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The main differences between Catholics and Protestants

Klaus Krämer eg
Published March 12, 2017last updated December 23, 2022

They worship the same God, but the principles of their faith are different, even at Christmas: An overview of the differences in faith between Protestant and Catholic Christians.

A silhouette of a cross.
The cross is the symbol of ChristianityImage: Hasenonkel/YAY Images/IMAGO

Advent, Christmas trees, going to church and gifts on Christmas Eve: the most important customs are cross-denominational. And the Christmas rituals of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches hardly differ today.

But what does differ is Christmas mass: Catholics usually celebrate it at midnight on December 24. The Protestant liturgy often takes place in the afternoon.

Protestants mark December 26 as the Second Day of Christmas, while for the Catholics it is Saint Stephen's Day.

Where do these differences come from?

In Germany, where the Reformation began, Protestants and Catholics were bound together in deep enmity for centuries. The separation was accompanied by numerous condemnations, mutual injuries, doctrinal condemnations, religiously motivated conflicts and even wars.

The Protestant Reformation began in the early 16th century, dividing the church into Catholic and Protestant denominations. Catholic monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) in the German city of Wittenberg, set out to reform the Roman Catholic Church, but instead ended up becoming the founder of a second christian confession. In his 95 Theses, he aired his complaints about many aspects of the church, including the selling of indulgences, which believers could buy to redeem their sins. The profits of such sales were funding the construction of the new St. Peter's cathedral in Rome. Instead, he argued, salvation could only be reached by faith.

A sculpture of Luther in Wittenberg with a large building with a clock tower in the background.
Luther Memorial in the city of Wittenberg, where the Reformation beganImage: Imago/Steffen Schellhorn

A good 500 years later, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and the Catholic Church have moved closer together. But despite the search for reconciliation, fundamental differences in faith continue to divide the two denominations to this day.

Here are the most important points:

1. Understanding of the Bible

Catholicism and Protestantism have distinct views on the meaning and the authority of the Bible. For Protestant Christians, Luther made clear that the Bible is the "Sola Skriptura," God's only book, in which He provided His revelations to the people and which allows them to enter in communion with Him.

Catholics, on the other hand, do not base their beliefs on the Bible alone. Along with the Holy Scripture, they are additionally bound by the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.

Germany and the church

2. Understanding the church

Catholics and Protestants have a different view on the nature of the church. The word "catholic" means "all-embracing," and the Catholic Church sees itself as the only true church worldwide, under the leadership of the pope.

In contrast, the Protestant Churches which have emerged from Reformation, also called "Evangelical," which means "according to the Gospel," do not make up one united Church. There are rather several tens of thousands of different denominations around the world. Officially, all of these many churches are considered equal.

3. The pope

Protestants are not open at all to papal primacy. According to the Evangelical view, this dogma contradicts statements in the Bible.

Pope Francis addresses a crowd in St. Peter's square in the Vatican
Even if many Protestants like Pope Francis, they categorically reject papacyImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Pizzoli

Catholics see in the pope the successor of the Apostle Peter, the first head of their Church, who was appointed by Jesus. The papal office is justified by an allegedly unbroken chain of consecrations, ranging from the first century to the present.

4. Understanding of the office

This continuous chain, known as the apostolic succession, is overall significant for different spiritual offices in the Catholic Church. With the Sacrament of Holy Orders, bishops, priests and deacons receive a lifelong seal of God, giving them sacramental authority over Catholic laypeople. This consecration can only be given to men.

Protestants do not consecrate specific persons into office, but rather accept the principle that priesthood can be transferred to every believer — even to women.

5. Eucharist or Lord's Supper

The Catholics' views on the spiritual office are reflected in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, a rite commemorating the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples before his crucifixion. Once consecrated by a priest in the name of Jesus, bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Non-Catholics may not participate in Communion.
In the Protest Church, every baptized person is invited to share and is allowed to lead the Lord's Supper. This approach is not accepted by Catholics.

Additionally, Eucharist has a different meaning for Catholics and Protestants. The bread, known as the Host, embodies Jesus and can therefore be prayed to. For Protestants, the ritual only serves to commemorate Jesus' death and resurrection.

Host at a Catholic Mass held over a bowl by a priest.
For Catholics, the Host represents bread that is consecrated to represent Jesus' bodyImage: picture alliance/Godong/P. Deliss

6. Sacraments

In the Roman Catholic Church, there are seven solemn rites, called sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, matrimony, penance, holy orders and extreme unction. The church believes these sacraments were instituted by Jesus and that they confer God's grace.

Most Protestant churches only practice two of these sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist (called Lord's Supper). They are perceived as symbolic rituals through which God delivers the Gospel. They are accepted through faith.

7. Marian dogmas and the worship of Saints

The Roman Catholic Church reveres Mary, the mother of Jesus, as "Queen of Heaven." However, there are few biblical references to support the Catholic Marian dogmas — which include the Immaculate Conception, her perpetual virginity and her Assumption into heaven. This is why they are rejected by Protestants.

A stained glass window with Mary and baby Jesus in the middle.
Though Protestants believe Mary was the mother of Jesus, unlike Catholics, they do not venerate herImage: DW / Maksim Nelioubin

The Catholic Church also practices the veneration of saints. Dead models of faith, recognized as "saint" by the church through canonization, can be prayed to for help in maintaining faith in God. There are over 4,000 saints. Their remains are considered holy relics which are venerated.

This veneration is also categorically by the Protestant Church as unbiblical. According to Reformation views, every person may and should pray directly to God.

8. Celibacy

All main world religions integrate in some way the concept of celibacy — the vow of abstaining from marriage and sexual relation — and the Catholic and Protestant churches are no exception. In the Catholic Church, celibacy is obligatory for priests. It is seen as a symbol of the undivided succession of Christ.

The Protestant Church rejects this obligation for priests. Martin Luther already demanded its abolition as early as 1520. He made a decisive personal contribution to this end in 1525: The former monk married the former nun Katharina von Bora. Initially unsure of whether he should marry, Luther finally determined that "his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep."

Who was Martin Luther?

This is an updated version of an article that was first published in 2017.