Comparison of Roman Catholicism and Mainstream Protestant Christianity

Comparison of Roman Catholicism and Mainstream Protestant Christianity

            This paper will compare and contrast a number of beliefs and practices of Roman Catholicism and the mainstream Protestant Christianity.  It will begin with the twin pillars of Protestant Christianity which are the doctrines of sola scriptura and sola fide.   Then it will proceed to discuss the following: the clergy and acceptance of Papal Supremacy, the sacraments, the veneration of images, teachings on the saints, and belief and devotion to Mary.

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Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura

Central to the differences between Catholic and Protestant Theology is the view on Justification.   According to the Second Helvetic Confession, “to justify means to remit sins, to absolve from guilt and punishment, to receive into favor, and to pronounce a man just - Comparison of Roman Catholicism and Mainstream Protestant Christianity introduction. (Book of Confessions 79).  Protestantism upholds the doctrine of sola fide which means that man is justified by faith alone.   In his book “Europe’s Reformations”, Tracy explained Luther’s belief that man is saved not by any work but solely by faith through grace.

God’s law commands unselfish love, but no human being can overcome his inborn selfishness.  The true purpose of the commandments is to convince the sinner of his utter impotence, opening the door to an unqualified faith or trust that a gracious God will freely grant a forgiveness he does not deserve.  Thus ‘Christian Liberty’ means that the sinner who experiences the joy of faith is freed from the dread of God’s punishment that necessarily shadows all who vainly imagine they must achieve His forgiveness by their own good actions.  It is by this faith alone that one can be saved. (15)

            While Catholicism also upholds that man is not justified by his own works, neither does it accept that man is justified by faith alone.  In fact, the Council of Trent pronounced a series of anathemas against this doctrine.  The Catholic Church teaches that:

The grace of the Holy Spirit confers upon us the righteousness of God… Moved by grace, man turns towards God and away from sin, and so accepts forgiveness and righteousness from on high… Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ.  It is granted us through Baptism.  It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who justifies us… We can have merit in God’s sight only because of God’s free plan to associate man with the work of his grace.  Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to God, and secondly to man’s collaboration… Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.  (Catechism)

For Catholics, it is important for man to cooperate with the grace of God in order to attain salvation.

The doctrine of sola scriptura is another of the core differences between Catholicism and Protestantism ever since the Reformation.  Protestantism’s principle of sola scriptura is that the Scripture is the only authoritative source of revelation.  In the Presbyterian’s Second Helvetic Confession, it was said that orthodox and genuine interpretation of the Scripture should be gleaned from the Scripture themselves.  While they do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, they dissent from them whenever they are found to be contrary to the Scriptures (Book of Confessions 55).

            Catholicism, on the other hand, accepts Scripture and Tradition as the authoritative source of revelation.   Apostolic Tradition is the living transmission of the apostolic preaching.  It is distinct from Holy Scripture, though closely connected to it (Catechism).

In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Pope Paul VI stated that:

Holy Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.  It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.  As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scripture alone.  Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.  (qtd. in Catechism)

The Clergy and the Pope

            Radiating from the two pillars of sola scriptura and sola fide are other differences in beliefs and practices.  One of the consequences of the Reformation is the differences in the role of the clergy and the belief in Papal Supremacy.  The Catholic Code of Canon Law states that the Pope is “head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth (qtd. in Catechism).  Catholicism also accepts the bishops as successors to the apostles.  In union with the Pope, the college of bishops forms the Magisterium and has supreme and full authority over the universal Church (Catechism).  Catholics believe that Christ conferred on the Church’s teaching authority a share in his own infallibility and that the Pope, in virtue of his office, enjoys this infallibility “when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful… he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. (Catechism).”

            Protestantism does not accept the Supremacy of the Pope.  The Second Helvetic Confession states that:

Christ the Lord is, and remains the only universal pastor, the highest Pontiff before God the father; and that in the Church he himself performs all the duties of a bishop or pastor, even to the world’s end; … and therefore does not need a substitute for one who is absent… He has strictly forbidden his apostles and their successors to have any primacy and dominion in the Church.  (Book of Confessions 86)

            In order not to derogate anything from Christ who is the only priest forever, Protestants do not give the name of “priest” to their clergy.  “For the Lord himself did not appoint any priests in the Church of the New Testament who, having received authority from the suffragan, may daily offer up the sacrifice, that is, the very flesh and blood of the Lord, for the living and the dead, but ministers who may teach and administer the sacraments (Book of Confessions 92).”  Protestant ministers have the duty to teach the Gospel and to administer the sacraments.

            Catholics, on the other hand, still call their ministers priests.  What makes them priests is the power to offer the sacrifice of the Mass in the name of Christ and of the Church (Trese 493).  This power is conferred upon them through the sacrament of Holy Orders.  The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church states that:

 Whilst not having the supreme degree of the pontifical office, and notwithstanding the fact that they depend on the bishops in the exercise of their own proper power, the priests are for all that associated with them by reason of their sacerdotal dignity; and in virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, after the image of Christ, the supreme and eternal priest, they are consecrated in order to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful as well as to celebrate divine worship as true priests of the New Testament.  (Catechism)

The Sacraments

            Since we already mentioned the Catholic sacrament of Holy Orders, we will now delve into the differences in the sacraments of Catholicism and Protestant Christianity.  The Catholic definition of a sacrament is that it is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. (Trese 298).     There are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church, namely Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Orders, Matrimony, and the Anointing of the Sick.

Protestantism define sacraments as “mystical symbols, or holy rites, or sacred actions, instituted by God himself, consisting of his Word, of signs and of things signified, whereby in the Church he keeps in mind and from time to time recalls the great benefits he has shown to men (Book of Confessions 96).”  The mainstream Protestants accept Baptism and the Eucharist which they call the Lord’s Supper.

