In a recent talk for Ottawa’s Theology on Tap speaking series, Cardus program director Andrea Mrozek examined myths and misunderstandings that divide Catholics and Protestants. She reminded her audience of C.S. Lewis’ admonition that we are faithfully waiting, not sullenly camping, until unity is restored.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter wrap-up of notable news and ideas.
Picture a little girl in a pink dress and black patent shoes. She’s almost five years old. Something of significance has happened, though she isn’t really sure what. It’s the day of her baptism. Someone would have told her what baptism is. But she doesn’t fully remember. What she does remember is that she loves those black patent shoes—so shiny and new. Both the shoes and the dress are new, in honour of the occasion. This is neither infant nor adult baptism. Let’s call it an in between baptism.
Afterwards, this little girl skips around and enjoys being applauded and appreciated by all who were there. She probably gets more than a few compliments. Skipping into the church basement, she finds herself looking into a small room, filled with big kids—though an adult would have known not one of them was any older than 12. They are kind of arranged on the furniture as if posing for a boy band photo. And here, the applause stops.
“Your baptism doesn’t count,” says one older girl. “You’re too old.”
These are the church “cool kids.” And they are just children. The ringleader couldn’t know that, by anyone’s estimation of baptism, what she’s said makes no sense. But that’s not why she said it. It was simpler. It was the church version of something every kid experiences: “You are not one of us. You do not belong here.”
I think we’ve all been that person, peering into some unknown church environment from outside. What did we see? How did we feel? Is it inviting? Or is a gatekeeper there to tell you some aspect of your religious heritage doesn’t count.
Between Catholics and Protestants, we often don’t even get to the door. The question isn’t always one of hostility—though that remains—it is busy-ness, and apathy.
Why do I care about this topic? My typical areas to talk about publicly are life issues, women’s issues and family issues. I care, in a nutshell, because I married a Catholic named Nick. I’d highly recommend it—not marrying Nick, because he’s taken—but marrying a Catholic if you are Protestant and vice versa for all of you Catholics. There’s a richness to life and there’s a tension. You’ll find yourself considering aspects of your faith afresh. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies—one becomes at least weekly aware of the division. But tension leads to learning and growth.
There are two assumptions undergirding this talk:
I know that Catholics are Christian and are my brothers and sisters in Christ. If you don’t think this, or if you are a Catholic who thinks Protestants can’t get to heaven, you may have found yourself in the wrong talk.
I’m not a theologian. If you are hoping I’ll parse the theological differences—and get to the bottom of the issues that divide—you a) have very high expectations of a 40 minute talk in a pub and b) this is also the wrong talk for you. This is a talk about our experience of God via the “other” kind of Christian—whichever one you are not.
This is not, of course, to diminish the theology that differs between Protestants and Catholics, which, in instances, can be very important. It is, however, to say that I am taking a “mere Christian” approach. C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is textbook reading for those hoping to create bridges within Christendom.
A final caveat is around generalizations, which are almost never totally accurate or fair, thank goodness. By necessity in this talk, some things have been generalized. Even the fact that I am referring to Protestantism—which ranges in theological viewpoints, some being closer to Catholicism, and others actively distinguishing themselves as Not. At. All. Catholic. Going through the streams of thinking in Protestantism would be a separate talk. Suffice to say I don’t think it’s all as complex as Catholics are often led to believe. For today, Protestantism refers to any branch of Christendom that is neither Orthodox nor Roman Catholic, coming from the Reformation movements of the 16th century.
Increasing the need for unity is the number 12. About 12 per cent of us attend a religious service weekly. That is any religious service, not just Christian. Weekly service attendance back in the ’50s was somewhere around 60 per cent of us. Six in 10 would head out on a Sunday morning to a worship service. Today about one in 10 do.
