Introduction to Christianity
Comparing the beliefs of Roman
Catholics & conservative Protestants
This essay compares the beliefs of Roman Catholicism with the conservative wing of
In the 16th century, during the Protestant Reformation, many faith groups split away from the
Roman Catholic Church. This destroyed the relative unity of Christendom in
western Europe. The Protestant movement further fragmented during the following centuries.
At the present time, there are over a thousand Christian denominations in North America alone,
in addition to many thousands of independent, unaffiliated congregations, para-church
organizations, and personal or "Mom and Pop" ministries.
Although there are also many mainline and liberal Protestant faith groups, most are
conservative in nature.
Some beliefs of the Roman Catholic church and conservative Protestant
denominations are in opposition to each other. Examples are:
The Catholic church accepts the theory of evolution
but regards the human soul to be a unique creation of God. Most conservative Protestants continue to reject evolution in favor of creation science and/or intelligent design.
The acceptance of homosexual sexual
orientation -- but not same-sex behavior -- as morally neutral by
the Catholic Church, but not by many conservative Protestants.
The rejection of the death penalty by the Catholic church, and the
continuing acceptance and its enthusiastic promotion by most conservative Protestants.
Catholics place ultimate interpretive authority in the Pope and Magesterium.
Conservative Protestants place it with the individual Christian and
his/her interpretation of the Bible.
||Catholics teach that the bread and wine during the mass becomes the
actual body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. Protestants generally
regard the two components as only symbolic of Jesus' body and blood.
between the two groups appears to be increasing over time. Future reunification of the
Christian religion was essentially impossible and is getting more so.
Both Catholics and conservative Protestants generally agree on some major theological matters, like
the existence of angels, Mary's virgin conception;
Jesus' sinless life, incarnation, crucifixion,
resurrection, and his imminent return of Jesus
to Earth in the second coming;
Heaven, Hell; the Trinity,
and the deity of Jesus. They agree that his
execution brought about atonement -- the potential
to bridge the gulf between humanity and God caused by sin. However they disagree
on how this was achieved. They partly agree
about the significance of baptism, but disagree about the timing when it is normally performed. They do not
agree on which books are included in the official canon of the Bible.
Perhaps the main difference between conservative Protestantism and Roman
Catholicism is expressed by the "five Solas". "Sola" means "alone" in
Latin. The first three Sola statements of the early Protestant movement stressed
||"Sola Scriptura:" The Bible is the sole
authority for Christian beliefs and practices. The Catholic Church
stresses a balance between Biblical support and the tradition of the
||"Sola Gratia:" One is saved through grace
alone, given to the believer by God directly. The Catholic Church
also teaches that salvation is implemented by grace from God alone. However, they stresses that the church sacraments are the channel for God's
||"Sola Fide:" Salvation is by the individual's faith alone in
trusting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Again, the Catholic Church
stresses the importance of church sacraments.
also exists a great gulf between the two groups on other matters of belief and church practice
-- particularly with regard to the rapture, authority
within the church, church organization, freedom of the individual, freedom of
each congregation, etc.
About abortion access, homosexuality & other hot-button social policies:
The divisions are deep and long-standing. This has led to prejudice and discrimination.
Hostility is particularly high in some countries in South America, where
Protestants -- particularly Pentecostals -- have been taking "market share" away
from the Catholic Church. Bloodshed has resulted in some areas.
In spite of these conflicts, these two wings of Christianity have been able to take
areas. Catholics and Protestants have cooperated
in North America to:
restrict abortion access,
oppose to equal rights and protections for gays
and lesbians including same-sex marriage,
oppose physician assisted suicide, and
other "hot" moral and religious topics. They differ slightly in their approaches
to what they regard as the two most serious social evils: homosexuality and abortion
Both groups consider homosexual behavior to be hated by God and
a major sin.
