Reformed, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians share a great deal.  They share, above all, a belief in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, and the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit in the early Church, determining and inspiring the formation of Holy Scripture and the decisions of the early Councils about the two natures of Christ (divine and human), reflected in the Apostles’ Creed.

On this common foundation, many Christians are striving for a greater degree of visible unity between the diverse Christian communities.  They are also praying together, and working side by side in many practical, apostolic ways.  This process is helped by a greater readiness on the part of both sides to admit faults and mistakes, even crimes and atrocities, committed in the past, and to seek reconciliation.

However, there are differences which need to be addressed, and these notes are an attempt to clarify where some of these differences lie.  Evangelicals hold that the Catholic Church has gone beyond Scripture, adding teachings and practices that detract from or compromise the Gospel of God's saving grace in Christ. Catholics, in turn, hold that such teachings and practices are grounded in Scripture and belong to the fullness of God's revelation. Their rejection, Catholics say, results in a truncated and reduced understanding of the Christian reality’ (from ‘Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium’, First Things 43, May 1994, 15-22). 

One major difference between Catholic and Evangelical Christians concerns the whole idea of mediation.  Catholics tend to see the Church, the Virgin Mary, the Saints, and the Sacraments as bringing Christ nearer to the soul, whereas Protestants regard them as getting in the way.  As a result, Protestants tend to emphasize the relationship of the individual soul to God, whereas for Catholics it is important that God saves individuals as members of a community. Yet it is not true that Protestants believe in Jesus Christ as the only mediator between God and men.  Protestants do allow for one mediator other than Christ, namely the Bible. They give to the Bible the role that Catholics give to the Virgin Mary and the Church (with the Bible as the Church’s book) – that of bringing the soul to Jesus.

In the following document I have done my best to present both sides fairly, but it is primarily an attempt to explain Catholic belief to Protestants – disposing, along the way, of some common misunderstandings.  It is a working document, and therefore remains open to revision and correction.  Key terms are described first from an Evangelical perspective in blue, and the Catholic response follows.  The Evangelical voice is based on material taken from a range of web-sites and publications.

Stratford Caldecott


The Bible

 “Catholics added inauthentic books to the canon of Scripture in the 16th century in support of doctrines such as prayers for the dead.  Evangelicals use the true Bible, which is the foundation of the Church. Thus it should be normative for all Christians, and each and every Christian has the right to read and interpret the Word of God for him/herself with the help of the Holy Spirit.  The Catholic Church prevented lay Christians from doing this until the twentieth century.”

To the contrary, Catholics use the Bible that early Christians agreed was inspired.  It was the Protestants, much later, who left out books which they decided were less authentic (books sometimes called “deuterocanonical”).  These books were Sirach, Tobit, Wisdom, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and Baruch, as well as longer versions of Daniel and Esther.

[For details of what was left out of Protestant Bibles and why, read Mark Shea’s online article.

The Church existed before the Bible, and created the Bible.  The Bible is a collection of documents written over a long period of time by people whose names we often do not know.  It was the early Christians, united in one Church, who had to select from among all the writings available to them (many of which were inaccurate) those which were most authentic and inspired, in order to form the official “canon” of Scripture.  They had to decide which of several texts that may have taught different or even contradictory things belonged in the Bible. 

How did the early Christians make that decision?  Of course, they applied their human intelligence to the task, based on the best information they could find at the time, but that alone would not have given them the confidence and authority to decide something of such importance for all future generations.  What gave them the confidence was a promise of Christ to His disciples at the Last Supper.  He told them that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).  And He also said: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12-13).