So what did I do to prepare for this talk? Several things. I interviewed 12 people (a Biblical number!) who live with a foot in both Catholic and Protestant worlds. That’s important. They aren’t people who are looking on from a distance. They live the differences. Seven Catholics, five Protestants. They are faithful. They are not angry at either side. Either through marriage, conversion, the conversion of a child or sometimes just out of a love of learning, they live in both spaces and experience both on a regular basis. They are people who are interacting with what I affectionately call “Protestant-land” (soon to be a theme park—the Baptists get the log flume ride) AND Catholicism. Importantly, they look down on neither, whichever they are.
I also read two books—one is Catholic Peter Kreeft’s book, from which we take the title of tonight’s talk, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn From Each Other? And the other is by Reformed Protestant R.C. Sproul Are we together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism. I’ll refer to those books throughout the evening.
I asked five questions:
If you could bring one thing from Catholicism into Protestantism, what would it be?
If you could bring one thing from Protestantism into the Roman Catholic church, what would it be?
Questions three and four had to do with the myths we encounter about each other.
Number five was: Is the Reformation over?
First question: “If you could bring one thing from Catholicism into Protestantism what would it be?”
Confession was mentioned twice. Though when I compiled responses, I didn’t put whether it was a Protestant or a Catholic down on who said what, in this instance I remember clearly that one Protestant mentioned the beauty of confession. That’s interesting because this is one of those points of theological division. Every Protestant believes in confessing sin. But the divide comes on whom we confess to, and who provides absolution. So, when a Protestant speaks of the beauty of the Catholic variant of confession, the need for it, I take note.
The Catholic who cited confession said this:
There is something about confession where you are freed from your sin. Not that confession frees you from your sin, the death and resurrection of Jesus frees you from your sin. But it’s that relationship that people need with one another. The priest is that place where a person can go and say “if the truth were known this is what I really am.” You tell the Priest and God is there. Protestants have lost something very special there.
For Protestants, perhaps outside Anglicanism, a “sacramental” way of doing life is somewhat unknown. Protestants share communion and baptism as two sacraments, but are largely unaware of the others. More specifically, Protestants may not be keenly attuned to what the sacraments are for, why they are there, and whether Catholics are trying to institutionally gain salvation via these sacraments.
Bringing one thing from Catholicism into Protestantism, “solemnity” or a love of mystery and silence, came up five times.
One cannot help but agree. In Protestant church, often, not always, there is no place for silence, for reflection. A general friendly chatter often pervades the sanctuary. Protestants could benefit from a love of silence and mystery.
Finally, mentioned also five times was something that will come as no surprise to a Catholics: a reverence for the mystery of the Eucharist.
Protestants have a different theology of the Eucharist, in which the bread and wine do not become the body and blood of Christ. On a note of learning for the Catholics, I’d like simply to mention that many Protestants do not know what you believe about the Eucharist. And further on this point, we do not miss what we do not have. Protestants do not mourn the lack of this miracle in church.
Most often, Catholics feel a deep and heavy burden when Catholics and Protestants cannot take communion together. At the same time, however, most Catholics cannot explain the Biblical roots of why they hold to the belief they have about communion.
This remains a big gap—and while Catholics mourn the fact that Protestants and Catholics can’t take communion together, Protestants most often simply feel excluded and offended. Sometimes we will take communion in a Catholic church—because we don’t know we shouldn’t. And for those who do know we shouldn’t, this often becomes a thorn in the side to community with Catholics because Protestants may feel excluded and/or offended.
Other things mentioned only once included liturgy, the celebration of feast days, the appreciation of vocation, the single, married and consecrated life and more attention/respect for Mary.
Second question: “If you could bring one aspect of Protestantism into the Roman Catholic church what would it be?”
“Preaching” was mentioned three times. One person remarked: “Good sermons. Homilies in Catholic churches tend to be… awful. There tend to be just two sermons: How special the Mass is; and the importance of being nice.” This is a bit harsh. Of course there is far better out there. But speaking as a Protestant who goes to Mass regularly, there is far less depth in the average homily. Protestants are used to 40-minute sermons that reference the Greek root of various words in the Biblical text and the practical application for our lives. I understand that the homily is not the pinnacle of the Mass—the Eucharist is. But good preaching can draw you into the Eucharist in a special way.
