Presbyterian vs Roman Catholic: What’s the Difference?


The Roman Catholic and Presbyterian branches of the Christian faith trace their origins to Jesus of Nazareth and his apostles, as well as their writings that comprise most of the New Testament. There are significant similarities and differences between Catholicism and Presbyterianism.

A central difference between Catholicism and Presbyterianism is where they locate authority. Catholicism recognizes the supremacy of the papacy and believes that Scripture shares authority with Church tradition. Presbyterianism holds that Scripture alone is authoritative. Other differences stem from this disagreement.

On what matters and doctrines do Catholics and Presbyterians agree? How important are their disagreements and what exactly are they on topics like God, the Bible, Christ, and the Church? Keep reading to learn more.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:42 (ESV)

Comparing Catholicism and Presbyterianism

Catholics and Presbyterians generally treat each other kindly (though there are small number of exceptions, unfortunately), but they take their doctrinal convictions very seriously. For example,

  • Devout Catholics are passionate about the Eucharist and will strongly defend it, in contrast to Presbyterian beliefs about the Lord’s Supper.
  • Devout Presbyterians are passionate about Covenant Theology, and will strongly defend it, in contrast to Catholic beliefs about works, grace, and redemption.

A Catholic priest, author, or church member may speak kindly to a Presbyterian but be insistent that some of their beliefs are wrong. A Presbyterian may interact with a Catholic in a similar manner.

Do Catholics believe Presbyterians are Christians? Some Catholics believe the differences they have with Presbyterianism render Presbyterian unbelievers. Other Catholics believe that many Presbyterians are Christians, but they are living out their faith apart from the true church.

Do Presbyterians believe Catholics are Christians? Some Presbyterians believe the differences they have with Catholicism render Catholic unbelievers. Other Presbyterians believe that many Catholics are Christians, but their faith is permeated with unbiblical traditions.

Catholic vs Presbyterian: Overview

Roman CatholicismPresbyterianism
Name: The word “Roman” is derived from the city of Rome, Italy; “Catholic” literally means “universal” or “global” or something similar. When “Catholic” is used in the context of “Roman Catholic,” it refers to the historic branch of the Christian faith.Name: The word “Presbyterian” comes from the New Testament Greek word presbyteros meaning “elder.” The broad use of the term describes a tradition within Protestant Christianity. The narrower use of the term describes an elder-led form of church government.
Branch of Christianity: Catholicism traces its origins to Christ and the Apostle Peter (Matt. 16:18-19), who the church teaches was the first bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ on Earth.Branch of Christianity: Presbyterianism traces its theological convictions to the New Testament. As an ecclesiastical movement, its origins lie in 16th century France and Scotland, with John Calvin (1509-1564) and John Knox (1514-1572), respectively.
Central commitments: The pope is the Vicar of Christ; Scripture and tradition are authoritative; justification involves forgiveness and sanctification; the sacraments are channels of God’s grace; Mass and the Eucharist are primary theological matters.Central commitments: Scripture is authoritative over church tradition in regard to doctrine and Christian living; Covenant Theology, including the covenants of works, grace, and redemption; the theological teachings of Calvin, sometimes expressed in the T.U.L.I.P. acronym.

Note: There isn’t a single Presbyterian denomination. It’s more accurate to speak of a Presbyterian tradition, which is comprised of different denominations. The largest Presbyterian denominations in America are,

  • Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA): estimated 1.7 million members
  • Presbyterian Church in America (PCA): estimated 370,000 members
  • A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO): estimated 100,000 members
“[Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.” Hebrews 9:15a (ESV)

Catholic and Presbyterian Beliefs and Practices

Protestant Christianity, which the Presbyterian tradition is a part of, considers itself a truer or purer form of Christianity because Scripture is their authority. Catholicism considers itself a truer and purer form of the faith because of their commitment to Scripture, they follow the pope who is the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and the Eucharist.

Presbyterians and Catholics have many similarities, for example, the doctrine of God. They generally agree about God’s nature as it relates to His personhood and composition (e.g. the Trinity), His attributes (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence), and His moral standards (e.g. humility is good, covetousness is bad). Disagreements, however, can be found in many areas.

Roman CatholicismPresbyterianism
Human Leader: Catholicism teaches that the Pope is the Vicar (i.e. representative or deputy) of Christ as well as the head of the Church on Earth, which is an office that finds its origin in the ministry of the Apostle Peter.Human Leader: No Presbyterian (or Protestant) denomination or church recognizes the pope as the Vicar of Christ or head of the Church. Leaders in the Presbyterian tradition serve under the authority of Scripture, not Scripture plus church tradition.
Ordinance/sacraments: Catholic teaching refers to these practices as “ordinances”: adult and infant baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing, ordination, marriage. These practices are channels of God’s grace, according to Catholic theology.Ordinance/sacraments: Usually referred to as “sacraments,” there are only two: baptism (infant and adult) and the Lord’s Supper. Presbyterians don’t believe sacraments are channels of God’s grace.
Infant baptism: Also called “paedobaptism” (paedo = “child”), children of Christian parents are baptized to cleanse them of original sin and regenerate them.Infant baptism: Presbyterians are also “paedobaptists” (not all Protestants are). Baptism signifies inclusion into the Covenant community.
The Lord’s Supper: Also called “the Eucharist,” it is a memorial in which the elements of the bread and cup become the body and blood of Christ (i.e. “transubstantiation”).The Lord’s Supper: Also called “communion,” Presbyterians don’t believe the elements become the literal body and blood of Christ, but hold that he is spiritually present in the bread and cup.
Saints: In Catholic teaching, believers who have lived with great virtue and honor may be considered for canonization after physical death. Believers who are still living on Earth venerate the saints, in part by asking them for prayer and blessings.Saints: Presbyterians, like other Protestants, believe the word “saints” (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:2) in the New Testament refers to Christians in general. They don’t believe in canonizing believers, but honor and value their service to God and the Church.
Mary: Catholicism teaches that Mary, referred to as “the Mother of God,” was virgin born, lived a sinless life, reversed Eve’s disobedience, was a perpetual virgin, was raptured to heaven, and is an advocate and co-mediator.Mary: Presbyterians believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is to be respected, honored, and seen as an example of obedience, holiness, devotion, and love. She was, however, a sinner like all other people. She was neither a perpetual virgin nor was she raptured to heaven. People should not pray to her and Christ should be considered as the only mediator between God and people.
Religious orders: The term describes men (e.g. priests) and women (e.g. nuns) who have fully devoted themselves to a certain form of religious life, which includes poverty, chastity, and obedience.Religious orders: The Presbyterian tradition doesn’t include religious orders, however clergy or laity may sense God’s call for them to be single or live minimally.

Catholics and Presbyterians serving together

Though Catholics and Presbyterians have important differences in beliefs and practices, they have areas of theological and social agreement. Members of both churches have ministries that help the poor, support women who are unexpectedly pregnant, and provide for children without parents.

Sometimes, Catholics and Presbyterians work together in the hope of having a greater impact in such areas of opportunity locally and globally.

References:
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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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