The first rule of debate is to be sure you correctly understand the position of your interlocutor.
Any Catholic who has engaged in dialogue with Protestants knows that discussions can quickly devolve to the Protestant insisting that Catholics believe something that Catholics do not in fact believe (e.g. that we worship Mary, or other such nonsense). Such discussions can be frustrating and waste a lot of time, particularly since there are many significant areas, including ones that cut straight to the heart of the Gospel, where Catholics and most Protestant actually do disagree. Of course, Catholics can be guilty of straw manning Protestant beliefs, too, but in my personal experience it has been more likely for the Protestant to come to the conversation with confused ideas about Catholic beliefs.
In addition, probably due to the strong Protestant presence in the US combined with poor catechesis, it’s not uncommon for me to see Catholics telling Protestants that the Catholic Church agrees with Protestants on things that in fact the Catholic Church does not agree with Protestants.
Listed below are just a few examples of major areas Catholics and most Protestants don’t disagree (but that people often think they do) and then some examples of areas where Catholics and most Protestants do in fact disagree. For each, I’ve given a short description meant simply to further explain what I am referring to, but not meant to exhaustively explain the issue.
Some areas where Catholics and most Protestants do not disagree (but people often think they do):
- Worshiping God alone. Contrary to rhetoric that is unfortunately all too common among certain groups of Protestants (but that seems to have subsided significantly in other Protestant circles), Catholics do not worship Mary, the Pope, the saints, statues, icons, rosaries, relics, or anything else other than God. We never have and certainly won’t be any time soon. Protestants who assert otherwise may simply be misinformed (it’s what they’ve been told by other Protestants they trust) or, if they continue to assert that Catholics worship anybody other than God after being repeatedly corrected, they might simply have a strong anti-Catholic bias.
- Jesus is the one, absolutely unique, and necessary mediator between God and men. This misunderstanding is related to the first one. Any role in the life of the Church held by Mary, the saints, the clergy, etc, is not the same as, and does not replace, the unique and necessary role of Christ. Catholics and Protestants both agree with Scripture when it says “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”. (1 Tim 2.5)
- Grace is necessary for salvation. When they hear that Catholics reject sola fide, many Protestants assume this means that Catholics believe we don’t need Jesus but instead save ourselves. This is entirely false: it is a matter of Catholic dogma that God’s absolutely gratuitous grace that comes through the work of Christ is necessary before, during, and after every part of a person’s salvation.
- Faith is necessary for salvation. While Catholics reject the belief that faith is, by itself, sufficient for salvation (sola fide), Catholics do agree that faith is necessary for salvation.
- The Bible is the inspired Word of God and the final word in all it teaches. When people hear that Catholics follow Tradition, they often think this means Tradition can somehow trump Scripture. In actual fact, Catholics hold that Scripture is the inspired Word of God and therefore infallible and final in all it says. But what if Scripture and Tradition contradict? They don’t and can’t, since they both pass on the Word of God, and the Word of God can’t contradict itself.
- Public revelation ended with the deaths of the Apostles. Lots of Protestants misunderstand what the Catholic Church means by “Tradition”, and part of the reason is because the term “Tradition” can mean different things in different contexts for Catholics. Many Protestants mistakenly think an appeal to “Tradition” is a way for Catholics to make up new things hundreds of years after Jesus and, after those things have been around a while, declare them to be a part of the Tradition, and then hold those things alongside Scripture. In fact, Catholics agree with Protestants that the deposit of faith was sealed with the death of the last Apostle. The question is how that revelation is passed on to us today. While most Protestants believe that the revelation of Christ is passed down only in Scripture, Catholics believe that revelation is passed down both in writing (Scripture) and orally (Tradition). In other words, something is only a part of “Tradition” in this sense if it originated in some way from Christ and His Apostles themselves. If a particular doctrine or practice was truly created at some later date, it is not a part of the Tradition in this sense and therefore not a part of public revelation.
Here are a few of the many significant areas where Catholics and most Protestants do disagree:
- Sola Scriptura vs Scripture and Tradition interpreted by the Magisterium. How is the Word of God as revealed in Christ passed down to us? Many Protestants say the only way is via writing in what we call the Bible. Catholics say the Word of God has been passed down in writing (Bible) and orally (Tradition). And did Christ leave his Church with an authoritative body for interpreting the Word of God? Most Protestants say no, while Catholics say yes: Catholics believe that doctrinal disputes among Christians can be definitively settled by the bishops with the Pope or by the Pope alone.
- Apostolic succession. Catholics believe Jesus gave the Apostles authority over the Church, and that the Apostles passed this authority onto bishops, who in turn passed on the same authority in succession down to the present episcopate, and that the bishops are an essential element of the Church. Most Protestants deny this.
- Sola Fide vs Faith, Hope, and Love. Most Protestants believe faith alone is sufficient for a person to attain heaven. Catholics, on the other hand, believe faith must be completed by hope and love as expressed in obedience to God’s commands and a growth in holiness by God’s grace, as received primarily through the Sacraments.
- The number, nature, and role of the sacraments. Are there seven Sacraments, as the Catholic Church holds (Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Marriage), or some other number, as held by most Protestants (most often two, baptism and communion)? Are the Sacraments effective (as Catholics and some Protestants hold) or only symbolic (as other Protestants hold)? And are any of the Sacraments necessary for salvation (as the Catholic Church holds) or not (as many Protestants hold)?
- The content of the Bible. We both agree Scripture is the inspired Word of God – but what writings make up Scripture? Both Catholics and Protestants agree on the 27 books of the New Testament, but disagree on the number and versions of the books of the Old Testament.
- Mary’s role in salvation history. The Immaculate Conception, her perpetual virginity, the Assumption, even her title Theotokos is controversial for some Protestants.
There’s plenty to debate about here. So let’s stick to the real differences.