How are Christians and Catholics different?
Simple explanations about a complex issue

Why do kids ask this question?

Catholic children who go to public schools or mingle with Protestant Christians commonly ask me this question. I think it’s a responsibility of a knowledgeable CCD or religious education teacher to help parents explain the big picture properly. In order to do that, prepare yourself with objections typically raised about Roman Catholicism by Protestants and about Protestantism by Roman Catholics.

It is useless to talk about doctrinal differences with children who aren’t even settled in the doctrines of their own beliefs. Instead, try to meet them where they are, which is making friends, getting along with different people, and having fun. In that regard, remember that anyone who asks you if you've been saved, or if you want to come to church with them, is doing so because they want to be your friend. They care about you, and they sincerely want you to get to heaven. Different Christians, however, have a different understanding about how to accomplish that.

Before doing anything else, make sure your kids know that Catholics and Protestants (even fundamentalists or “Bible Christians”) share the Christian tradition. Your students and all their Protestant friends are Christian. I'll explain below, but I have heard from my own students that some Protestant children, starting at about age 9 or 10, say they are “Christians” and imply that your Catholic student is somehow “not Christian.”

Once that point is understood, the next thing to help children understand is that it is logical to think that one viewpoint or the other must be “wrong.” That is, heaven can't be the “Catholic” version and the “Christian” version at the same time. Because we are all children when it comes to understanding God, you can give them a personal perspective here: Nobody really knows who’s right or who’s wrong, and I am often left with the distinct feeling that we're all completely wrong. You see, God is so big and our intellect is so small in comparison, there’s no way we could grasp the significance of what Jesus meant when he said or did certain things.

Origin of the Christian Denominations

When you look at a crucifix, what do you think about? Jesus came to earth as a Man, sent by God because he loved us. Then, Jesus taught us how to love God and love our neighbor, teaching us in the process who our neighbors were and how we should worship God. The story of his great love and compassion is told in the gospels. When Jesus was crucified by humans on earth, his sacrifice paid the debt to God for all our sins, and when he rose, he promised eternal life to those who believe in him.

Both Catholics and Protestants believe in what you see on the crucifix: that Jesus, the Man who died on the cross, is also the second Person of the Trinity, the Son, the Son of God.

Both Catholics and Protestants also “believe” in the Bible. We believe it’s truly the inspired Word of God, which on occasion got lost in the translation, but basically, all you need to know for salvation is in the Bible.

At this point, we have to take a trip back about 500 years, to 1517, when Protestantism began in the Christian religion. Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, believed, as did many other smart people at the time, that the pope, bishops, and basically the whole idea of Christianity was off track. He tried to change things, to make them better, but the officials in Rome, where the Roman Catholic religion is headquartered, wouldn’t listen.

In order to make his point, Martin Luther nailed to the door of a church a list of 95 problems with the Catholic church. These problems were called “theses.” Many of them have to do with everyday stuff, such as people not having access to Bibles, but some of them also concerned the doctrines of the church.

Luther agreed with the church on small matters, but he had two biggies: salvation and authority. The differences between what Luther and “the church” believed about salvation ultimately caused him to understand that he would not be able to make an agreement with the church. Therefore, he started his own church, which we call the “Lutheran” church today. It’s named after him. Members of many Protestant religions celebrate what we call “Reformation Sunday” on the first Sunday in November. We call it this because Luther tried to bring about “reforms” in the church.

The word “Protestant” also comes from the Reformation. Luther and his colleagues “protested” against the Catholic church, much like union workers now march in picket lines. The Reformation is one of the most significant events in the history of the world, bested for Christians only by Paul’s letters and Christ himself. About one-third of the world’s Christians belong to Protestant churches, including several million “fundamentalists” or “non-denominational” Christians, who might be offended at the term “Protestant,” since those people never protested against anything. They have simply been a member of the Christian church since they were born, as have most Catholics.

In terms of history, though, non-Catholic Christian religions all began by one group breaking away from another. Luther started something, and it has blossomed all over the world. For example, the Assemblies of God broke away from the Methodists because they felt Methodists did not emphasize preaching as much as they believed Christ wanted them to emphasize preaching. Consequently, some Assemblies of God preachers are very skilled.

Today, it isn’t productive to call each other “wrong.” Times were different in the church and in everyday life 500 years ago. Luther had issues, and the church had major issues, which needed to be fixed.

