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Introduction to Christianity

Comparing the beliefs of Roman
Catholics & conservative Protestants

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This essay compares the beliefs of Roman Catholicism with the conservative wing of Protestantism.

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:

bullet 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.
bullet The acceptance of homosexual sexual orientation -- but not same-sex behavior -- as morally neutral by the Catholic Church, but not by many conservative Protestants.
bullet The rejection of the death penalty by the Catholic church, and the continuing acceptance and its enthusiastic promotion by most conservative Protestants.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

The gap 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, bodily 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 that:

bullet "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 Church itself
bullet "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 grace.
bullet "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.

There 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.

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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 joint programs in some 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 access

bullet Homosexual behavior:
bullet Both groups consider homosexual behavior to be hated by God and a major sin.
bullet 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 celibacy.
bullet 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.
bullet Abortion access:
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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:

bullet Elimination of the death sentence,

bullet The elimination of poverty,

bullet Provision of universal health care,

bullet Social injustices that have arisen from uncontrolled capitalism,

bullet Unjust wars,

bullet etc. 9

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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.

Theological Belief Roman Catholic Church Conservative Protestants
Apostolic succession  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.
Baptism, timing  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 being debated. The original writings of the biblical authors' writings are inerrant. They are the Word of God.
Bible, content The church includes the original 73 books in the Bible as specified by the  Councils of Hippo and Carthage late in the 4th century. 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.
Church, structure Hierarchical. 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 excommunication.
Ecumenical action 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 absolution.
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:
Hell More than a physical place, hell is a state of being involving "the pain, frustration, and emptiness of life without God." 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 behavior.
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. Denied.
Infallibility of the Pope in rare circumstances, members are required to believe in matters of religious doctrine and faith as stated by the Pope. Denied.
Limbo 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 Existence denied.
Lord's supper/Eucharist 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 symbolically only.
Mary's status 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.
Non-Christian religions Have some value for the truth that they contain. However, some rituals can inhibit salvation. Some consider them worthless, dangerous, and demon-led.
Prayer To God. Also may ask Jesus, Mary, or a saint to intercede on their behalf. Prayer is addressed to God, not to saints.
Purgatory A state of being in which souls are cleansed by purifying punishments before they can enter heaven. Does not exist.
Sacraments The means of grace. The symbols of grace.
Saints 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.
Salvation, achieving 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.
Salvation, losing 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, venerating 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 Ten Commandments.
Truth Mainly found in scripture, as interpreted by the church. 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. Required belief. 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.

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Some key theological differences:

bullet 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'." 3
bullet The "classical reformed view of Calvin and Luther" teaches that there are two steps to salvation: 2
  1. 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."
  2. 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 remains intact.
bullet The Roman Catholic position is more complex:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 lost.
  4. Through the sacrament of Penance (confession), if they have faith, they can have justification restored.
  5. Steps 3 and 4 may be repeated many times during their life.

bulletGrace: 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.

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Associated essays on this site:

bullet "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.

bullet "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" is an organization of Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics who are attempting to cooperate. Their discussions and statements have exposed in detail the differences between the two wings of Christianity.
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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. 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 statement is also available online at the second half of:
  2. "Irreconcilable Differences: Catholics, Evangelicals, and the New Quest for Unity," transcription of a television broadcast, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, (1995) . See:
  3. G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult," Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, (1993), Page 171.
  4. Rosemary Goring, "The Wordsworth Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions," Wordsworth, Ware, UK, (1995), Page 197.
  5. "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:
  6. Brother Francis, "The dogma of faith defended against right-wing liberals," (1974) This essay describes the traditional Roman Catholic belief in linbo. See:
  7. "Limbo" at:
  8. "The Catholic FAQ: Salvation and Grace,"  at: 
  9. "Topics," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at: Click on "Social Justice" topics.
  10. Joan Summers, "Salvation for Non-Christians explained Sola Scriptura," Catholic Answers, at:

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Copyright 1997 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-JUL-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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