Symbols and Systems: Why Catholics and Protestants Don’t See Eye to Eye

My niece’s husband is a trainee Baptist pastor. Jimbo’s hip, friendly, and fun to be with. He’s smart and theologically savvy. I like him. He loves Jesus and believes the Bible, and on most moral and doctrinal issues I can affirm what he affirms. We agree on a lot.
But even when we agree, we don’t see eye to eye. Somehow we seem to have reached our religious conclusions from different starting points and through different routes. A chapter in Mark Massa’s book Anti-Catholicism in Americailluminated the problem for me. Massa quotes an important theological work by David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination, in which he argues that, underneath our religious language, customs, liturgies, rules, and rubrics, there exist more fundamental ways of seeing.
Catholic Symbols
Tracy says that Catholics have a basic concept of religion that is analogical. To put it simply, Catholics use things they know to try to understand the things they don’t. Catholics seek to know God and His work in the world through material things: water, wine, bread, oil, incense, candles, images, and so on. For Catholics, some of these things are more than just symbols — they are sacraments. They not only point to God, they convey His power and grace to us through the mystery of the Church.
For Catholics, this way of understanding the world, God, the cosmos, and everything is rich and multilayered. The Church is not only a symbol of the Body of Christ — it is the Body of Christ. The bread brought forward by the members of the Body of Christ becomes itself the Body of Christ to feed the Body of Christ the Church.
The Catholic imagination and the Catholic soul are nurtured in a multitude of different sacraments, sacramentals, signs, and symbols. As a result, all physical things are part of God’s plan of salvation. Life in all its fullness abounds with the mystery of God’s life and love working through the world. This analogical way of seeing is dependent on, and comes from, the basic fact of God’s revelation — the Incarnation of His son, Jesus Christ.
Protestant Systems
In contrast, my nephew-in-law Jimbo, as a good Baptist, shares a radically different perspective on the whole shooting match. Jimbo, like every Protestant, has grown up within a basic religious paradigm that is more systematic. Tracy calls this “dialectical language.” He says Protestant theologians, rather than seeing how physical things and human culture connect us to God, emphasize the radical separation between God and the physical world. The Protestant focuses primarily on man’s alienation from God, the fact of sin, the need for redemption, and the need for man’s response.
The linear thought process is like any other dialectic process: “Thesis = we sin; antithesis = God says ‘no’ to our attempts to save ourselves; synthesis = God saves us when we confess the truth and justice of God’s ‘no’ to our sin.”
The Protestant dialectical process means that Protestants emphasize the individual’s existential inner response to God rather than the idea that God is “with us” working to save us in and through the physical and historical world.
Therefore, the idea that a visible church, a historic apostolic succession, a priesthood, and sacraments are necessary is — at the very root of Protestant thinking — alien and dangerous. For the typical Protestant, the Catholic Church is, by definition, worldly. Its very nature is materialistic and compromising with the world, the flesh, and the devil. For the Protestant there is therefore no relationship between Christ and culture. The faith is set up in dialectical opposition to the wisdom of man and the ways of the world.
Massa quotes sociologist Andrew Greeley in summation:
Therefore the fundamental differences between Catholicism and Protestantism are not doctrinal or ethical. The different propositional codes of the two heritages are but manifestations, tips of the iceberg, of more fundamentally differing sets of symbols. The Catholic ethic is “communitarian”; and the Protestant “individualistic” because of the preconscious “organizing” pictures of the two traditions that shape meaning and response to life for members of the respective heritages are different. Catholics and Protestants “see the world differently.”
So what does all this mean for Jimbo and me? It means that even when we agree, we don’t agree for the same reasons. For example, Jimbo and I may both sign up to work at the soup kitchen on Saturday mornings. As a Catholic, I’m more likely to see that hungry tramp as part of my human family whether he is a Catholic or not. I should feed him because he too is created in the image of God. In feeding him I am more likely to believe that I am also feeding Christ, and that this, in itself, is not only worthy but part of my own salvation, and part of the salvation of the world.
Jimbo wants to feed the homeless too, but he is more likely to do so because he wants to be personally obedient to the commands of Christ. He sees the poor hungry tramp as a lost soul who needs not only a sandwich but a savior. In fact, it’s likely that Jimbo will give him the sandwich because he is concerned for the tramp’s soul and wants to share the gospel with him and make sure he is saved.
This basic disconnect between our ways of thinking affects virtually everything. Because of the different perspectives, the Baptist and the Catholic will worship differently, pray differently, read the Bible differently, vote differently, produce radically different literature, art, and music. The two may share the same moral values, but they will do so for different reasons. They may share the same essential beliefs, but they will see them from different perspectives.
When we are engaged in dialogue with Protestants over doctrinal or ethical issues, our discussions will be illuminated if we understand the underlying differences of perspective. Furthermore, in the culture wars in which we are now engaged, Catholics and Protestants need to be allies. For the alliance to be strong and positive, both sides need to understand the essential differences of perspective.
Good fences make good neighbors. Only when we understand what truly separates us will we be able to work together with Protestants for the salvation of our society and the ultimate unity of Christ’s Church.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at

