• Nick Henderson

What is Catholicism?

Anyone who has discovered Christ must lead others to Him. A great joy cannot be kept to oneself.” - Pope Benedict XVI


Catholicism is a belief that, like other religions, many don’t have a firm grasp on - Even it’s own practitioners. I do not mean that as a slight, as it’s true in the Protestant (Baptist, non - denom, etc.) space as well. Which is the belief system I subscribe to.

There are far more rumors about the Catholic belief system floating around then there are facts. So, this post will be providing some history, key differences between it and the protestant belief system and some practical tips on how to engage in conversations with your Catholic peers.


Starting with History, the word “Catholic” literally means “universal.” The Catholic Church is technically the original Christian church. They were here first.

It was not until around 1500 years later in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his ninety - five theses (google it) on the Catholic church doors and incited the Protestant Reformation. This led to the difference sects of Christianity we see today with Catholic Churches being separate from Baptist, Methodist and other protestant churches. Luther, along with other Protestants, initiated this split for many reasons. But it really came down to the fact that the Catholic Church was abusing its authority in a way that was not honoring God, while also holding beliefs contrary to scripture.

This split has continued until present day. And though necessary, has resulted in a lot of misunderstandings about Catholicism and Christianity in general. So, in working to clear this up, here are four key differences between what Catholics and Protestants believe:


1. Catholics do not believe in the Bible’s complete authority. Yes, they believe scripture is important. Yes, they study and read it. But, as opposed to Protestants, they do not see scripture as the only authority or special revelation in their life . The belief is called sola scriptura, which they denounce. There are other things they take into account when it comes to authority.

Along with scripture, Catholics are governed by two other things: Church tradition and The Pope‘s decrees. This is a significant difference and results in a good amount of disagreement between the two sides.

2. Catholics belief in the authority of the Pope. A Pope is someone who, in the Catholic religion, has the authority to speak infallible and binding teachings into existence. Think of him as the general manager of the Catholic Church.

Protestants do not have a Pope. They believe no man is infallible and that Christ alone is head of the Church.

The reason that Catholics have a Pope is because of a belief in “apostolic succession.” Which, in short, means that the early apostles (Peter, John, Luke etc.) passed down their authority to the next generation and so on.

The disciple Peter, being “the rock” that Christ would build His Church is seen as the top dawg disciple. His authority is thought to have rolled down all the way until now - with the current Pope.

For the record, there is no biblical evidence for this belief. So, Protestants do not cling to the idea of apostolic succession.


3. Catholics believe that salvation is an on-going process, not purely based on God’s saving grace. Stick with me here. Protestants hold tightly to the fact that salvation is faith alone in Christ alone. Not based on what we do, but what God has done for us on the cross. Catholics differ on this belief.


Yes, they believe that Christ died and rose again, but believe in a "Christ + Works = Salvation” framework. Essentially that salvation is a process to continually work towards as opposed to an awarded righteous through faith in Christ‘s work on the cross.


In short, they blend justification (salvation) and sanctification (process of growing in your faith) - which leads to confusion as to how one is truly saved. Whereas Protestants separate them - leaving no doubt. You have either confessed Christ as Lord or you have not (Rom. 10).

4. Catholics differ in what they think happens after death. Both sects believe in an eternal hell for non - believers. Yet for believers, Catholics believe in a purgatory. It is a place of temporary punishment where one awaits their final verdict and has an opportunity to work on their transgressions. This belief stems from both non - canonical books and church traditions... not the Bible.

Protestants, on the other hand, believe in justification by faith in Christ alone. So, there is no purgatory or time to work on transgressions. One goes straight to Heaven when they die (Phil. 1:23).

Those are some of the main differences between Catholics and Protestants. There are more, but those are the significant ones.

With that said, it is important not to pridefully judge Catholics. They are in the same boat as all of us. They are sinners in need of the grace, forgiveness and clarity God provides.

Remember: Your eternal destination is secured because of your faith in Christ alone. Not because of your intellect, knowledge or ability to win spiritual debates.


When in conversation with someone with a Catholic background, recognize that important insight. Operate in humility knowing that the only thing separating you and them spiritually speaking is your commitment to Christ. And that they too can access that by confessing Him as Lord, Savior and the only thing necessary for salvation.


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nwhenderson@second.org