When we study the Reformation today, we see that, in some ways, Luther threw the baby out with the bath water. He had no choice, because the church was stubborn, but make no mistake: Christ created the church. It is a “Christian” institution, flawed and infiltrated by sin, but Christ-centered nonetheless. Protestant children and Catholic children today, if asked “Why are you Baptist?” or whatever, are likely to answer, “Because my parents are Baptist” or whatever. They share no responsibility for the sins of our ancestors, on either side.

Free Will and Salvation

Of those 95 problems, Luther and the church could have reached deals on, probably, 93 of them. The single stumbling block, according to more advanced studies, is Luther's doctrine of salvation and free will. The official church believes that people have free will, and Luther believed we do not. This difference could not be resolved, no matter how hard people worked on it or thought about it.

I'm not talking about free will as in the type where you get to decide whether to do your homework or play with friends. Of course, everyone knows you have the free will to make your own decisions like that.

What I'm talking about is free will on a much bigger scale: Can you play a role in your own salvation? That is the real question facing all of us into eternity.

It's like this: You are a person out in the middle of the ocean. You are drowning, because there is so much sin in the sea around you that it sucks you down under. Next, God throws you a rope. This is where the break between Catholicism and Lutheranism occurred.

The church believed you have to grab the rope and pull yourself to safety. In a bigger way of thinking about it, the church believed that you had to do something in order to save yourself. If you don't grab the rope, tie it around yourself, and pull up, your life will be lost.

Luther believed that only God decided whether or not you would be brought to safety. God still throws the rope down to us in the sea of sin (the rope was Jesus and the offer of salvation), but we don’t have to pull ourselves up. Our faith takes care of that, and if we believe in Christ and accept his Holy Spirit into our hearts with sincerity, what our Savior did about 2000 years ago would be enough to rescue us from our sins and reel us into heaven to be with him forever. Luther believed, in other words, that God would rescue us from sin if we simply called to him properly and put ourselves into a proper relationship with our Creator.

Support for the two viewpoints of free will

Although the Catholic Church held what was considered the “official” interpretation at the time, an objective view of scripture today reveals that more passages in the Bible support Luther's way of thinking about free will than the church’s.

However, this is not a game where whoever has more points wins. We are not interested in arguing about which opinion has more points, but rather, we just want to see Christ when we die and have him recognize us as one of his faithful servants. The question of how to get to heaven is such a big deal that neither Catholics nor Protestants are willing to make even the slightest compromise, since they think any compromise would sacrifice beliefs held since they were young children. They know they have to get this question right, because if they don’t, the price is the unquenchable fire of hell.

Luther’s objections to Roman Catholic doctrine at the time of the Reformation were based on passages like the one beginning in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

[Ephesians 2:4-10 GW] But God is rich in mercy because of his great love for us. We were dead because of our failures, but he made us alive together with Christ. (It is God’s kindness that saved you.) God has brought us back to life, together with Christ Jesus, and has given us a place in heaven with him. He did this through Christ Jesus out of his generosity to us in order to show his extremely rich kindness in the world to come. God saved you through faith as an act of kindness. You had nothing to do with it. Being saved is a gift from God. It’s not the result of anything you’ve done, so no one can brag about it. God has made us what we are. He has created us in Christ Jesus to live with lives filled with good works that he has prepared for us to do.

At the beginning of this passage, where Paul refers to us as “dead because of our failures,” you can think of that as though you are drowning in the middle of the ocean, in the analogy I made above. The idea that God has previously “ordained” that we should walk with him sounds like Christians are the chosen people. This passage, along with many others like it, definitely points to Luther’s idea that our destiny to be in heaven is predetermined. All the good things we do on earth don’t seem to matter, since God has already thrown us the rope, so to speak, by sending Jesus to die for our sins and be raised up.

Because the Son became man and gave his life to secure our freedom from death under the weight of our own sins, we can’t convert ourselves or earn God’s favor in any way, according to all Christians, Catholics and Protestants. God’s Holy Spirit lives within us and gives us the gift of faith so that we can turn to Him and trust in Christ for our salvation. Our salvation, though, is based completely on what Christ did, not on any goodness or merit on our part.

The presence of the Holy Spirit within us also gives us the strength to glorify our Father in heaven, and to obey his commandments, guaranteeing our place in heaven by his side for all eternity.

