Can Catholics be Saved?

Question
I was reading the article, "Which is the True Church?" on your website and I am really blown away that you say Roman Catholics are part of the true church though their doctrine can be amiss. Their doctrine is not the Bible but what the pope interprets. They worship Mary and pray to her. I am just blown away with seeing this as Reformed!
Answer
I believe the article you refer to is addressed below. I would agree with you that there are quite a number of significant differences between Calvinism and Roman Catholicism. Ra McLaughlin highlights some larger ones in another article (copied here):

Faith, Works and Justification: Calvinism teaches that we are justified by faith apart from works (Rom. 3:20-28; 4:1-5; 9:30-32; Gal. 2:16; 3:1-14), but that once we believe with true faith we necessarily do good works as a result (Eph. 2:8-10; Jam. 2:14,17). Catholicism teaches that we are justified by faith and by the good works that flow from that faith (Jam. 2:21-22). The Roman Catholic Counsel of Trent anathematized this Calvinistic view.

Definition of Justification: Part of the disagreement between the Calvinists and Roman Catholics on the issue of the relationship between faith, works and justification stems from a disagreement over the definition of "justify." Roman Catholics generally argue that to justify someone is to recognize that the person really is righteous. Thus, they read James 2:21-22 to teach that Abraham reached a point of actual righteousness when he passed the test of being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. Calvinists, on the other hand, recognize two definitions for "justify" (most words may have more than one meaning), seeing that it sometimes means "vindicate" or "validate," and sometimes it means "to count a person as if he were righteous, even though he really isn't." For example, when Abraham believed God, God counted Abraham as if he were actually righteousness (Gen. 15:6), even though Abraham had not yet done any good works since believing. Calvinists teach that the only one who is truly righteous enough to be saved is Christ himself (Rom. 3:9-20; 5:15-19), and that Christ shares his own status as "righteous" with those who are united to him by faith (Gal. 3:17-29). The first definition, "vindication," is the one Calvinists apply to James 2:21-22. Calvinists believe the context in James 2 is not contrasting, on the one hand, true faith plus good works, and, on the other hand, true faith without works. Rather, Calvinists argue that James is contrasting two kinds of faith, one that produces good works (true faith) and one that does not produce good works (false faith). "Vindication" seems the best definition in this passage, according to Calvinists, because Abraham was already reckoned as righteous when he believed God in Genesis 15 -- many years before God "tested" (Gen. 22:1) his faith. The test was to determine whether or not Abraham's faith was true (Gen. 22:12), not to cause Abraham to do enough good works to earn his justification.

Predestination: Calvinists hold to the view of predestination taught by St. Augustine. Roman Catholics hold to a modified version of St. Augustine's view. Specifically, Calvinists believe that God predestined whom he wanted to predestine, without consideration of the predestined people's merits. Roman Catholics teach that predestination was somewhat conditioned upon the merits of those predestined.

The Church and Apostolic Succession: Roman Catholics teach that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church, and that the pope is the supreme authority over the church, having received his authority by direct apostolic succession from Peter. Calvinists teach that there is no such thing as apostolic succession which hands such authority down from person to person, and that there is no single visible entity or church which may be identified as "the true church."

Infallibility: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the pope when speaking ex cathedra, as well as the church when met in ecumenical council, can never err. Calvinists deny this claim as unfounded in Scripture.

Scripture and Tradition: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that church tradition is equally authoritative with the Bible. Calvinists reserve supreme authority to the Bible alone, observing that tradition has often strayed from the Bible.

Interpretation of Scripture: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that it has the final say regarding any interpretation of Scripture, such that no one may ever correct the church by suggesting that its official doctrines are not in accordance with Scripture. Any challenge to the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine can be refuted by its claim to authoritative interpretation. Calvinists believe there is no authoritative human interpretation, and that authority belongs to God. For Calvinists, interpretations are authoritative only insofar as they are true, and they believe that the Roman Catholic Church has frequently misinterpreted Scripture.

