The year was 1517, which is a little over 500 years ago. An Augustinian monk and theology professor nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. This was the action which would set in motion the Protestant Reformation – and change the world! In fact, things have never been the same since.
Catholics rejected the reformation, while the Reformers sought to bring the church back to the true gospel, as taught in the Bible. To this day, massive differences remain between Protestants (hereafter referred to as Christians) and Catholics.
What are those many differences between the Catholic’s and Christians? That is the question this post will answer.
History of Christianity
Acts 11:26 says, the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Christianity, as we know it today, goes back to Jesus and his death, burial, resurrection and ascension. If we had to assign an event to the birth of the church, we would likely point to Pentecost. At any rate, Christianity goes back to the first Century AD, with its roots going back to the dawn of human history.
History of the Catholic Church
Catholics claim the history of Christianity as exclusively their own history, going right back to Jesus, Peter, the Apostles and so on. The word Catholic means universal. And the Catholic Church sees itself as the one true church. So they see all church history (until the Protestant Reformation) as the history of the Catholic church.
However, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, with the Bishop of Rome as the Pope, goes back only to the 4th century and the Emperor Constantine (dubious Catholic historical claims notwithstanding). And a great many defining doctrines of the Catholic church date far after the 1st century, into the Middle and Modern Ages (e.g’s: Marian doctrines, Purgatory, papal infallibility etc.).
It wasn’t until the Council of Trent (16th Century), also known as the Counter Reformation, did the Catholic Church definitively and officially reject many central elements of the true gospel, as taught in the Scriptures (e.g., that salvation is by faith alone).
Thus, many of the distinctions of the present day Catholic Church (that is, ways that the Catholic Church is distinct from Christian traditions) goes back only to the 4th, 11th and 16th centuries (and even more recent).
Christians and Catholics hold much in common. Both affirm the deity and Lordship of Jesus Christ, the triune nature of God, that man is made in the image of God. Both affirm that man is eternal, and that there is a literal heaven and a literal hell.
Both affirm much of the same Scriptures (though there are specific distinctions noted below). Thus, there are a lot of similarities between Catholics and Christians.
However, they have many differences as well.
Christians believe that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone (Sola Fide and Sola Christus). Ephesians 2:8-9, as well as the entire book of Galatians, make the case that salvation is apart from works. A person is justified by faith alone (Romans 5:1). Of course, true faith produces good works (James 2:14-26). But works are a fruit of faith, and not the or a meritorious basis of salvation.
Romans 3:28 “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
Catholics believe that salvation is multifaceted, and comes through baptism, faith, good works and remaining in a state of grace (i.e., being in good standing with the Catholic church, and participation in the sacraments). Justification is not a forensic declaration made based on faith, but the culmination and progression of the above elements.
Canon 9 – “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; let him be damned.”
Christians hold that baptism is a symbolic ceremony meant to demonstrate a person’s faith in Christ and his or her identification with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. Baptism is not, in and of itself, a saving act. Rather, baptism points to the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Ephesians 2:8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Catholics hold that baptism is a means of grace which cleanses a person from original sin, and is a saving act. An infant, apart from faith, is cleansed of sin and brought into friendship with God via baptism, according to Catholic theology and practice.
CCC 2068 – “The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them. All men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments.”
Praying to the Saints
Prayer is an act of worship. We are only to worship God. Christians believe that we should pray to God, as instructed by Jesus (see Matthew 6:9-13 for e.g.). Christians don’t see any biblical warrant for praying to the deceased (even to deceased Christians), and many see this practice as dangerously close to necromancy, which is prohibited by the Scriptures.
Revelation 22:8-9 “I, John, am the one who heard and saw all these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me. 9 But he said, “No, don’t worship me. I am a servant of God, just like you and your brothers the prophets, as well as all who obey what is written in this book. Worship only God!”
Catholics, on the other hand, believe that there is great value to praying to the deceased Christians; that deceased Christians are in a position to intercede with God on behalf of the living.
CCC 2679 – “Mary is the perfect Orans (pray-er), a figure of the Church. When we pray to her, we are adhering with her to the plan of the Father, who sends his Son to save all men. Like the beloved disciple we welcome Jesus’ mother into our homes, for she has become the mother of all the living. We can pray with and to her. The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope.”
Both Catholics and Christians would agree that idol worship is sinful. And Catholics would disagree with the charge made by many Christians of idolatry concerning Catholic statues, relics and even the Catholic view of the Eucharist. However, bowing down to images is a form of worship.
CCC 721 “Mary, the all-holy ever-virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time.”
Christians, on the other hand, view these things as dangerously close to, if not outright, idolatry. Further, they see the adoration of the elements of the Eucharist as idolatry since Christians reject the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – that the elements become the actual blood and body of Jesus. Thus, adoring the elements is not really worshiping Jesus Christ.
Exodus 20:3-5 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”
Life after death
Christians believe that there is a literal heaven and a literal hell. That when the faithful die, they go immediately into the presence of Christ, and will dwell eternally in the New Heaven and the New Earth. And that those who perish in unbelief go to a place of torment, and will dwell eternally away from the presence of God in the Lake of Fire (See Philippians 1:23, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, Revelation 19:20, 20:5, 10-15; 21:8, etc.).
John 5:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Catholics believe that those who die in friendship with God either go directly to heaven or to a place called Purgatory for further purification through pain. How long a person endures Purgatory is not certain and depends on many factors, including prayers and indulgences of the living on their behalf.