||The Roman Catholic Church teaches that, in most cases, a
homosexual orientation is not chosen; it is rarely changeable
in adulthood, and is not,
in itself, sinful. The church regards all homosexual behavior to be
intrinsically sinful, regardless of the degree of love and
commitment within the relationship. They consider a homosexual orientation to
be a disordered state. Homosexual support groups in the Church promote
Most conservative Protestants downplay the concept of sexual
orientation as defined by feelings of sexual attraction. They emphasize same-sex behavior -- i.e. what
people do is more important than what they feel. Most believe that
homosexual behavior is indirectly caused by poor parenting and/or sexual
abuse during childhood. They view such behavior as chosen, abnormal,
unnatural, and changeable. Their homosexual support groups emphasize
changing behavior with the goal of opposite-sex marriage. Their success rate at helping their clients change their sexual orientation appears to be extremely low. However, they have some success in persuading their clients with a homosexual orientation to remain celibate and their bisexual clients to choose to persue relationships only with the opposite sex.
Both groups believe that human life, in the form of a
spermatozoon and ovum, becomes a human person with a soul at the time
of conception. Ending the life of that human person is murder, at
all stages of development from conception to birth and beyond.
||The Roman Catholic Church teaches that ending the life of a
pre-embryo, embryo or fetus cannot be allowed, except in very rare
cases where a life-saving operation on the woman results in the
unintended death of the embryo or fetus. An abortion can never be performed, even to save the life of the woman. Individual Roman Catholics, and even Catholic hospitals often take a position that is more liberal than the official stance
of the Church.
||Conservative Protestants differ in their stance on abortion
access. Some would permit it in cases where the pregnancy was initiated
through rape or incest. At the other extreme, some believe that
abortion is never warranted, even to save the life of the woman.
On matters which are not related to human sexuality, the Roman
Catholic Church tends to be far more liberal than conservative Protestant
denominations. Its bishops often speak out strongly on moral matters such as:
||Elimination of the death sentence,
||The elimination of poverty,
||Provision of universal health care,
||Social injustices that have arisen from uncontrolled capitalism,
Comparison of beliefs:
Contrasts between Roman Catholic beliefs and practices with those of fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians are shown
below. "...Evangelicals hold that the Catholic Church has gone beyond
Scripture, adding teachings and practices that detract from or compromise the Gospel of
God’s saving grace in Christ. Catholics, in turn, hold that such teaching and
practices are grounded in Scripture and belong to the fullness of God’s revelation.
Their rejection, Catholics say, results in a truncated and reduced understanding of the
Christian reality." 1
Any one-line list of comparisons, such as this one, is inevitably simplistic. Within
Evangelical Protestantism there are often significant differences among Baptists,
Calvinists, Christians of the Reform tradition, Fundamentalists,
Pentecostals, etc., that cannot be
explained in a few words.
Each of these theological beliefs can easily be expanded into a full essay. We plan to
do this eventually, for many of these topics.
||Roman Catholic Church
||Believe that present-day priest ordinations
can all be traced back to the original apostles and thus to Jesus.
||Concept rejected as historically invalid; it
simply didn't happen.
|Attitude towards each other
||The church considers Protestants to be
Christians, but possessing only part of the truth.
||Some consider Catholics to be non-Christians
|Authority within the church
||Vested in the hierarchy of the church.
||Within the believer (soul freedom), the
congregation and the denomination, according to their interpretation of the
meaning of the Bible.
|Baptism, significance of
||Sacrament which regenerates and justifies.
||Testimony of a prior regeneration after trusting
Jesus as Lord and savior.
||Usually done in infancy; may be done later in life
when the person joins the church.
||Usually done later in
life after person is "born again."
|Bible, status of
||Historically teaches that the original writings
by Bible authors are inerrant. This is
||The original writings of the biblical authors'
writings are inerrant. They are the Word of God.
||The church includes the original 73 books in the
Bible as specified by the Councils of Hippo and Carthage late in the 4th
||Some Anglicans include all 73 books. Other
protestants delete the 7 books of the Apocrypha.
|Changing of beliefs, practices
||Debate and dialogue is sometimes forbidden --
particularly on human sexuality topics.
||Relatively free discussion allowed, except, in some
denominations, on matters related to homosexuality.
||Usually democratic, except among some new
religious movements (NRMs).
|Clergy, selection of
||Appointed; all male; almost all unmarried.
||Elected; mostly male; single or married.
|Discipline of members
||Pressure from the clergy and laity. In serious
cases, errant members can be denied the sacraments or excommunicated.
||Pressure from the clergy and laity. Various
denomination have formal policies of shunning, disfellowshipping and
||The Church views the fragmentation of Christianity
into thousands of faith groups to be a
sin. They want non-Catholic Christians join
the Catholic Church.
||Some view Catholics as non-Christian. Thus
they are to be treated as other lost souls, on a par with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Wiccans,
etc. Others view Catholics as brothers in Christ and engage in joint
projects on social matters.
|Forgiveness of sin
||Achieved through personal repentance to a priest,
and -- in emergencies -- sometimes in a public communal ritual.
