Although Catholics and Protestants share a fundamental belief system, their theologies as well as their forms of worship differ greatly. Roman Catholic piety is generally expressed through the intermediary bodies of the Church, its hierarchy, and the various sacraments. Moreover, Catholic prayers are directed to intercessors such as the saints or the Virgin Mary. On the contrary, Protestants generally ascribe to an individualistic piety, one that is removed or independent from a church body. One’s relationship to God or Jesus Christ is developed without the aid of teachers other than the “word of God” as it is expressed in the Bible. Although there are a multitude of different Protestant sects, they generally agree on a few basic tenets that set these denominations apart from the Roman Catholic Church. One of these tenets is the belief in a “universal priesthood” in which all Christians have the potential to approach theological matters without the aid of a priest. Moreover, Protestant denial of papal authority subsumes much of its ideology and attitude toward piety. For Roman Catholics, obedience to the Pope as well as to Church doctrine remains central to personal piety. For both Catholics and Protestants, piety may be expressed through prayer, reading scripture, or the singing of hymns. However, Protestant and Catholic styles of piety and worship differ greatly because of the fundamental differences in their theologies and philosophies.

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The Roman Catholic Church emphasizes the role of the Church hierarchy, which is considered to be integral to one’s salvation and expression of devotion. With the Pope as the supreme authority, the Church empowers each individual worshipper: piety is essentially passed from its spiritual source through the clergy to the worshipper. It is considered the duty of each worshipper to surrender to Papal authority as well as to any Church teachings, as they are considered to be superior to one’s own ability to approach God in a direct manner. Piety for the Roman Catholic, therefore, consists of a great amount of trust in the Church and a willingness to ascribe to its tenets. All Protestant denominations, by definition, deny Papal authority. Therefore, most Protestant denominations promote a view of piety that is wholly removed from Church teachings. Protestant piety is less focused on ritual and external material structure than it is on one’s personal relationship with deity. Catholics emphasize the presence of God in the material universe, whereas Protestants deny the efficacy of the material world. For example, God is made manifest in the Eucharist, according to Catholic doctrine. The Protestant denial of all sacraments except for baptism and Eucharist proves that piety for the Protestant is independent of, and in some cases, counter to, ritual. Likewise, Roman Catholics employ a variety of icons and images, notably the crucifixion. These icons and objects of worship are integral to Catholic styles of piety: they are viewed as visible, tangible manifestations of God that can be used to promote individual salvation. Protestants prefer simpler imagery, such as a plain cross, for use in devotional worship. Other forms of iconography are viewed as extraneous or simply unnecessary. In many cases, iconography is viewed as an obstacle to true piety in the same way that many Protestants believe that Church dogma and hierarchy is an obstacle to true piety.

Protestant piety can therefore be described as being more abstract in nature than Catholic piety, which has distinct modes and methods of expression. For instance, Roman Catholics emphasize structure and ritual. The sacraments are momentous, communal styles of piety. They take place in the structure of the Church and occur at certain moments in time, sacred moments that are demarked and determined by the priestly authority. Performed always by a priest or other Church authority and always in front of a church body, the sacraments are a form of ritualized style of piety. Protestantism denies the importance of ritual in general. Only two sacraments are necessary for the Protestant worshipper: baptism and communion. However, even these are viewed differently than they are by Roman Catholics, who take them to be direct external expressions of divine power. Protestant piety is more concerned with one’s faith in the infallibility of the Bible than on performing ritual actions to confirm faith. Protestants do not emphasize the momentous nature of pious acts; worship is not structured or dependent on the creation of sacred time. Rather, piety is an introspective and continual act, totally dissociated from ritual.

