Catholic vs. Christian: Overlap and Differences in the Religions

By: Mitch Ryan  | 
Vatican City is one of the most important places for devout Catholics, but it doesn't share the same meaning for Christians. Anna Kurzaeva / Getty Images

All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares; the same goes for the Catholic vs. Christian distinction. All Catholics are Christian, but not all Christians consider themselves Catholic.

Although 1.3 billion Catholics make up the majority of the world's nearly 2.4 billion Christian population, several other Christian denominations have unique personal beliefs, holidays and religious practices that differ slightly from the Catholic Church. These groups are called Christians because they all believe Christ (Jesus of Nazareth) was the promised Messiah.


However, Catholics and other Christians are divided on various interpretations of the notated word of God found in the Holy Bible. Read on to learn how the Christian faith evolved into separate factions and how the Roman Catholics differs from other Christians.

A Brief History of Christianity

All Christian religions are based on the teachings of a Judean religious leader named Jesus Christ, who is believed to have lived in the 1st Century C.E. in what is now modern-day Israel and Palestine.

Following Jesus' crucifixion and alleged resurrection, his followers formed early Christian communities that set out to spread the New Testament and their unique interpretations of the word of God. These personal beliefs evolved over time through varying historical, cultural and political climates as the religion spread worldwide.


While Christianity was often met with derision or persecution when it was seen as a rebellious break from the status quo, growing numbers of converts from diverse communities forced any naysayers to accept the new major religion.

However, even within the ranks of this relatively young belief system, there were some who had opposing views on how to best spread the word of God.

Two defining moments explain today's many Christian denominations: The first monumental event was the Great Schism of 1054, and the second was the Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1517.

The Great Schism of 1054

In the 11th Century, Christianity was divided into two primary power hubs: Constantinople in the Greek-speaking East and Rome in the Latin-speaking West. Although 1054 marks the formal break between these two groups, they had been in contention for over six centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent divvying up of Christian lands.

Apart from regional and political differences, these groups often argued about best practices for operating Christian churches. For example, Orthodox Christians allowed their clergy to marry, while Catholic Christian priests believed in holy orders of celibacy.

Another major point of theological contention was that Eastern Orthodox Churches (not to be confused with Eastern Rite Catholics) strongly disagreed with the Nicene Creed practiced in Catholic worship. This doctrine proposed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (God) and Son (Jesus Christ) instead of coming directly from God.

Although these differences may seem superfluous, they sparked enough animosity for centuries of ex-communication and the eventual attack on Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. This battle left thousands of Orthodox Christians dead and set the stage for continued division between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church.

The Reformation

Sixteenth-century Europe witnessed the next pivotal moment in Christian history, now known as the Reformation. Instead of Orthodox Christians, this movement was started by leaders of future Protestant Churches like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who spoke against widespread corruption in Christian churches.

Protestant beliefs sprang from this initial outspoken dissension against the Roman Catholic Church's practices of indulgence sales and clerical celibacy, as well as the Catholic concept of purgatory and limbo.

By openly opposing these accepted tenets of Catholic worship, this new Christian church sparked debates, wars and the formation of various Christian denominations with unique views on how best to interpret God's word in the scriptures.

Generally, the concept of sola scriptura (Latin for achieving God's grace through scripture alone) remains a bedrock philosophy of all Protestant churches.


A Brief History of the Roman Catholic Church

Although the relationship would eventually sour, Roman Catholicism owes much of its widespread influence to 4th-century Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion for its current foothold as one of the most influential religions on Earth.

Shortly after this significant turning point, Roman Catholics went from being an oppressed, marginalized group of heretics and zealots to members of the Roman Empire's state religion.


Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church wielded substantial political power and cultural authority that shaped European society through most of the Middle Ages. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, new ideas from the Renaissance and the Reformation challenged Roman Catholics' belief systems and led to the forging of separate factions under one Christian umbrella.

3 Similarities Shared Between Catholics and Christians

Although Christians and Catholics may disagree on minutiae surrounding religious practices and theological interpretations, they can find common ground on certain guiding principles.

1. Both Catholics and Christians Believe That Christ Died to Forgive Our Sins

Both Catholics and Christians believe in the concept of original sin from the Old Testament story of the first humans, Adam and Eve. In the Book of Genesis, God created the Garden of Eden, a peaceful paradise of unfathomable beauty surrounding a forbidden Tree of Knowledge.