Freewill: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Fall did not remove from man the ability to respond in faith to the gospel. Calvinists believe that the Fall did remove this ability, and that any time a person comes to salvation it is because God has renewed that person's heart to respond positively in faith (John 6:44; Acts 16:14; Rom. 8:1-8).
People are not saved by doctrine or their knowledge thereof (a form of Gnosticism). Some within the Roman Catholic Church are Christians. They have been saved by grace alone despite what their denomination claims to believe. Remember what Ra's definition of a true church:
"There are various ways of describing the true church. My preference is to speak of it as the body that contains the faithful remnant. Faithfulness, in turn, is not reckoned by purity of doctrine." Later he states, "Moreover, although the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches teach many false doctrines, and obscure the gospel by so doing, they have not so obliterated the gospel that no remnant remains of the pure gospel in their preaching, or that no person can be saved by listening to their preaching. I believe that there are saved individuals within both churches, meaning that both communities contain part of the remnant. According to the definition of the true church employed in my first paragraph, these churches both qualify as "true."
John Calvin states:
The name of God is indeed called indiscriminately on all, who are deemed his people. As it was formerly given to the whole seed of Abraham, so it is at this day conferred on all who are consecrated to his name by holy baptism, and who boast themselves to be Christians and the sons of the Church; and this belongs even to the Papists" (Calvin's Commentaries, 1539 Latin, Baker Book House English reprint [1850] 1993, Vol. 9, p. 285).
Another excellent reformed scholar, Francis Turretin, defines the essentially true church (esse) as having one mark, viz., the profession of Christianity and gospel truth:

The Church of Rome can be regarded under a twofold view (schesei); either as it is Christian, with regard to the profession of Christianity and of Gospel truth which it retains; or Papal, with regard to subjection to the pope, and corruptions and capital errors (in faith as well as morals) which she has mingled with and built upon those truths besides and contrary to the Word of God. We can speak of it in different ways. In the former respect, we do not deny that there is some truth in it; but in the latter (under which it is regarded here) we deny it can be called Christian and Apostolic, but Antichristian and Apostate (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1696 Latin, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing English translation, 1997, Vol. 3, p. 121).
Thus, with Turretin (quoted in part from The Covenanted Reformation Defended):
The Church of Rome (which retains the single mark: a profession of gospel truth) is designated a true church when compared to Pagans. Turretin, like Calvin, is saying that in the Roman Catholic Church there remains a possibility of salvation which is not true in a Pagan group, and in this sense he is willing to call them a Christian church, a true church essential, or a truly constituted church. On the other hand Turretin makes it clear that when he considers the Catholic Church as Papal [which term he uses differently then Calvin's Papists] he designates her a false church and Antichristian. Notice here, that by distinguishing between the being and wellbeing of the Church of Rome Turretin calls them a true church (as to being) and a false church (as to wellbeing) at the same time. It is significant to recognize this point, which to some seems like a contradiction throughout the writings of the Reformers. A true church can, at the same time, be considered true in one sense while false in another. In this case Turretin is saying that though the Romish church is essentially Christian (esse) it has strayed so far from its Christian foundation that it must be called false (bene esse).
I concur that there are saved individuals within the Roman Catholic Church. In addition, it is possible to be under the teaching of false doctrine and still be saved (Rev. 2-3). And is also possible to be under the correct teaching of the Word of God and be lost. All of the Apostle Paul's letters were corrective of doctrine. In the early church, many theological controversies arose with Christians on both sides of certain issues. Luther and Calvin both were Catholics (but fought against many of the beliefs of the church). This said, some issues can't be disagreed upon and one really be a Christian. Perhaps the reason one disagrees on some issues is because they don't know Christ.

A further distinction also needs to be made between the "visible" and "invisible" church (see below). The "invisible" church constitutes those throughout all ages that are truly saved. They are the elect. However, the "visible" church contains both the elect and non-elect throughout all the ages. So, in our definition of a true church and the denominationally visible one, we need to understand that there will be the lost in it and with this also false doctrine taught at numerous levels.

Related Material:

Are all Protestants going to Hell (Catholic Dogma)?
Is Purgatory Biblical?
Is Catholic Penance Biblical?
Lessons on Repentance - Psalm 51
Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22
What is the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?
What is the Immaculate Conception?
Praying the Rosary?
Catholics and Justification?
The Catholic Bible?
Apocrypha Accounts?
Transubstantiation vs. Consubstantiation vs. Memorialism vs Reformed?
Hahn's Hersey: The Four Cups?
Pre-Apostolic Succession ???
What are the three types of Merit?
Can Catholics be Saved?
Are all Protestants going to Hell (Catholic Dogma)?
Was Peter the First Pope?
Who is the One True Church?
Do you agree with what the Roman Catholic teaches?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).