I remember going to a Mass in a touristy part of town, at a beautiful landmark cathedral. One could assume there were people there simply to take pictures, and not because they were believers. The homily started on a hopeful note with the priest referring to an old TIME magazine article that asked people “Who is Jesus?”
Wouldn’t you know, the priest cited a couple of the quotes from the people in the article, who largely had no clue as to who Jesus is, and then concluded about three minutes later with the words “You’ll have to figure out who Jesus is for yourself.”
I almost stood up and said, “Do we really need to end like that? No, let me help: Jesus is Lord and Saviour. He is our Redeemer. He is the one true God. In the history of world faiths, ours is the only one where God became man and walked among us, in a place known that we can still visit today called Israel. He is our friend, our one path to God the Father. Etc. Etc. etc.”
So yes, preaching.
What other aspects of Protestantism should come into Catholicism?Coming in tied with being mentioned four times each were“Enthusiasm: not afraid to share the Gospel” and a “deep love of Scriptures.”
On enthusiasm. Yes. One standard thing Protestants do, sometimes very poorly is the sharing of testimonies, which amounts to one person telling the story of how they came to know Jesus and what God has done or is doing in someone’s life. Sometimes these stories become formulaic. Sometimes they involve a life that is catastrophic, and then, like a bad TV infomercial, Jesus came into this person’s life! And everything was or is better! (Your blender was terrible, exploding in the kitchen and making a terrible mess BUT that was before you got The Magic Bullet!!!)
Outside the telling of faith stories done poorly, I think we’ve all been moved by the telling of a faith journey done well. Evangelicals, in particular, are geared up in thought, word and deed to spread their faith, well, evangelically. It’s a posture that is emphasized in every aspect of church and community life.
About the deep love of scriptures: it’s what Protestants have and what we know, often very well. The pinnacle of any Protestant service is likely the preaching. Most of us are taught to read the Bible daily, though there are also many Protestants who don’t read or know scripture.
One of the Catholics I spoke to remarked that she wished Protestants knew how Catholicism is based on the Scriptures. She actually wished Catholics knew that too.
She put it this way:
The Catholic faith is perhaps the most Scriptural, in terms of how everything in the liturgy, in the readings of the offices, is based on Scripture, but not only favorite texts in the New Testament; one that respects the whole of Scripture, Old and New Testament, finding a pattern of promise and fulfillment in the Old and New. It’s also a way of reading and interpreting Scripture that keeps the whole in mind; that does not ignore the troublesome of difficult parts, but in a cycle of readings exposes you to them.
The thing mentioned five times that Protestantism can bring to Catholicism, is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Here we hit on the great irony, and why we so desperately need each other. Catholics have Jesus in the Eucharist, which is the one thing that Catholics most desire to share with Protestants. But at the same time, the one aspect of Protestantism most remarked upon that should be part of Catholicism is a personal relationship with Jesus.
To get to the bottom of this problem, I will quote from Peter Kreeft’s book:
[When we enter into ecumenical dialogue,] we discover something big and new. Catholics discover the fire, and Protestants discover the fireplace. Catholics discover the essence of Evangelical Protestantism; a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Protestants discover the essence of Catholicism; Christ’s own visible, tangible Body, both as a living institution with teaching authority and as a real literal personal presence in the Eucharist.
With this, Kreeft is thinking of Jesus as the fire and The Church as the fireplace. It’s the comparison he makes in the book. Here I must note for the Catholics in the room that Protestants don’t always quite get the concept of the Church with a big C, which is why Kreeft is saying we have to encounter it. The idea that Jesus Christ left us a Church is foreign to many Protestants and common within Catholicism.