Eve and Adam were both deceived by a snake (Satan, the Bible's antagonist in a serpentine form) to eat the tree's fruit and indulge in knowledge reserved for only God. God then learns of this tragic misstep and exiles the couple from the garden of worry-free eternal life, cursing their descendants to toil in the wastelands of the world without hope of eternal salvation after death.

In both the Catholic and Christian traditions, God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to be born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus is often called the "lamb of God" because he was destined to teach his followers before eventually meeting his death. Jesus' sacrifice was God's promise to forgive original sin and symbolically unlock the gates of heaven for all believers.

2. Catholic and Christian Followers Believe in Eternal Salvation

All Christian faiths believe that after Jesus died to forgive sins, Christ's sacrifice allowed past, present and future souls to enter the kingdom of heaven. Protestant and Anglican churches simplified the concept of eternal salvation to either heaven (salvation) or hell (damnation).

The main difference came into play when the Catholic Church added multiple levels for less-than-satisfactory souls, including Limbo and Purgatory.

3. The Second Coming of Christ Is Universally Accepted by Both the Christian and Catholic Faith

After Jesus Christ died, it is believed that he rose from the dead and entered Heaven. The Gospel of the New Testament claims that just as his closest followers (apostles) were in despair, Jesus revealed himself to the group, promising his eventual second coming.

This second coming is believed to be a day of judgment and resurrection as righteous souls will be brought into God's new heavenly kingdom.


3 Major Differences Between Catholics and Christians

Although Catholics agree with other Christians on most major topics, there are some specifics that breed disagreement between several groups.

These disagreements typically revolve around the sacred tradition of mass, the holy orders and structural hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and the way the Virgin Mary and the venerated saints are respected in the Roman Catholic doctrine.


1. The Holy Trinity: God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit

Roman Catholic teachings diverge from the views of nearly any non-Catholic Christian religion on the Holy Trinity.

In the Roman Catholic religion, the Father (God), Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit are all incarnations of the same entity, while in the Christian faith, the Trinity is often seen as individual things working toward the same mission.

2. Other Christian Denominations Don't Believe in Holy Orders of Papal Infallibility or the Need to Venerate Saints

One of the most significant differences between Catholic doctrine and the beliefs of other Christian denominations is the concept of hierarchy. Catholics adhere more strictly to the New Testament, in which a passage describes how Christ founded the church by imbuing his favorite apostle, Peter, with supreme authority over his earthly domain as the first pope.

Another way to consider this is to perceive the church as a monarchy. God is king, but the Pope is his highest representative. There is then a chain of command that passes orders down from the Pope to cardinals and bishops before trickling down to a Catholic priest serving a congregation.

Opposing Christian groups believe in more autonomy and feel that only God and his sacred scriptures in the Holy Bible can have this authority. By learning and living by the word of God and his natural law, other Christians feel that a Catholic priest is unnecessary to achieve God's grace and eternal salvation.

Another point of contention is many Christian groups do not venerate saints. When Catholics venerate saints like Jesus' mother, the Virgin Mary, they call on that individual saint to answer their prayers. Other Christians hold Mary in high regard but do not agree that she or other sainted figures hold significant authority on Earth.

3. The Catholic Church Teaches Transubstantiation

Anyone raised Catholic will remember that Sunday mass revolves around the mystery of the Eucharist, arguably the most essential sacred tradition in the Catholic faith. This Roman Catholic teaching stems from the Last Supper of the New Testament.

During the dinner preceding Jesus' death, he was surrounded by his apostles when he suddenly proclaimed that the bread and wine he held were symbols of Christ's body and blood and that he was ready to willingly sacrifice to forgive original sin.

In Roman Catholicism, it is believed that during every Sunday mass, the priest will transform bread and wine into Christ's body and blood in a transubstantiation ritual. In a way, the primary purpose of Catholic mass is to relive and regain appreciation for Jesus' sacrifice.

Conversely, a similar ritual will occur during the Sunday mass or divine liturgy of other Christian faiths, but the parishioners see the bread and wine as symbols and not actual divine sacrifices.