12 Simple Differences Between Catholics and Protestants

The rapid rise of the “Nones” — those unaffiliated with religious groups — was back in the news this week, when the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its most recent study on American religiosity. Here’s what Pew had to say:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling… Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

In addition, the group emphasized that, for the first time in history, there is no Protestant majority in the United States. That is, Protestants have dropped to 48 percent, whereas they comprised 53 percent of the public as recently as 2007 — a drop of 5 percent in five years. (Catholics, by comparison dropped 1 percent during the same time period — to 22 percent). As you all know, Protestants are Christians who broke off from the Catholic Church 500 years ago. Although there are more than 33,000 (!!) Protestant denominations, all of them still operate in ways that are separate and distinct from the Catholic Church. But what are the differences, really? I mean, all Christians Churches hold the same core value: Jesus Christ was the son of the God who died for our sins, arose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. Isn’t the rest just window-dressing?

Well, here, you decide.

Twelve Differences Between Catholics and Protestants:

1. The Pope. Catholics have a Pope, which they consider a vicar for Christ — an infallible stand-in, if you will — that heads the Church. Protestants believe no human is infallible and Jesus alone heads up the Church.

2.  Big, Fancy Cathedrals. Catholics have them; Protestants don’t. Why? Well, Catholicism says that “humanity must discover its unity and salvation” within a church. Protestants say all Christians can be saved, regardless of church membership. (Ergo… shitty, abandoned storefront churches? All Protestant.)

3. Saints. Catholics pray to saints (holy dead people) in addition to God and Jesus. Protestants acknowledge saints, but don’t pray to them. [Note: There is much debate about the use of the word "pray" in this context, so let me clarify: Saints are seen by Catholics as an intermediary to God or Jesus. Although Catholics do technically pray to saints, they are not praying for the saints to help them directly but to intervene on their behalf. They are asking the saints (in the form of a prayer) to pray for them. It's like praying for prayers. Hope this helps.]

4.  Holy Water. Catholics only.

5. Celibacy and Nuns. Catholics only.

6. Purgatory: Catholics only.

7. Scripture: The be-all, end-all for Protestants is “the Word of God.” For Catholics, tradition is just important as scripture — maybe even more so.

8. Catechism: Protestant kids memorize the Bible. Catholic kids get catechism.

9. Authori-tay: In Catholicism, only the Roman Catholic Church has authority to interpret the Bible. Protestants hold that each individual has authority to interpret the Bible.

10. Sacraments: Catholic are the only ones to have the concept of the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony). Protestants teach that salvation is attained through faith alone.

11. Holidays: Catholics have 10 Holy Days of Obligation (which mean they must go to Mass). Protestants are more like, “Just come to church on Christmas, that’s all we ask.”

12. Communion: In Catholicism, the bread and wine “become” the body and blood of Jesus Christ, meaning that Jesus is truly present on the altar. In Protestantism, the bread and wine are symbolic.

This post originally appeared in October 2012.

About Wendy Thomas Russell

Wendy Thomas Russell is a journalist, author and blogger. Her book, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious is due out this winter.

  • Derek Cramer

    I feel like there would be a lot of variation in the different Protestant churches. Are there any who do things like Communion or the like?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Yes, Protestant churches do communion; they just see the bread/wine as symbolic. And how often they take communion varies from church to church, whereas in Catholicism it’s part of the Sunday Mass. There are, of course, variations within Protestantism — lots of them! But this list deals with over-arching differences, which should (unless I’ve screwed up something!) be true for all denominations.

  • Danny Ray

    Unsure if I’ve told these denominational jokes before-sorry if repeats.

    Jews don’t recognize Jesus. Protestants don’t recognize the Pope. Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store….

    The drought has been so bad this summer; for baptism-the Baptists have started sprinkling, the Methodists are using wet-ones, and the Catholics are praying for the wine to turn back into water.

    Why don’t Baptists make love standing up? God forbid someone might see them and think they are dancing!

  • Derek

    I realize these are meant as a simple guide but they have some issues.

    The pope isn’t considered infallible, this is a common protestant misunderstanding. Only ex-cathedra pronouncements are considered infallible, and even these have been clarified or altered through history.

    Also there’s more than one pope. The orthodox church has a pope (the pope and patriarch of alexandria).

