Catholicism and Protestantism are the two major divisions of Christianity in the Western world (Western Europe and the Americas). For example, the Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran churches are generally considered to be Protestant faiths, although strictly speaking, of these three the Lutheran denomination is the only one of these founded as a "protest" against Catholicism. The Anglican (Church of England) is generally classified as Protestant, but it is properly understood as its own tradition—a via media ("middle way") between the Protestant and Catholic traditions.

One central tenet of Catholicism is its literal adherence to apostolic succession. "Apostle" means "one who is sent out." Jesus commissioned the first twelve apostles (see Biblical Figures for the list of the Twelve), and they, in turn laid hands on subsequent church leaders to ordain (commission) them for ministry. In this manner, Catholics can trace their ordained ministers all the way back to the original Twelve. Roman Catholics are distinct in their belief that the Pope has authority which can be traced directly to the apostle Peter.

Protestant faiths trace their roots to the work of Martin Luther and John Calvin, who believed that the Catholic church had deviated too far from the practices and beliefs of the original churches described in the New Testament. They attempted to reform the Catholic Church but failed. The protestant reformation resulted instead. Protestantism as a whole has never been led by a pope or other institution having such an over-all authority. Each protestant movement has developed freely, and many have split over theological issues. That is how over the centuries it has developed into a great number of independent denominations. A number of movements that grew out of spiritual revivals, like Methodism and Pentecostalism, also consider themselves Protestant. The measure of mutual acceptance between the denomonations and movements varies, but is growing. Protestant theology for each denomination is usually guarded by church councils.


This chart provides a quick-reference guide to the major differences between Catholic and Protestant theology, especially at the time of the Reformation. As is always true with charts and other summaries, the information is oversimplified for the sake of brevity and should be used alongside more complete explanations.

The Protestant positions listed here are based primarily on the historical Lutheran and Reformed perspectives. The beliefs listed for both Catholics and Protestants by no means represent those of all churches or individuals within that tradition.

For more detailed comparisons that take into account differences within Protestantism, see the comparison charts on Facts and Stats, Beliefs, Practices, and Social and Ethical Views of Christian Denominations.





Scripture and tradition

Sola Scriptura - Scripture alone


Includes apocrypha

Excludes apocrypha

Results of Fall

Corruption and tendency to sin

Total depravity and guilt

Free will

Free to do good or evil

Free only to do evil


Related to God's foreknowledge

Related to God's decrees


Death of Christ created merit that is shared with sinners through sacraments

Death of Christ was a substitutionary sacrifice that satisfied God's justice

Divine grace

Prevenient grace helps one believe; efficacious grace cooperates with the human will to do good

Common grace enabling good works given to all; sufficient grace for salvation given to elect only

Good works


Results of divine grace and unworthy of merit


Received at baptism; may be lost by mortal sin; regained by penance. Those who have never heard of Christ may be saved. (Catech 847)

Result of divine grace; unconditional. Those who have never heard of Christ may be saved.

The Church

The Catholic Church is "the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation" (Catech 845) but those baptized in other Christian denominations are in communion with the Church (Catech 838).

There is a distinction between the visible and invisible church. God saves anyone he chooses, or anyone with proper faith, regardless of church membership.


Convey grace by their operation (ex opere operato).

Means of grace only if received with faith.


A special vocation for some believers; mediators between God and man

Priesthood of all believers.



Rejected - "Real Presence" instead.




Prayer to saints




Main Source

0.      Robert C. Walton, Charts of Church History (Zondervan, 1986), p. 41.