A Lenten Friday: What Separates Catholics and Protestants

I am often asked, “What is the fundamental difference between Catholic and Protestant belief?” There are numerous ways to answer the question. Sometimes I use the following illustration.

During my early twenties, I worked for a fundraising firm that conducted campaigns in Catholic parishes and diocese across the country. On one occasion I attended a black-tie affair held at the Breakers Resort on Palm Beach Island. In a gigantic dinner room sat a packed audience of wealthy potential donors. Before the bishop opened in prayer, our team reviewed the agenda one last time. It was then we discovered the blunder.

All the campaign elements were in place—volunteers, video, brochures; the problem was the food. On the menu was an entrée of filet mignon, twice-baked potato and vegetable. At any other time of the year, steak would have been great; unfortunately, this particular Friday was during Lent, a special religious season when Catholics abstain from eating meat. To willfully consume meat on a Friday during Lent constitutes a sin. If one should die after doing so, it would put them into the flames of purgatory (or perhaps worse). This was a serious problem!

In actuality, many Catholics eat meat on Fridays during Lent, but they don’t usually do it when dining with the bishop and clergy. Further, it is unthinkable that the Catholic Church would host such a meal. The salad and a dinner roll would buy us about twenty minutes. The Lord’s multiplying of fish crossed my mind more than once.

While our team of fundraisers nervously stared at one another in silent bewilderment, the bishop spoke. He reiterated what we already knew about Lenten food laws and the implications for our predicament. He continued, “As the bishop, I have the authority to declare a special dispensation which will allow us to eat meat during Lent. If there is ever a time for such a provision, it is now.” I then watched the bishop pray, announce the menu, and before guests connected the doctrinal dots, he pronounced a special blessing to sanction the meal. My eyes turned toward old Joe Sedlak who sat beside me thinking that if he had choked on his steak and died apart from the bishop’s blessing, he might have been roasted. But now, after the bishop’s prayer, he could feast in peace.

From a Protestant point of view, clerical authority of this kind stretches incredulity to the breaking point. Even so, the Bishop’s announcement makes sense in the context of Catholic theology. If authority is vested in the Bishops to the extent that they mediate forgiveness and sanctifying grace, then such priestly action follows logically.

That evening, I left the Breakers finally understanding that the issue of Church authority is the fulcrum that separates Catholics from Protestants. Do you recognize authority to be found in the Bishops by means of apostolic succession? If so, you are a Catholic. If instead you see ultimate authority to be in Scripture alone, you are a Protestant.

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. If your dad tells you to mow the lawn and you refuse, you have disobeyed your dad and thus broken one of the 10 Commandments. Right? Even though Scripture says nothing about mowing the lawn?

    1. Eric, your illustration is appealing, but I wonder if a better illustration would be a situation in which someone claims to speak on behalf of your father, telling you that you must mow the lawn every Friday (or every Friday during Lent), and that your refusal to obey will result in great displeasure or condemnation from your father. In such a case it might be better to get the story straight from the father.

      1. Randy, Chris claims that the difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants believe that ultimate authority rests in Scripture alone, but Catholics don’t. That is why bishops are able to “create” sins (abstain from meat or else) and, as a necessary corollary, are able to withdraw these requirements as well (granting a dispensation from the rule to abstain from meat).

        As my example shows, this is not even close to true. Parents can create rules that are binding on their children. These can be things biblical (love your brothers and sisters) or non-biblical (mow the lawn). Either way, the child has to obey, and the refusal to obey is a sin. Parents can also withdraw these rules (don’t worry about mowing the lawn with weekend, have fun with your friends).

        So far, no Catholic/Protestant difference, right?

        The Bible says that not only parents have the right to create such rules, but also the government. See, e.g., 1 Peter 2:13-17 (“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God. . . .”).

        And if this command extends to parents and the civil authorities, is it really your position that it does not also apply to leaders in the Church?

        1. RECAP:

          By Chris’s logic, Protestants and Catholic agree:

          Dad says mow the lawn, you don’t mow lawn: SIN
          Dad says never mind, you don’t mow lawn: NO SIN

          Gov’t says show up for jury duty, you don’t show up for jury duty, SIN
          Gov’t excuses you from jury duty, you don’t show up for jury duty, NO SIN

          BUT only Catholics believe that Church leaders also have this authority:

          Bishop says don’t eat meat in order to remember, in a small way, that Christ died on a Friday, you eat meat: SIN
          Bishop says it’s OK to eat meat, you eat meat: NO SIN

        2. Thanks, Eric. It (church authority) does indeed apply from a Protestant point of view, and carries a certain weight. But it does so with ministerial authority and not with *magisterial* authority. We find magisterial authority by following Randy’s advice. I’m not sure I can state it any more poignantly than he has.

          1. Chris, I don’t understand the distinction you are trying to make here. The Catholic Church’s magisterial teaching authority has nothing to do with imposing or lifting a Friday fast. This is not a matter of teaching truth but simply a pastoral discipline designed to help Christians recall what makes Friday different from other days.

