Catholic-Protestant Relations

Catholic-Protestant relations refer to the social, political, and theological relations and dialogue between the Catholics and Protestants.

This relationship began in the 16th century with the beginning of the reformation and thereby Protestantism. A number of factors contributed to the Protestant Reformation. Namely, disagreement on the nature of salvation and by extension a number of doctrines including the sale of indulgences and more. These disputes led to a schism whereby Protestants chose to split from the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the Council of Trent (1545–1563) which clarified the Catholic approach to Protestantism from then on, declaring all forms of Protestantism heretical. A series of significant events followed which divided Europe and culminated in a number of states transitioning from Catholicism to Protestantism as their state religion. However, many remained Catholic, and some areas reverted back to the Catholic religion as a result of the Counter-Reformation. Much of the schism and the events it caused can be categorised as violent and tumultuous. However, with the rise of secularism, Catholic-Protestant disputes are generally constrained to the intellectual sphere.

Theological disputes

Catholic–Protestant theological dissent was birthed in 1517 with the posting of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses which outline ninety-five objections against Catholic doctrine. These included distinction between clergy and laity, the Roman Church’s monopoly on scriptural interpretation, the sale of indulgences, the nature of salvation, and more.


Luther’s understanding of salvation was one of the radical departures from Catholic dogma. Luther highlighted that Christian salvation was a free gift from God which led him to criticise the sale of indulgences as a means by which one can “attain” heaven. He stressed the importance of a faith-oriented process of salvation, distinct from his view of the Catholic works-oriented salvation. This also led to a shift in the understanding of grace. This Protestant doctrine is known as sola fide (faith alone).

See also: Predestination in Calvinism

French attorney John Calvin developed the Reformed theology of salvation. While Luther maintained that salvation was available to all, Calvin introduced the doctrine of predestination. Based on the idea of human’s sin-enslaved will, and salvation being the sole work of God (not man), Calvin insisted that certain individuals were predestined for heaven and others were not.


A significant foundation for both parties’ doctrines is the nature of their authority. The Protestant positions consists in either holding scripture to be the sole foundation of Christian doctrine (as with e.g. Lutheranism), or holding that scripture is the primary source of Christian doctrine (as with e.g. Anglicanism and Methodism). This has led to heavy criticism of the Catholic Church’s position which places scripture on par with Sacred Tradition, with Catholics considering both as divinely revealed and binding. The dispute also reaches into ecclesiology, since the Catholic Church considers itself the “one true church” founded by Jesus as necessary for salvation, while Protestants generally do not believe the “true church” is any definite religious institution, but a spiritual reality encompassing all “true Christians” despite their differing denominational beliefs.

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City


16th century – The Reformation

See also: European wars of religionError has no rights, and History of Christian thought on persecution and tolerance

The 16th century began the Reformation which resulted in the formation of Protestantism as a distinct entity to Catholicism. In response, the Catholic Church began its own reformation process known as the “counter-reformation” which culminated in the Council of Trent. This council was responsible for several practical changes and doctrinal clarifications. In spite of this, the two parties remained notably dissimilar.

After years of the spread of Martin Luther’s ideas, Protestants submitted their statement of belief at the Diet of Augsburg (1530).

In 1540 Pope Paul III approved the order of the Society of Jesus (or “Jesuits”) which was created largely to combat Protestantism.

The Regensburg Reconciliation (1541) was a failed attempt by Catholics and Lutheran Protestants to reunite.

The “traditionally Roman” nations of France, Spain and Italy endured the Roman Inquisitions as of 1542. The inquisitions were aimed at all those considered heretical by the Catholic Church but predominately targeted Protestants as it was the most prominent. Technically the Church itself never executed heretics (as Canon Law forbade the shedding of blood). Rather, heretics were handed over to civil authorities for punishment.

Disputes between the Catholic Emperor of Germany and the princes thereof resulted in the Schmalkaldic War (1547). Protestants were defeated, but later on Protestantism became legally recognised as a valid religion.

In 1555 the Peace of Augsburg allowed Catholics and Lutherans to follow the faith of their ruler – regardless of what that may be – within Germany.


See also: St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre

The Reformation in France took on a unique flavour which lacked the public, State and church support found elsewhere in Europe. The first French Protestants were subject to persecution in the form of death or exile. From 1562 conflict raged between the Protestant Huguenots and Catholics. In 1589, Protestant Henry IV succeeded the throne raising the hopes of French Protestants. However, any reforms he may have intended to make were shattered by an alliance between French Catholics and the king of Spain who forced him to convert. The 1598 Edict of Nantes gave Huguenots the right to practice freely while retaining Catholicism as the nation’s official religion.

The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of French Protestants in 1572

The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French Protestants in 1572


The Netherlands was quick to embrace the Reformation and soon assumed a Protestant identity. Though it faced opposition by its ruling power – Spain – the Dutch independence movement dispelled with Spanish imposition and allowed for Protestant development.

Great Britain

England and Scotland endured the longest of the European transformations in response to the Reformation. Henry VIII declared himself Head of the Church of England (1534) in response to Rome’s refusal to sanction his divorcing of Queen Catherine. He still, however, died a Catholic. Officially, the reformation in England began under Edward VI (1547–53) led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury. Queen Mary (1553–58) persecuted Protestants in an attempt to restore Catholicism to England. Ironically, this only served to enhance Protestant determination. Following this trend, Elizabeth solidified Protestantism as the State religion of England permanently. Overall, the reformation led to the seizing of all Catholic Church assets in Britain, persecution of clergy, and the virtual destruction of Catholicism as a significant socio-political force in the region.