On a related note, then, constant declarations of the Roman Catholic Church as the one true Church to non-Catholics are very unhelpful. Because every Protestant goes to a church and understands it, but has little concept of an institutional church. What this phrase achieves is to create distance. “One Church”—which you aren’t a member of. Yours is the “One True Church,” which makes my church what? Could we say false by default? These are some of the quips that are bandied about that do not bring Christians closer together. I doubt very much this short phrase is music to an eastern Orthodox ear either.
Of course, a personal relationship with Jesus would be the hallmark of many designated as saints over the ages. And I’m pleased to report that I’ve met some of these Evangelical Catholics—it’s amazing how much is bridged with me through their love for Jesus.
Other things mentioned only once included the love of hymns, that a relationship with God is not fear-based, and community.
Onward to the myths. I raise these as things to be aware of, again, not to solve in this 40 -minute talk.
The myths Protestants believe about Catholics were as follows:
It was twice mentioned that Catholics believe you are saved by works, not faith. This was mentioned as a myth—to some Protestants this appears not as a myth; it is one of the core theological disputes and it is real and ongoing. R.C. Sproul writes about this extensively in Are We Together?, assessing the Catechism of the Catholic church. This stands in stark contrast to Peter Kreeft who says the Reformation is largely over because the chief issue of justification has been resolved.
It was also twice mentioned as a myth Protestants believe about Catholics that Catholics have added things to the faith.This one speaks to the idea that there is a core truth which is Protestant, and Catholics have added all these other things. This is an interesting one. Protestants, through the Reformation, drew attention to abuses within the Church. But Martin Luther, for example, did not contest the Catholic idea of the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ.
The phrase throwing the baby out with the bathwater comes to mind. What have particular Protestant denominations lost as time went on? Is it worse to lose essentials? Or add them?
Are you enjoying this article?
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and never miss another one.
It seems the Catholic church does add to dogma over time. Marian dogmas, for example, are very recent and not shared by Orthodox believers. So the Protestant in me needs to encounter how much of this is myth, how much true, but also admit, as a Protestant that if something was added, perhaps we ought to consider what we took away—and ask what is better or worse?
Finally, mentioned five times was that Catholics engage in idolatry. If you consider that Protestants have no saints, no icons—it’s not part of our churches or culture—it’s not terribly surprising that this aspect of Catholicism gets misinterpreted or misunderstood.
Having saints intercede in prayer is very controversial for Protestants because the scriptural basis for that comes from Judaism and from a book (Maccabees) that we don’t share with Catholics. One point Catholics can raise to help Protestants understand where they are coming from lies in the Creed, in this line: “We believe in One Universal (catholic), and Apostolic Church.”
An Orthodox priest explained to me that “one” in this line in the creed refers not to divisions in Christendom on earth right now, which is what I had assumed, but rather, refers to believers past, present and future. Since all Christians know and understand that we never die, but rather live in Eternity with Christ, this makes sense. Believers of the past are here with us; eternity starts now. There’s also mention in Hebrews 12 of the great cloud of witnesses.
These things won’t bridge the gap entirely, but they could help.
Everyone comes from somewhere, and is used to a certain manner of doing church, or worship, even of decorating the sanctuary. I often wonder how much of our discomfort with “the other” stems not from real theological disputes but simply what we were raised with. In a sense, we love our cultural heritage, we may not know the theology, but defend this heritage as theology or dogma.
The myths Catholics believe about Protestants came up as follows:
Mentioned twice, is that all Protestants are fundamentalist right wingers. The other, mentioned three times is that Protestants are rebellious heretics. You can decide whether this is myth or not. I work in an environment where I am surrounded by all kinds of Christians. One evening at a social gathering, one of the staff member’s spouses said, “so we were celebrating Reformation Sunday that day…” From one Catholic in our group there was an audible gasp of horror.