Therefore the Church felt confident that she was guided and protected by the Holy Spirit in selecting and editing the Scriptures, just as Christ promised.  These same Biblical promises of Jesus also indicate that the Church will be assisted by the Holy Spirit in interpreting the Scriptures (=deciding what they mean), which is a way of being guided “into all the truth”.   One difference between Protestants and Catholics seems to be that Catholics believe that the Church still exists, and is still protected today when she has to decide between rival interpretations of these writings, because Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would be a Spirit of unity, against which the gates of hell would not prevail (Matthew 16:18).  On the other hand, Protestants seem to believe the Church ceased to exist (as an infallibly guided community) as soon as the Bible came into existence, having outlived her usefulness.

Catholics have a very high esteem for the Bible (the Catechism of the Catholic Church says in para 133 that “The Church ‘forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn “the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,” by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures,’ ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’”), but they also know the Bible did not fall from the sky, nor is it the be-all and end-all of Revelation.  The Word of God is in fact not a book.  God revealed himself most fully not in words on a page, but in a living Man, Jesus Christ.  From that primary Revelation – i.e. the life, deeds and words of Christ – stem both Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.  In fact Scripture can be seen as just one expression of the Tradition, another being the Creeds which were produced by the early Councils to define Christian belief.

Individuals have always been encouraged in the Catholic Church to read and study the Bible, if suitably qualified to do so.  It is true that up until the Middle Ages this would normally have meant training as a priest or entering the religious life to receive the requisite level of education, since literacy was not universal, but this does not mean that those who were illiterate were excluded from salvation.  Catholics do not believe that personal salvation depends on being able to read the Bible, as long as the teaching that the Bible contains is preached and available in other ways – as it was to the faithful in the Middle Ages through the preaching of their priests, the pictures and stained-glass windows in their churches, the miracle plays they performed, the rituals they participated in, and so on.

There was in fact no general ban on translations into the vernacular; indeed Jerome’s Vulgate (Latin) Bible was itself a vernacular translation at the time it was made because Latin was the common language of educated Europe .  Translations into English and other modern languages were only banned when they were judged to be inaccurate or to contain anti-Catholic propaganda (William Tyndale’s translation, for example).


Death, Judgment, Purgatory

 “Immediately after death all men face judgement.  Those whom God deems justified will go to heaven and the rest to eternal damnation in hell.  There is no intermediate state, and nothing is to be gained by praying for the souls of the dead, for their state has already been decided once and for all by God.”

Catholics, like Evangelicals, believe that all men face judgement by God after death, and that there are only two final destinations: heaven and hell.  Purgatory is not an “intermediate state” but just part of the process of going to heaven.  Many who are “justified” are still not perfect, and they need to be purified before they are ready (or able) to see God face-to-face.  Catholics call them the “holy souls”, and although time no longer exists for them in the same sense as it does for us, sometimes describe their purification metaphorically as spending “time” in purgatory. 

From their unique vantage-point as members of the Church freed from many of the limitations of earthly life, the holy souls are in some sense aware of what we are experiencing, and they may help us by their prayers, just as we can help them.  Thus our prayers and sacrifices for them, empowered by the grace that God shares with us, may contribute to their purification (although we may leave the exact details of this to God).

Of course, Catholics admit that Holy Scripture does not talk about purgatory in detail.  Like the Holy Trinity and so much else of what we believe, the doctrine is not spelled out – that is to say, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can deduce the doctrine of purgatory from the words of Scripture.  For example, the Bible speaks of a “cleansing fire” after death (1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7) and of prayers for the dead (2 Macc. 12:46).

Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1030, says: “All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

Evangelical Christians tend to say that when we are saved God clothes us with his righteousness (see “What God Does for Us” below), so that nothing else is needed.  In a sense Catholics agree: purgatory is simply our word for this “clothing”, which we see as a process.  Part of the clothing process is a cleansing, because who wants to put on clean clothes over a filthy body?


What God Does for Us

 [God saves us, He justifies us, He reconciles us to Himself and He regenerates us.  Let us look at each of these concepts in turn.]

