Though Catholics and Protestants both worship the same God and will always have more in common with each other than not, there are some crucial differences between the two denominations of Christianity. In the past some of these differences were deemed so great that they caused immense tensions between the two groups, one side accusing the other of being heretics, and sometimes even contributed to certain nations declaring war on each other – one nation being ruled by a Protestant, the other by a Catholic – though these wars were often as political as they were religious (in fact, four to five hundred years ago the religious and the political often overlapped in Europe). In this article I intend to outline some of the key differences between these two denominations of the same faith.
Perhaps the most commonly cited difference between Catholicism and Protestantism are their respective notions regarding what happens during Holy Communion or the Mass, where Christians re-enact the eating of bread and wine during the Last Supper of Christ before he was crucified by the Romans. Traditionally, Catholics believe in transubstantiation – in other words, that the bread and the wine literally turn into the body and blood of Jesus during the Mass. By contrast, Protestants believe that the bread and wine they eat and drink during Holy Communion is symbolic of Jesus body and blood.
Another contrast between the two denominations is their outlook towards the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She tends to have a more central role in Catholic doctrine than Protestant doctrine. In particular, Catholics will sometimes pray to Mary, asking her to intercede between them and God. Back in the Early Modern period, Protestants would accuse Catholics of heresy for praying to Mary, because to them praying to Mary meant that you were bestowing divine authority on her which only God possesses. For this reason, it is perhaps one of the more controversial differences between the two branches of Christianity.
When walking into their churches you’ll immediately observe that the two denominations also take a different approach to the interiors of their houses of worship. Catholic churches tend to have far more extravagant, often containing multiple paintings, symbols and statues, with a well decorated chancel. This is due to the belief that by creating a space full of beautiful things created out of a love of God is makes a person feel closer to God. By contrast, the interiors of Protestant churches tend to be much plainer in their appearance, with less colour and fewer statues and paintings. This is because in the Protestant mind-set, having too much decoration in a church can act to distract people from worshipping and engaging with God.
The last difference I wish to mention is regarding the idea of purgatory. In traditional Catholic doctrine, purgatory is where those who have been deemed pure enough not to go to hell, but not quite enough to go to heaven end up after death so as to be further cleansed, so that they may eventually enter heaven. Traditional Protestantism, on the other hand, has no notion of purgatory in its doctrine.
Image: By NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) (originally posted to Flickr as Gutenberg Bible) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons