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Andrew T. Le Peau

As Different as We Think

Catholics and Protestants

It was when Phyllis and I got engaged that I found out just how different Catholics and Protestants actually were.

I had been raised Catholic, served as an altar boy, ate fish on Friday, said the rosary, memorized the catechism, prayed the Stations of the Cross, sang Gregorian Chant in the choir, and had twelve years of Catholic education that straddled the pre- and post-Vatican II eras.

Phyllis was raised in a congregation that was part of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. Even her fellow churchgoers joked about the separatistic tendencies of the ifca by saying it stood for "I Fight Christians Anywhere" or "I Fellowship Completely Alone." She grew up singing gospel songs, going to Bible camps, and quizzing (which is, near as I can tell, a national network of teams of high school students in a series of competitions who respond to questions requiring contestants to have massive amounts of Scripture memorized).

It could only have been someone with God's sense of humor who had brought us together. But we both loved Jesus and each other, and assumed that was enough.

I knew well, of course, that Catholics and Protestants disagreed on many issues—the authority of the pope, the nature of the church, the role of the sacraments, the place of tradition and Scripture. So we faced quite a question when it came to choosing a church. At first we thought we'd have plenty of time. We thought we would affirm both traditions in our wedding and sought to have a co-officiated service, led by a Catholic priest and a Presbyterian pastor we knew. Both were happy with the idea. Our friend, Father Pendergast, told us that maybe God was calling us to be "bridge people" between these two worlds. He thought that could be a wonderful role for us on our spiritual journey. All that was left before setting out on this pilgrimage was to sign this little document for the Church that said we would raise our kids Catholic. Then we could be on our way.

As well versed as I was in all things Catholic, this came as a surprise to me. Of course, when two Catholics marry, nothing like that is needed. But in a "mixed" marriage, it was. And here is where I began to find out that Catholics and Protestants were even more different than I thought.

When we sought counsel from a wide variety of friends and mentors, the Protestant evangelicals consistently said, "You can't sign that. That is a huge promise you are making. To do so is to commit yourself to the Church and everything it teaches. Do you really believe everything it says?"

The Catholics were also generally consistent, saying something like, "Don't worry about the details. Go ahead and sign it! It just means you will raise your kids as Christians, following your conscience as God leads you. And if he leads you to a different church later, no problem."

Well, I exaggerate these two reactions a bit (but only a bit) to make a point. For Protestants, the document was a fixed text. And to sign it was to irrevocably align ourselves with that text. What mattered were the propositions, the statements. They defined reality. They were reality.

For Catholics, it was not the document at all that was primary. It was the community, the people of God, the unity of the people of God. If signing the document could help preserve that unity, by all means, sign it—and then do what your conscience requires.

So often the division between Catholics and Protestants is cast in doctrinal or ecclesiastical terms. And those are significant and real. But more than that, here were two very different ways of thinking, two different mental maps, two different ways of understanding the world and living in it.

This experience launched me on a journey of trying to comprehend why Catholics and Protestants not only disagree but very often lack a rudimentary understanding of each other and talk past each other, each seeming to fail to grasp even basic points the other is making. Why else would it have taken Catholics and Lutherans five hundred years to finally figure out that they actually agreed on justification by faith?

Catholics and Protestants (especially evangelicals, who have maintained certain historically Protestant distinctives) have certain habits of mind, culture and world view that affect the way each thinks and acts. I generalize here, of course, and not every Catholic or every Protestant will recognize themselves in the descriptions I offer. Yet the differences can often be seen in several key ways.

Perhaps the major mental category to consider is how Catholics and evangelicals handle cognitive dissonance. Evangelicals tend to think in either/or terms. If one thing is right, its opposite is wrong. Either Scripture or the pope is the supreme authority. It can't be both. There is a yearning for consistency of faith and practice. Knowing that we have flawed natures, evangelicals warn against error and in the prophetic tradition call God's people back to his truth and purity.

Catholics, by contrast, are very happy to think in terms of both/and. John Paul II was highly revered by Catholics, yet large majorities of Catholics (particularly in North America) felt perfectly at peace disagreeing with him on birth control, priestly celibacy and stem cell research. The inconsistency bothers them little.

Evangelicals have a difficult time understanding how Catholics can perform such mental gymnastics. In the evangelical mind, if one accepts the pope as the final authority in the church, then one must consistently agree with and obey him. If you don't, you aren't a real Catholic. Of course, Catholics who do disagree with the pope on many issues would be highly insulted by the suggestion that they are not true Catholics. Evangelicals have problems not just with the fact that Catholics believe different things but that they are somehow able to accommodate themselves to apparently inconsistent or incompatible beliefs.

Some time after Phyllis and I were married, I was introduced to the work of David Tracy, a prominent Roman Catholic theologian at the University of Chicago. What I had thought of as both/and thinking Tracy, with much more sophistication and subtlety, termed the analogical imagination (in a book of the same name). Catholics tend to think by analogy. One thing helps us understand another by the similarities in both.

Symbols are therefore very important. In fact, symbols, for Catholics, are generally better than propositions in grasping the truth because there is more room for mystery and wonder. In a proposition, truth is limited to the words on the page and their meaning. So a symbol can better apprehend the truth in its multiple dimensions. We can never completely mine all the gold of truth in a symbol. And that is only as it should be because God (who is Truth) is so much more than could ever be encapsulated in a statement, or even in a whole book of statements. Sacrament and symbol lead us to a fuller, truer experience and knowledge of God.

For evangelicals, the game is thought to be won or lost on statements. If we can't have fixed truth expressed in words, we are subject to every wind of doctrine. We lack an anchor and may drift into heresy or at least into the shoals of liberalism. While Catholics lean toward analogical thinking, Evangelicals tend to embrace what Tracy calls the dialectical imagination. Since we have a tendency to deceive ourselves, we seek certainty. Symbols are too vague to achieve this. Propositions warn us clearly against error, set limits and call us back to truth.

Have these differences always been so? Another Catholic, Ingrid Shafer of the University of Oklahoma, writes, "Until the Reformation both paradigms were part of the Catholic tradition. After the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics have tended to separate along analogical and dialectical party lines, even though … both modes are still found across the Christian spectrum and (ironically) the Catholic hierarchy (in contrast to the majority of the laity) has tended to follow the absolutist and dialectical paradigms. Furthermore, these two modes of seeing do not only hold for religious thought; they inform our total response to existence, our moral and aesthetic values as well as the manner in which we conduct our practical lives." [1]

As Shafer suggests, the differences are seen not just in the way we think, but in all aspects of our lives. I was recently having lunch with a Catholic priest who leads retreats and is a spiritual director. He works out of a nearby conference center with about ten other spiritual directors who meet regularly with over a hundred people. As we were enjoying our meal he said, "Well, maybe you can answer this question. It comes up with the other spiritual directors I work with. About ten percent of the people who come to us are Protestants. When we get together to discuss in general our work, other directors ask, Óˆow come after about six months of spiritual direction, the Protestants all say, 'Are we done yet? When do I get fixed?' What is that all about?"

I said, "The Road to Emmaus is a paradigm of Catholic spirituality, right? Spiritual growth is a journey that we go on. And Christ travels with us on this journey even though we may not know he is there. But we recognize him in the breaking of the bread, in the Eucharist. And our immediate instinct at such times of significant encounter with Christ is to go to the community, just as the two on the Road to Emmaus did. So we have in this paradigm the key elements of the journey, the presence of Christ, the Eucharist and the community that make up much of Catholic spirituality."[2] He looked completely bored, as if I were telling him the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

"But," I said, "the paradigm of spirituality for evangelicals is not the Road to Emmaus but the Road to Damascus, where you have a dramatic, decisive crisis encounter with Christ."

His eyes at once became huge, and he said, "And you get knocked off your horse!"

"Exactly. Spiritual growth happens in crisis events when we are suddenly thrust to a higher or deeper level of intimacy and commitment to Christ. From that moment we are radically changed. Spirituality proceeds dialectically. There is a radical discontinuity of the past from the future. Sometimes that moment is the crisis of conversion. Sometimes it is hearing a calling or some other new spiritual experience. So I think your Protestant friends may be expecting a Damascus Road experience."

"Oh," he said, still wide-eyed, "that is so profound!" My lunch companion, as you see, had a greater gift for the dramatic than I suspect I had for the profound.