In some Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, confession is done to
one's spiritual advisor. However, only an ordained priest may pronounce the
|Normally achieved through prayer to God the Father or Jesus directly without
any human intercessor. However, many Lutherans confess to their the pastor.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sometimes confess to
their priesthood leader:
||More than a physical place, hell is a state of
being involving "the pain, frustration, and emptiness of life
||Many conservatives believe that it is a real physical place of unbearable torture
which lasts for all eternity with no hope of mercy, relief or cessation. Others
define it as a place where one is separated from God.
|Homosexuality, nature of
||A homosexual orientation is generally
unchosen and thus is not, in itself, sinful. It is a disordered
state. However, all homosexual behavior is sinful. God and the church expect
lesbians and gays to remain celibate for life.
||They generally downplay the concept of sexual
orientation, and concentrate on homosexual behavior which they consider to
be a major sin. They differ from gays, lesbians, religious liberals, and the
vast majority of human sexuality researchers, and therapists by viewing homosexuality as chosen, unnatural, abnormal & changeable
|Immaculate Conception of Mary, circa 20
BCE. (Note 1) [See
also: virgin birth]
The Church requires belief that at the time of Mary's conception circa 20 BCE, she was conceived without sin.
|Infallibility of the Pope
||in rare circumstances, members are required to believe in matters of religious doctrine and faith
as stated by the Pope.
||A place for infants who die before being
baptized, and for Old Testament saints. 6 Concept is
not officially taught. 8 Most
Catholic theologians have abandoned belief in limbo. 7
||A sacrifice. Christ's body, blood, soul, and divinity are physically present
and are consumed by believers.
||Memorial meal. Christ's body and blood are present
||Mary's status is below Jesus', but above that of
the saints. Some
regard Mary as co- redemptrix with Jesus; this is not currently taught by the church.
||The Virgin Mary plays a relatively minor role. Only trust in
Jesus as Lord and Savior saves a person.
||Have some value for the truth that they contain.
However, some rituals can inhibit salvation.
||Some consider them worthless, dangerous,
||To God. Also may ask Jesus, Mary, or a saint to
||Prayer is addressed to God, not to saints.
||A state of being in which souls are cleansed by purifying punishments
before they can enter heaven.
||Does not exist.
||The means of grace.
||The symbols of grace.
||Saints form a major part of the religion. People
can pray to saints and ask them to intercede with God.
||Saints do not form a major part of the religion.
One prays to God the Father and/or Jesus, not to saints.
||Dispensed by God; dependant on faith, and church sacraments.
||Dispensed by God; dependent only on an individual's repentance and trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
||It is lost whenever a responsible person knowingly commits a mortal sin via free choice.
It can be regained through repentance and church sacrament.
||Usually, once a person is saved, they cannot
lose their salvation. Some denominations teach
that one can lose one's salvation.
|Salvation among non-Christians
||It is possible that those outside the Roman
Catholic Church can be saved in spite of the errors in their religious
beliefs. However, some religion's beliefs and practices make this unlikely.
||Opinions differ. Most feel that all those who
have not been saved are lost and will spend
eternity being tortured in Hell.
||Statues and images of
Jesus, Mary and of
individual saints are commonly found in Catholic sacred spaces. However,
believers are expected to venerate the persons represented by the statues, not
the statues themselves.
||Many consider the mere presence of statues in sacred
spaces to be a form of idolatry
-- a violation of the "graven images" prohibition in the second of the
||Mainly found in scripture, as interpreted by the
It is also found in church tradition, and the valid findings of scientific research.
||Most believe it is found only in scripture, as
interpreted through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit within the
saved individual, their congregation and denomination.
|Virgin birth (actually virgin conception; circa
5 BCE) See Note 1.
||Nearly universal belief.
|Visibility of the Church
||The hierarchy of the Church, including the
laity, plus the Church's Spirit, referred to as the "Spotless
Bride of Christ."
||Invisible fellowship of all saved individuals.
