What Divides Catholics and Protestants?

As Pope Benedict XVI continues with his highly publicized visit to the United States, some may wonder what the major differences are between Catholicism and Protestantism – the two main Christian bodies in the world.

Perhaps the biggest difference is their views on the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. Traditionally, Protestants believe that the Bible alone is sufficient in teaching man all that is necessary for salvation from sin, and contains the standard in which Christians should measure their behavior.

Catholics, however, do not believe that the Bible alone is enough, and instead hold that the Bible and sacred Roman Catholic traditions are equal in authority, as noted by Got Questions Ministries, which provides biblically-based answers on spiritually-related questions in its Web site, GotQuestions.org.

Roman Catholic doctrines, such as purgatory, praying to the saints, veneration of Mary, have little or no basis in the Scripture, but are based on Roman Catholic traditions.

Another major difference is the office and authority of the pope. There is no equivalent position to the pope in Protestantism because of the belief that no human being is infallible and that Christ alone is the head of the church. Protestants believe that the spiritual authority of the church is based on the Word rather than apostolic succession, and that all believers through the Holy Spirit can understand the Word.

For Roman Catholics, on the other hand, the pope is the "Vicar of Christ," and stands in the place of Jesus as the visible head of the Church. Therefore, his teachings are considered infallible and effective over all Christians.

Because of the emphasis on the authority of the Church over the individual believer, Catholics believe that only the Roman Catholic Church can interpret the Bible. Protestants, on the other hand, believe that all Christians have the authority to interpret the Bible through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The issue of salvation is also a point of contention between the two Christian bodies. Protestants traditionally believe that a person is justified and saved only by faith in Jesus Christ alone. However, Roman Catholics believe it is faith in Christ plus good works that man can be saved. Part of the Catholic salvation process is the seven sacraments: baptism at birth, confirmation, the Eucharist, holy orders, anointing of the sick, matrimony and penance.

"To get access to the grace of God, Catholics have to go through the Catholic Church and the sacraments," pointed out Tal Davis, interfaith coordinator in the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board (NAMB)'s evangelization group, according to Baptist Press.

"We Southern Baptists think that's unnecessary and, in fact, is a hindrance to God," Davis said. "We go straight to Jesus Christ for salvation by faith alone. No works are involved. You can't save yourself and you can't add anything to God's plan of salvation."

To Catholics, faith in Christ is only the beginning of salvation, and the individual must engage in good works for eternal salvation. Purgatory, for example, is where man goes after death if he did not sufficiently pay for his sins.

While Protestants recognize the importance of good works, they believe good works is the fruit of their salvation and not part of the process to be saved.

"Simply put, the Roman Catholic viewpoint on salvation implies that Christ's atonement on the cross was not sufficient payment for the sins of those who believe in Him, and that even a believer must atone or pay for his own sins, either through acts of penance, or time in purgatory," wrote Got Questions Ministries in its Web site.

Differences aside, Protestants and Catholics do share several core beliefs including the Trinity, the deity of Jesus, and the fact that he was sinless, that he died on the cross for man's sin and rose from the dead and ascended to heaven.

"When you're talking to Catholics, you don't have to convince them to believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Bible," noted NAMB's Davis.

Still, the divide between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church is clear, as respected theologian Dr. R. Albert Mohler recently reiterated.

"I am convinced that he (the pope) is not right – not right on the papacy, not right on the sacraments, not right on the priesthood, not right on the Gospel, not right in understanding the Church," the seminary president wrote recently in a special column for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

"The Roman Catholic Church believes that evangelicals are in spiritual danger for obstinately and disobediently excluding ourselves from submission to its universal claims and its papacy. Evangelicals are concerned that Catholics are in spiritual danger for their submission to these very claims," he added.

"We both understand what is at stake."

According to the CIA World Factbook, Christians make up one-third of the world's population, with Roman Catholics making up 17 percent, Protestants 5.8 percent, Orthodox 3.5 percent, and Anglicans 1.3 percent. By comparison, Muslims make up 21 percent, Hindus 13.3 percent and Buddhists 5.8 percent.

Christian Post reporter Eric Young contributed to this article.