Salvation is the instantaneous reception of an irrevocable right-standing before God.  There is nothing we can do – no ‘works’ – to secure it.  Romans 3:23 tells us that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’  Salvation is secured by faith, through the grace of God.  It requires a personal acceptance of what God has done for us on the Cross”  

For us, salvation means incorporation into Christ and the life of the Trinity.  Salvation from sin is made possible by the one redeeming sacrifice of Christ.  We are incorporated into Him (into His death and resurrection) by Baptism, but we remain free to sin and thus free to reject the salvation offered us.  Salvation is a lifelong process, because it is not until our death that the salvation imparted by Baptism becomes fully secure.  At that point we are no longer “free” to sin.  That is why we pray for the “grace of perseverance”, meaning by this the strength to continue in the true faith until death.

Justification means the legal declaration of Christ's righteousness reckoned to the believer at the point of faith, solely as an act of God's mercy.”

Catholics don’t use the word as much as you do, but we would understand it to mean the “making just” of the believer, which is no mere legal declaration but a real transformation into the righteousness of Christ, albeit one that takes place over time.

Reconciliation means that all sins are forgiven at the point of salvation, because Christ's death satisfied all God's wrath against sin (see Colossians 2:13,14).  It is only God who can forgive sins.”

We believe that Original Sin is indeed washed away at Baptism, together with any personal sins (if one is baptized after attaining the age of reason and maturity of conscience).  However, the baptized person retains the freedom to sin again.  Therefore a special sacrament (called Reconciliation or Confession) was instituted, based on the actions of Christ while on earth, when He forgave sins and gave the Apostles (not all believers) the authority to do likewise.  When a priest administers the sacrament, it is Christ who absolves the penitent through the action of the priest.  Only God can forgive sins, and those to whom He delegates this authority in His name.

Regeneration means the instantaneous imparting of eternal life and the quickening of the human spirit, making it alive to God.”

We also believe in regeneration, but we regard it as a lifelong process by which the grace (the gift of the Holy Spirit) received at Baptism transforms the believer into a saint.  Grace is the power and free gift of God working in the life and soul of the believer to make him or her worthy of heaven.

“For us, grace is simply God's disposition toward mankind, wherein He expresses His mercy and love, so that the believer is now treated as if he were innocent and righteous.”

We believe that God does not have to pretend but can make us truly righteous.  He does so by joining us to His Son.


Lord’s Supper/ Mass/ Eucharist

 “Those churches which celebrate a Eucharistic service are enacting a symbol which has no real power.  The memorial meal is not a sacrifice, and does not avail to free men from their sins, for the one availing sacrifice is that of Jesus on the Cross, which was offered once and for all.  No other sacrifice is needed, let alone one that is repeated every day.”

Catholics also believe that no other sacrifice than that of Jesus on the Cross is needed.  That is exactly what the Mass is.  At the Last Supper our Lord gave His Apostles and their successors the gift of His own Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine.  This was the first Mass.   It did not duplicate His redeeming sacrifice on the Cross, which He still had to perform the next day, but it made that sacrifice present in sacramental form.  Every Mass makes the one and only sacrifice of Calvary mystically present to those who participate: so it is not a new sacrifice but the very same one, not repeated but embodied in another time and place, so as to be more accessible to the people of God.

You may not think such a thing is possible (though God surely can do everything that is not logically self-contradictory), but at least please do not assume we believe something we do not.  We all agree there is only one sacrifice to take sins away: that of Christ on the Cross. 

We talk about the “Real Presence” of Our Lord in the Sacrament, and of the process called “transubstantiation” by which the things that were bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.  For us the Eucharist is symbol, but also more than a symbol.  It is a symbol into which God has put the actual presence of His Son, in a way that we cannot comprehend.  We believe this on the authority of the Church – in other words the authority of the Holy Spirit (see above) – and on the authority of Scripture, since in John 6: 35-66 Jesus tells His disciples that He will give them His flesh to eat and refuses to let them interpret this in a merely “symbolic” way.  That is why many of them left Him: they could not accept the idea of eating His flesh.  They did not know that He would invent a way to do this in the Last Supper that would overcome their scruples, by making His body present for them under the forms of bread and wine.


