Top 5 Differences Between Protestants and Catholics

At the request of my cousin, who is an Assembly of God minister, I wrote a synthesis (as best I could whip together in a few hours) of the top 5 differences between Protestants and Catholics.  It was hard to narrow the list down to 5, because of course I wanted to include every topic, all of the arguments, all of the ramifications.  But I did my best to keep it to a simple presentation of Catholic belief.

The five topics I chose are the papacy, the Eucharist, Mary, Purgatory, and Sacred Tradition.  Thanks to Catholic Answers, I had scriptural references and great explanations at my fingertips through and Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth, a handy little tract.  Thanks be to God, I just happened to have that little book with me, and it came in very handy.  A lot of the explanations below are only slightly modified from that book.  I'll make this a 5-part series for the next Saturdays!

All of Catholic teaching hinges on the doctrine of the Incarnation: that Christ is truly the Son of God, and therefore fully divine, Who came into the world and became man (took on human nature in everything but sin) for the purpose of dying to save us and reconcile us with the Father.  Understanding that fundamental fact, the divinity of Christ, is key to understanding Catholic doctrine.  The scriptural bases on which we rest our belief in the divinity of Christ are as follows: Isaiah 9:6, Matthew 16:16-17, John 1:1, John 8:58, John 10:30, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:1-3, Hebrews 1:8,10.

1. Papacy

Probably the most obvious difference to anyone looking at Catholics and Protestants is the difference in hierarchy.  Catholics believe that the Pope is the vicar of Christ on earth, the successor of Peter as the bishop of Rome and leader of the church.

Jesus gave Peter special authority among the apostles (John 21:15-17) and signified this by changing his name from Simon to Peter, which means “rock” (John 1:42).  He said Peter was to be the rock on which He would build His church (Matt. 16:18). Christ gave Peter alone the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19) and promised that Peter’s decisions on earth would be binding in heaven.  He also gave similar power to the other apostles (Matt. 18:18), but only Peter was given the keys, symbols of his authority to rule the Church on earth in Jesus’ absence.  This is paralleled in the Old Testament, when God installs Eliacim  as the prime minister, giving him the “key of the house of David” and says that “he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isaiah 22: 20-25).

Christ, the Good Shepherd, called Peter to be the chief shepherd of His Church (John 21: 15-17).  He gave Peter the task of strengthening the other apostles in their faith, ensuring that the faith of the Church would never go astray (Luke 22:31-32).  Peter led the Church in proclaiming the gospel and making decisions (Acts 2:1-41, 15:7-12).

An office is meant to be continued – we know this even from a political standpoint.  Somebody has to do the job!  Early Christian writings tell us that Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome (who from the earliest times have been called by the affection title of “pope,” which means “papa”), continued to exercise Peter’s ministry in the Church.

2. Eucharist

Catholics believe that the Eucharist is not just a symbol, but is truly the body and blood of Christ Himself, under the form of bread and wine.

God’s Old Testament people ate the Passover lamb which saved them from death.  Now we must eat the Lamb which is the Eucharist.  Jesus said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).  At the Last Supper, He took bread and wine and said “Take; this is my body…this is my blood” (Mark 14:22-24); he doesn’t say “this is like my body” or “this is the symbol of my body” but “this is”.  Thus He instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrificial meal Catholics consume at each Mass (Matt. 14:22-24).  The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross occurred “once for all”, never to be repeated (Heb. 9:28).  Christ does not “die again” during Mass, but the very same sacrifice that occurred on Calvary is made present on the altar, so Mass is not another sacrifice but a participation in the one sacrifice.  After the consecration of the bread and wine, no bread or wine remains on the altar.  Only Jesus Himself, under the appearance of bread and wine, remains.

We believe from John 6 and other passages throughout Scripture (like 1 Cor. 11:27-29) that the bread and wine really become, by a miracle of the power of God, the actual body and blood of Jesus!  Here is an explanation of the basic interpretation of John 6:

First, everyone listening to Jesus’ actual discourse 2,000 years ago believed him to have meant what he said. That is significant. This is in stark contrast to other places in the gospel where Jesus did, in fact, speak metaphorically. For example, when Jesus spoke of himself as a “door” in John 10, or a “vine” in John 15, we find no one to have asked, “How can this man be a door made out of wood?” Or, “How can this man claim to be a plant?”

Compare these to John 6. Jesus plainly says, in verse 51, “I am the bread come down from heaven and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (vs. 51). The Jews immediately respond, as I said above, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” They certainly understood him to mean what he said.

