What do the Catholics and Protestants Believe?

Written by: Allan Eich


The Christian faith is all about our God who loves us and sent His son, Jesus Christ to forgive us of our sins so that we may have a relationship (fellowship) with Him. Christianity is all about Jesus and a loving relationship. There are approximately 2 billion Christians in the world with half of them being Catholic and the other half being Protestant or Orthodox.. This paper will attempt to give a simplistic overview of what Catholics and Protestants believe.


East and West Split

The church started with Jesus Christ and the apostles. A thousand years later in 1054 AD the Western church based in Rome and the Eastern Church based in Constantinople split primarily due to cultural differences. The western church used Latin where as the eastern church used Greek. The west valued logical thinking and creeds while the east embraced mystery and abstract issues of faith. The eastern church included the people in decisions, while the western church relied on the clergy alone. The western church is known as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Church is the Orthodox Church.


The Protestants

The Protestant Reformation started with Martin Luther who was a Catholic monk in the 16th century. Luther headed up Biblical studies at Wittenburg University and came to the realization that the people are saved not by individual works but by faith in Jesus Christís work on the cross.

For it is by grace through faith that you have been saved Ė not by works (Ephesians 2:8). Works do not cause salvation, however salvation (believing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior) usually results in good works.


Martin Luther became outraged with the Catholic Church and the selling of indulgences. An indulgence is the church forgiving an individual of a sin through an act or paying a fee. The practice of selling indulgences (forgiveness) started as a means to finance the crusades but in Lutherís time it was for St. Peterís Basilica in Rome (a church building project). Indulgences could also be bought for the dead in order to get them out of purgatory (more information on purgatory follows). In response Luther posted a list of 95 calls for debate on indulgences (Ninety-five Theses) on the church door in Wittenburg Germany in 1517. Since the printing press had just been invented, it did not take long for Martin Lutherís theses to be widely distributed.


Luther argued that the Bible, not the church or the pope, was the final authority. He was later excommunicated because of his beliefs. Luther began translating the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into German so that the common person could read it for themselves instead of relying on the priests to interpret the Bible in Latin. This was the beginnings of the Protestant Church which is now made up of Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and hundreds of other denominations.


In Common

Before we look at how the Catholic faith and Protestant faith differ, letís look at what the Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox believe in common. In 325 AD the church agreed on a common creed that Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians all believe in today. It is called the Nicene Creed which was written by a council of church leaders in the town of Nicaea at the direction of Emperor Constantine.


Nicene Creed††

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.


{Note: Protestants understand the term ďcatholicĒ (lower case ďcĒ) to mean the universal church of all true Christians believers.}


The Difference

The difference between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church involves many doctrinal issues but I will attempt to highlight some of the more important issues; however there is a simple answer.The Catholic church believes you are saved (have eternal life with God) through the church and itís sacraments as well as good works combined with faith. The Catholic church is thus the mediator between an individual and God. Generally the Protestant church believes that you can communicate directly to God and are saved through Jesus Christ by faith. Protestants promote having a personal relationship with God where as the Catholics emphasize a relationship with God through the sacraments of the church.


As we compare the Catholic and the Protestant faith please keep two things in mind.

First, all Catholics and Protestants believe in the Father, the Son who is Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit and that binds all of us together as Christians (refer to our common Nicene Creed). Second, when using the term Protestant, it is referring to Protestants in general, despite some differences in denominations. Therefore, please forgive the generalizations. When using the term Catholic, it is referencing the official Vatican doctrine, not what a local Catholic parish or priest may or may not do.

The major doctrinal issues between Catholics and Protestant deal with salvation, the seven sacraments (listed below), purgatory, the saints, and the Virgin Mary.