But what happens when we don’t obey God’s commandments? This is where Catholics and Protestants have a difference of opinion, based on Luther’s argument with the church 500 years ago. First, we know that there are no souls with God who are sinners:

[Revelation 21:6 KJV] And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to him that is thirsty from the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, the unbelieving, and the abominable, the murderers and whoremongers, the sorcerers and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

Here, St John the Divine describes heaven, and although there is great symbolism mixed in with the description, what is clear is that there will be no murderers, idolaters, or liars in the great city. They will be cast into the lake, which burns with fire and brimstone, also known as hell.

When Catholics read this passage, we take it somewhat more literally than Protestants do. For Catholics, it means we can’t get into heaven until our soul is clean of all character that would be described as abominable. That means, traces of all sins must be wiped clean before we can be with our Father in heaven. Luther believed our soul could never be cleansed of every trace of sin, while Catholics believe our soul has to be cleaned of every last trace of sin before we can get into heaven. The debate starts with passages like the one above in the Bible.

Catholic doctors of the church have come up with a way, not contradicted in scripture, for us to clean the sins off our souls. In this way, our souls actually become clean, Catholics believe. In other words, according to Catholics, there are things we can do while we’re still alive to make our souls clean and receive forgiveness for our sins, guaranteeing our place in heaven. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, tells us this in just a few words:

[Philippians 2:10-13 GW] ... at the name of Jesus, everyone in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will kneel and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. My dear friends, you have always obeyed, not only when I was with you but even more now that I’m absent. In the same way, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. It is God who produces in you the desires and actions that please him.

St John the Divine also told us that only people whose names were written in the book of life would be in heaven on the last day. How do we get our names written in the book of life? Take a look:

[Revelation 20:12 KJV] And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead, which were in it, and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them. And they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

Here it says, “according to their works.” Paul’s letter to the Philippians also supports the idea that we have to “work out” our salvation, implying that we indeed have free will to take part in our own salvation. This way of reading the Bible is closer to Catholic doctrine than to Protestant doctrine.

As I said earlier, though, it’s not a contest. For Protestants, Jesus has already paid the debt for our sins, when he died on the cross. For Catholics, we have to work out our salvation for ourselves. How do we do it? We confess our sins to a priest, who absolves us of our sins in Jesus’ name, and then our souls are clean, after we perform some penance, which varies.

That penance is a good work of some sort, which leads to a misunderstanding among Protestants that Catholics believe we are saved “because” we do good works. On the contrary, we do good works because we are saved. The ultimate viewpoint of good works is not much different between Catholics and Protestants; what differs is our opinion of how we clean our souls. Protestants think we can’t do it, but that Jesus made it all OK. Catholics think we can do it—or at least that priests can help us work it out with God.

One of Luther's main points was the idea that people are “simultaneously saints and sinners.” That means, we are saints because we will be in heaven, but we are also sinners, because we are “bad” as people. Jesus does say “only God is good” on a few occasions, and Paul certainly implies this in his letter to the Romans and in other places. According to Luther, when we declare our “faith” in Christ and allow the Spirit to dwell within us, our sins are covered up. Our soul is still dirty, but not so abominable that God can't overlook our small sins and let us into heaven anyway, where we can love him and give him thanks for all eternity.

To a certain extent, the Catholic church also believes we are always sinners, and it affirms this belief every time we pray at mass, saying, through the priest, “look not at our sins, but at the faith of your church, the people you have gathered here before you.” The prayer is essentially admitting that we can receive Christ into our hearts, despite the fact that we are sinners. The operative word is “can.” The Catholic church believes you “won't” receive Christ, or be admitted into heaven, if your soul isn't “actually” clean. You can't just declare it to be clean. It actually has to “be” clean. Lutherans believe your soul can never “be” clean. The source of this debate is in the Bible itself:

[Revelation 21:24 KJV] And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it, and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day, and there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. And there shall, in no way, enter into it anything that defiles, nor anything whatsoever that works abomination or makes a lie, but only the ones that are written in the Lamb's book of life. [22:11] He that is unjust, let him stay unjust still; he that is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still.

So, how do you read these passages? Can we make our souls clean according to our works, or has Christ already taken care of it? Catholics believe Christ paid the debt for our sins, just as Protestants do, but the church also holds the opinion that there is a huge difference between paying the debt for our sins and having them wiped clean. Luther, in his doctrine of “simultaneously saint and sinner,” may have meant that we had only venial sins on our souls when we got into heaven. You have to admit, all the sins in the Book of Revelation are pretty serious, likely to bring eternal death and damnation. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between the two extremes.