Those who die while in enmity with God go directly to hell.
The Trentine Creed, of Pius IV, A.D. 1564 “I constantly hold that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful.”
Penance / Confessing sins to a priest
Christians believe that there is one mediator between God and man – namely, Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). Further, Christians believe that the one-time sacrifice of Jesus Christ is completely sufficient to cover the sins of a Christian (sins past, present and future). There is no further need of absolution from a priest. Christ is enough.
1 Timothy 2:5 “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Catholics believe in the need to confess sins to a priest, who has the delegated power of absolution. Further, penance might be necessary to cancel some sins. Thus, the forgiveness of sins is not based upon the atonement of Jesus Christ alone, but, in large measure, upon the works of contrition by the sinner.
CCC 980 – “It is through the sacrament of Penance that the baptized can be reconciled with God and with the Church: Penance has rightly been called by the holy Fathers “a laborious kind of baptism.” This sacrament of Penance is necessary for salvation for those who have fallen after Baptism, just as Baptism is necessary for salvation for those who have not yet been reborn.”
Christians believe that Christ is the Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14) and that the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament is a shadow of Christ. It is not an office which continues in the church. Christians reject the Catholic priesthood as unbiblical.
Hebrews 10:19–20 “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.”
Catholics see the priesthood as one of the Holy Orders of the Church therefore uphold the legitimacy of the priesthood as an office in the church.
CCC 1495 “Only priests who have received the faculty of absolving from the authority of the Church can forgive sins in the name of Christ.”
Celibacy of priests
Most Catholics hold that priests should remain unmarried (although, in some Catholic rites, priests are allowed to marry) so that the priest can focus on the work of God.
CCC 1579 “All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to “the affairs of the Lord,” they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”
Christians hold that bishops/overseers/pastors, etc., can marry as per 1 Timothy 3:2 (et.al.).
1 Timothy 4:1-3 “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.”
View of the Bible
There are significant differences in the way that that Christians and Catholics see the Bible, both in the actual contents of Scripture and the authority of the Scriptures.
Catholics hold that it is the responsibility of the church to declare authoritatively and infallibly what constitutes Scripture. They have declared 73 books as Scripture, including books which Christians refer to as the Apocrypha.
“The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ,” (CCC par. 85).
Christians, on the other hand, hold that the church observes and “discovers” – not authoritatively decides – which books are inspired by God and should therefore be included in the canon of Scripture. Christian Bibles have 66 books.
But the differences between Christians and Catholics when it comes to the Scriptures do not end with what constitutes the Scriptures. Catholics deny, while Christians affirm, the perspicuity, or clarity, of the Scriptures. That is, that Scriptures are clear and understandable.
Catholics deny perspicuity and insist that the Scriptures cannot be rightly understood apart from the Magisterium of the Catholic church – that the Catholic church has the official and infallible interpretation. Christians reject this notion outright.
Further, Catholics do not regard the Scriptures as the sole infallible authority on faith and practice, as Christians do (i.e., Christians affirm Sola Scriptura). Catholic authority is like a three-legged stool: the Scriptures, tradition, and the magisterium of the church. The Scriptures, at least in practice, are the short-leg of this wobbly stool, since Catholics deny the perspicuity of Scriptures and rely more heavily on the other two “legs” as their infallible authority.
Acts 17:11 “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”
Holy Eucharist / Catholic Mass / Transubstantiation
At the center of Catholic worship is the Mass or Eucharist. Catholics believe that the elements of the Lord’s Supper (See Luke 22:14-23) become the actual body and blood of Jesus when a priest blesses the elements during a Mass (though Catholics also hold that the bread and wine maintain their outward characteristics of bread and wine).
In partaking of the Mass, Catholics believe they are partaking of and enjoying Christ’s sacrifice in the present. Thus, Christ’s sacrifice is an on-going a-temporal act, brought into the present every time a Catholic partakes of the elements at Mass.
Further, since the bread and the wine are the actual blood and body of Jesus Christ, Catholics believe that it is right to adore or worship the elements themselves.
CCC 1376 “The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”
Christians object to this as gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is meant to remind us of Jesus and his sacrifice, and that Christ’s sacrifice was “once for all” (See Hebrews 10:14) and was completed in history at Calvary.
Christians further object that this practice is dangerously close to, if not outright, idolatry.
Hebrews 10:12-14 “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Was Peter the first pope?
Catholics make the historically dubious claim that the succession of the Papacy can be traced right back to the Apostle Peter. They further contend that Peter is the first Pope. Most of this doctrine is based upon a faulty understanding of passages like Matthew 16:18-19, as well as to post-4th century church history.
However, Christians object that the office of the Papacy is nowhere mentioned in the Scriptures and is, therefore, not a legitimate office of the church. Further, the complex and precise hierarchy of church leadership employed by the Catholic church is also entirely missing from the Bible.
Are Catholics Christians?
Catholics have a wrong understanding of the gospel, mixing works with faith (while even misunderstanding the nature of faith) and emphasize for salvation many things that the Scriptures speak nothing about. It is hard to imagine that a thoughtful Catholic, who sincerely subscribes to the teaching of the Catholic church, can also be trusting in Christ alone for salvation. Of course, there are likely many who would describe themselves as Catholic who do, in fact, trust in the true gospel. But these would be exceptions, not the rule.
Therefore, we have to conclude that Catholics are not true Christians.