    There are non-catholic cathedrals. The anglican (episcopal) church has plenty.

    There are non-catholic nuns (anglicans again as well as orthodox).

    Other churches have catechism, though it’s more prominent in catholicism.

    You’re right though that I don’t know of any protestant denominations that believe in transubstantiation.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Hmmm. Well, the infallibility thing is a tough one. I understand there is some debate about whether doctrine or authority figures can be truly infallible, but it’s my understanding that the “infallibility” of the church is a basic and fundamental difference between Catholics and Protestants.

      As for Orthodox or Anglican churches, those are indeed Christian denominations, but they aren’t Protestant. Even Episcopalians seem borderline!

      Having said that, you are right about the cathedrals. It’s not technically true that Catholics are the only Cathedral-builders. But, for the record, Protestants are the only ones who operate storefronts. :-)

      • Derek

        Absolutely. Any infallibility is tricky, especially when you have 2k years of history in which to be fallible. I think there’s a difference between the pope being infallible and church doctrine being infallible.

        The anglican/episcopalian church is a tricky one. It’s not catholic but you’re right it did not come out of the protestant reformation though it certainly has protestant aspects. I think the anglican communion generally considers itself a middle way encompassing people of both protestant and catholic beliefs.

        The orthodox church mostly just gets ignored in the US as though it doesn’t exist. But the orthodox church is pretty big and has been around a long long time.

        Oh one other thing that’s quite catholic-specific is the view that there is no remission of sins without confession (I don’t recall how important this is in the orthodox church).

  • Danny Ray

    Once heard Christianity described as-”The only firing squad that stands in a circle.”

    I refused to stand anymore in “The Holy Huddle” and argue over esoteric nonessentials as I observed the world going to hell.

    One shift in ER during my residency where saw 3 rape victims. Oldest was 10 years, the youngest 10 months….meanwhile deeply religious people argue over superficial items like which baptism is best or which communion is correct.

    As JC said-People will strain at passing a gnat while swallowing a camel.

  • mehs

    Hi – saw this blog linked on the Washington Post. Just wanted to point out that #10 is inaccurate. In most cases it is impossible for everyone to receive all 7 sacraments. Holy orders (being ordained a priest; for men only) and matrimony are mutually exclusive. The only one “required” for salvation is baptism. Also, one receives the sacraments, one does not perform them.

    The only way it would be possible for someone to receive all 7 would be if a man was married, then his wife died and he subsequently became a priest. Not a common scenario.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Thanks so much! Have edited No. 7 to reflect your comment.

  • Kelly

    Protestants do not think, “Just come to church on Christmas, that’s all we ask.” Protestants don’t have required days of attendance, but you’ll never catch a truly faithful protestant of any variety claiming that church on Christmas is a no-fail way to heaven. In fact, service, faith, and a deep relationship with Christ is much more accurate. Your interpretation of Protestants made me a little sad.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Thanks for writing; I meant no offense. While this post was intended to be taken on the lighter side, it’s also accurate — at least historically so. Please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_fide for more information on the Protestant “by faith alone” doctrine. It’s central to the church and distinguishes it from Catholicism more than anything else. It’s unfair to say “truly faithful Protestants” attend church regularly. In fact, I think there are plenty of faithful Protestants who don’t attend church at all.

  • Jake

    There seems to be some problems about what I as a catholic believe. First, we believe the Pope is ONLY infallible when he teaches a public doctrine. Second, we have large cathedrals not because we think we need gold and stuff to worship God. The fact is we have been around for 2,000 years (founded by Christ) so we have had a long time to build these magnificent cathedrals. When have all this fancy stuff to worship God because he deserves to be worshipped with the most costly of stuff. Third, we don’t pray to saints as if we worship them. We pray that they may pray to God for us, because they are with Him. Fourth, Our kids do not just study the Catechism and not the bible. The catechism would not have existed without the bible. So of course we read the bible. Fifth, We DO believe that at mass the bread and wine are transformed (not in appearance, smell, or taste) into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. I encourage anyone wishing to learn more about the Catholic faith for any reason to visit: http://www.catholicscomehome.org

    Thanks and God Bless!!!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Thanks, Jake. I didn’t see any contradictions here to what I wrote in my blog, but for the word “worship” being used in connection with saints. Not sure that’s inaccurate technically speaking, but I’ve changed it to “pray” just to be safe. Thanks for weighing in!

