According to a recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, there are about half as many Catholics as Protestants in America today. But why do so many make this distinction? Don’t both groups hold to essentials of the Christian faith, like the deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus? What’s the difference between what Protestants believe and what Catholics believe?
While both Protestants and Catholics agree on who Jesus is, there are seven key issues which continue to distinguish their beliefs and practices. In a new Table Podcast series, Dr. Darrell Bock, Dr. Scott Horrell, and Dr. Michael Svigel discuss important distinctives of both traditions.
Here is a summary of the conversation:
1. The Magisterium
The term “magisterium” refers to the official teaching body of the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Horrell explains,
“Usually, it's related to… the large house of cardinals and the leading theologians in the movement; but finally, that all comes under, of course, the pope himself.”
Besides providing a trusted, unified voice to guide Catholics, this body also allows the church to make official pronouncements on contemporary issues which Scripture might not directly address.
Although there is no equivalent to the magisterium for Protestants, it’s possible to compare Catholic and Protestant views of the role of tradition.
While Protestants don’t view tradition as equal in authority with the Scriptures, the Roman Catholic Church has a different perspective—one which clearly distinguishes itself from Protestant churches. As Dr. Horrell notes:
“The issue of Sola Scriptura…versus ‘Scripture plus tradition’ is perhaps the fundamental difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism…(what) you're talking about it's a hermeneutic, a way of doing theology.”
While Protestants only view the Scriptures as authoritative, the Catholic Catechism clearly states that Church:
“…does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”
3. Salvation and Grace
Protestants often express the idea that salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. This assertion views justification as specific point upon which God declares that you are righteous—a point where you enter into the Christian life.
In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church views justification as a process, dependent on the grace you receive by participating in the Church—which is seen as a repository of saving grace. Dr. Svigel explains the Catholic perspective:
“Grace is treated almost as if it's a substance, something that can be dispensed through various avenues of change and means… You're saved by grace, but how you receive that grace and what that grace does and whether it's a one-time entrance into the Christian life or if it's a constant movement toward salvation—that's really the big difference between Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church.”
4. The Eucharist
When it comes to the Eucharist, which most Protestants call ‘The Lord’s Supper,” or “Communion,” the Roman Catholic Church holds to the doctrine of transubstantiation—the idea that the edible ritual elements used during the mass literally become the body and blood of Christ. Dr. Svigel explains:
“At the moment that the priest says, ‘This is my body,’ the invisible, unperceivable essence that…you couldn't see (with) an electron microscope, (is) there in a miracle. It contains the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. And that becomes the spiritual and physical nourishment. As you partake of it, it becomes part of you, transforms you, and makes you more and more righteous.”
In contrast, some Protestants, like Lutherans, hold to perspective called consubstantiation, where Jesus’ body and blood are seen as coexisting with the bread and the wine. Martin Luther likened this to the idea of a red-hot iron in a fire—united, but not changed. Dr. Bock says:
“I like to call it ‘the over, under, around and through’ view. Jesus Christ surrounds the elements. He's spiritually present, but he's not in the elements themselves; the elements don’t become the body and blood of Christ.”
Still, other Protestants hold to the memorial view—the idea that you're commemorating Jesus’ death. In this understanding, the elements are symbols which remain ontologically unaffected by the ritual.
As previously discussed, protestants view justification as the moment God declares that a guilty person is righteous because of what Christ has done. Sanctification, then, is the process of being made more righteous throughout your life.
However, Dr. Horrell notes that Catholics view justification as both a point and a process:
“What the Roman Catholic rejects is that there is an imputed righteousness of Christ to us at the moment of salvation, that we are counted as fully righteous in the sight of God”
6. Priesthood of All Believers
Rather than a vertical structure, Protestants see the church as having a horizontal structure. Dr. Svigel contrasts the role of the Catholic priest with the Protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers:
“That which was reserved just for the magisterium, the ability to bind and loose to forgive and withhold forgiveness through the sacraments and through penance and such, that was just the role of the priest. From Luther on, we have the ability to confess our sins to one another, pronounce forgiveness as the scripture says.”
7. Veneration of the Saints and the Virgin Mary
Roman Catholics see veneration, not as praying to the Saints and the Virgin Mary, but as praying through them. This is seen as similar to asking a brother or sister in Christ to pray for you. Dr. Svigel adds that departed saints are also “able to spill over their overabundance of grace to us.”
Furthermore, Dr. Horrell notes that the Virgin Mary is seen as “the mother of our Lord, and therefore she is the mother of his body, and his body is the church, so she is the mother of the church. He is the creator of all things. So she is the mother of angels. She is the mother of humanity, as is sometimes said.”
Moreover, the Catholic Church has also called her the Queen of Heaven. Historically, Mary was given a less prominent position in Protestantism as a reaction to this emphasis in the Catholic Church. There is no equivalent to this kind of veneration in Protestantism, as Protestants emphasize direct access to God.
While both Protestants and Catholics agree on many essentials of the historic Christian faith, there are key issues which continue to distinguish their beliefs and practices. Get the full conversation by listening to the Table Podcast series: Comparing Protestantism with Catholicism
About the Contributors
Mikel Del Rosario (ThM, 2016; PhD, 2022) is Associate Professor of Bible and Theology at Moody Bible Institute. While at DTS, he served as project manager for cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center, producing and hosting The Table podcast. You can find him online at ApologeticsGuy.com, the Apologetics Guy YouTube channel, and The Apologetics Guy Show podcast.