Catholic vs Protestant. What’s the difference?

When one hears the word “Christian,” they might think of the cross, or perhaps the fish symbol, or even condemning signs. This multitude of images is due to the extreme diversity within the Christian faith, which usually comes down to two sides: Catholics and Protestants. While they both stem from the same core values, there are some substantial differences that should be taken into consideration. A quick note, this article will not discuss all of the different branches among the Protestants, such as Baptists or Lutherans; precursor Christian groups, such as Messianic Jews or Orthodox Christians; or tangent religions; such as Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. However otherwise, here are some of the main issues.

Difference #1: Authority

In any religion, there has to be a claim of authority in order for the beliefs to be valid. Both branches believe in the authority of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, as well as the Holy Bible. The difference comes from who has the power of interpretation. In the Roman Catholic Church, there is a hierarchy of trained officials for the word of God, culminating with the Pope as the vicar of the church. Being a vicar means that the Pope is a substitute for Christ himself, and thus has infallible authority. It is more commonly believed in Protestant branches, however, that each individual has their own authority over their own faith and that all are equal and fallible, but everyone can connect directly to God through the Scripture itself, not through the teachings of a high priest like the Pope.

Difference #2: Mary, the Mother of Christ

Both Protestants and Catholics can agree that the Bible states that Mary, a mortal virgin, was blessed by God to become pregnant with the Messiah. In Catholic ideology, however, Mary was essentially forgiven of her sins and granted an immaculate soul with her immaculate conception. However, Protestants take issue with such a claim because they argue that it takes away from the need and validity of Christ. Essentially, a Protestant outlook on Mary is that she cannot be anything but a normal woman who had her own sins as well that had to be atoned for through Christ, and that her being the mother of Jesus is just a blessing God bestowed on her for being faithful.

Difference #3: Salvation

At the core of Christian doctrine, faith in Christ is the path to salvation. To a Catholic, one must first believe in Christ, but believing alone is not enough, as they must show their faith in order for it to be genuine. The sacraments are a series of works one must do in order to cement their salvation, as salvation is a lifelong and ongoing process, lest one turn away from the faith. Protestants tend to argue this claim that the sacraments are needed for salvation, claiming that the idea that one’s own works can pave the way for salvation lessens the claims of Christ as the Savior. To a Protestant, faith alone, or Sola Gratia, is the only way to salvation, like accepting a gift. Once one accepts the Holy Spirit through faith, they are saved from condemnation and their sins are justified before God.

Difference #4: Afterlife

Based on the Jewish belief in She’ol, or more precisely the compartmentalized version of it, both Catholics and Protestants believe in the two sections of the afterlife known as Heaven, the land of the righteous, and Hell, the land of the sinners. In the Catholic Church, however, there is a belief that there is a third compartment of the afterlife known as Purgatory. Catholics believe that upon death there will still be some sins to be atoned for after death that have not been confessed. Therefore, Purgatory exists to purge believers of their sins before they are allowed to enter Heaven. To Protestants, however, only Christ can pay for the sins of the world, and so upon death the permanent afterlife will either be Heaven or Hell.

Note that this is not a comprehensive list of all of the differences between the two branches. These four points are merely food for thought, not to tear apart either side of the debate. If you are looking for where God has called you to serve for a church, go to him through prayer and study ultimately, but knowing the general differences is key in conscious to discovering what doctrine you will adhere to bring him glory.


Ian Tash has written for Cool College Helpers, the Haiku Journal, and the L.A. Times (more specifically, the L.A. Affairs column), and also tries to update his Ian Tash Facebook page whenever he has a chance. He has an incredible love of entertainment, both in creating his own and analyzing the works of others. Ian currently lives in Bakersfield, CA and works as a draftsman by trade and dedicated his time to building up local churches and fellow believers.


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