Many Protestants say that Catholicism is simply not part of Christianity. They say that Catholic views about justification and salvation in general are not compatible with what the Bible teaches about such matters, and in fact Catholics are teaching what Paul in Galatians calls another gospel, which is not really a gospel at all but something else. Paul was right to condemn the Galatian heresy as another gospel, which is not really a gospel at all but something else. It's quite clear to me that Catholics do not teach or believe the Galatian heresy, however. That leaves it open that Catholic teaching is another gospel besides the Christian one, but if so it's not the one Paul was confronting in Galatians, as many Protestants seem to insist on.
My own view is that some elements within the Catholic church do teach and believe something that might be characterized as another gospel and thus might not saved according to what the Bible teaches about salvation. I'm not sure if this view is another gospel, but it might well be. However, I also firmly believe that many within the Catholic church do not believe another gospel at all. Now that I've said both those statements, let me point out that what I said is consistent with saying that from the top the Catholic view is another gospel, and many within the RCC are faithful to the true gospel despite that. It's also consistent with saying that from the top the view is the true gospel, and many within the RCC depart from that. I actually think both of those would be false, and the reasons are fairly complicated. [Update: I've been corrected on some of what follows. See this post for more information. Apparently Cardinal Ratzinger was not behind the opposition to the Joint Declaration. He in fact opposed that opposition.] The fact is that there isn't a teaching that can be said to be from the top, because the Pope John Paul II and [Update: some within] the catechizing wing of the Vatican have endorsed conflicting theologies, one of them as far as I can tell fully consistent with Reformation theology, at least on the matter of justification.
The Official Catholic View of Justification
The Council of Trent anathematized Protestants, claiming that Luther and those who followed his teachings were believing a doctrine contrary to the truth, one that should be condemned. This has been the basis of Protestants' condemnation of Roman Catholicism for centuries, because it's fairly obvious to most Protestants that their own views are closer to the historic Christian gospel of the New Testament than the views Catholics have taken in contrast to those of Luther. It's not entirely clear that the current Catholic understandings of their official position, taught in the official catechism, are the same as those taught in the days of Luther and in the days of Trent. My concern right now is not with what the views of that time were but with what Catholics today say about the Protestant statement of the gospel and what they say in contrast to it about their own understanding of the gospel.
The official Catholic view according to the catechism, run by the teaching wing of the Vatican, is what might be called semi-Pelagian. Augustine and Pelagius debated over whether justification comes from God before we begin our development in Christian life or whether it's something we bring upon ourselves by our own effort. Pelagius believed that we could bring ourselves to holiness by our own effort, fully apart from God. Augustine countered that it requires a work of God for that holy life even to be possible. Augustine was clearly the winner of that debate, both on the merits of his arguments (because he was arguing what scripture teaches from scripture) and in terms of which view was accepted by the authorities. The church took Augustine's side eventually. What's happened since then is that one element of Pelagian thinking has taken a seat in a generally Augustinian picture, which is why Catholic theology is sometimes called semi-Pelagian. I'll get to exactly which element that is shortly, but first it's important to see the views of Martin Luther as a contrast.
Luther and the Protestants who came after him taught that justification is a work of God's grace, unearned in any sense. It's a legal declaration of righteousness based on the righteousness of Christ that we've taken on, but this all happens in one shot. It's not as if we're first made righteous and then declared righteous, and it's not as if we're fully righteous in the outworking of our lives before we're declared so. We're righteous now. Our life just doesn't reflect it. We have a nature of righteousness.
The Catholic view, on the other hand, is that God's grace initiates salvation. It gets people into the covenant, so to speak. Then God keeps them there by his grace in the same way Luther thought, by provoking good works, i.e. by the work of the Holy Spirit to bring people into the kind of holiness that God initiates in us from the moment his work first began. The difference between Catholics and Protestants is in what justification is. For Catholics, justification has generally been thought to be a being declared righteous at the end of one's life, on the basis of those works that were graciously bestowed on us by the work of God's Spirit. What's Pelagian about this is that the works do earn merit, on the basis of which God declares people righteous. What's Augustinian about it is that the works are a product of the grace of God and not something anyone can do without God's grace. This is something almost all Protestants fail to grasp about Catholicism. There is no such thing in Catholic teaching as salvation by works in the sense most Protestants talk about when they use that expression. It's salvation by grace, but that grace saves through the Holy Spirit's producing of works.
Many Reformed types will declare this to be salvation by works, but they're just wrong. It's salvation by grace through works, whereas Paul said we're saved by grace through faith and not as a result of works. In that, this view denies what the Bible teaches. The salvation is as a result of works. Yet it's not salvation by works any more than Protestants believe in salvation by faith (which the same types will say they believe in, but they don't, or they're as heretical as they say Catholics are, because faith is a work). The salvation is by grace in both cases. The difference is not in what grounds salvation, which is something we can't bring ourselves to achieve in either case. The difference is in what God's grace uses to bring it about. That's why it's only Semi-Pelagian. So those who claim that Catholics believe in salvation by grace are just misinformed and attacking a straw man.