Catholics often go through life, somewhat unaware of Christ's presence at all, and then notice, "Hey! Look at that! He's been walking with me all this time! Isn't that great!" They also instinctively know that our spiritual journey is never complete. We are always in process. Our sin and human frailty are always with us, but so is his grace and his company.

A Catholic friend who had had an evangelical-styled conversion experience once told his parish priest that he knew he would go to heaven when he died. "Well, that's a bit arrogant," the old pastor responded. And to the Catholic mind it is. While the issue has significant theological dimensions, it's as much or more a style of thinking that is in question.

The priest's response is roughly equivalent to the response many evangelicals might give when fellow evangelicals say they have achieved "sinless perfection." For evangelicals there's a big difference between having assurance of salvation and achieving sinless perfection. But for Catholics, it's all the same.

Having begun their spiritual life in a moment of crisis, evangelicals (subconsciously) anticipate that growth will occur in sudden leaps forward, often at a gathering of other Christians. Perhaps we hear a call to be a missionary and take that step in a dramatic commitment. Or it could be a decision to not just trust Jesus for our salvation but to commit our whole lives to him and his will—body, soul and spirit. We may begin speaking in tongues or be slain in the spirit or have a dream in which Christ appears. Not all evangelicals will approve of all these, but the notion of such a sudden, life-changing spiritual event is not foreign, and for many is expected.

Conversionism, of course, is one of the four main characteristics of evangelicals that British historian David Bebbington has identified.[3] Salvation must be appropriated through personal faith that comes via repentance. This event which takes us to an entirely new level spiritually looms large in the evangelical psyche—so much so that the continuing journey of sanctification often takes a backseat. Not so for Catholics. That journey is what our life in Christ is all about.

The emphasis on conversionism has had another effect. It has made evangelicals more individualistic than Catholics, who are oriented more toward the community of faith as a primary means for drawing closer to God. Certainly American individualism has had a tremendous impact on American Catholicism as well. American Catholics are much more willing, as mentioned earlier, to disagree with and act contrary to the Church's teachings than Catholics in many other countries. Nonetheless, when it comes to spirituality, it is primarily a matter of the community.

Analogical thinking and the community meet on a journey, for Catholics, in the liturgy and the sacraments, of course. By means of symbols acted out in the midst of the gathered people of God, we understand more than intellectually who we are in Christ. We experience it spiritually. Liturgy itself is a journey—a year-long journey that tells the story of Jesus' life and ministry as well as that of the newly born church. This journey is punctuated by the Advent journey to Bethlehem and the manger, and the Lenten journey to Golgatha and the empty tomb.

The journey that Phyllis and I began when we became engaged led us down a Protestant path. Thinking more like Protestants than Catholics at the time, we decided we couldn't in good conscience sign the document. "It is the Church's wisdom," Father Pendergast told us, "that these things should be decided before the wedding so they don't interrupt or trouble the marriage later." He and the Church were probably right.

Yet in the more than thirty years since we were married, that has not been the end of the journey for the two of us. Another path was also in store. Over the years we have befriended individuals and connected with organizations that would like to bridge understanding between Catholics and Protestants. We continue to have significant theological differences, but we have learned to understand that some (not all) of our differences arise from issues other than theology. In addition, our daughter Susan attended Boston College, where she sat at the feet of professors like Peter Kreeft (a Catholic who has authored many books for evangelical publishers) as well as a number of Jesuits. After graduating, she spent two years in Peru working with Catholic missions. When she returned she decided to become a Catholic. "It's my spiritual home," she told us. "It's where I feel the closest to Christ." As parents we have always prayed that all of our children would be drawn to Christ. That prayer has likewise been answered for our other children, but in Protestant contexts.

David Tracy thinks the analogical and dialectical imaginations are complementary, that it is beneficial for both traditions to work together.[4] Each has something to offer and each saves the other from certain dangers. For Protestants and Catholics, that seems about right.

Andrew T. Le Peau is a writer and editor in the Chicago area.

1. Ingrid Shafer, "Harnessing the Power of Love," usao.edu/~facshaferi/DIALOG02.HTML.

2. I owe this insight to Michael McIntyre, Newman Center, San Diego State University.

3. David Bebbington, in his seminal study Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Baker, 1989), defined evangelicalism by identifying its four distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism.

4. David Tracy, The Theological Imagination (Crossroad, 1981), pp. 420-21.

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