That many Roman Catholics, past and present, are true Christians, is a palpable fact. It is a fact which no man can deny without committing a great sin. It is a sin against Christ not to acknowledge as true Christians those who bear his image, and whom He recognizes as his brethren. It is a sin also against ourselves. We are not born of God unless we love the children of God. If we hate and denounce those whom Christ loves as members of his own body, what are we? It is best to be found on the side of Christ, let what will happen. It is perfectly consistent, then, for a man to denounce the papacy as the man of sin, and yet rejoice in believing, and in openly acknowledging, that there are, and ever have been, many Romanists who are the true children of God.
That Romanists as a society profess the true religion, meaning thereby the essential doctrines of the gospel, those doctrines which if truly believed will save the soul, is, as we think, plain. . . . If this creed were submitted to any intelligent Christian without his knowing whence it came, could he hesitate to say that it was the creed of a Christian church? Could he deny that these are the very terms in which for ages the general faith of Christendom has been expressed? Could he, without renouncing the Bible, say that the sincere belief of these doctrines would not secure eternal life? Can any man take it upon himself in the sight of God, to assert there is not truth enough in the above summary to save the soul? If not, then a society professing that creed professes the true religion in the sense stated above.
The great Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge held the view that the Roman Catholic Church is a part of the visible church of Christ. (You can read his statement and argument for this position here.)
What does it mean for a church to be part of the "visible church of Christ"? What is the "visible church"? Hodge's terminology traces back to classic Protestant usage, and particularly to the classic Presbyterian statement of doctrine, the Westminster Confession of Faith. Here is how the Confession describes the invisible church and the visible church:
1. The catholic or universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.
2. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
3. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.
4. This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
5. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error: and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will. (Westminster Confession, Chapter 25)
The "visible church" is the true church of Christ as far as it can be seen in this world. It is "the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God." Its members are "all those who profess the true religion" as well as "their children." The visible church has the institutions and authority of Christ to do the work of his church. There are visible churches that are more pure, and some that are less pure. Hodge regarded the Catholic Church as a much less pure church, but still a part of the visible church. The alternative to being a visible church is being a synagogue of Satan. (Consistent with this view of the Catholic Church, according to this source Hodge argued that it was better to support the building of Catholic churches in areas where there was no other church than to have no church at all.)
When Pope Pius IX invited Protestants to sit in on the first Vatican Council (1869-1870), Hodge wrote a letter to him explaining why the American Presbyterian churches must decline the invitation. Most of the letter consists of criticism of Catholic doctrine and arguments for the Protestant view. But Hodge ends his letter in an interesting way:
Other and equally cogent reasons might be assigned why we cannot with a good conscience be represented in the proposed Council. But as the Council of Trent, whose canons are still in force, pronounces all accursed who hold the principles above enumerated, nothing further is necessary to show that our declining your invitation is a matter of necessity.
Nevertheless, although we cannot return to the fellowship of the Church of Rome, we desire to live in charity with all men. We love all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. We regard as Christian brethren all who worship, love and obey him as their God and Saviour, and we hope to be united in heaven with all who unite with us on earth in saying, ‘Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (Rev. 1:6).
My family and I are on track to become members in full communion with the Catholic Church this coming March. According to Hodge, once we do so, we will be members of the visible church of Christ, professors of the true religion, brothers and sisters in Christ (at least insofar as such a thing appears outwardly). I hope that all our Protestant friends and acquaintances will view us and treat us as such, following Hodge. And I hope in general that Hodge's attitude will continue to spread among Protestants.
ADDENDUM 10/14/15: Someone wrote to me and offered a criticism of my post:
You are misrepresenting the teachings of Hodge in your latest post. Your quotes are selective and ignore his clear charges against Rome. It is one thing to recognize Roman Catholic baptism; it is something altogether different to respect your purposeful abandonment of truth for the superstitions and corruptions of Rome. You have no basis for arguing that he would accept your embrace of Rome.
I have no desire to debate anything with you, but I think your post would be more honest if you included Hodge's statement in the same context: "We admit that Rome has grievously apostatized from the faith, the order and the worship of the church; that she has introduced a multitude of false doctrines, a corrupt and superstitious and even idolatrous worship, and a most oppressive and cruel government. . ."
There is no doubt that Hodge was no fan of Roman Catholicism. I didn't ignore that fact in my post. I indicated that, according to the Westminster Confession, "[t]here are visible churches that are more pure, and some that are less pure. Hodge regarded the Catholic Church as a much less pure church, but still a part of the visible church." I indicated that Hodge spent most of his letter to Pope Pius IX in "criticism of Catholic doctrine and arguments for the Protestant view." I provided links for those who would wish to read more of what Hodge has said on these matters.
The quotation my correspondent gave above is from the article I linked to in the very second sentence of my post. Notice the dot dot dot at the end of my correspondent's quotation? I think it might be instructive to provide the rest of Hodge's sentence (and the next subsequent sentence):
We admit that Rome has grievously apostatized from the faith, the order and the worship of the church; that she has introduced a multitude of false doctrines, a corrupt and superstitious and even idolatrous worship, and a most oppressive and cruel government; but since as a society she still retains the profession of saving doctrines, and as in point of fact, by those doctrines men are born unto God and nurtured for heaven, we dare not deny that she is still a part of the visible church. We consider such a denial a direct contradiction of the Bible, and of the facts of God’s providence.
What my correspondent would see as two contradicting truths are for Hodge complementary truths. You can read his article for his whole case. There is no doubt that Hodge was a great opponent of Catholic doctrine. In fact, I'll go one step further and point out that (unlike my correspondent) Hodge held the view of the Westminster Confession that the papacy is the biblical Antichrist. But for Hodge, this doesn't imply that the Catholic Church is not part of the visible church. Rather the contrary. Hodge actually argues in favor of the Catholic Church being a part of the visible church from the doctrine that the papacy is Antichrist: "It was within the limits of the church the great anti-christian power was to arise; it was in the church the man of sin was to exalt himself; and it was over the church he was to exercise his baneful and cruel power."
So no, if you want to go to Hodge to find approval of Roman Catholic doctrine, you are not going to find it there. But what you will find there is the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is a part of the visible church. In fact, pointing out the strength of Hodge's antipathy to Roman Catholic doctrine makes that point stronger. Hodge provides a good model of how we can be nuanced in dealing with people with whom we strongly disagree. Hodge put it this way (in the last paragraph of his article):
[I]t is said we give up too much to the papists if we admit Romanists to be in the church. To this we answer, Every false position is a weak position. The cause of truth. The cause of truth suffers in no way more than from identifying it with error, which is always done when its friends advocate it on false principles. When one says, we favor intemperance, unless we say that the use of intoxicating liquors is sinful; another, that we favor slavery, unless we say slaveholding is a sin; and a third, that we favor popery unless we say the church of Rome is no church, they all, as it seems to us, make the same mistake, and greatly injure the cause in which they are engaged.
ADDENDUM 10/15/15: I have created a new post containing other quotations from Charles Hodge regarding "Romanists" and the Catholic Church being Christian. It is here.
ADDENDUM 7/19/2016: As of this past March, we are members in full communion with the Catholic Church--and therefore, according to Hodge, of the visible church, "the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God."