The Pope

 “The leader of the Roman Catholic Church claims falsely to have inherited the position of Peter among the Apostles and to possess special powers such as infallibility.”

The Bishop of Rome was always acknowledged to have a certain primacy of honour among the other metropolitan Bishops of East and West, in view of the fact that Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome .  The Pope’s link to Peter is traced back through the laying on of hands in unbroken succession for 2000 years.  Each Pope is elected by representatives of the whole Church in conclave with the Holy Spirit.  It is true that the doctrine of his infallibility was only clearly affirmed as part of Catholic doctrine in the late nineteenth century, but it was implied long before this in the role played by many Popes in resolving important disputes and defining heresy.  This so-called “power” is no different from the infallibility promised by Christ to the Church as a whole (Matthew 16:18), but such a power must be capable of being exercised on occasion by one man if disputes are to be definitively resolved.

The scope of infallibility is highly restricted.  It does not preserve the Pope from sin (that would be called “impeccability” and has never been claimed), nor from errors in judgment in administrative and political questions.  Many of the very obvious mistakes that Popes have made over the centuries fall into these categories.  Nor does it allow the Pope to invent or promulgate brand new doctrines.  So the Pope cannot define white as black or contradict anything already taught by Scripture and Tradition.

“Infallibility” may sound very grand, but it applies only to solemn definitions intended to define and preserve important beliefs concerning faith and morals that the Church has always held, or which are corollaries of such beliefs.  (See Catechism, paras 88-90, 891.) 



 “All believers are priests.  There should be no special class of ‘clergy’ coming between God and the believer.”

Catholics do believe in the priesthood of all believers, but not in the ministerial priesthood of each believer.  (See Catechism, para 1547.)

Christ is present in all the baptized.  Christians are therefore “priests, prophets and kings” by virtue of this presence, in relation to the world as a whole, especially when viewed as a body.  But a body needs a Head, and certain men are called by God to be ordained as priests not in relation to the world but as a whole but in relation to the other baptized Christians; that is, to represent Christ more fully within the Body of the Church.

To these ordained ministers are reserved certain of Christ’s powers, such as the power to forgive sins and to consecrate the Eucharist, which cannot belong to individual Christians without a special consecration.  Priests therefore, far from separating the laity from Christ, bring Him much closer.  Christ makes himself present to the faithful in the ordained priest by virtue of a special choice of this man for this work, and a special grace from the Holy Spirit.  In this way Christ is able to act within the Church to unfold the baptismal grace proper to all Christians.



 “This is the word Catholics give to a set of superstitious ritual practices that claim to have a quasi-magical effect on the believer.  Evangelicals have Baptism and Holy Communion, but these holy ordinances are symbols or ‘testimonies’ rather than ‘sacraments’ or means of grace, since regeneration and salvation are brought about by the reception of Jesus into the soul by faith, which is an interior reality.”

These ritual practices are instruments that God uses to teach us about himself, but they are also occasions to transmit particular graces to the human soul, beginning with Baptism which implants the life of God within us.  The sacraments work, not by some kind of ‘magic’, but solely by God’s power, always respecting the intention of the participants and the Church as a whole.  The precise form of the sacraments has changed over the years but they simply extend the actions of Christ while on earth and conform to His intentions.


Statues and idolatry

 “The second of the Ten Commandments specifically forbids making any kind of image of any being either earthly or heavenly.  Catholics break this commandment and fill their churches with statues.”

The second commandment follows from the first. It does not forbid the use of images in worship, but the worship of images instead of God.   God could not have meant a total prohibition of images because he later commanded Moses to make the image of a brazen serpent for the people to look to be saved.  He also commanded Moses to make two carved angels to be place on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant.  Imagery of all kind abounded in both the tabernacle and Solomon's temple.

