Historical Differences and Similarities Between the Catholic and Protestant Churches

Although the Catholic and Protestant churches are alike in many important ways, such as believing Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of all mankind, they also differ in many other ways. Human tendencies necessitated a split within the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, for many Europeans became dissatisfied with the way things were being run- perceiving corruption and lack of transparency- and decided to protest. The most important and widely known Protestant leaders are Martin Luther and John Calvin.

The Beginnings of Protestantism

It all began when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Roman Catholic church in his hometown of Wittenburg, Germany in 1517. An Augustine priest, Luther believed that some of the practices of the Roman Catholic church of the time went against some of the things of the Bible, and so challenged the church to an academic debate as was common practice during that time, by nailing his protests to the church door.

From this single act he spurred a domino effect in other Christian believers in 16th century Europe, and as a result Protestantism became popular in Germany, Switzerland, England, and Scotland, eventually spreading to other places as well. Nowadays Protestantism is used as a term for any Christian worshiping outside of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches.

Important contrasts between the Catholic and Protestant churches in the 1500’s

  1. Belief in purgatory
    Catholics believe in unpaid debts resulting in being sent to purgatory for a certain amount of time after death, before being allowed into heaven, while Protestants believe that Jesus, by dying on the cross, paid our debts, and that we are saved and go directly to heaven after death.
  2. Belief in faith, not works
    In the Middle Ages there was a practice existent within the Catholic Church which allowed believers to pay ‘indulgences’ to atone for their sins. This practice was rejected by the Protestants, who believed that we are saved by faith alone, not works.
  3. Dispute over the position of the Virgin Mary in the church
    The Virgin Mary is venerated within the Catholic Church, and many Catholics pray to her believing in her intercession to her Son, Jesus, but Protestants believe that we should go to Jesus directly, and pray only to Him and to the Father.
  4. Prayer to saints
    The above statement also implies the Protestants rejecting prayer to saints, which they did, while the Catholic Church has a long traditon of prayers to saints and many miracles done in their name and attributed to them.


  1. Wikipedia. “Protestantism.” 
  2. Comparison Chart: Catholic vs. Protestant Theology