What Are the Differences Between Catholic and Protestant?

What Are the Differences Between Catholic and Protestant?

In the Christian faith, there are many denominations, because sometimes it can be hard for broken people in a fallen world to agree on anything completely. Some of these disagreements are significant, while others are minor. One of the biggest and most significant differences within Christianity is between Catholicism and Protestantism.

These two sets of beliefs are often set apart in contradiction to one another, but usually without a great deal of explanation as to what their differences are, or why they disagree. Catholicism, built on the foundation of when Rome made Christianity its official religion, is steeped in tradition, structure, and liturgy. Protestantism was built on the reformation inspired by Martin Luther which embraced certain aspects of the Catholic faith, but stood in staunch opposition to others.

Understanding the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, namely on key issues of doctrine, ecclesiology, and soteriology, can give useful insights into Christian culture and denominational differences.

Some key concepts and words to understand include:

Ecclesiology: The study of churches, especially church building and decoration; theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church.

In simple terms, studying churches and creating applications on how they should be structured and operated.

Soteriology: The doctrine of salvation. 

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What Do Catholics Believe?

Young catholic woman praying with a rosary

Generally, when people in western cultures speak about Catholicism, they are referring to the Roman Catholic church, though it is not the only one that could fall under the banner of Catholicism. The beliefs outlined here will be in reference to the catechism, beliefs, and church structure of the Roman Catholic Church, and not the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, or any Orthodox churches.

The Roman Catholic has a compendium of their teachings in a book known as Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was published in 1992 under the leadership of Pope John Paul II. It has been updated from time to time since. There were similar texts published in the past. The one published in 1992 was arranged into four parts: The Profession of Faith, The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, Life in Christ, and Christian Prayer.

Some of the key teachings in the Catechism include but are not limited to:

- 882 The Pope….by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ…has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church

- 964 Mary is Wholly United with her Son

- 1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification

- 1252 The practice of infant baptism is an immemorial tradition of the church

- 1327 The Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith

- 1495 Only priests who have received the faculty of absolving from the authority of the Church can forgive sins in the name of Christ

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What Do Protestants Believe?

A Church steeple

The term Protestant typically refers to several denominations that rose up out of the Reformation in Europe in the 16th century, though certain denominations that fall under this category have roots in other movements prior to the Reformation. These denominations - particularly evangelical ones – would not necessarily identify as Protestant or Catholic.

The Reformation was the big push that led to wide acceptance of Protestant movements across Europe. It was defined by the 99 Theses, which were 99 disagreements Martin Luther had with the doctrine or practices of the Catholic Church. The early Reformation movement had many thoughts that distilled into the five solaes, which were the five biggest differences between the Reformers and the Catholic Church at that time. Protestants still affirm the truth of the five solaes.

The five solaes can be summarized as: 

1. Sola scriptura: Teaching is necessary for salvation, all teaching necessary for salvation comes from the Bible, everything taught in the Bible is correct, believers with the Holy Spirit may read and understand the Bible for themselves, but the church is there to help provide clarity and understanding

2. Sola fide: Taith alone in Jesus Christ can justify an individual and is necessary for eternal salvation

3. Solus Christus: Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man

4. Solus Gratia: Salvation is a free gift of God through grace via the blood of Christ, and no works can be sufficient

5. Soli Deo Gloria: All glory is due to God alone because salvation is through and from God alone - no person (saints, Mary, etc.) can be worthy of glory

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5 Major Differences between Catholics and Protestants

Statue of Pope John Paul II

1. Peter

Both Catholics and Protestants agree that Peter played a significant role in the ministry of Jesus and the early church. Protestants believe he was a key part of starting the early church, pointing to passages in the Bible where he preached, and the two epistles of his that were canonized into the Bible.

Historians agree that Peter played an important role in creating and maintaining the church in Jerusalem, and that he was martyred - probably by crucifixion - under Emperor Nero.

Catholics teach that Peter was the first Pope, given the keys of the Church by Christ, and that all popes afterwards are his spiritual successors.

2. 66 or 73 Books in the Bible

Catholics and Protestants use a different Bible. All of them agree on 66 of these books, but the Catholic Bible has 73 total. These seven books under dispute are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, 1 Macabees, and 2 Macabees. Protestants consider these texts to be part of the Apocrypha, while Catholics call them the Deuterocanonical books.