            You have endorsed Randy’s comment, who says that a bishop claims to speak for God and that instead of listening to your bishop, a true Christian should “get the story straight from the father.”


            The Bible says we have to obey our parents, our government, and our church leaders.

            Colossians 3:20 “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”

            Therefore, if your dad says mow the lawn, you have to mow the lawn, regardless of whether the Bible says anything about mowing the lawn. Failure to obey is a sin.

            Romans 13:1-2 “All of you must obey the government rulers. Everyone who rules was given the power to rule by God. And all those who rule now were given that power by God. So anyone who is against the government is really against something God has commanded.”

            Therefore, if the government says go to jury duty, you have to go to jury duty, regardless of whether the Bible says anything about jury duty. Failure to obey is a sin.

            Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”

            Therefore, if your pastor says don’t eat meat on Friday, you have to not eat meat on Friday, regardless of whether the Bible says anything about Friday days of abstinence. Failure to obey is a sin.

  2. Authority or personal preference? I’ve concluded that in circumstances such as the one you described or when March 17 or 19 is a Lenten Friday, episcopal authority is simply personal preference. And that’s part of the reason I am no longer a Catholic priest.

  3. Chris,

    Having been raised Catholic, I think you know better here. Your last paragraph presumes that the authority of the office of the Bishop and the authority of the Holy Writ are in combat with one another; in competition. The Catechism asserts that Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition form the entire Deposit of Faith, and are not in conflict because they find their source in the same Divine wellspring, the Holy Spirit. The faithful reception and passing on of that Deposit of Faith was given to the Apostles, and by virtue of Christ’s promise to the remaining Eleven ( Mt 28:20 … and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.), we can rest assured of they and their successors’ protection by the Holy Spirit from teaching error in matters of faith and morals, even in cases of extreme evil and despotism (which, certainly, the clergy is not free from, as history attests) until Christ’s return.

    To suggest Divine authority to settle matters of faith and morals does not rest in the college of the Apostles opens a whole can of worms for the age prior to the construction of the Creeds and the affirmation of the 73 book Canon of Sacred Scripture – What if Arian Christianity is correct? Gnosticism? Manichaeism? Donatism?

    As for that aforementioned Canon of Scripture – it requires some acknowledgement of the authority of those who preceded the Bishops you mention. In the late 300s, the Canon had not yet been defined. Writings like St. Clement of Rome’s epistles were being read in the setting of the liturgy. While a valuable and insightful extra-biblical text, it obviously didn’t end up in our Bibles. Even worse, spurious Gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Peter or the Acts of Peter and Paul were being circulated as well. How were we to judge their authenticity as God-breathed? By looking to the successors of the Apostles.

    As St. Augustine said in addressing the heretic Manichaeus in 397 AD, For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. Note that we are in a period of about 15 years where the Canon of Scripture was under great scrutiny with Synods in Rome, Carthage, and Hippo (the last of which, St. Augustine himself attended). These synods confirmed the New Testament that exists in the Holy Scriptures that you hold in your hand today, as well as all 39 of the Old Testament books in your Bible, and 7 more in mine. And even being an active participant in this affirmation of Scripture, did St. Augustine appeal to his leather-bound NIV or ESV to combat the heresy of Manichaeus? No, he appealed to the Church, the pillar and bulwark of Truth (1 Tim 3: 15), built on the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets (Eph. 2:20). That necessarily includes every Truth recorded in Sacred Scripture, but also every Word from the mouth of God to the Apostles, sealed by Christ’s promise of their succession until the end of time.

    One final point, then an answer to your appeal of the main difference between Catholics and Protestants. To post this article without articulating the distinction between dogma, doctrine and discipline could be misleading to many readers. There are disciplines of the Church that exist for the spiritual benefit of the faithful (which includes no meat on Fridays during Lent) that can be changed or waived under the directive of the local bishop. Dogmatically defined teaching cannot change, for it was received in the Deposit of Faith and is passed on from generation to generation as Truth. You have more “power” from your pulpit on Sunday to define dogmatic Truth in the Protestant sense than the whole of Catholic clergy from the current successor to St. Peter to each of the Bishops in service to the Church, the successors to the Apostles. See a verse that you interpret to mean that Mary had more children than just Jesus? Give a sermon on it. Interpret that Baptism or the Eucharist are merely symbolic and not Sacramental vehicles of Divine Grace? Teach it in your weekly theology classes. Catholic clergy has no such power, because they are bound to the Truth passed down from the Apostles, both in their writing and by their oral tradition (2 Thess 2: 15) as consistently interpreted by the Church throughout the ages.

    To answer your question on the separation of Protestants and Catholics, our Christian brother Sam Guzman of The Catholic Gentleman, himself a convert to the Catholic faith. Hopefully he doesn’t mind me quoting him at length from this article earlier this month: http://www.catholicgentleman.net/2017/03/lent-suffering-and-the-death-that-brings-life/

    Growing up a Protestant, I was taught quite young the theological idea of imputation. That is, that Christ died in our place to bear the death sentence that we deserved, and in doing so, transferred his righteousness to us. It was a grand exchange. He takes ours sins and we get credited righteousness. But most importantly, Jesus suffered and died so that we do not have to suffer and die. We escape the cross because Jesus went there in our place.

