in their memory, the Creed does not shape the people’s belief system and life.

7. Luca Diotallevi, Fine corsa. La crisi del Cristianesimo come religione confessionale (Bologna: EDB, 2017).

For how many nominal Christians does the recitation of the Creed make a difference in their life? What does it mean to say “I believe . . .” for many people who, despite having been baptized and occasionally attending religious services, are not regenerated and, therefore, are not confessionally believers in the biblical sense? Of course, they can recite the Creed, but this profession is often a rhetorical exercise with little spiritual value. Reciting it does not in and of itself mean believing it.

Biblically speaking, being a creedal Church means something different than filling the meaning of the Creed with Roman Catholic content and rhetorically using it to “catholicize” unbelief. Roman Catholicism may be a creedal faith according to its own standards, but not yet according to biblical ones.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

Leonardo De Chirico

Leonardo De Chirico

Leonardo De Chirico is pastor of the Church Breccia di Roma and lecturer in historical theology at the Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione in Padova, Italy. He blogs on Vatican and Roman Catholic issues from an evangelical perspective at Vatican Files. He’s director of the Reformanda Initiative, cohost of the Reformanda Initiative podcast, and author of several books, including A Christian’s Pocket Guide to the Papacy, Same Words, Different Worlds: Do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Believe the Same Gospel?, and the forthcoming Engaging with Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Approach. You can keep up with the work of Reformanda Initiative on Twitter.