Catholics believe that you are saved (have eternal life with God) through the church by Godís grace which is received by faith and the sacraments. The church is the mediator between God and man, thus without the Catholic church you can not have relationship with God. The sacraments which are administered by the church are necessary for salvation. The seven sacraments are: baptism, the Eucharist (Lordís Supper), confirmation, penance, marriage, holy orders, and anointing of the sick (they are listed below). By observing these sacraments such as the Eucharist, a transformation takes place in the individual and they become saved. The Protestants donít believe the Lordís Supper changes the person, but they believe that once the personís heart changes toward the Lord, then they will want to participate in the Lordís Supper.

Protestants believe they can have a direct personal relationship with the Lord without going through the church.


1) Baptism

The Catholic faith believes in infant baptism through the church. Baptism is required for salvation and they believe that un-baptized babies who die will go to limbo (an outer rim ofpurgatory which we will look at later). Likewise, some Protestants believe in infant baptism as a covenant with God made by the parents for the child, however many Protestants believe in a believerís baptism. A believerís baptism involves the person making the choice to be a Christian, not the parents. These Protestants point to the fact that the Bible only talks about people repenting of their sins, believing the Lord Jesus, and then being baptized. Since babies canít repent and believe in Jesus, most Protestants feel that the person must be old enough to make their own decision.


2) Eucharist (communion)

Catholics celebrate the Lordís Supper every week at church (mass). They believe that the bread and wine are actually the body and blood of Christ. The technical term is transubstantion in which the bread and wine are changed in to the body and blood of Christ. The word ďEucharistĒ is a Greek word meaning ďgiving thanks.Ē By taking the Eucharist, Catholics believe they are saved through this communion with Christ. Only ďgoodĒ Catholics can participate in communion (good refers to abiding by the cannon laws which we will see later).


Most Protestants do not celebrate the Lordís Supper during every service. They see the bread and wine (sometimes grape juice) as a symbol of their faith in Jesus Christ. During the Last Supper, Jesus was alive and therefore the bread and wine were symbols, not actually His body and blood.

They consider the Lordís Supper an important symbol but it is not a requirement for salvation.


3) Confirmation

Joining and participating in a local church is a requirement for Catholics and it is highly encouraged by Protestants. Confirmation is usually seen as step two after infant baptism and occurs around the age of twelve which many people consider the beginning of young adulthood.


4) Penance (Confession)

Catholics confess their sins to a priest who forgives them in the name of Jesus Christ.

Protestants confess their sins and communicate directly to God through Jesus in prayer.


5) Marriage

Catholics must be married in the Catholic church and only to someone who has never been married or had their marriage annulled. An annulment is granted by the church in special situations under Catholic law. Protestants are encouraged to be married in the church and usually do but are not required to do so. Protestants can marry Catholics and people who have been divorced can remarry in most churches.




6) Holy Orders

The Catholics have a pope and the Protestants donít. The Catholic church is governed by the pope, bishops, and other clergy. Catholics believe the popeís teachings are infallible. The doctrine of apostolic succession states that the Catholic bishops are the anointed successors of the original apostles and their sacred traditions are equal to the written words of the apostles in the New Testament. Catholics consider Catholic doctrine and traditions to be equal to the Bible which is where there is a big difference between Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants generally consider only the Bible to be the word of God and if it is not in the Bible then it doesnít count. Catholics follow the Catholic doctrine that explains the Bible and their church traditions to the people.


7) Anointing of the sick

Catholics anoint the sick or dying. Some Protestants follow this practice of anointing the sick and some just acknowledge it in the Bible.


Other Differences

Besides the sacraments, there are some other special Catholic doctrinal issues that are required in being a ďgood CatholicĒ. The Catholic Cannon Law involves 1,752 laws (rules) but here are some of the basics. Catholics are required to attend church (mass) every week, partake of the Eucharist, confess their sins to a priest (at least annually), marry in the Catholic church, support the church financially, and observe Lent.


The observance of Lent is only a Catholic tradition and Protestants generally do not emphasis it. Prior to 1965, Catholics could not eat meat, cheese, eggs, and other dairy products during the entire time of Lent; but since the Vatican II doctrine they must avoid meat only on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during lent.


