Not so long ago people were saying that anti-Catholicism was going the way of the dinosaur. If so, it looks like the dinosaur has made an unexpected comeback, because anti-Catholicism is healthier and more widespread now than it has been for years.
Since the late 1970s several new anti-Catholic organizations have been founded, and some older ones have been revitalized. A partial lineup includes Chick Publications, Mission to Catholics International, Lumen Productions, Research and Education Foundation, Osterhus Publishing House, Christians United for Reformation (CURE), Harvest House, and Bob Jones University Press. Combined they turn out more anti-Catholic tracts, magazines, and books than ever before—millions of copies each year.
When one reads enough of this material, one becomes aware that the same points tend to be made by different writers in the same way, even in the same words. Who is borrowing from whom? It doesn’t seem that any of these groups relies very heavily on any other. Instead, they all fall back on one source, Loraine Boettner’s work, Roman Catholicism, a book published in 1962 by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company of Philadelphia and reprinted many times since.
This book is the origin of much of what professional anti-Catholics distribute. It can be called, to use a phrase that might rankle some, the "bible" of the anti-Catholic movement.
At first glance Roman Catholicism seems impressive. Its 460 large pages of text are closely packed with quotations. The table of contents is broken down into dozens of categories, and the indices, though skimpy, at least are there. But a careful reading makes it clear that the author’s antagonism toward the Catholic Church has gravely compromised his intellectual objectivity.
He Swallows Them Whole
The book suffers from a serious lack of scholarly rigor. Boettner accepts at face value virtually any claim made by an opponent of the Church. Even when verification of a charge is easy, he does not bother to check it out. If he finds something unflattering to Catholicism, he prints it.
When the topic is the infallibility of the pope, Boettner quotes at length from a speech alleged to have been given in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, where papal infallibility was formally defined. The speech, attributed to "the scholarly archbishop [sic, bishop] Strossmeyer," claims that the "archbishop" read the New Testament for the first time shortly before he gave the speech and found no mention at all of the papacy. The speech concludes that Peter was given no greater authority than the other apostles.
The trouble is, that the speech is a well-known forgery. Bishop Strossmeyer did not make that speech, and, in fact, when it was being circulated by a disgruntled former Catholic, the bishop repeatedly and publicly denied that it was his and demanded a retraction by the guilty party. A glance at the Catholic Encyclopedia or a work like Newman Eberhardt’s A Summary of Catholic History would have clued in Boettner.
This gross error has been repeated by many of the anti-Catholic groups that rely on Boettner. None of them, apparently, became suspicious, though the speech reads as though it came from a stereotypical "Bible thumping" Protestant rather than a "scholarly" Catholic bishop.
Sometimes Boettner’s mistakes are just juvenile. He calls All Souls’ Day (November 2) "Purgatory Day," a term never used by Catholics because the feast is not in commemoration of purgatory but of the souls there.
He argues that the book of Tobit cannot be an inspired book of the Bible because its "stories are fantastic and incredible," and it includes an account of appearances of an angel disguised as a man. Boettner does not seem to realize that such an argument could be used against, say, the book of Jonah or Genesis. Is living in the belly of a great fish any more incredible than meeting an angel in disguise? And then there’s the more basic problem that other books in Scripture—books Boettner and all Protestants accept as inspired—also contain references to angels appearing disguised as men (cf. Gen. 19; Heb. 13:2).
When he writes about the definition of papal infallibility, Boettner says that a pope speaks infallibly only "when he is speaking ex cathedra, that is, seated in the papal chair." He then points out that what is venerated as Peter’s chair in St. Peter’s Basilica may be only a thousand years old, implying that since Peter’s actual chair is not present, there is no place for the pope to sit, and thus, by the Church’s own principles, the pope cannot make any infallible pronouncements.
Boettner entirely misunderstands the meaning of the Latin term ex cathedra. It does translate as "from the chair," but it does not mean that the pope has to be sitting in the literal chair Peter owned for his decree to be infallible and to qualify as an ex cathedra pronouncement. To speak "from the chair of Peter" is what the pope does when he speaks with the fullness of his authority as the successor of Peter. It is a metaphor that refers to the pope’s authority to teach, not to where he sits when he teaches.
Notice, too, that the term ex cathedra, as a reference to teaching authority, was not invented by the Catholic Church. Jesus used it. In Matthew 23:2–3 Jesus said, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat (Greek: kathedras, Latin: cathedra); so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice." Even though these rabbis did not live according to the norms they taught, Jesus points out that they did have authority to teach and to make rules binding on the Jewish community.
Where Did You Get That?
Boettner’s Roman Catholicism contains a mere two dozen footnotes, all of them added to recent reprintings to reflect minor changes in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. Within the text, biblical passages are properly cited, but references to Catholic works are so vague as to discourage checking by making it difficult or impossible to locate the work or the reference. Many times there is no reference. A certain pope will be alleged to have said something—but there is no citation given to support the claim. A Catholic author of the seventeenth century is alleged to have claimed something—but again no reference that can be checked. Sometimes there may be mention of a Catholic book, but no page number or publication information given.