  • Theresa

    Dear Rev. Longenecker,
    having made an extreme misjudgement in marrying a Baptist, I can attest to the fact that Love is not enough to bring these two perspectives together…… And because I spent 10 long years trying to make, with God’s grace, the impossible happen, I have an opinion about it. I lived in a small NE TN community chock full of all the main Christian denominations…. in fact I drove down Bloomingdale rd lined with Churches of every denomination ….and every day I prayed for the Body of Christ.. to come together to make, with the power of the HOLY SPIRIT, the KINGDOM of GOD show up… in the way we lived community, supported schools and worked together! When I was on my face in my living room, my children were at school, I sought God out and begged Him to open my eyes to understand what I could do …. First thing He revealed to me was that when I die He was not going to ask me if I was Catholic before I gained entrance into Heaven…. that really blew me away….. and then He told me to approach the Churches, in my endeavor to organize Community Events, as Paul did to the Romans, Ephesians and Corinthians…. that really changed my perspective…. in a BIG way…. We live life in a time, different than Paul, where the Romans,Corinthians, Ephesians live and work and go to Church in the same community… often worship on the same streets in America…. your thoughts?

  • Ed

    Forgive me, Father…but I do not think that you have captured the essence or fullness of Catholic thought and outlook vis a vis those of our Protestant brethren. Yes, the Catholic sees in the beggar the person of Christ but this reflects only the first step in our communitarian outlook, But it remains only an expression of individualism if it stops there because it arises out of OUR promtings to see Christ in him. Only when we take the second, and typically Protestant, step to engage him in dialogue about this person of Christ, does he have the possibility to come to know about Him and enter into a realtionship with him in his own way so that he then may take up the Gospel mandate himself. Only then is the fullness of the communitarian and authentic Catholic witness realized. You elucidate what is essentially problematic about Catholic evangelizing i.e. we Catholics see Christ in others in our works of charity but don’t take it to the next step and speak outwardly, openly about him to another. We run the risk, then, of having what we do amount to great social work. If you would allow me, in your role as a convert and priest, you can do great things for our Catholic faith my helping Catholics speak to the stranger about this person Jesus Christ – openly and unabashedly.

  • PMG

    Not to muddy the waters, but, out of curiosity, how does the Jewish (at least Orthodox Judaisim) perspective compare? Just curious, as both Protestant and Catholic are branches off the same trunk of Judaism.

  • bipolar2

    Those not with us are against us. (Luke 11:23 NIV)

    I always marvel that the big-4 monotheisms, three of which became empire building ideologies, continue to charm otherwise intelligent people.

    They are historically late arrivals whose common foundations are very much this-worldly. Myth spinners present Zarathustra, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed as demigods touting ineffably silly moralized cosmic battlegrounds of good-vs-evil, ending in an orgy of revenge, apocalypse.

    Among middle eastern religions, Zoroastrianism invents vengeful apocalyptic. The World Savior comes to renew his creation, raise the dead, punish the wicked “children of darkness”, and dwell with his obedient “children of light” forever in a blessed realm.

    A terrible judgment visited upon the unrighteous gets taken up into post-exilic Judaism, appearing in the book ascribed to Daniel. Thereafter, Judaism produces two important non-canonical apocalypses: Jubilees and 1Enoch. Xianity draws inspiration from the revenge soaked Jewish documents to produce the “Apocalypse” of John of Patmos.

    The key to understanding all apocalypses within the middle eastern group of religions lies in realizing that each gets created during a time of foreign invasion, occupation, exile, or internecine sectarian violence. Luke 11:23 presents a defiant siege mentality, as do the other synoptic gospels and the letters of Paul.

    Each world-ending revelation is a product of an impotent desire for revenge which cannot be expressed except in words, words veiled in obscure symbols and arcane references.

    Ahura Mazda, Yahweh, God, and Allah are ethical equivalents of comic book super-villains. God is the Joker. True believers are geeks parsing