17th century

In 1618 the Dutch War of Independence ended and Catholic Spain ceased to rule over the region. Much of this war is considered to be on religious grounds.

The 17th century saw Protestant-Catholic tensions rise particularly in Germany leading to the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648. This war saw the destruction of much of Central Europe and divided much of the continent along Catholic-Protestant lines. Swedes, Danes, and French were all involved. The war culminated in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) which granted Calvinists and Lutherans equal rights to Catholics.

New Englanders were deeply suspicious of Catholicism and in 1647 banished all Catholic clergymen by law. In 1689 the Maryland assembly forbade Catholic baptism outside of already Catholic households, the practicing of Catholic mass, and more.

In 1685 king Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes leading to the prosecution of Protestants in France.

18th century

Protestant Britain and its colonies remained apprehensive towards the Roman Catholic Church. North America was particularly hostile. As of 1700, immigrating Catholic clergy were imprisoned upon arrival in New England. In 1725 Spanish-born Londoner Antonio Gavin wrote A Master Key to Popery which was adopted in Protestant sects across the British Empire. Gavin described Catholic clergymen as “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, purposefully teaching erroneous doctrine, power-hungry and more. Similar sentiments were preached throughout the Empire in the legal, academic, and religious spheres. In 1731, Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge Paul Dudley wrote An Essay on the Merchandize of Slaves and Souls of Men: With Application thereof to the Church of Rome describing the financial greed of the Roman Church. Among others, Dudley’s will made provisions for a lecture on the “detection, conviction and exposition of Roman Church idolatry”. Jonathan Mayhew, pastor of Boston’s West Church, also preached on the idolatry of transubstantiation and the equating of oral tradition with sacred scripture. The late 18th century saw a series of new laws introduced to British North America to curtail the immigration of Catholics and dispossess those already dwelling there. In 1757, Catholics lost their right to bear arms. Anti-Catholicism soon became intertwined with nationalism. Thus, when conspiracies of secret relations between the Catholic Church and the British Monarchy spread, colonials preferred to revolt from Britain. This contributed to the American Revolution (1765–83). However, the revolutionaries eventually diverged from this position given their reliance on funding from Catholic France and to avoid conflict with colonial Catholics of Maryland, Philadelphia and Quebec.

In contrast, the Quebec Act of 1774 provided protections for both English Protestants and French Catholics in Canada.

19th century

The 1800s saw a period known as the Second Great Awakening for Protestantism in the United States. Prominent figures such as Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) advocated against Roman Catholicism amongst other perceived evils. The American Bible Society – a Protestant organisation – advocated for the unification of Protestant denominations in order to combat Catholicism. Deep distrust existed from Protestants towards the Papacy.

In 1821 and again in 1825, the English House of Commons oversaw proposed bills regarding the emancipation of Catholics. In both instances, they were overturned given the heavily Protestant nature of the England’s House of Lords.

Catholic Austria recognised Protestantism as a legal religion in the 1860s.

In 1871 the Protestant rulers of Germany undertook a program known as the kulturkampf (culture struggle) which saw the suppression of German Catholicism. The German Ministry for Education’s Catholic Bureau was abolished, and openly political priests were prosecuted. In 1872, the Jesuits were expelled from Germany.

In 1895 Pope Leo XIII attempted to make amends with the Church of England in his apostolic letter Ad Anglos. In 1896, however, Leo maintained Catholic superiority and declared Anglican orders invalid in his bull Apostolicae curae.

20th century

See also: Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

The 20th Century saw many developments in the relationship between Catholic-Protestant relations. In 1910, the International Missionary Conference was held in Edinburgh in an attempt to unify non-Roman churches. Protestant denominations responded to the possibility of unification with varying success. Catholic representatives were present at the council, but merely as observers.

The Conversations at Malines (1923-27) were talks between some representatives of the Catholic Church and the Church of England which Pope Pius XI ceased. No real change eventuated from these talks.

In 1950 the Roman Catholic Church widened the gap between itself and Protestantism by defining and enforcing the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary under Pius XII.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) aimed to move towards Christian unity of all denominations. Doctrinal unity was reached to some degree with different denominations and a “shared Bible” was introduced.

Largest religious and non-religious group by EU member state according to Eurobarometer survey 2019.

Largest religious and non-religious group by EU member state according to Eurobarometer survey 2019.
More than 75% Catholic
50–75% Catholic
Relative Catholic majority
50–75% Protestant
More than 75% Eastern Orthodox
50–75% non-religious
Relative non-religious majority
30% Catholic, 30% non-religious (Germany)

21st century

Further information: Catholic teachings on heresy § Modern Roman Catholic response to Protestantism

In the spirit of Vatican II, the Catholic Church has embraced a more open approach to Christian unity to both Protestants and Eastern Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, many Americanised remnants of Anglo-American-style denominations of Protestantism remain deeply distrustful of the Catholic Church. Ecumenism with these sects appears unlikely.

In 2015, Pope Francis declared division among Christians as “the work of the father of lies [the devil].” Francis added that the devil knows that “all Christians are disciples of Christ: that they are one, that they are brothers! He [the devil] doesn’t care if they are Evangelicals or Orthodox, Lutherans, Catholics or Apostolic… He doesn’t care! They are Christians!”

In 2016, Pope Francis traveled to Lund, Sweden, where he took part in the celebration given for the upcoming of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The next year, the press of the Vatican released a stamp to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; the stamp depicts Luther and Melanchton kneeling before a crucified Jesus.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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