Are you saved? Do you have a personal relationship with God?

Yes, and yes. Assuming you were baptized properly, if you believe in the doctrine of Christ's birth as Jesus, his death on the cross, and his resurrection to eternal life, then you are one of God's chosen people. This is passed down to you and your heirs by the mediation of Jesus Christ, and it is like your birthright.

You not only have a relationship with God, but you have a friendship with him. Whether you go to a Catholic or Protestant church, or thank him in your prayers or when you say grace, you are a very good friend to Jesus, and he's a very good Friend to you. That faith is all you need to get into heaven, whether you're Protestant or Catholic.

Many Protestants think Catholics believe we are saved by faith and by our works. That is not what Catholics believe, but it used to be taught. There is limited support for this idea in the Book of Tobit, which Luther threw out, and in the Book of Revelation, quoted above. This is somewhat of a vocabulary problem, but it may require an explanation.

What the Catholic church actually believes is that we are saved by “grace” alone, not by faith alone (see James 2:24). Then, we maintain that salvation through good works, but this happens after our salvation. By turning to God, and entering into a “right relationship” with God, it means that nothing that happened before that moment, earns God’s grace. However, after we enter this relationship, God plants his love in our heart. From that moment on, Catholics believe, we are commanded to live out our faith (or “work out our salvation” as Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, quoted above). When we live out our faith, which we can only do through God’s grace, we should do acts of love (see Galatians 6:2, for example). Even though only our Father’s love can enable us to love others (love is one of the theological virtues, which comes only from God), these acts of love still please him, and he promises to reward them with eternal life (see Romans 2:6-7 and Galatians 6:6-10).

Jesus also said faith in him as our personal savior was not enough: For example in Luke 6:46 and Matthew 7:21-23 and 19:16-21, he cries, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but do not do the things I command?” Doesn’t that sound like we are supposed to do things in addition to believing in him? This is where many Catholics feel the “saved by faith alone” viewpoint falls short of reality, as it exists in our Lord’s kingdom.

“If we have died with Him [in baptism; see Rom. 6:3-4], we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1861) tells us. This way of reading Paul’s letters and the gospels is closer to Catholic doctrine than to the doctrines of evangelical Christians and even most Protestants. The fact is, scripture maintains that it is possible to fall out of favor with God. Most Protestants believe that once our Lord has been accepted as our personal Savior, our salvation is guaranteed. The Bible has a different opinion, for example, in Romans 11:22-23, Matthew 18:21-35, 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, 2 Peter 2:20-21 (which see). Christians have always known they can lose their salvation. A further warning, written by St Paul, appears in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall” (10:11-12). Let’s take a look at one of these passages from the inspired text:

[Matthew 18:21-35 GW] Peter came to Jesus and asked him, “Lord, how often do I have to forgive a believer who wrongs me? Seven times?”

Jesus answered him, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy times seven.

“That is why the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to do this, a servant who owed him millions of dollars was brought to him. Because he could not pay off the debt, the master ordered him, his wife, his children, and all that he had to be sold to pay off the account. Then the servant fell at his master’s feet and said, ‘Be patient with me. I will repay everything.’

“The master felt sorry for his servant, freed him, and cancelled his debt. But when that servant went away, he found a servant who owed him hundreds of dollars. He grabbed the servant he found and began to choke him. ‘Pay what you owe!’ he said.

“Then that other servant fell at his feet and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’ But he refused. Instead, he turned away and had that servant put into prison until he would repay what he owed.

“The other servants who worked with him saw what had happened and felt very sad. They told their master the whole story.

“Then his master sent for him and said to him, ‘You evil servant! I cancelled your entire debt, because you begged me. Shouldn’t you have treated the other servant as mercifully as I treated you?’

“His master was so angry that he handed him over to the torturers until he would repay everything that he owed. That is what my Father in heaven will do to you if each of you does not sincerely forgive other believers.”

This is how we know that when we first declare Jesus to be our Savior, it is like the master in this parable first forgiving his servant. However, that is not enough, for when the servant fails to live according to the example of his master, he is thrown into prison. Thus, if we fail to live out our faith, to do acts of love, according to what our Lord has commanded us, Catholics believe we will lose that salvation. At the end of this parable, Jesus reminded us that our Father’s kingdom in heaven is similar to this story.