The images in Catholic churches are not worshipped as gods.  They are simply the reminders and pictures of real people in whom God's grace found complete fulfillment, and who were transformed into the full image of Christ Jesus.


The Virgin Mary and the Saints

“Christians may be called ‘saints’, but this does not mean they are to be venerated or prayed to.  The souls in heaven cannot pray for the living and do not intercede on their behalf: the only ‘intercessor’ we need is our Redeemer.

“The mother of Jesus was a virgin and conceived miraculously, but was not free from sin and needed salvation like everyone else.  As a mere creature she is not divine and not to be worshipped and venerated.  We can remember her, and honour her, but not have a ‘devotion’ to her.  There is only one Mediator between Man and God, and it is Jesus Christ.”

There is a continuing relationship between the living and the dead.  God made us for community and friendship not just with Himself but with each other.  God delights to share His love with us, so that we may lavish it on one another.  Though He knows all that we need, He loves us to tell him, and even more to tell him of what others need, so that we may be perfected in unselfish love for our neighbour, in the power of His grace.

The mother of Jesus was the mother not just of His body but of His body and soul together, whose unity was constituted by the Second Person of the Trinity.  Thus she was the “God-bearer” or Mother of God – that is, of the one Person who was both God and Man - even though He was also her Creator and Redeemer.

In view of the fact that He would take flesh from her, she was freed from sin from the moment of her own conception.  This did not make her less human (for in fact all human beings were originally intended to be free from sin), nor less free to co-operate with God’s will (for sin and the damage wrought by sin makes us less free rather than more). 

Since she is His mother, His love for and intimacy with her does not end with His own death and resurrection.  We believe she would have been the first of creatures to possess the blessings of heaven, and so is described as ‘Queen of Heaven’.  Nor does her own care for her many children – all those who have been baptized into her Son - end with her death.  She continually prays for the graces we need and so is described as ‘Mother of Mercy’.  These teachings are not derived directly from the words of Scripture, but are implied by them.  They are part of what the Holy Spirit has led the Church to understand from Mary’s words, “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), and Christ’s words to the disciple John: “Behold your mother” (John 19:27).

We do not worship Mary, but venerate her.   “This very special devotion… differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration” (Catechism, para 971).


Further Reading List

More Christianity by Dwight Longenecker – explains the Catholic faith in a friendly way to non-Catholic Christians. 

Challenging Catholics by John Martin and Dwight Longenecker - A debate between an Anglican Evangelical and a Catholic.

Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson.

Exploring the Catholic Church by Marcellino D’Ambrosio – a good small introduction to the Catholic Church today.

Catholic and Christian by Alan Schreck - An explanation of Catholicism for enquiring Evangelicals.

The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer - An explanation of Protestantism by a former Evangelical who became a Catholic.

What Catholics Really Believe by Karl Keating – exploration of the Catholic faith in a question and answer format.

Catholics and Evangelicals Do They Share a Common Future? Thomas Rausch (ed) - a series of essays considering the new relationships developing between Evangelicals and Catholics.

Fundamentalism and Catholicism by Karl Keating -  A Catholic apologist challenges the anti-Catholic rhetoric of some extreme fundamentalists.

Where is that in the Bible? and Where is that in Tradition? by Patrick Madrid – easy to read Catholic answers written in a punchy style.

Pope Fiction by Patrick Madrid - answers popular questions about the papacy.


Online Reading

Dr Scott Hahn’s St Paul Center has much good material on Scripture and a useful apologetics section.

Dwight Longenecker’s site has a number of helpful articles.

This site is also designed to answer Evangelical objections to Catholicism, including the Church’s alleged restriction of lay access to the Bible:

Second Spring would be grateful to hear from any Evangelical readers who feel their beliefs or concerns have been misrepresented in the above essay, or who would like to ask questions that have not yet been addressed.  This is a work in progress.