Catholics argue that all 73 books were in use for centuries based on two different canons of the Old Testament, but that Protestant rejected them because their doctrine was incompatible with the teachings of these texts. Protestants argue that while there were two different canons, the more accurate one rejected those seven books, and that including the other seven books was including books that were not divinely inspired, or God-Breathed. The seven were officially adopted into the Bible by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1546. Some Protestant denominations such as the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church have had them in their lexicon as part of the Apocrypha in their Bible.

Traditionally, Jewish thought has not considered all of the 7 to be canon, only a few, including Tobit. But many argue they are more akin to cultural folk stories than actual Scripture. During the time that Jesus was alive, the Scripture was considered to be: the Torah (first five books), the Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, the Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and The Writings (the poets, the five scrolls, and other histories).

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3. Church Structure

Inside of a cathedral

Ecclesiology dictates how a church is run, from its priestly hierarchy, to how offerings are collected, to when and how communion is given. The structure of Catholic and Protestant churches present some of the most obvious differences between them.

The Catholic Church observes a strict hierarchy among the members of its clergy. The Pope is the head of the Catholic Church, as well as the sovereign of Vatican City, the seat of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This position is an elected one, and the body that elects him is that of the Cardinals. Below the Cardinals are the Arch-Bishops, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Each position has an outlined set of responsibilities and expectations. A certain amount of tithe money from the Catholic Churches around the world are sent to Rome. Its own understanding of itself is that it is, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church," and that it is “the continued presence of Jesus Christ on earth.”

Protestant Churches manifest in different ways depending on the denomination. Some Protestant Churches started as state churches, such as the Anglican or Lutheran denominations, or still are, such as the Church of Scotland or the Church of Sweden. These churches usually have a pastor or reverend in charge, some have lower clergy, and most have deacons or elders. Protestant churches that lean more evangelical, Pentecostal, or perhaps  Methodist usually have one pastor or reverend, deacons, and elders. Some use the title of Bishop. Some churches are led by the clergy, while others leave most decisions to their congregations.

4. Eucharist

The Catholic Church teaches that when a believer takes communion, he or she is partaking in a sacred ordinance instituted by Christ at the last supper. When the bread and wine, the Eucharist, are offered at communion they are consecrated by the priests. According to Catholic doctrine, this consecration leads to an act of transubstantiation - or change - where the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. This change does not change the appearance, merely the substance of the thing.

Protestant denominations also hold communion as a sacred practice, ordained by Jesus at the Last Supper. Like Catholics, Protestants take the idea of communion seriously, as both groups hold that a believer who is actively in sin, or living with unconfessed sin, should rectify the situation before participating in communion. However, Protestants do not agree with the principle of transubstantiation, holding that when Jesus spoke of the bread and wine as the body and blood, it was figurative, and should be considered symbolic, rather than literal. 

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5. Confession

praying hands confession dark room

Both Catholics and Protestants agree that no one is righteous in their own power, and that part of a right relationship with God involves admitting to sin. Catholics teach that mortal sins - adultery, murder, etc. - should be confessed at least once a year to seek absolution as part of the Sacrament of Penance. Catholic confession takes place between a believer and a priest, who is bound through confidentiality to not reveal what is said in confession, and the priest usually gives the believer a series of tasks to do in order to perform penance. These can include saying certain prayers, or giving an apology.

Protestants usually affirm a concept known as the priesthood of the believer, meaning that an individual can go directly to God through prayer and confess their sins, rather than going through a priest.

This exploration of Catholicism and Protestantism does not cover every difference between the two sets of beliefs, nor does it explore them with a full depth and nuance that certain differences and similarities may necessitate. Some ideas have been condensed or generalized for brevity. It is a brief explanation of the basics, and a launching pad for greater understanding between the two. To learn more, please check out the resources listed below.


Catechism of the Catholic Church with Modifications from the Edito Typica. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Jackson, Gregory. Catholic, Lutheran, Protestant. Glendale: Martin Chemnitz PrePss, 2007.

Luther, Martin. 95 Theses. Alpha Editions, 2021.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700. Penguin Books Limited, 2004.

Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedia of Protestantism. New York: Facts on File, 2005.

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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.