    The Catholic idea of salvation is quite different. Imputation is largely foreign to Catholic theology. Instead, Catholic theology operates on the idea of participation. That is, Christ came to earth and died on the cross, not so that we could avoid death and suffering, but so that he could transform the inevitability of death and suffering from the inside out. By communion with him, by participation in his cross, we could receive eternal life.


    Put another way, Christ did not suffer and die so that we do not have to—he suffered and died so that our suffering and death could be transubstantiated into a means of life. He embraced the cross not to keep us from it, but so that our crosses could be changed from instruments of death into healing remedies that bring life.

    As baptized Christians, we are members of the body of Christ. We are incorporated into him and we live in communion with him. This communion means that we share in his life—not by making some act of intellectual assent, but by living his life after him. And living his life after him requires carrying the cross after him and sharing in his death. The cross is the price of eternal life.

    I’ve said a lot in this post, perhaps too much, and I don’t mean for any of it to come on too strong. We’re heading in the same direction as Christians, but if I am to be honest and bold with you, and follow the advice of St. Peter in saying “If anyone asks you to give an account of the hope which you cherish, be ready at all times to answer for it, but courteously and with due reverence” (2 Peter 3: 15-16), I must confess that sola scriptura sends Christianity in the opposite direction of Christ’s prayer for perfect unity in John 17. I’d be misleading you and others commenting on this thread if I said otherwise.

    Continued prayers to you, Chris, and your community south of the border in Illinois from this Wisconsinite. Be well.


    1. Oh dear – my use of italics got way out of wack in my recent post, and it doesn’t appear I am able to edit. My apologies.

    2. Thanks, Dan. I am saying that church authority and scriptural authority are different kinds of authority from a Protestant point of view. We understand the former to be dependent upon the latter.

      1. Chris, the trouble I’m having is that the issue of the Catholic Church’s teaching authority has nothing to do with your post. NOTHING!

        As I’m shown, the Bible itself instructs us to obey our parents, our government, and our church leaders. Failure to obey the Bible on this point is a sin, so failure to obey these divinely-appointed authorities is a sin.

        What’s the relevant difference between Catholics and Protestants here? I think it’s only that a Protestant pastor would never tell his or her flock that they must fast or abstain from meat. It would at most only be offered as a suggestion.

        Again, if I’m mistaken–if you do not believe that the Bible tells us to obey church authorities, and that failure to obey a biblical command is a sin–please let me know!

      2. Totally agree with that distinction, as presented from the Protestant POV. Where the rub comes, and where I respectfully press for answers in our joint search for objective Truth, is seeking to understand how “church” can be subordinate to Scripture which found its Canon in the authority of a (big C) Church. And more so than any disagreement over the identity of Jesus Christ, Protestants and Catholics disagree on the definition and nature of Church – what it is, how it was implemented by the Divine, how it’s structured, etc.

        Any Christian has to, at some point, recognize a paradigm shift of the Authority of God to man. That’s not to say the the authority given to man supersedes God’s perfect authority, but it’s simply a reality of what we observe and accept as true based on faith. Each book of the Bible, if you were to observe it being written, would look to you as any person putting ink to papyrus would look. In these synods where the Canon was assembled, it would appear as a group of humans in discussion and debate, coming to a conclusion. But our belief is that these humans, in their writing and action, were guided infallibly by the Holy Spirit.

        Consider what St. Peter said, speaking at the end of the first chapter of his second epistle, on Scripture: “It was never man’s impulse, after all, that gave us prophecy; men gave it utterance, but they were men whom God had sanctified, carried away, as they spoke, by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1: 20)

        So we’ve accepted that each of these books, assembled into one large Holy Book, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. I agree with you. But why would our Omniscient, Omnipotent God, Who sees from alpha to omega as immediately present to Him, provide an entirely God breathed Book without a God protected interpreter and transmitter to safeguard that Truth until His Son returns?

        The standard Protestant answer I receive to this objection is “we have that in the Holy Spirit” and “I can interpret the Scriptures correctly by the Holy Spirit working through me.” I’m not denying the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul of each Christian, but I am challenging, based on the fruits we’ve seen since the Reformation, that this practice is the answer to authentic Truth in the area of faith and morals.

        1. Sorry Guys. With Sunday sermon coming, I unfortunately don’t have time to engage this most worthy subject. I would recommend the book, A Clear and Present Word, by Thompson, if you’re interested in what I would say. Thanks again for your thoughtful engagement.

  4. Those are untruths you speak. You misunderstand Catholics . Any person can bless food as to not offend the giver of the food. Exceptions can me made by all Catholics. Remember the word tells us it is not what goes in but what comes out of our mouths . Therefore, the offense against the person that provided the food would supersede our inability to eat that food at that moment. Please don’t spread untruths. You are basing your belief on one experience. That’s not logical.

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