Christian or Pagan?
The Roman Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome, Italy, has its own powerful City-State, the Vatican, and claims over 968 million members worldwide and 60 million in the U.S. and Canada (as of 1996). (Catholic membership figures are considerably misleading, though, in that they count as members every person who has been baptized Catholic, including millions of people who were baptized as infants but who are not practicing Catholics.) The Roman Catholic Church, in its pagan form, unofficially came into being in 312 A.D., at the time of the so-called "miraculous conversion" to Christianity of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Although Christianity was not made the official religion of the Roman Empire until the edicts of Theodosius I in 380 and 381 A.D., Constantine, from 312 A.D. until his death in 337, was engaged in the process of simultaneously building pagan temples and Christian churches, and was slowly turning over the reigns of his pagan priesthood to the Bishop of Rome. However, the family of Constantine did not give up the last vestige of his priesthood until after the disintegration of the Roman Empire -- that being the title the emperors bore as heads of the pagan priesthood -- Pontifex Maximus -- a title which the popes would inherit. (The popes also inherited Constantine's titles as the self-appointed civil head of the church -- Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Bishops.) Have I seen the truth.
Prior to the time of Constantine's "conversion," Christians were persecuted not so much for their profession of faith in Christ, but because they would not include pagan deities in their faith as well. Then, with Constantine's emphasis on making his new-found Christianity palatable to the heathen in the Empire, the "Christianization" of these pagan deities was facilitated. For example, pagan rituals and idols gradually took on Christian meanings and names and were incorporated into "Christian" worship (e.g., "saints" replaced the cult of pagan gods in both worship and as patrons of cities; mother/son statues were renamed Mary and Jesus; many times), and pagan holidays were reclassified as Christian holy days (e.g., the Roman Lupercalia and the feast of purification of Isis became the Feast of the Nativity; the Saturnalia celebrations were replaced by Christmas celebrations; an ancient festival of the dead was replaced by All Souls Day, rededicated to Christian heroes [now Hallowe'en]; etc.). A transition had occurred -- instead of being persecuted for failure to worship pagan deities, Christians who did not agree with the particular orthodoxy backed by the Emperor were now persecuted in the name of Christ! "Christianized" Rome had become the legitimate successor of pagan Rome! This is the sad origin of the Roman Catholic Church.
Below are the highlights of what Catholics believe concerning their source of authority; God, Christ, and Mary; salvation and the sacraments; and heaven and hell. So much more could be said concerning not only the items listed below, but also concerning other areas of Catholic teaching (such as the claims of the Roman priesthood and its supposed origin in the Apostles; the nature of the pope's alleged infallibility and the supposed origin of his office in the Apostle Peter; the nature of the Confessional; the doctrine of penance/indulgences; practices concerning rituals, ceremonies, and relics; the doctrine of Celibacy; policies on marriage and divorce; the role of the parochial school; etc.). Excellent reference sources for a thorough treatment of Catholicisms origins, beliefs, and practices would be Roman Catholicism (466 ppgs.) and A Woman Rides the Beast (544 ppgs.).
1. Source of Authority. With respect to the Bible, Catholics accept the apocryphal books in addition to the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. They also accept tradition and the teaching of the Catholic Church as authoritative and at least equal to that of the Bible (cf. Mk. 7:8,9,13; Matt. 15:3,6,9; Col. 2:8). With respect to papal infallibility, Catholics believe that ecumenical councils of bishops and the pope are immune from error when speaking ex cathedra about faith and morals (i.e., "from the chair" -- by sole virtue of position or the exercise of an office). (And by "infallible," Catholics mean much more than merely a simple, de facto absence of error -- it is positive perfection, ruling out the possibility of error. For more on infallibility, see notes on Vatican II below). In actuality, Roman Catholicism places itself above Scripture; i.e., it teaches that the Roman Catholic Church produced the Bible and that the pope is Christ's vicar on earth. Catholics also maintain the belief in sacerdotalism -- that an ordained Catholic priest has the power to forgive sins (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5).
2. Jesus Christ. Catholicism teaches that Christ is God, but they, nevertheless, do not believe that Christ's death paid the full penalty for sin; i.e., they believe that those who qualify for heaven must still spend time in purgatory to atone for sin (cf. Jn. 19: 30; Heb. 10:11,12).
