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One day, a friend asked me, “Why did you leave Christianity and become a Catholic, Chris?”
I didn’t quite know how to respond. After all, a Catholic is a Christian…right?
Trying to sound as humble as possible, I leaned over slightly and clarified that point to my friend.
“Ok, fair enough. But what is the difference between Catholic and Christian then?”
It was a fair question. But I couldn’t help but notice that my clarification hadn’t quite made the impact I’d hoped.
You see, I converted to Catholicism from Protestantism a few years back, and as either a Protestant or Catholic I’ve always considered myself a Christian.
There are many types of Christians. However, when some people think of “Christian” they usually think of Protestant (e.g. Evangelical, Baptist, or Episcopalian) Christians by default.
No fair! These kinds of Christians are not the only ones who can claim the title of “Christian”—Catholics, as well as Orthodox and Copts, can all use the term “Christian” fairly too.
If I’d really wanted to press the issue to my friend, I’d have mentioned that Catholics, Orthodox, and Copts have been around longer than the others and so have actually been called “Christians” longer.
I may have also asserted my belief that Catholicism, while being a form of Christianity among many, is actually the Jesus-approved form of Christianity!
But what did my friend really mean when he asked, ”What is the difference between Catholic and Christian?”
In reality, he probably meant, ”What is the difference between Catholics and Protestants?”
Despite the roughly 85% similarity between the two, here are a few key differences between Protestants and Catholics.
Protestants such as Evangelicals and Baptists usually hold to the notion of “Sola Scriptura” (English: “by Scripture alone”) made prominent by the 16th Century writer Martin Luther.
What this belief practically means is that the Bible alone is the supreme, infallible authority for a Christian.
In this view, there is no singular Church or outside teaching authority that can hold claim to having equal authority in a Christian’s life to the Bible.
However, Catholicism teaches that the Catholic Church came from Jesus and that, subsequently, the Bible then came from the Church. That through its Traditions and Councils, the Catholic Church was able to codify the Bible and decide which books should be in it, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
So to put it simply, Catholics believe in the equal authority of the Bible and the Church. Whereas Protestants believe in the authority of the Bible alone.
More modern versions of Protestantism (e.g. Evangelicals and Baptists) do not believe in the role of the Sacraments to help bring about salvation.
Usually, for these groups, a singular prayer of repentance is enough to assure salvation.
However, other Protestants will add that it requires holy living afterward so you don’t lose that salvation gained from that repentance prayer, while others do not believe one can lose their salvation at all.
Catholics, on the other hand, think the Sacraments of Baptism, Confession, the Eucharist, etc. are all essential for salvation.
Most modern Protestants do not believe in a specific New Testament priesthood but think that all believers are priests.
Catholics agree that all believers are priests in a general sense, but also believe in a specific priesthood that started with the Twelve Disciples of Jesus and was passed down to this day through the laying on of hands. (This is called the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, which most modern Protestants reject.)
Protestants usually think the Church, i.e. the body of Christ, is a purely invisible reality meaning that only God knows who is part of His Church and who isn’t.
Catholics, on the other hand, simultaneously believe that the Church is invisible and visible.
This means that, in one sense, only God can know who is truly connected to the life of Christ but, in another sense, one can simply look at this visible, institutional Church that administers the Sacraments in order to see who is a member of Christ’s Church.
Protestants usually believe that salvation comes from faith in Christ alone.
Whereas Catholics believe that salvation comes from faith in Christ and good works inspired by that same faith.
Modern Protestants, especially Evangelical or Charismatic Protestants, usually consider the highest form of worship during a service to be musical praise.
While Catholics, despite considering hymns a good way to praise God, consider the highest form of worship to be the sacrifice of the Eucharist on the altar at every Mass.
Protestants do not usually ask deceased holy Christians to pray for them.
On the other hand, Catholics ask saints to pray for them because they believe there is no difference between the Church in Heaven and the Church on Earth—they are one and the same.
Some Protestants like to call all Christians “saints”.
Catholics, although recognizing this language is used in the Bible and is true in a sense for all baptized Christians, are less prone to use that word because it has become an official title within the Catholic Church.
“Saint” (with the uppercase “S”), is a title that is normally only ascribed to canonized Catholic Saints that the Church has investigated and found their lives worthy of imitation.
Despite a few exceptions, Protestants do not believe in Purgatory.
Catholics believe in Purgatory.
Purgatory is the belief that there is an intermediary state between Heaven and Hell where one’s temporary punishments for sins are dealt with and also where one is refined to be ready to see God.
Protestants (especially modern ones) usually see Mary as simply a woman chosen by God to give birth to Jesus, and nothing much more.
Catholics hold Mary in very high esteem because of her large role in God’s plan for salvation and for what else Tradition teaches about her.
Please note that this was a very basic introduction to these differences. Anyone interested in this topic should study each difference more to gain a fuller understanding.
If someone else asked you, “What is the difference between Catholic and Christian?” What else would you add? Feel free to comment below!