Another difference is found in family planning. Most Christians do not believe in abortion however there is a difference of opinion in regards to the issue of birth control. The Catholics do not practice birth control and are encouraged to have many children. Protestants can decide on birth control for themselves and it is a coupleís choice.


In the Catholic church, women can not be priests. Also the priests, bishops, and the Pope can not marry a woman (however the first pope is considered to be Peter and he was married, see Mat 8:14). Many Protestant churches allow women ministers and there is usually no restriction on marriage for ministers.



Purgatory serves as an interim place for people who eventually go to heaven but need to work out payment for their sins through suffering in order to be purified. It is not a place for unsaved people to get a second chance. Since the Catholic church doctrine believes that only Catholics can get in to heaven, then all the people in purgatory are Catholic. There are some Catholics who

by- pass Purgatory, such martyrs (Christians killed for their faith) and a few rare Christians who have lived an exceptionally holy and pure life. However, most people must spend some time in purgatory to be cleansed of sin in order to become holy enough to enter heaven. The time in purgatory depends on how good or bad you have been. Also loved ones can help pray you out of purgatory usually with donations made to the church (indulgences). The concept of purgatory in not found in the traditional Old or New Testaments but in the Apocrypha. In the 16th century the Catholic church added 11 books known as the Apocrypha to their Bible. In 2 Maccabees 12:46 (an Apocrypha book) it states: ďIt was holy and pious thought to pray for the dead so that they may be freed from sins.Ē However if you are destined for a long time in purgatory, donít worry because all the souls are released from purgatory at the time of Christís second coming.


Protestants and Orthodox Christians do not believe in a place called purgatory. They contend that Jesus Christ already paid the price in full for our sins and that His death was more than sufficient to atone (cover) for our sins. Scriptures supporting this are found in Romans 8:1-4 which begins with ďthere is no condemnation for those in Christ JesusĒ and Hebrews 10:17 which says that our sins are not only forgiven but longer remembered. Also in the Luke 23:43 passage, Jesus tells the thief on the cross that today he will be with him in paradise, not purgatory.


The Saints and the Virgin Mary

Catholics pray to the saints which include the blessed Virgin Mary. The saints are special people who have died and can mediate between themselves and God. Remember the Catholic church requires Catholics to go through the church which require the priests, saints, and sacraments to have a relationship with God. The Protestants donít have saints and understand the use of the word saints in the Bible as referring to all Christians, not just special ones. Protestants do not consider their ministers to be mediators for them and believe that there is only one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5).


For Catholics, Saint Mary the mother of Jesus is the saint most often prayed to and often involves a rosary (special beads on a small rope). Catholic tradition says that Mary was always a virgin and had no other children. Protestants believe Mary was a virgin before Jesus was born, however her virginity is not an issue afterwards. (Reference Matthew 13:53 and Mark 6:3 which refers to Jesusí brothers- James, Joseph, Simon and Jude and his sisters.)


Mary is held in high regard by the Catholic church. Catholics insist that they do not worship Mary however that they do pray to Mary to express affection and adoration (veneration) to her.

The assumption of Mary refers to Mary going directly to heaven without a physical death. There is no Biblical reference to Mary being taken up into heaven or that she is to be prayed to orspecially adored in any way, but it is Catholic tradition. Protestants view Mary as blessed but just a person like everyone else. Remember Protestants donít have saints and believe only God is to be prayed to and worshiped, not other people.


The Cross

The Catholics use a crucifix which is a cross with Jesus on it. It emphasizes his death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. Protestants usually use crosses without Jesus because He is no longer on the cross but in Heaven, thus focusing on His resurrection.


The Summary

A majority of the people in the world donít know the Lord, since only one third of the population is Christian, The Christian church needs to share the faith. It is wise to understand the differencesamong Christians, but donít let that separate us. Let this knowledge make us more united and one in the Spirit; since our common goal is sharing the news of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.



Again my apologies for generalizations but I have tried to keep this simple to get an overall perspective.††

†††††††††††† For more information 5, 2005