The idea that the Reformation is a scandal is foreign to most Protestants, who view it in a positive light. I think ultimately Christian disunity is a scandal, but from what I’ve read of Roman Catholicism in the 16th century, there’s little room to disagree that reform was absolutely necessary.
I have two books about Martin Luther on my night stand, both called, shockingly enough, Martin Luther. One is a Catholic book, with the “nihil obstat” imprimatur which is an “official declarations that a book is free of doctrinal and moral error” from the perspective of the Roman Catholic Church. The other is by the imminently readable Protestant Eric Metaxas. (He writes history, and previously wrote Veggie Tales. I’m waiting for the televised version, in which Luther is played by a cucumber.) Both books speak to attempting to understand Luther and his influence on Christianity and history. What I’m getting at here, is that there is room to study some of the great reformers, clearly, even from a Catholic perspective.
While some Protestants, in truth, are still actively protesting what they view as the doctrinal errors of the Catholic Church, perpetuated, not fixed at the Council of Trent, far more are not protesting anything. It would be wrong to assume that we know what Catholic doctrine is and are rejecting it. More often than not, Catholicism is a black box—unknown and frankly, not thought too much about.
There’s an idea I heard, and it is indeed floating around on the internet, which must make it completely and totally true. Protestants are not people who are protesting, they are pro-testare, or pro-the testament of Jesus Christ. This is a useful frame for today’s Protestants, in my opinion.
On the last question. Is the Reformation over? Some thought the Reformation of the 16th Century was over. Most people said a variation on no, but we are navigating it better and making progress, or “no, though the Roman Catholic church has made major reforms.” Peter Kreeft thinks it is basically over, while for RC Sproul it’s very much game on.
One reply was that the Roman Catholic church will forever be reforming, until Christ comes again. All this to say, it’s a live issue, and one we need to grapple with. There’s also a theory that the Church is up for housecleaning about every 500 years. This theory was put forward not with respect to the Protestant/Catholic divide but with respect to the liberal/conservative divide in Christendom. Both require evangelization and bridge building. We may find conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants have more in common than a liberal Catholic with a conservative one.
I want to return to image of doors, standing in a door frame and looking inside a room where we feel we don’t belong.
My all time and forever favourite author, C.S. Lewis, spoke in Mere Christianity of rooms in a house. He wrote:
I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions…It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.
The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time. …
But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. Above all… When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.
Worst of all is to be scared to look across the hall, or into the room next door. Worst of all is to create an environment where the other, a different type of Christian or a non-Christian altogether, feels like an outsider staring into a room of people who are not welcoming, or saying things like “your baptism doesn’t count.”
Of course, the story recounted at the beginning is my own baptism. (How else could I know all those details and the shiny shoes?)
And I confess, I’ve always felt on the outside of most every Christian environment I’ve ever been in. I am thoroughly convinced that Jesus Christ died and rose again for me—that this is our great hope. However, perhaps coming in from a more “secular” positioning—I never feel truly comfortable in churches—Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. I’m somehow aware that all church environments are, for a lack of a better word, weird, strange and other. I’m glad I see this, because this is what non-believers may see and feel when they look in.
I’d like to conclude with the words of one of the people I interviewed for this talk. A beautiful soul, we’ll call him Bob, and he goes to Mass on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning, very often, he attends a Reformed Protestant church because he likes the pastor.
Here’s what he told me when we talked:
Here’s what I really am: I take the good from all of Christianity. That’s my heritage. The Protestant heritage belongs to me, and also the Catholic heritage belongs to me. Do I have objections to certain Catholic things/Protestant things—yes I do. I could list those things.
Christianity is my heritage. I love the Catholics and I love the Protestants. I will never be a Protestant. But I love the Protestants.
I may never be a Catholic, but I love the Catholics. This is my heritage. This is our heritage, Protestantism included, Catholicism included, Orthodoxy included—for us to grapple with and build bridges with the other.
Convivium means living together. We welcome your voice to the conversation. Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!