There is one statement in James that Catholics use to support the claim that faith alone does not save. That's James's own claim that faith alone does not save. After all, even the demons have faith. They do. They believe that Christ is who he said he was. They believe that people will be saved through him. There is one NT word for belief and faith. Demons believe. They don't believe in the way that we would now more specifically call faith. That kind of faith isn't what they have. James is right that belief alone isn't enough, and that's what Catholics mean when they say that salvation isn't by faith alone. It's a process that involves works, i.e. only those who believe who have the kind of belief that turns out to be genuine trust, genuine commitment to Christ as Lord, will be saved. Paul points out many times that lots of people will appear to be doing this, but their overall life will show that they hadn't been doing it at all. That's why faith alone is not sufficient. This is the point of James 2.
At the same time, there's something Protestants should still disagree with the official Catholic catechism about, because Paul teaches that the legal declaration of justification, of having the righteousness of Christ, is something necessary at the outset. It's not merely a declaration at the end of time that works generated by God's grace have been righteous works, though these really only could come from the work of the Holy Spirit, and therefore such a judgment based on works would save only those who have a genuine work of God in their life. The people who would be saved thus turn out to be the same people. The basis of judgment is different, however. It's not based on whether God has produced those works, but it's based on a declaration at the outset.
Is the Catholic View a Heresy?
There are actually some Protestant theologians who want to say that both judgments will happen, and that's a position that I suspect is both logically consistent and consistent with scripture. The question is whether it's believing a different gospel to believe only in the later judgment, the one based on works of the Holy Spirit in one's life. I don't know what to think about this. People I greatly respect take different sides on the question. Some of the more hard-nosed ones on the side that says it's a different gospel are becoming less worthy of respect in my eyes, however, because they don't seem to me to understand the Catholic view as I've just explained it. They think the Catholic view is the Galatian heresy, which scripture explicitly says doesn't lead to salvation. That's not the case, however.
The Galatian heresy takes a work as the foundation of salvation. You can't get into the covenant without circumcision, at least for men. I'm not sure what it says about women, but I assume it would be simply that women would be in if their family head is. That work, and not God's grace, is thus the basis of the very entry into the covenant. That flat out denies the gospel as taught in the scriptures. The Catholic view, on the other hand, does not take any human work as a foundation. God's grace is the foundation. Works will follow, and a judgment at the end is based on God's divinely-inspired works in the person, but those works aren't the basis of anything. That's the crucial reason why Catholics do not believe the Galatian heresy or really anything like it. What they do believe is much closer to the Protestant view, and that's why I'm not going to take a stance on whether it counts as a different gospel. I'm not sure the scriptures tell us whether such a view so counts.
I will say one thing, though. I see statements in scripture that say that people must believe Christ and that people must believe in Christ as the Messiah who saves his people from their sins. Otherwise they will not be saved. I see statements that people must serve Christ as Lord, or they are not his true followers. I haven't seen in the biblical accounts of what it takes to be saved that someone must have all their theology straight. I don't see anything requiring that you understand the basis of how Christ's death achieves salvation. I see nothing expecting people to believe certain views about what justification entails.
For that reason, I see no reason to declare that someone is not saved simply for not believing the specifics of the gospel I have outlined so far in this post. One can follow Christ, trusting in him for salvation, admitting that his death is the foundation of such salvation, without understanding much of how that death is supposed to achieve salvation. One can submit to God's judgment and admit that we can't follow God's ways on our own, trusting that God's way of providing a means will be sufficient, all without having any idea how that trust leads to salvation. Therefore, I have great difficulty saying that someone who believes the official Catholic teaching does not do what the gospel requires. Even if an element of it is different from an important piece of what makes the gospel true, it's just not clear to me that the person doesn't believe in Christ and follow him in the only way Christ requires.
At the same time, I do think the official Catholic catechism is easily deceptive, and that's its real danger. I think it's easy to misunderstand what that catechism teaches and thus think that it really is works that save. I wonder how many thousands of Catholics believe that works will save them. I'm sure I know at least a hundred myself who believe that and are therefore not trusting in Christ but in their own works. Of course, this danger arises from the people who teach that faith saves as well. Those who believe that believing saves you run the danger of giving people the idea that they can earn their salvation by trusting in God hard enough, by having the hope with all their heart that they might have enough faith to be saved. That's just as much salvation by works as the other, and Protestants run that danger if they don't teach grace as the foundation of God's declaration of our righteousness.
The Joint Declaration and John Paul II
So much for the official catechism. At the outset, I said that Pope John Paul II has endorsed a different view. Here's how that came about. During the 20th Century, Catholic theologians began to do more in the realm of biblical scholarship. A number of these scholars have become quite well recognized among the best biblical scholars as having contributed much to the field in masterful ways. This includes such scholars as Raymond Brown, Roland Murphy, Rudolf Schnackenburg, Jerome Quinn, Francis Moloney, Daniel Harrington, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Joseph Fitzmyer. Some of these scholars have turned out to argue that the NT authors held views much like those of the Reformation figures such as Luther and Calvin. Fitzmyer and Johnson in particular sound very Protestant in their interpretations of Romans and in Johnson's case James as well. Their reading of the NT is much closer to Luther than to the Catholic catechism.