Moreover, when people misunderstand Jesus, he normally clears up the misunderstanding as we see in John 4:31-34 when the disciples urge our Lord to eat and our Lord responds, “I have food to eat which you do not know.” The disciples ask each other if anyone had brought any food because they thought our Lord was saying he had to bring his own food because they had forgotten to do so. They misunderstand him. But our Lord immediately clears things up saying, in verse 34, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.”

Thus, in the Mass, Jesus becomes really present on the altar and gives Himself to us in a real communion.  Jesus’ words in John 6:63, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” have essentially a twofold meaning: only the Spirit can accomplish the miracle of the Eucharist; and only the Spirit can empower us to believe the miracle.

3.      Purgatory

Catholics believe that everyone will, after death, end up in one of three places – heaven, if the person dies with a clean soul; hell, if the person dies after having committed a grave sin which has not yet been forgiven; or purgatory, if the person dies in a state of friendship with God but is still imperfect.  At the end of time, the souls in Purgatory will complete their purification and enter heaven.  Here’s a basic definition from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“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, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. . . . The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1030 – 1031)

Here’s the basic logical argument for Purgatory:

Premise 1: There will be neither sin nor attachment to sin in heaven.

Premise 2: We (at least most of us) are still sinning and are attached to sin at the end of this life.

Conclusion: Therefore there must be a period between death and heavenly glory in which the saved are cleansed of sin and their attachment to sin.

Because this is a deductive argument, if one wants to dispute the conclusion, he must take issue with one of the premises, since the conclusion follows from them necessarily.  So which is it?

Is it not true that the saved in heaven are perfectly sanctified? (“[N]othing unclean shall enter [heaven].” — Rev 21:27).

Or is it not true that we are still sinning and attached to sin at the end of our earthly life? (“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” — 1 John 1:8).

Other Scriptural passages that support Purgatory are as follows:

"For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin" (2 Macc. 12:44-45). (N.B.  There are differences between the Catholic and Protestant Bibles, so you might not have this quote.)

"But nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven] . . ." (Rev. 21:27).

Matt. 5:25-26, 1 Cor. 3:13-15, 1 Peter 3:18-20

 4.      Mary

 If Christ is truly God, than Mary is truly the Mother of God.  She is fully human, yet God gave Mary a special role in bearing Christ in her womb, and to make her worthy, in His omnipotence saved her from all sin (Luke 1:28, 47).  He made her uniquely blessed among all women (Luke 1:41-43), and made her a model for all Christians (Luke 1:48).  We do not worship her; we give her honor above all other men and women, because of her special privilege and her important role in the story of our salvation, but still less than the worship we give to God.

Mary herself recognizes what miracle the all-powerful God worked in her, when she sings her praise of him in Luke 1:46-49 and the verses following.  We rejoice in the honor given to Mary to be the Mother of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Christ Himself gave her to us on the cross through the apostle John (John 19:26-27).  He did not just tell John to take care of her, but gave her as a mother – a specific role of caring, nurturing, and everything else that we see from our own mothers.  Thus we Catholics give her honor as the mother of God and as our own mother!

 5.      Tradition & teaching authority of the Magisterium

For Catholics, we believe that God gives us His Word in Holy Scripture, and also guides and teaches us through the Church.  God speaks to His Church through the Bible and through sacred Tradition.  To make sure we understand Him, He guides the Church’s teaching authority – the magisterium – so it interprets the Bible and Tradition accurately.  Like three legs on a stool, the Bible, Tradition, and the magisterium are all necessary for the stability of the Church and to guarantee that the Church teaches truth.

Sacred Tradition is not just the traditions or customs of men.  Sacred Tradition and the Bible are not different or competing revelations.  They are two ways that the Church hands on the gospel.  The Bible itself tells us to hold fast to Tradition, whether it comes to us in written or oral form (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Corinthians 11:12).  Sacred Tradition preserves doctrines first taught by Jesus to the apostles and later passed down to us through the Church under the leadership of the apostles’ successors, the pope and bishops.

Together the pope and bishops form the teaching authority of the Church, which is called the magisterium (from the Latin for “teacher”).  The magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit, and gives us certainty in matters of doctrine.  The Church is the custodian of the bible and faithfully and accurately proclaims its message, a task that God has empowered it to do.  In order to understand the Bible properly, we have to have an official interpreter so as not to get a multiplicity of interpretations due to human error.