Moreover, the communal experience is central to the Catholic style of piety. While prayers are offered in private, it is essential for the practicing Catholic to at some point interact with a priest or other clergy member. For example, the confession of sins cannot be complete without the assistance of the priest. For the Roman Catholic worshipper, one’s willingness to confess is an expression of piety; for the Protestant, confession is unnecessary because of the heavy emphasis on grace. One can directly commune with God for the purposes of confession but a priest is unnecessary. One can also express piety without the aid of any clergy member but solely through a belief in the absolute word of God in the Bible. Faith in God and the Bible alone are ample expressions of piety for the Protestant, whereas for the Roman Catholic, piety also demands the outward expression of devotion through Church rituals. Faith in God is considered to be a result of one’s pious performance of such Catholic rituals.

For the Roman Catholic, one’s willingness to devote time, energy, and service to Church activities is an expression of piety. Good works and faith go hand in hand. For the Protestant, on the other hand, good works is secondary to one’s faith. Belief in God is all that is required for individual salvation. Catholics emphasize duty toward the community as an expression of piety. While Protestants also promote selfless service in devotion to God, such acts are not considered as essential to piety as they are for the Catholic. The Church is viewed as a family; for the Catholic piety can be viewed as one’s willingness to participate in the group. Protestants are more concerned with one’s private relationship with God than with one’s relationship to the religious community as a whole.

In prayer, a Roman Catholic will offer his or her devotions to a saint or other intercessor: piety demands one’s allegiance to a universal spiritual order in which the supreme deity is shrouded in mystery. Piety, in other words, is one’s willingness to pray through proscribed mediums. For the Protestant, prayer is a more direct experience or communication with the divine. Saints are not worshipped as they are in the Catholic Church, and the worshipper is expected to develop a personal relationship with God that is not dependent on any intercessor. Protestantism does not outline forms or methods of worship; one’s piety is a personal matter. Moreover, one is free to interpret the Bible without the aid of an overarching dogma or doctrine. For the Catholic, the layperson is not free to interpret the Bible as he or she sees fit but rather must surrender to the wisdom of Church authority. Piety is both an expression of faith in God as well as faith in the Church itself.

In the more evangelical Protestant denominations, the individual may be encouraged to encounter the divine through dramatic forms of worship. This style of piety is inspirational, as it may involve a flash of insight into one’s spiritual character. Piety in this sense is expressed through an emotional catharsis or epiphany, often one which is deeply personal in nature and divested from any metaphysical or theological structure. One can claim direct contact with the divine through spiritual experiences. Such cathartic styles of piety are generally discouraged in the Roman Catholic Church, which views such styles with suspicion. Direct contact with God is generally a uniquely Protestant style of piety.

The Roman Catholic Church emphasizes the immediacy of God’s presence in sacramental matter such as the Holy Eucharist, whereas Protestants generally deny the possibility of matter being infused with spirit. This difference in belief affects the ways in which the two Christian factions approach piety. Moreover, by definition, Protestant groups have distanced themselves completely from the Papacy and the rules and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. While a belief in Jesus Christ and the Bible are central to both Catholics and Protestants, their approach to religious worship is totally different. Catholic piety hinges on devotion to Church authority and respect for Church dogma. The layperson is viewed as being essentially unable to commune directly with the divine without an intermediary. The intermediaries include those who have devoted their lives to the Church as clergy members. However, Roman Catholics also use spiritual intermediaries like the saints in their prayers. On the other hand, Protestants believe in the possibility of individual personal and direct communion with God without the need for human or spiritual intercessors. In some cases, piety is expressed through epiphany or revelatory, emotionally charged religious experiences. In other cases, Protestant worship is more sober but still highly focused on one’s personal relationship with God. The cultivation of this personal relationship is the ultimate expression of piety for the Protestant Christian, whereas for the Catholic, devotion to the Church: its teachings, its rituals, and its theology, constitute the ideal expression of piety.

Works Consulted

Horton, Michael. “Reformation Piety.” ModernReformation.org. http://www.modernreformation.org/mr02/julaug/mr0207reformation.html.

Wilhelm, J. “Protestantism.” Article in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. 2003. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12495a.htm.