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.


Father Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His upcoming book, Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, will be published by Sophia Institute Press in the Spring. Read more at

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