This paper examines the differences between the beliefs of the Roman Catholicism and the mainstream Protestant Christianity. During Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, “several groups of churches separated from the Roman Catholic Church” (Walton 40). This marked the beginning of differences in beliefs and unity of Christendom among believers.
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Later, the Protestant movement resulted in many other Christian denominations across the world including personal ministries, church organizations, and independent churches among others. Though several Protestant groups have emerged over the last century, they still exhibit conservative ideologies. However, there are quite differences between Roman Catholicism and the mainstream Protestant Christianity in relation to Virgin Mary, sacraments, the role of the priest or pope, saints, salvation, and purgatory among others (Walton 41).
Protestantism and Catholicism are the two largest churches in the world. Catholicism expresses rich tradition and unwavering faith. On the other hand, Protestantism has elements of diversity and modernity. However, both churches have similar basis expressed in different ways. These differences reflect the practices and beliefs of the churches or their members within the traditions of these churches.
Virgin Mary and Saints
The Protestant believes that God chose Mary to bear Jesus. However, the church does not acknowledge her perpetual virginity and intercession. Protestants claim that Mary was only a “virgin before the birth of Jesus” (Walton 41). On saints, Protestants do not express their beliefs in saints. They believe that believers should ask for salvation from God and Jesus.
In contrast, Catholics refer to Mary as ‘Mother of God’. They also claim that, in some instances, Mary has appeared to “those at Lourdes as a holy ghost” (Walton 45). However, deep understanding reveals that Catholic believers ask Mary and the saints to intervene to God on their behalf. In addition, Catholics see Mary as high above saints, and Mary maintained her perpetual virginity. Protestants believe that all Christian believers are saints. However, it is only Christ who has the power to intervene between God and the faithful.
Protestants reject the idea that Mary was sinless. They insist that only Jesus remained sinless. On the other hand, Catholicism has no stand on the physical death of Mary. However, Catholics believe that Mary remained “preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin including sin from conception” (Walton 67).
Pope or Priest
Protestants view the Pope as the head of the church but lack authority over the entire church. Catholics view the Pope as “Vicar of Christ”. This refers to the spiritual successor of Saint Peter and head of the church on earth. The Pope’s authority extends beyond the church council within Christendom.
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Protestants have denied the idea of Papal infallibility. They acknowledge only sources from the Bible teaching on infallibility. Catholicism views the Pope as infallible. He is responsible for the doctrine and moral values for the entire church. Catholics have believed in this dogma within their traditions.
Protestantism also considers priesthood as believers and every congregation has its pastor to guide the people. On the other hand, Catholicism insists on selecting its priests who must undergo “studies and dedicate their lives to the service of God and the church” (Walton 42). Believers are also important to the church, but they have different places and roles in the church.
Protestants have rejected claims of purgatory. They believed that the “crucifixion of Jesus Christ was enough to save believers from sins” (Rausch 67). In contrast, Catholics believe that it is a means and place for cleansing as believers prepare for heaven. Still, believers may expiate non-remitted venial sins as they prepare for heaven.
The beliefs in the afterlife
Both churches believe in the death of Christ on the cross so as to give believers a chance for eternal life. Protestants claim that people should only believe in Jesus to receive eternal life. Good deeds result from divine grace and do not deserve the honor. This is because God inspires good acts. On the other hand, Catholics teach that believers must act relative to God’s deeds. Also, the death of Christ will provide them with eternal life. Catholics view good deeds as “meritorious as people have free will to choose between evil and good” (Rausch 67).
Structure of the church
Catholicism believes in one church. However, there are also splinter groups who favor married priests. Believers consider Roman Catholic as their only church. Differences in beliefs of these splinter churches set them apart from the Roman Catholic. The Pope heads Roman Catholic. It also has a clear hierarchy of leaders such as “cardinals, bishops, deacons, priests, and fathers” (Rausch 68).
Conversely, so many churches have emerged from the Protestant movement. As a result, there are so many churches considering themselves mainstream Protestants. Protestant church lacks overall leadership as each splinter group seeks independence from the main church. Instead, every church makes its own independent decisions based on their structures of leadership. The leadership position is diverse due to modernity and diversity of churches. They also rely on the interpretation of the Bible for leadership guidance. However, such approaches may be bias based on the desired needs.
The Bible and beliefs
Catholicism believes both in the Bible and traditions of the church for moral guidance. Traditions contain a set of rules, teachings, and Papal rules, which the church has developed over time. However, conservative Protestantism has expressed a strong belief in “sola” rules (Latin word for alone). For instance, conservative Protestantism believes in the Bible alone as the source of their beliefs. This is the Sola Scriptura belief, which stresses the importance of “the Bible as the sole authority for belief and practices among believers” (Goring 197).