3. Mary. The Catholic Church gives honor and adoration to Mary that the Scriptures do not; she is readily referred to as "holy," the "Mother of God," and has been dubbed the "Co-Redemptrix," thereby making her an object of idolatrous worship (e.g., the rosary has ten prayers to Mary for each two directed to God). In 1923, Pope Pius XI sanctioned Pope Benedict XV's (1914-1922) pronouncement that Mary suffered with Christ, and that with Him, she redeemed the human race. And Pope Pius XII officially designated Mary the "Queen of Heaven" and "Queen of the World." Catholics claim not only that Mary was perfectly sinless from conception, even as Jesus was (doctrine of Immaculate Conception, proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854), but that the reason she never sinned at any time during her life was because she was unable to sin (cf. Lk. 1:46,47; Rom. 3:10,23; 5:12; Heb. 4:15; 1 Jn. 1:8,10). Catholics also believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin (cf. Ps. 69:8; Matt. 1:24,25; 13:54-56; Mk. 6:3; Jn. 7:5), and that she was assumed, body and soul, into heaven (doctrine of Assumption of Mary, declared ex cathedra by Pope Pius XII in November of 1950 -- that Mary was raised from the dead on the third day after her death, and anyone who refuses to believe this has committed a mortal sin). The consequence of all this veneration of Mary, in effect, establishes her authority above Christ's -- Rome says, "He came to us through Mary and we must go to Him through her." All this is so obviously idolatrous, one wonders why Catholics take offense when their religious affections are called cultic.
4. Salvation. Catholics teach that a person is saved through the Roman Catholic Church and its sacraments, especially through baptism; they do not believe that salvation can be obtained by grace through faith in Christ alone, but that baptism is essential for salvation. Catholics believe that no one outside the Catholic Church can be saved (Unum Sanctum) (cf. Jn. 5:24; Eph. 2: 8,9; Gal. 2:21; Rom. 3:22,23). (See also The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism and the New Catholic Catechism (paras 819 and 846.) They also believe that one's own suffering can expiate the sin's of himself and of others, so that what Christ's suffering was not able to achieve, one can achieve by his own works and the works of others (Vatican II).
5. Sacraments. Catholics have seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist (mass), penance/reconciliation (indulgences), extreme unction (last rights), marriage, and orders (ordination). Although not even formally decreed until the Council of Florence in 1439, the Council of Trent later declared all to be anathema whom do not hold Rome's position that it was Christ Himself who instituted these seven sacraments! (The idea behind the sacraments is that the shedding of Christ's Blood in His death upon the cross is of no value unless it is somehow dispensed and applied "sacramentally" by the Catholic priesthood.) Although Catholics believe that the first five sacraments are indispensable for salvation (because without any one of them, a mortal sin has been committed), baptism is considered the most important. Catholics believe that a person enters into the spiritual life of the Church through baptism; i.e., baptismal regeneration -- that a person can be saved through baptism (actually, 'on the road to salvation,' because Catholics never know exactly when they are saved). They practice infant baptism because they believe baptism erases original sin (cf. Jn. 3:18).
6. The Mass. Unknown in the early church, the mass did not become an official doctrine until pronounced by the Lateran Council of 1215 under the direction of Pope Innocent III, and reaffirmed by the Council of Trent. The Church of Rome holds that the mass is a continuation of the sacrifice that Christ made on Calvary -- in effect a re-crucifixion of Christ over and over again in an unbloody manner (cf. Heb. 9:22; 1 Jn. 1:7). They believe that by this means Christ offers Himself again and again as a sacrifice for sin (cf. Heb. 7:27; 9:12,25,26; 10:10,12,14,18), and that this sacrifice is just as efficacious to take away sin as was the true sacrifice on Calvary. Catholics thus teach the doctrine of transubstantiation (meaning a change of substance) -- that the bread and wine (at communion) actually become (by the power of the priest!) the body and blood of Christ, which is then worshiped as God Himself! Indeed, the sacrifice of the mass is the central point of Catholic worship, as evidenced by the fact that those abstaining from attending mass are considered to have committed a mortal sin.