By contrast, when non-Catholic authors are cited, the reference usually includes title and page number. One suspects that Boettner took his alleged Catholic quotations and citations from Protestant works and then deliberately failed to reference them in order to conceal the extent to which he is dependant on secondary sources. This is a common tactic among writers who have not done primary source research and rely on second-hand sources.
What is even worse, Boettner seems to have no appreciation of the Catholic Church from the inside. He seems to have made little effort to learn what the Catholic Church says about itself or how Catholics answer the objections he makes. His "inside information" comes from disaffected ex-priests such as Emmett McLoughlin and L. H. Lehmann, or outright crackpots like the nineteenth-century sensationalist Charles Chiniquy.
The bibliography lists more books by ex-Catholics with grudges than by Catholics. Of the mere seven books he cites written by Catholics, one is an inspirational text (by Archbishop Fulton Sheen), one concerns Catholic principles of politics (a topic hardly touched on by Boettner), three are overviews of the Catholic faith written for laymen (one dates from 1876), and the last is a one-volume abridgment of Philip Hughes’s three-volume work, A History of the Church, from which Boettner takes a few lines (out of context) because, in isolation, they look compromising. These books are all fine in themselves but refer to only a fraction of the topics Boettner writes about, and none of them were written as a response to Protestant arguments. On most issues he provides only a statement of the Fundamentalist position, which he contrasts to a caricature of the Catholic position as set out by one of the ex-priests he cites.
It may be that a man leaving one religion for another can write fairly, without bitterness, about the one he left behind. John Henry Newman did so in his autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. But some people have an urge to write about their change of beliefs to vent their frustrations or justify their actions. Their books should be read and used with discretion, and if they show signs of rancor or bitterness, they shouldn’t be regarded as trustworthy, unbiased explanations of the religion they abandoned. Alas, Boettner can’t keep away from such books. He even uses works by the notorious anti-Catholic writer Paul Blanshard, whose writings were so contorted they were disavowed in the 1950s by other anti-Catholics.
Do Your Homework First
When writing about his own faith, Boettner remarks that the Evangelical or Fundamentalist position "came down through the ante-Nicene Fathers and Augustine," which suggests that he accepts as in some way authoritative Christian writings prior to 430, the year of Augustine’s death. But Boettner shows virtually no familiarity with the patristic writings of the first several centuries of the Christian era. His book includes only six references to Augustine and nine to Augustine’s contemporary, Jerome. There is one mention of Pope Gelasius I, who lived a century later, and the next oldest writers cited are from the Middle Ages.
Boettner could have examined Patrology, Johannes Quasten’s four-volume work on the writings of the early Church, composed in the decade before Roman Catholicism was written; or Joseph Tixeront’s History of Dogmas, an older but standard Catholic work on historical theology. Even a casual reading of these works would have demonstrated to him that from the earliest years distinctive Catholic doctrines were held and taught by the Church—belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, a hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, the Mass as a sacrifice, the special authority of the bishop of Rome, prayers for the dead—and he would have seen that the contrary Fundamentalist positions he espouses are not supported. He thinks he knows what Augustine and the other Fathers wrote, but he gives no impression that he is at all familiar with their writings.
In the chapter on Mary he claims, "The phrase ‘Mother of God’ originated in the Council of Ephesus, in the year 431." Boettner makes a score of blunders here. Does he expect his readers to believe that the phrase "Mother of God" was never used until the day it became a dogma? He presupposes that his readers trust him with a blind obedience, never bothering to do the homework that he failed to do.
By suggesting that a doctrine is not taught until it is infallibly defined, one could equally argue that no one believed that Jesus was God until the Council of Nicaea defined the matter in 325. The divinity of Christ was taught centuries before Nicaea, just as the phrase "Mother of God" permeated the writings of the Church Fathers long before Ephesus. Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Ambrose, Jerome, and numerous others took for granted that Mary could rightly be given this title. Boettner curiously omits reference to these, as they would decimate his argument.
In his introduction, Boettner boasts: "Let Protestants challenge Rome to full and open debate regarding the distinctive doctrines that separate the two systems, and it will be seen that the one thing Rome does not want is public discussion." The curious thing is that many of the anti-Catholic groups that rely so heavily on Boettner are unwilling to engage in public debates.
Many representatives of such groups will give talks at Fundamentalist churches to stoke the fires of anti-Catholicism, and those in the audience will be sent to stand outside Catholic churches and distribute tracts. But challenge any to a debate and what happens? The people with the tracts will say they have to check with their pastors. Besides, they say, they aren’t professional debaters and don’t want to be set up. Their pastors refuse to sanction any public forums because they say they "don’t see the need," or they worry about heat from their congregations for consorting with papists. Is this the "full and open debate" Boettner calls for?
Many Protestants—whether or not they realize how inaccurate and unscholarly Boettner’s work is—look to Roman Catholicism for their arguments against the Catholic Church. Catholics should prepare themselves for discussions with Protestants by studying Scripture and Church history and by reading solid books on apologetics. That way they will be prepared to heed Peter’s exhortation: "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (1 Pet. 3:15).
NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004