The main differences between Catholics and Protestants have to do with issues of authority, tradition, salvation, and worship. Here is an overview of some of the key differences:
Catholics believe the Pope, who is based in Vatican City, has authority over all Catholics worldwide. Protestants reject papal authority and instead believe authority comes from the Bible alone (a principle called sola scriptura in Latin).
Catholics also consider church tradition equally important to biblical authority, while Protestants generally reject tradition and follow the Bible alone.
Catholics believe salvation comes through faith and good works. This includes participation in church sacraments like baptism, confession, and communion. Protestants believe salvation comes through faith alone (sola fide) not good works.
Worship and Sacraments
Catholic worship includes elaborate rituals, vestments, statues, incense, and traditional hymns. Protestants worship is generally simpler and follows few prescribed rituals.
Catholics recognize 7 sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, marriage, holy orders, anointing of the sick). Protestants only practice 2 sacraments (baptism and communion) since the other Catholic sacraments are not biblical.
Role of Mary
Catholics venerate Mary, the mother of Jesus, praying to her and honoring her in ways Protestants consider excessive. Protestants respect Mary but do not venerate her.
Traditions and Rituals
Catholics follow various unique traditions and rituals not found in Protestantism, such as Lent, Holy Week celebrations, novenas, rosary prayers, holy days of obligation, etc. Protestants do not follow these traditions since they are not prescribed in the Bible.
Scripture and Canon
Catholics and Protestants accept the 66 books of the Protestant Bible as divinely inspired but Catholics also include the Apocrypha as divinely inspired in their Bible. Protestants reject these apocryphal books.
Catholics also rely more heavily on extra-biblical tradition to interpret Scripture while Protestants rely on Scripture alone to interpret itself.
Views of the Church
Catholics see the Catholic Church as the one true church established by Jesus. Protestants see the universal body of believers across denominations as the true church and reject the idea of one institution as the official church.
Catholics classify sins as either mortal (serious, destroys grace in the soul) or venial (lesser). Protestants believe all sins are equal and lead to spiritual death before God.
Catholics also believe in the doctrine of purgatory as a place of purification for those already saved but not completely pure. Protestants reject this idea, believing the saved go directly to heaven.
Clergy and Religious Orders
Catholics have Celibate clergy, such as priests, bishops, cardinals, monks, and nuns who take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Protestants allow their clergy to marry and do not have religious orders with vowed celibacy.
Catholics venerate saints and ask for their intercession in prayer. They have a process of canonization for those recognized as saints. Protestants do not venerate saints or ask for their prayers.
Status of Mary
Catholics call Mary the Queen of Heaven and Mother of God. They pray to her and believe in her Immaculate Conception and bodily Assumption into heaven. Protestants do not ascribe these titles and beliefs to Mary.
Catholics believe the bread and wine physically become the body and blood of Jesus Christ during the mass. Protestants believe communion is a symbolic memorial of Christ’s sacrifice.
Catholics reserved the consecrated communion elements for adoration. Protestants typically do not.
Ordination of Women
The Catholic church does not ordain women to the priesthood. Many Protestant denominations do allow for the ordination of women as pastors and preachers.
Catholics do not permit divorce except in rare circumstances. Protestants generally allow divorce and remarriage on biblical grounds.
Catholic teaching prohibits almost all forms of birth control. Most Protestants have no issue with birth control and see it as a matter of personal choice and wise family planning.
These are some of the major differences between Catholic and Protestant theology and practice. There are many nuances on each issue discussed here, but this overview covers some of the broad themes that divide Catholics and Protestants.
In essence, Catholics rely on both Scripture and traditions established by church fathers and magisterial authority over time. Protestants rely on Scripture alone as their authority for doctrine and practice. This divide ultimately impacts how the two groups interpret foundational issues related to salvation, authority, the sacraments, the role of Mary, and more.
Despite these differences, Catholics and Protestants share core doctrines like the Trinity, Jesus as Son of God, the virgin birth, Christ’s death and resurrection, and more. There is more that unites all Christians than divides them.