However, other passages point to the idea that we are saved based solely on our faith, but the problem is, Luther stopped there, without considering the rest of our lives in the context of the rest of the Bible, every verse of which has been blessed by our Father in heaven. This is, in part, what I meant when I summarized that Luther threw the baby out with the bath water. We are saved initially based on our faith, but that initial salvation is not enough. Our faith justifies us (see James, chapter 2). As for doing good works or going to church every Sunday, well, those are just things that we “want” to do, that we desire, because we want to be close to Christ as often as we can. Still, Catholics tend to put more emphasis on doing good works, because of the remnants of this teaching.

On the other hand, there tends to be more emphasis on helping others and less on going to church among Protestants. Some may even say, it doesn't matter if you go to church. The appropriate Catholic response should be, “Well, I learned different, and I'm doing what I do based on my personal friendship with Jesus.” Catholics, as such, tend to emphasize going to church more than helping others. Both are equally important to both Protestants and Catholics, of course, and Jesus did list loving God as the first and greatest commandment, but since children don't always have fun at church, they might be vulnerable to other kids who tell them they don't have to go to church if they join another church.

The important point here is that children are gullible. They ought to become solid in their own family's traditions before they go experimenting with other sets of traditions, but it doesn't always work out that way.

Some other side issues

For a discussion of incidental topics, such as Mary and the saints, communion, preaching differences, and so on, please follow this link: Sidebar 1.

How important is the Bible?

Very. All of Christianity is based on the Bible. Everything you need to know in order to get into heaven is in the Bible, so it might be a pretty good idea to learn as much about it as possible. It's long, but if you set a goal of reading about two or three chapters a day, you can finish it in a year or so.

Also, I would say the Bible is probably not “all-important,” especially since it says it's not the final word. For example, in the gospel of John, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” (21:25)

This is another place where Catholics differ from Protestants. The other main idea Luther had was something called, in Latin, sola scriptura. It means, only scripture. He believed, if it's not in the Bible, it's not important for your salvation.

A small hole in that logic is the passage I cited above, but that passage alone is not license for a church to make its own rules, which is what the Catholic church did before Luther protested against it. There's another hole in Luther's argument: the Trinity. This word never appears in the Bible, but if we accept what it says in the Bible as true, that there can be only one God, but that Jesus forgave sins (before, only God could forgive sins), the Trinity must be a reality.

So, Catholics have tacked a whole bunch of other stuff onto what it says in the Bible, in the interest of explaining what the Bible must mean, purely from a logical point of view. Unfortunately, sinful people in the church have also included selfish doctrines, basing them on what the church calls “Sacred Tradition.” So, we have “Sacred Scripture,” “Sacred Tradition,” and the current leaders of the church, the “Magisterium.” That is the source of information about salvation for Catholics. For Protestants, church leaders have no real “power” or “authority” to decide anything. They can help us follow Christ, but their words are not “law” as Catholics consider rulings from their leaders.

Well, according to passages in the Acts of the Apostles, church leaders were consulted. They made decisions, especially about procedural issues. Fine. It's natural that they do these things and form organizations and hierarchies. However, the Catholic church takes it a step further. If you don't follow their rules, you're not getting into heaven. If you don't go to confession, for example, before you die, you will not die “in a state of grace.” However, if you make a confession on your death bed, you'll get into heaven.

Protestants believe, basically, the same thing, but it's different how we define that state of grace. For Catholics, you have to follow the rules and make your confession to a priest. For Protestants, you make it directly to God through prayer, when that prayer is offered in Jesus' name. The Catholic priest is considered an “alter Christus,” who is another “Christ” in the confessional. He takes the place of Christ, so Catholics still believe that we are praying straight to God in Jesus' name.

For Protestants, this is just absurd. We don't believe that the priest can take the place of Christ, so it is unnecessary to include the priest. According to Luther, there is no one alive today who has the authority to forgive anyone else’s sins. You can look at Matthew, chapter 16, and try to understand what it says. Were priests given the authority to forgive sins by Jesus himself? Or, as Protestants believe, was this authority given to all believers? Here’s the “key” passage:

[Matthew 16:15-25 KJV] Jesus said to his apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered him, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to Simon Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jo-na: for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I say also unto you, That you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys to the kingdom of heaven: whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven.”

