You have identified two axioms as definitional of the Roman Catholic system. One of these is the relationship between Christ and the church. How is this relationship understood in Roman Catholicism and what is the Protestant response?
In Roman Catholicism, there is a tendency to believe that the church continues in significant ways the incarnation of Jesus Christ; this results in an ecclesiology that is conflated with Christology. The distinction between Creator and creature is blurred by way of conferring to the church what ultimately belongs to the triune God alone. Because of this confused relationship between Christology and ecclesiology, the church developed a self-understanding that made it possible for the institution to claim absolute power (the kingly office), exclusive mediation (the priestly office), and supreme authority in teaching (the prophetic office), all in the name of Christ. These deviations from biblical teaching derive from this flawed Christ-church interconnection. The great bullet points of the Protestant Reformation—Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, the glory of God alone—are biblical remedies against the idolatrous tendency of any church.
What is the biggest misunderstanding that evangelicals have about Roman Catholicism?
In my view, it has to do with the attention given to bits and pieces of the Roman Catholic system while failing to grasp the big picture that makes it what it is. This selective and atomistic approach prevents one from appreciating the institutional outlook, the theological stratification, the historical developments and the overall vision of the Roman Church. This system is designed to combine the Roman element (the imperial claims centered on the hierarchical structure of Rome) and the catholic one (its all-embracing strategy absorbing all trends and movements). Many evangelicals see in Roman Catholicism what they like to see or are able to see (for example, a Roman Catholic friend or relative, a movement with which they have sympathies, a particular practice they support or dislike, a popular pope, etc.), not what it is. In this case, the few particulars become the whole. Roman Catholicism is not a bunch of disconnected elements but a well-crafted worldview embodied by a global institution. It is time that we shift from an atomistic approach to a systemic evaluation of it.
What does faith and practice look like for the average Roman Catholic?
In contexts where the majority of people are Roman Catholics, many people are only nominal in their religion. They think they “belong” to the church because they were baptized there, but they pick and choose when it comes to their beliefs. In Latin contexts, both European and American ones, the standard Roman Catholicism is deeply characterized by Marian devotions and other devotions more than anything else. Moreover, this Roman Catholicism is so culturally embedded (through family ties or nationality, for example) that it becomes indistinguishable from deeply felt personal and social identities. It’s a great challenge to bring the gospel to such contexts.
In areas where Roman Catholicism is not the majority faith, it tends to resemble the mainstream religious form that is prevalent there. So in the United States, for example, there are so-called “evangelical” Catholics—people who use a kind of evangelical language when speaking of their faith and do things that look evangelical, such as personal prayer and Bible reading. I disagree with using the phrase evangelical Catholic because Roman Catholicism is not committed to Scripture alone, grace alone, and faith alone. Ultimately, you cannot be evangelical and Roman Catholic at the same time. It is only when you have a blurred and confused idea of what evangelical means that you can combine it with Roman Catholicism.