Christianity's 1 billion followers are scattered among a number of denominations. The largest is the Roman Catholic Church, which is also the oldest. However, after a series of bloody wars in Europe, Protestants emerged, siphoning believers from the Catholic Church and dominating parts of Northern Europe. The original disagreements that fuelled the split between Catholic and Protestant Christians in the 1500s, particularly about the importance of sacred tradition versus what is actually stated in the Bible, remain the primary differences between the two faiths today.
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Who or what is considered the final authority of the church is a major difference between Catholics and Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church has, for more than 1,000 years, placed final authority over church matters with the Papal Office. The clergy are considered a link between God and laypeople, or believers that are not ordained priests.
Protestant churches do not typically have this structure. Instead, Protestant churches consider the Holy Scripture to be the final authority. The Latin phrase used for this is "sola scriptura." Protestants follow the universal priesthood of believers church structural model, meaning that clergy and laypeople are considered equal before God and that authority over the church ultimately lies with its members, not the clergy.
A major division between the Catholic and Protestant belief systems is how salvation, or the acceptance of a sinner's soul into heaven, is achieved.
In addition to faith in God, Catholics emphasise the importance of performing good works throughout one's life and receiving the seven sacraments to achieve salvation. The sacraments are ceremonies that include anointing the sick, baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, holy orders, matrimony and penance.
In contrast to this, Protestant churches follow the principal of "sola fide," which means salvation is achieved only through faith.
Differences between Catholic and Protestant Christianity are not confined to this world, but also apply to life after death.
The Catholic Church believes in purgatory, a sort of halfway zone between heaven and hell where penance for sins is given to lesser sinners. Souls that committed mortal sins are sent directly to hell. However, Protestant churches do not believe in purgatory, noting that it is not mentioned in scripture. Instead, Protestant churches believe souls go either to heaven or hell directly after death.
The importance of saints differs greatly between Catholic and Protestant faiths. Catholics in many parts of the world pray to Mary, Jesus Christ's mother, or to various saints in addition to the Holy Trinity of God, which includes Jesus Christ, God and the Holy Ghost. The ornate nature of many Catholic churches reflects this, as statues of the Virgin Mary and saints can be found throughout the buildings.
Protestants do not pray to any being besides the Holy Trinity of God, and Protestant churches are typically more sparsely furnished.
Centrality and Geography
The centrality of church structure is a large difference between Catholics and Protestants. Although it is spread across many continents, all clergy and churches of the Roman Catholic Church are obedient to the Pope, the traditional church leader that resides in the Vatican City.
Protestants are splintered in many denominations whose beliefs and practices differ greatly. This is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation, which saw many groups rebelling against the Catholic Church who were unable to come to a consensus with each other.
The wars between Catholic and Protestant groups in the Middle Ages dispersed the faiths into different geographical areas to the modern day, with Protestants concentrated in northern Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Latvia, Estonia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. Catholics are concentrated in France, Poland, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Latin America.
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- Religion-Online.org: "What's the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By"; Louis Cassels; 1965
- ReligiousTolerance.org: Introduction to Christianity: Comparing the Beliefs of Roman Catholics & Conservative Protestants; B.A. Robinson; June 7, 2010
- Religion Facts: Comparison Chart: Catholic & Protestant Beliefs