Protestants also believe in sola gratia. This means that believers can only receive salvation from grace alone and directly from God. Catholic also holds this view. However, Catholic insists on the importance of the church sacrament as the means of achieving grace. Thus, Catholics consider sacrament as a means to grace. On the other hand, Protestants view it as a symbol of grace.
Protestants also note the importance of sola fide. This implies that believers can only achieve salvation alone by trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Conversely, in addition to sola fide, Catholic still adds the value of sacraments.
For Catholicism, the Bible has the Apocrypha. These are set of books that the Church added after the completion of the Bible. Catholicism believes that such books will help believers lead a holy life. On the other, Protestantism believes that such books lack divine inspiration. As a result, they lack a place in the Bible, which has total divine inspiration.
This is the change of the substances of “bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist” (Rausch 68). Catholicism claims this dogma. In contrast, transubstantiation is not literal, but figurative to Protestantism.
According to Rosemary Goring, justification occurs when an individual achieves a “right standing and into a right relationship with God” (Goring 197). However, the Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants disagree on the way by which an individual achieves justification. Scholars note that Protestants view justification as the “chief doctrine upon which the church stands or falls” (Goring 197). In this sense, they maintain that there are two ways to salvation. First, Protestants argue that people are hopelessly in sin and at enmity with God.
This is because they have rejected the Bible message. In this case, the Holy Spirit must intercede and receive the soul in order for an individual to understand the gospel. Eventually, they will have a strong belief in Jesus. This is the rebirth or regeneration of a person. Second, people will use their “salvation to trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour” (Goring 197). As a result, they will repent sins and become “justified”. Justification is the state of being “saved” from sins. Salvation occurs only once. Once an individual achieves salvation, he remains so forever. Salvation remains intact regardless of future dreadful sins.
On the other hand, the case of Roman Catholic remains complex on salvation or justification. The church believes that infants are in sins. This explains the reason for baptism at an early age. However, when such individuals attain “the age where they are responsible, and commit a mortal sin, then they automatically lose justification” (Goring 197). Such people can only restore justification through “confession (the sacrament of Penance) if they have faith” (Goring 197). This process may be continuous throughout one’s life.
Both the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant believe in grace. Grace refers to “the free and unmerited assistance or favor or energy presence of God in his dealings with humanity” (Goring 198). However, conservative Protestants believe that grace comes directly from God. In contrast, Catholics see grace as coming from God but must reach them through sacrament or individual’s action.
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Worship and liturgy also differ in the both Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant. For instance, Protestants have many ways of worshipping as observed in the Anglican churches with elements of the Catholic traditions and diverse styles in other Pentecostal churches. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic has maintained worshipping relative to Mass. The Roman Catholic has insisted in following the traditions of worship together with Mass.
The rift that exists between the mainstream Protestants and Roman Catholics widen with time. At the same time, their positions on emerging moral actions and behaviors such as abortion and homosexuality also differ. Thus, there are no possibilities of the reunification of the two Christian religions.
Despite the rifts that exist between the Roman Catholic and conservative Protestant, there are some elements, beliefs, and practices which they share. They generally agree on “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” (Fournier and William 337).
Both churches agree on atonement. This was through the death of Jesus on the cross as it aimed at closing the gap between God and mankind that resulted from sin. However, they still differ on when baptism should be performed or its significance.
In conclusion, both Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant believe in one God (monotheistic beliefs). Believers from both religions have strong faith in Jesus Christ. However, since the time of the Protestant movement, both religions have focused on their differences and abandoned similar beliefs and practices between them. Meanwhile, the issue is whether both churches can reconcile and worship together as before the split.
Given the raging debates and positions both churches have taken, the reconciliation shall never happen. Fournier and Watkins note that both religions have turned against each other with accusations in practices and beliefs. Roman Catholics consider Protestant as Christians but with limited faith. On the other hand, some Protestants consider Catholics as non-Christians. For instance, they observed the following differences between Roman Catholic and conservative Protestants:
“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 in the Scripture and belong to the fullness of God’s revelation. Their rejections, Catholics say, results in a truncated and reduced understanding of the Christian reality” (Fournier and Watkins 337).
Despite these differences, they still call for unity among believers based on the message of the gospel as a means of celebrating Christianity in diversity (Rausch 56). In some instances, both Roman Catholic and conservative Protestant have taken similar stands on issues affecting society. These are mainly social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and equal rights among others.
Fournier, Keith and William Watkins. A House United?: Evangelicals and Catholics Together : A Winning Alliance for the 21st Century. Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1995. Print.
Goring, Rosemary. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions. Ware, UK: Wordsworth, 1995. Print.
Rausch, Thomas. Catholics & Evangelicals: Do They Share a Common Future? Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000. Print.
Walton, Robert. Chronological and Background Charts of Church History. Michigan: Zondervan, 2005. Print.