Apologetic Track Basic Difference: Catholicism vs Protestantism

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Basic Difference:
Catholicism vs. Protestantism

Those who profess both Catholicism and Protestantism are Christians (in many cases); though both believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, there are a number of evident differences which reveal the depth of fundamental separation between the two.

First of all, there is the difference in the understanding of the source of revelation.  Protestants claim that the only source of revelation is the Scriptures alone (sola scriptura). Catholics believe that God’s revelation comes to us through the Scriptures and the Sacred Traditions given and expanded on by the Holy Spirit through the centuries to the church. In other words, revelation doesn’t stop with the last book of the Bible. This Sacred Tradition is not in conflict with the Bible but completes the revelation given to us by God. (See my tract on “Scripture and Tradition or Scripture alone.”)

There is the difference in understanding on authority in the church of Christ. As Catholics, we believe that Christ established his church on Peter as its first head and gave authority to Peter and the Apostles and through them their legitimate successors. To insure that this authority will properly proclaim God’s revelation and safeguard it through the ages, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to keep the church infallible in matters of faith and morals. This authority includes final and authentic interpretation of the Word of God. Protestants say everyone has the right and authority to interpret the Word of God. The church teaches that everyone should reflect on the Word of God, but the ultimate and final interpretation is reserved to the authentic teaching authority of the church.

As an aside, because of this Protestant viewpoint, there are several thousands of different and independent mainline and non-denominational churches which claim to be led by the same Holy Spirit even when they are teaching things at odds with each other. How can the Holy Spirit be so contradictory? St. Paul addressed this issue of division in the Corinthian Church in his opening words in the First Letter. He sums up by asking: “Is Christ divided?” How does this division over authority in the church fit in with Christ’s prayer to the Father at the Last Supper: that all may be one in me as I am in you? (See my tract on “Was the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ?”)

Another major stumbling block between Catholics and Protestants is the question of salvation. Though both agree that salvation is through Jesus Christ, Protestants say “faith alone” in Jesus Christ (sola fide) is the means of salvation. As Catholics, we believe that faith with works is part of the process by which we continue our journey. Faith in Jesus is the initial response, but faith, as James says in his letter, without living in love is useless. Paul affirms this in his beautiful hymn on love in 1 Corinthians. Jesus already laid this foundation in his parable on the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. The works of charity—the many signs of love—reflect our faith in action. Why would the Spirit say in Revelation 14:13: “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord. Blessed indeed that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them?” Works don’t save us. Jesus saves us. Faith in Jesus and a life of love in action are part of our response. (See my tract on “Faith vs. Works.”)

At the heart of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the understanding of the Bible, which then impacts our understanding of what is revealed and what is not. Protestants teach a literal interpretation of the Bible but in practice give at times a personal interpretation. For instance, when it comes to what Jesus said and meant concerning the gift of his body to eat and his blood to drink, Protestants teach that Jesus was speaking symbolically or in a representative way. They do not believe that he meant that we should eat his real body or drink his real blood. These elements merely stand for and remind us of Jesus.

This is their personal interpretation of what the Scriptures say in John 6 and at the Last Supper and what Paul says in 1 Corinthians. As Catholics we believe that Jesus meant exactly what he said. His body is true food and his blood true drink. Unless we eat his body and drink his blood we will not have   eternal life. In John 6 when many of disciples could not accept this saying, Jesus didn’t say anything about symbolism or representation. He didn’t give any further interpretation. “This is my body.” “This is the chalice of my blood.” The word “is” means exactly what it says. (See my tract on “The Bible: Many Interpretations?”)

The Eucharist is central to the faith-life of Catholics. This leads us to a further important difference between Catholics and Protestants: The sacrifice of the Mass. First of all, how we understand the sacrifice of the Mass and what Protestants think we intend are two different things. Protestants, for the most part, believe that Catholics are sacrificing Christ again and that what Jesus did on the cross was not sufficient for our salvation, but his sacrifice is to be repeated. Here is a quote: “Protestant faith denies that the church has the power to perform the Mass' ‘miracle of transubstantiation,’ and it further denies that the Lord's Supper's purpose is to see accomplished the death of Christ all over again.” This is not what Catholics believe.