Only God knows who is saved and thus the exact makeup of the Church.
Note 1: Many people confuse the Immaculate Conception
with the virgin birth. The former is a Roman Catholic belief that
in about 20 BCE when Mary herself was conceived, she
was without original sin. The latter is a generally held belief among
all conservative and most mainline Christian denominations that Mary was
a virgin when Jesus was conceived about 6 BCE. Religious liberals
generally consider both to be mythical events that never happened.
Some key theological differences:
||Justification: An individual is "justified" when "they are brought into right
standing and into a right relationship with" God.
3 Of all of the many points of disagreement
between Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant belief, the mechanism by which a person
becomes "justified" is perhaps the most important. Lutherans "refer
to justification as 'the chief doctrine upon which the church stands or falls'."
||The "classical reformed view of Calvin and Luther" teaches that there
are two steps to salvation: 2
- Each individual is hopelessly lost in sin. He/she is at enmity with
God. She/he can't
even understand the gospel message; it appears as foolishness to them. Thus, the Holy
Spirit must first intervene and change that person's heart, so that they can
begin to understand the gospel message, and develop a faith in
Jesus. This is termed "regeneration" or "rebirth."
When the individual uses their newfound faith to trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior and
repents of past sins, they are "justified." This is commonly
referred to as being "saved." Salvation is a once-and-for-all change.
3 Once a person is saved, they remain saved forever. Even
if the person commits a dreadful sin in the future, their salvation
||The Roman Catholic position is more complex:
- Each infant is hopelessly lost in sin. In the past, the church taught that infants are
indwelled by demonic spirits that must first be exorcised.
- The infant is baptized, by spreading water over its face or by total
immersion. By this sacrament, regeneration and justification is
automatically granted to the infant.
- When the person attains the age where they are responsible for their actions, and
commits their first mortal sin, then the justification that they obtained at baptism is
- Through the sacrament of Penance (confession), if they have faith, they can have
- Steps 3 and 4 may be repeated many times during their life.
|Grace: Both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics believe in grace ("the free and
unmerited assistance or favor or energy or saving presence of God in his dealings with
humanity..."). 4 But Evangelicals view grace as a direct
action by and from God; Catholics view grace as originating from God, but flowing through
the conduit of the sacraments or through one's actions. Many evangelicals see salvation and justification as one-time
events; once a person is saved, they are always saved. However, Catholics look upon them as capable of being repeatedly lost through
mortal sin and potentially regained through
the church's sacraments.
Associated essays on this site:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Taken from "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," an ecumenical
statement. It is reprinted in K.A. Fournier, W.D. Watkins, "A House United,"
Navpress, Colorado Springs CO (1994), P. 337-349. This book is
out of print but might be obtained through Amazon.com.The statement is also available
online at the second half of: http://www.bible.org/
- "Irreconcilable Differences: Catholics, Evangelicals, and the New Quest for
Unity," transcription of a television broadcast, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, (1995) .
- G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the
Occult," Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, (1993), Page 171.
- Rosemary Goring, "The Wordsworth Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions,"
Wordsworth, Ware, UK, (1995), Page 197.
- "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," between
the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, approved by the ILWF on
1998-JUN-16. See: http://www.tcsn.net/
- Brother Francis, "The dogma of faith defended against right-wing
liberals," (1974) This essay describes the traditional Roman
Catholic belief in linbo. See: http://www.catholicism.org/
- "Limbo" at:
- "The Catholic FAQ: Salvation and Grace," at: http://www.newadvent.org/
- "Topics," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at:
Click on "Social Justice" topics.
- Joan Summers, "Salvation for Non-Christians explained Sola Scriptura," Catholic Answers, at: http://www.catholic.com/
Copyright © 1997 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2013-JUL-08
Author: B.A. Robinson