  • Rich Wilson

    Perhaps not big enough for your list, but there’s also the Lord’s Prayer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0thRUS1wUw

  • Cher

    I think this line is totally unnecessary I think you need to amend this line…(Ergo… shitty, abandoned storefront churches? All Protestant.) I guess you haven’t visited Protestant Churches of this age they are so advanced in use of technology etc.

  • David J. Couch

    Both the catholics and protestant claim we either go to heaven or hell upon death. I read in the KJV of the bible that in John 3:13 it says the following, and I quote. and no man hath ascended up to heaven but he that came down from heaven, even the son of man which is in heaven. Please clarify this for me. Thanks

  • Victor

    LOL this is SO BIAS!!! No neutrality AT ALL!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Biased in favor of …?

  • Wenemanyangdit

    The truth is : the only way to go to heaven is believing that jesus had paid for your death penalty and you must follow him and believe in him.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      In the words of the great Mark Twain: “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”

  • Rand


    If you’re a Christian and you believe that god is Allah

    and Jesus is one of god’s prophets and messengers,

    That’s the right thing to say,

    God is not Jesus, how could a human being be so powerful and create other humans? How could a human being re-live again?

    It’s impossible,

    just think about it, if Jesus had that kind of power we shall have that too, but we don’t. That states that Jesus is not god and Jesus is not the son of god

    I am a Muslim and I respect Jesus and Christians

    Because it’s also a religion, and Jesus is God’s messenger and my religion states that you follow the prophet Muhammad Peace be upon him, but also respect and love other Prophets

    but god says in the holy Quran; ‘He neither begets nor is born’ Surat Al-’Ikhlas.

  • Lee

    reading catholics and protestants argue over which interpretation of the bible and its connected imaginary friends is right is hilarious!!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell


  • Joe

    I would like to clarify that we Catholics do not pray to the saints; neither do we pray to Mary. We ask the saints to add our prayers to our own. We venerate Mary, but we do not pray to her. When we pray to Jesus, we often will ask Our Lady to add her prayer to our own. Like our Protestant brothers and sisters, we pray to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I believe that the Father is pleased when we look more and more like His Son with each passing day.

  • Cat

    Ehhh, I think this is a little bit of an oversimplification of Catholicism. I’m not Catholic anymore, but I was raised *very* Catholic. Catholics don’t believe that the sacraments are the *only* way to get into heaven, just the Catholic way. That’s the whole idea behind Purgatory. Basically, everyone is imperfect, and our souls are purified in Purgatory, so everyone who did their best to live their lives according to their own religion gets in to Purgatory, and then goes to heaven. And you don’t only go to Mass on Holy Days of Obligation–You. Go. Every. Week. Unless. You. Are. Dying. The Holy Days of Obligation are additional days that you have to go to Mass. The Cathedrals are more of a tradition than anything else–Catholics don’t think that you have to belong to a church to go to heaven (as I’ve already explained, as has the current Pope, if you want to check that out). They believe that it shows dedication to God–sort of like cleaning up and making your home look nice for company. You don’t have to be in church to connect with God, but it helps. And Catholics do and don’t pray to saints. A Catholic asks Saints to pray to God on his or her behalf and to guide him or her to live his or her life in the way that the Saints did so that he or she may be closer to God, but no actual power comes from the Saints. And traditions are important to Catholics because they help you focus on God. Like the difference between going and listening to a lecture and actually, physically taking notes. That’s not really everything. Basically, you got close, but not quite.

  • http://facebook Arnold

    for me catholic said that saints will add pray for God NO in the Bible said that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man 1 Timothy 2:5 and the worst thing is the tradition of man 7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

    8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.

    9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

    • http://facebook Arnold

      it is in mark 7:7

  • Charlie

    What I have gleaned from reading most of the replies is that the “rituals” that one goes through whether Catholic or Protestant is important.

    Without quoting chapter and verse the Bible says something like this “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved”

    Since the Bible does not say I need a rosary, pray through saints or Mary, go to holy days of obligation, confess my sins to a priest etc. I am not obligated to do so.

    As far as the Pope goes, he is a sinner just like you and me. He did not have a virgin birth. I have never heard that a Pope has been filled with the Holy Spirit to the point that he can speak in tongues or heal people. He has been chosen by his peers