As Catholics what we believe is that Jesus offered on the cross once and for all the one sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. But he told us after he changed bread and wine into his body and blood at the Last Supper: “Do this in memory of me.” The Jewish people celebrated the Passover Meal yearly not as a past remembrance of what God did for them in delivering them from the bondage of slavery but as a present moment realization that God is delivering this family as they celebrate the traditional meal here and now. As Catholics, we make present the eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ as an act of thanksgiving to God for our redemption. Yes, we remember what Jesus did. We are conscious of what he is doing now. We look forward to what we will celebrate in eternity. (See my tract on “Eucharist: Real Body and Blood of Jesus or Symbolic.”)

The focus of the Mass for Catholics involves the hearing of the Word and its explanation, the offering of bread and wine which in the words of Jesus are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus and the reception of body and blood in Communion. The focus of the Protestant service is basically the music and the proclaiming and preaching on the Word. Occasionally they may have a “communion” service of bread and wine (or grape juice) representing what the Lord did at the Last Supper.

Most Protestants believe in baptism as a “sacrament” while Catholics believe in baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, marriage, orders and anointing of the sick as sacraments. Even our understanding of baptism is different. We believe that through baptism one is freed from all sin—original and personal—becomes a son or daughter of God, sharing in his divine life, is a temple of the Holy Spirit and is incorporated as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the church. It is God’s initiative primarily. Protestants believe that prior to baptism a person should be “born again,” having accepted Jesus as Lord and savior. Once they have had this experience, then they can request baptism whenever they are ready. In this scenario, the person is the initiator. The “born again” experience is the act of salvation, not baptism.

As Catholics, because we believe that God wills all to be saved and God desires to share his life with every one as soon as possible in their life, we baptize infants as well as adults. It is the faith of the parents or the faith of the community that is activated on behalf of the child. At the same time, we believe that the person needs to appropriate this gift of God at some time in their journey. (See my tract on “Is Baptism necessary for Salvation?”)

Our understanding and relationship to Mary is also a major difference. We believe that because God in his divine plan chose Mary to be the mother of the savior, he gifted her from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb free from sin and that she remained sinless throughout her life by grace. We believe that Mary was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus. We believe that Mary became our spiritual mother when Jesus gave Mary to John and John to Mary at the cross. We believe that Mary was full of the Holy Spirit from her conception till death. We believe that because Mary was sinless, by grace, she was assumed into heaven body and spirit when she experienced the sleep of death. We believe God set the role and place of honor for Mary when Mary proclaimed the Magnificat in Luke 1:48: “All generations will call me blessed.” Because of all this we do not worship her as a god, but honor her as one who is a role model, mother and intercessor. Our praying to Mary does not take away from our prayer to God. We are asking her to go to the Father on our behalf. (See my tract on “Mary: Mother of God.”)

On the other hand, Protestants believe that Mary is the mother of Jesus and that she conceived him while she was a virgin but had other children besides.  They believe that we Catholics are worshipping Mary by having statues and images of her and by praying to her.

Protestants believe that forgiveness of sins comes from confessing directly to God. Catholics believe that Jesus gave the authority to the apostles and their successors to forgive or retain sins. So Catholics, except in an emergency, experience the forgiveness of their sins through repentance, confession to a priest and receiving absolution.  (See my tract on “Why should I confess my sins to a priest?”

There are other differences such as purgatory. Catholics believe that when a person dies in the grace of God but is not perfectly in love with God at the time, before entering into the presence of God will go through a period of purgation in order to be “holy, blameless and full of love.” Protestants do not believe in purgatory. (See my tract on “Purgatory.”)

Yes, there are a number of areas that both Catholics and Protestants share in common but the ones that divide them are significant. The above is not an exhaustive list of differences but are some of the more substantial ones. Much prayer and dialogue will be needed, but above all the sovereign intervention of God, for these differences to be resolved. Only then will the prayer for unity uttered by Jesus to the Father at the Last Supper will become a reality.

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