Apparently some of the higher-ups became influenced by this change. That's what, from the Catholic side, spurred on the Joint Declaration a few years back between the Catholics and the Lutherans, something that I think has been grossly misunderstood by many people who have written about it. What seems to have happened is that many Catholic theologians and biblical scholars came to a surprising conclusion. They discovered that Catholics have used the term 'justification' to describe what Protestant systematic theologians have called progressive sanctification, and Catholics who went back to Paul and saw his usage realized that all along Protestants have just been used the terminology the way Paul did. The pope caught wind of this and called for an exploration of what went on, which eventually led to the Joint Declaration.
This all stemmed from a desire that was shared by John Paul II that Catholics do something about a problem. They can't go back on Trent. It's an official council of the Roman Catholic Church, and those are like the laws of the Medes and Persians. They can't be changed. I think that's an irrational view, but that's how it is for Catholics. Yet it was clear to these people, including John Paul II, that Trent misunderstood Luther and anathematized him over something he didn't believe.
The view Trent anathematized is held by real people, but Luther wasn't one of them. Zane Hodges is a contemporary example of someone who holds this view. It says that salvation comes from mere intellectual assent (something James declares that even the demons have). Hodges doesn't represent his view this way, but that's what it amounts to. An act of that sort of minimal belief begins real salvation, even if the person turns out to demonstrate that there was never any work of the Holy Spirit to transform the person, never even any commitment to Christ as Lord. If that's all that takes to save someone, and they're saved permanently as a result, as Hodges thinks, then it really is a troublesome view. No wonder Trent declared Luther anathema if that's what they thought he believed!
The only problem is that Luther didn't hold such a view. He was quite committed to the doctrine of justification by faith, not by mere intellectual assent or emotional attachment + intellectual assent (which would distinguish someone from the demons, at least). Faith involves something further, a commitment of trust and a devotion to Christ as Lord. It also involves a genuine work of the Holy Spirit, something God won't go back on, and therefore a true case of conversion will be a permanent case of conversion. Some cases may appear to be conversions, and intellectual assent and emotional change may accompany them, but that is not the work of God. In the end, someone whose conversion is a real result of the work of the Holy Spirit will be someone who is transformed, whose life is holy. The outworking of that holiness is a process, at least until death, but the holiness in one's life if one is in Christ will have that effect.
In discovering that Luther didn't believe what they thought he did, and that Luther's views seem to fit very well with Paul's, it became clear to John Paul II that they really needed to struggle with what to do about Trent, because he and a number of other people close to him no longer believed they could anathematize Protestants as a whole. Yet they couldn't reverse a council. Therefore, what they ended up doing was reversing the judgment on Protestants in general and restricting it to what Trent declares if 'justification by faith' refers to this caricature of Protestantism that only some people actually hold to. Only the view described at Trent is anathema. The people thought to hold it are not, if indeed they don't hold it.
[Update: This is where I was most misreading what happend. See the link above in my update. Apparently Ratzinger had nothing to do with the objection to the Joint Declaration.] The teaching wing that produces the catechism, led by Cardinal Ratzinger, objected to the pope's actions on this issue, and the Vatican thus acted as if the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing. The pope signed this statement, and the catechism remained unchanged. Cardinal Ratzinger wasn't willing to modify it, but the pope wasn't willing to let that stop him from signing something that many key figures in the Catholic hierarchy believed, including him. This seems to show that there's a real division within the Catholic church on the matter of justification. I suspect that a good number of people high up in the hierarchy believe something much closer to what Protestants believe than the catechism would allow as it stands, and the pope was among them, given his efforts to spearhead this attempt to state that.
It remains to be seen what will happen with a new pope, and even that may not be fully definitive, because they may select someone a little older this time just so they don't have another long and influential pope for a little while. It would be like selecting Bush as Reagan-lite to honor Reagan but not expecting that he'd be a major policy-setter and not being confident enough in him to elect him for a second term. The way that last part has to be done for a pope is that they pick someone older, but otherwise many of those factors could guide the cardinals' decision. All this is to say that it may not be under the next pope that this issue will get settled. I've been wondering if any of the people they're talking about as possible candidates might have things to say on this issue, but no news organizations, including the Protestants ones I've seen, seem to be interested in this, though it's the most fundamental of all issues regarding the next pope as far as Protestants are concerned.
So what about the question that spurred this all on. What about the salvation of John Paul II? Ultimately it's not up to human beings to decide for any individual person whether that person believes the gospel. I was impressed at Ray Pritchard's attitude on the question of whether the Pope is in heaven. He criticizes some Catholic views he finds troubling, and he expresses his view that we shouldn't pronounce further on the pope's own internal spiritual state. That's not for us to know, pronounce, or presume. I do think there's some evidence against the common Protestant claim that John Paul II believed a gospel contrary to what Protestants believe the Bible teaches, so I wanted to make it clear why I think that. Ultimately, though, this is mere evidence, as is anything we can point to when it comes to matters of the heart. Judgment belongs only to God, because only God has any basis on which to judge. Still, we have some evidence, and my guess is that it points to John Paul II being with God now.