Of the two sacraments that Catholics and mainstream Protestants have in common, Baptism is very much the same.  There are some differences in the administration of the sacrament like the absence of exorcism, burning lights, and oil in the Protestant rite, but the Theological foundation of the sacrament is the same.  Both Catholics and Protestants believe in the cleansing effects of Baptism, and both believe that it marks the acceptance of the baptized into the covenant and family of Christians.

For Catholics, the Holy Eucharist is the greatest sacrament because in it “we have not merely an instrument for the giving of grace – we have the actual Giver of grace himself, Jesus Christ our Lord, truly and personally present (Trese 348).”  Catholics believe that while the appearances of bread and wine are retained during Mass, they cease to exist as bread and wine and that the substance of Christ’s own body and blood replaced them during consecration.  This change of the substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ without affecting their appearance is called “Transubstantiation.”  The Catholic Church teaches that because Christ himself is present in this sacrament, he is to be honored and worshipped there (Catechism).

Aside from being a sacrament, Catholics also believe that the Holy Eucharist is a true sacrifice.  In every Mass, through the ministry of the priests, Jesus, the eternal high priest of the New Covenant, offers himself as the Eucharistic sacrifice to God for all of us (Catechism).

In The Faith Explained, Trese said that:

Each individual Mass is not a new sacrifice in which Jesus dies anew.  Each Mass is but a continuation, a prolongation through time, of the once-for-all death of Christ upon the cross… The Mass makes present and effective for us, right here and now, the Victim on the altar of the cross.  The death of Jesus is more than a mere fact of history.  It is an eternal sacrifice (379).

Protestants view the Lord’s Supper differently.  Protestant Christianity does not accept the doctrine of Transubstantiation.  The Second Helvetic Confession stated that:

We do not, therefore, so join the body of the Lord and his blood with the bread and wine as to say that the bread itself is the body of Christ except in a sacramental way; or that the body of Christ is hidden corporeally under the bread, so that it ought to be worshipped under the form of bread; or yet that whoever receives the sign, receives also the thing itself.  The body of Christ is in heaven at the right hand of the Father; and therefore our hearts are to be lifted up on high, and not to be fixed on the bread, neither is the Lord to be worshiped in the bread.  (Books of Confession 104)

Protestantism also does not accept the sacrificial value of the sacrament.  The Westminster Confession of Faith stated that:

In this sacrament Christ is not offered up to his Father, nor any real sacrifice made all for remission of sins of the quick or dead, but a commemoration of that one offering up of himself, by himself, upon the cross, once for all, and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God for the same; so the so-called sacrifice of the mass is most contradictory to Christ’s one sacrifice, the only propitiation for all the sins of the elect. (156)

The Saints and Veneration of Images

The Catholic practice of praying to saints and veneration of images is another practice that is not part of Protestant Christianity.  Catholics believe in the intercession of the saints.  In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Pope Paul VI said that:

Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus…, So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.  (qtd. in Catechism)

            Protestants reject the veneration of sacred image.  The Second Helvetic Confession stated that “in order to instruct men in religion and to remind them of divine things and of their salvation, the Lord commanded the preaching of the Gospel – not to paint and to teach the laity by means of pictures.  Moreover, he instituted sacraments, but nowhere did he set up images (Book of Confession 58).”

Protestants also do not acknowledge the necessity of seeking intercession from the saints.  Nonetheless, they do acknowledge the saints as “friends of God who have gloriously overcome the flesh and the world (Book of Confessions 59).”  They honor and imitate them.


            Apart from the veneration of the saints, Catholics have a special devotion to Mary.  She is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God (Catechism).  Trese observed that a mother “is the mother of the complete person whom she bears.  The complete Person whom Mary bore is Jesus Christ, God as well as man (Trese 82).”  He asserted that one cannot profess a genuine love for Jesus without also having a love for his Mother.  He further observed that:

Jesus loves Mary not merely with the impartial love which God has for every soul, not merely with the special love which God has for every soul, not merely with the special love which God has for holy souls; Jesus loves Mary with the perfect human love which only the Perfect Man could have for the perfect Mother.  (Trese 82)

Among the doctrines that Catholics believe about Mary are the Immaculate Concepcion, her Perpetual Virginity, her Assumption into Heaven, and her role as the Co-Redemptrix of the human race.

Protestants reject the Catholic Marian devotions as unbiblical and they had been generally silent about Mary in both biblical studies and systematic theology.  However, Protestant thinkers had been revisiting the Protestant position on Mary in recent years.  Gaventa observed that:

The time has come for Protestants to join in the blessing of Mary.  The Lukan story in which Mary visits Elizabeth draws attention repeatedly to the blessedness of Mary…This rich blessing of Mary has scarcely extended to Protestant faith and life, however.  Although we Protestants identify Scripture as authoritative, the Lukan blessing of Mary has rarely inspired Protestants to act accordingly.  (1)


The many works cited show the contrasting characteristics of Catholicism and Protestant Christianity as well as some similarities that show how the two religions ultimately share the same faith.  The differences in belief and practices ultimately came from the disagreement in the source of authority.  Protestantism rejected everything that didn’t conform to the Scripture while Catholicism accepted them as being passed by Christ through the Apostolic Tradition.

Works Cited

Gaventa, Beverly R., and Cynthia L. Rigby.  Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary.  Lousville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

“The Second Helvetic Confession.”  The Book of Confessions. 2002.

“The Westminster Confession of Faith.”  The Book of Confessions. 2002.

“Catechism of the Catholic Church.”  The Holy See.  08 November 2008.  <>

Tracy, James D.  Europe’s Reformations 1450-1650.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

Trese, Leo J.  The Faith Explained.  Manila: Sinag-Tala Publishers, 2005.

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