Jesus then told his disciples not to tell anyone else that he was indeed Jesus, the Christ. From that day on, Jesus showed his disciples how he had to travel to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and that he must be killed, and be raised again on the third day. Then Peter took Jesus aside, and began to rebuke him, saying, “Be it far from you, O Lord: these things will not happen to you.” But Jesus turned, and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are offensive to me! For you do not value the things that are of God, but you value the things that are of man.” Then, Jesus told his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever will save his life shall lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”

From this, Catholics get all of the confession stuff, and dying in a state of grace. Protestants read this passage and get a very different meaning: We believe Christ here gave “authority” to all believers, based on their profession of faith, which Peter did make right before Jesus gave him the keys. So, Protestants take it to mean that believers, who make a sincere profession of faith, can declare their sins covered up, and thus invisible to God, and thus allowable in heaven.

It's really just between you and God

So, my good friends, there it is. It all comes down to what you think Jesus meant when he said those words to Peter. Certainly, he created something called a “church.” He gave Peter the keys to heaven and said he would “build upon” Peter. Then he addressed him as “Satan.” What do you believe, in your heart, about this key scripture passage?

If on the one hand, you believe Jesus gave the keys to only Peter, then know that Jesus must have known that Peter was mortal and would not live thousands of years on earth. Jesus would not have left this work undone with the death of Peter, or would he? This is the logic behind the Catholic position that Jesus provided for the succession of those keys to the kingdom of heaven. We believe Christ passed on the keys to popes, who succeeded Peter as the leader of the “church” at Rome. There weren't really “popes” like we have today until about 800 AD, but there is a line of succession for the bishops of Rome.

On the other hand, maybe you believe Jesus just talked to Peter because he was the one who spoke up and made a sincere profession of his faith, based on the presence of the Father's Spirit that resides within him. This is the Lutheran and Protestant interpretation of these very same words. If that is the message you get, then you have as much authority to declare your sins covered up as any other true believer, including priests, ministers, and even the current pope.

Read the passage again. What do you believe happened when Jesus spoke these words to Peter? Did he mean anyone who made a sincere profession of faith would have the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Or, did he give the authority of the keys only to Peter and, by natural extension, to the popes in succession of that office?

It's such a small passage in a very large book. But on those words of Jesus himself, everything depends. Catholics believe that authority was passed down to the successors of Peter, which Catholics believe is the pope, and the popes have passed limited authority about forgiving sins—speaking in the name of Christ—onto priests. Protestants believe that Christ, in these very same words, gave all believers the authority to declare their sins invisible, as long as their profession of faith in Christ and his death and resurrection was sincere.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is for you to realize that Christ has called you as an individual to be with him and have a “relationship” with him. He gave you your parents and your “religion,” since he is the Creator. He also gave you a mind to figure it out for yourself. Get help from people who are knowledgeable in these things, but ultimately, it's your call. What is important, for both Protestants and Catholics, is to try to determine what the Bible says about salvation. I've pointed you to the key passages, but the interpretation must be yours. This is why, if you were raised as a Presbyterian or Baptist, it might be confusing for you to switch to a Catholic church. Each of us must obey God, as we hear his voice.

In terms of the personal relationship Catholics have with Christ, it’s important in our hearts and minds to confess our sins aloud in a confessional. The priest not only serves as an alter Christus, but also as a member of our community. Conversations in the confessional are secret and often very helpful for the person who receives the experienced advice of the priest, one-on-one, and for the priest, who can get a better sense of what fellow believers in his community are feeling and thinking, what is troubling us, and what we are praying for personally.

Of course, we can go in and talk to priests or ministers whenever schedules allow, but the confession time is a guaranteed one-on-one for Catholics, just as fellowship time after the service is mostly a guaranteed time when the church's pastor will be available for Protestants. Both groups accomplish the same purpose, but the Catholic version of access to the priest is simply rooted in an older time period, when priests were not as much a member of the community as they were cult leaders.

Neither the Protestant nor Catholic position can be called “wrong” or “incorrect” based on the limited amount of information we have from the lips of our Savior. However, if you believe in your heart that this authority resides with priests, then you had better get to a priest for confession. If you believe it lies with you when you declare your faith in Christ Jesus, pray a lot. In any case, pray a lot. And pray for people who might not be able to pray for themselves, since this authority “might” be in your hands, based on this important passage in Matthew's gospel.