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February 7, 2012

Can Protestants and Catholics Find Truly Common Ground?

What stereotypes or misinformed views about Catholicism might we need to let go of?

I made the mistake of visiting a new church on Sunday, April 3, 2005. The day before, Pope John Paul II had died. And the young pastor of the small church we visited decided to include John Paul’s death in his sermon, which went something like this...

“Today, all those people in that big, fancy church over there [pointing west toward the local Catholic parish] are all mourning the death of a man they worshiped. They’re sure he’s in heaven ...[imagine, now, a very smug tone of voice] but is he really? I don’t presume to know God’s judgment—I don’t presume to say if he is in heaven or in hell—but those people over there have their focus on the wrong thing. On a man, not on God...”

Let’s just say that was our only visit to that little congregation. (The sermon got it wrong on so many levels!) Yet his beliefs about Catholicism, though perhaps not so insensitively expressed, are quite common among evangelicals. His disdain for a fancy or ostentatious church building, the misinformed idea that Catholics worship the pope, the strongly implied suggestion that John Paul was not actually a Christian (and was likely in hell), and further the insinuation that Catholics in general are not Christians.

I’ve heard similar sentiments among evangelical friends. Some evangelical ideas about Catholicism come directly from former Catholics who are speaking honestly about their own experience of Catholicism and what they understood it to be about. But often times, sadly, Protestants perpetuate ideas about Catholicism that are simply ill-founded and misinformed.

Now before you stop reading, hear me say this: there are key, essential, and significant differences between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. I definitely recognize these crucial differences, and I believe that these differences ought not be ignored or overlooked—as a matter of fact, recently Kyria.com put together a download resource discussing the Catholic-Protestant Divide. And of equal importance, I believe these differences ought to be fairly and accurately understood.

I’ve come to this belief through a habit I’ve formed over the past few years of periodically listening to Catholic radio. The shows I like are call-in shows in which Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, and atheists call in with questions and chat on-air with a priest, theologian, or lay leader. The value I’ve found in these shows is that I’ve gotten to hear informed, committed Catholics explain what they believe and why—rather than getting the evangelical version of what Catholics believe.

I’ve discovered that some of our differences are more a matter of semantics than true disagreement. For example, though Catholics may not gravitate toward phrases like “born again” or having a “personal relationship with Jesus,” that does not mean that they are not born again or that they don’t have a devoted relationship with Jesus infused with prayer, worship, Scripture reading, and more.

I’ve also discovered that some of my ideas about what Catholics believe were simply wrong. These ideas about Catholicism often come from nominal Catholics—people who are Catholic in name but who do not follow (or may not even know) the actual, official doctrines of the Catholic church. Just like I wouldn’t want a lapsed evangelical with no active faith and no commitment to Jesus claiming to represent what I believe, I think we ought to be careful not to base our understanding of Catholicism on the actions or words of people who are Catholic in name only.

And I’ve discovered that in the remaining key areas of disagreement, there is a great value in aiming to understand why Catholics believe as they do. I’ve had conversations with devout Catholic friends asking questions like, “Why do you pray to Mary?” and “Do you really believe that the bread and wine transform into actual flesh and blood?” In a dialogue of mutual respect, empathy, and a sincere desire to understand, I’ve learned a great deal from these Catholic friends.

While I still hold firmly to my own conclusions on these matters as an evangelical Protestant, I’ve found a deep and meaningful sense of spiritual sisterhood with these friends whose profound love of Jesus inspires my own walk with him.

I’ve personally been blessed by my fellowship with Catholics and by engaging in thought-provoking discussion with them over theological matters. How about you? What stereotypes or misinformed views about Catholicism might you need to let go of? How might intentional and honest dialogue with a Catholic strengthen your own convictions and nurture your faith in Christ?

Related Tags: Catholicism, Differences, Faith, Understanding


As a recently returned Catholic, I thank you for seeing the similarities between Protestants and Catholics than just the "silly" differences. And even in those differences, discussion and deeper understanding of each others faith and her own can happen. (This is true for any faith I think.)

I know that I am guilty of misrepresenting my faith when I left. I have come back years later to realize that I did not have the maturity or wisdom to really look past the words and into the deeper meaning. I have only come back to the Catholic faith after spending years practicing Protestantism. Without what I learned there (being "born again"), I wouldn't have truly understood why Catholics are so devoted to certain prayers and certain times etc.

Though there are differences we all need to be careful how we talk about our faith and others - respect, patience and love is necessary - to make sure we don't do harm to each other in the name of God.

Excellent! I love the respect you give in this article. As a Protestant that works in a Catholic school, I have grown frustrated at uninformed hubris in evangelical thought regarding Catholics. There are significant theological conversations regarding differences, however, my Catholic colleagues sing the same songs, pray the same prayers and recite the same creed we do regarding the diety of Christ, his death and resurrection, and his saving work on the cross. People need to keep in mind that their/all of our interpretation of Scripture is also read and processed through a lens impacted by a fallen world. I hope Catholics and Evangelical Protestants can grow closer.

To answer the question, posed in the title of this post, yes! Our common ground is in the truth about Jesus and his saving work on the cross. Catholics who trust in Jesus and are saved by God's grace, through their faith in Jesus, are by brothers and sisters in Christ. As the comment above indicates, we fellow believers have plenty of common ground. I'm very disturbed by those who liken Catholicism to a cult. This is not accurate. Catholicism does not fit the sociological definition of a cult, and its essential doctrines are in harmony with evangelical doctrine. "For 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved' " (Romans 10:13).

The comparison between Mormonism, Jehovah's Witness, and Catholics is weak, if not altogether fallacious. In fact, a closer analogy would be to say, from a Catholic standpoint, that evangelicals and Mormons are the same--which of course we know isn't true. But like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism (both who branched off from Protestants in the 19th century), Protestants branched off from Catholics in 1517 with ninety-five theses nailed to a church door in Wittenberg. Just saying.

Besides, its wise to dive deep to analyze theological differences for oneself rather than rely on a friend's perspective, whose views may or may not be skewed.

I appreciate that this piece that urges us towards unity, towards love, of our brothers and sisters in a neighboring faith. May we all display homage to those upon whose shoulders we stand.

Thankyou for this thoughtful article. I have recently made friends with some Catholics and am going on a week away with them for prayer and skiing (we are in France after all!) and I know that I will need to be very careful not to offend or criticise when I am with them.

As a woman who left the Catholic church many years ago,I struggle with this conversation. I think what we need to remember is that it is not about religion but about believing in the Savior. We can argue all day long about what so and so believes and practices but when it comes right down to it the question we should be asking is "Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins and will you surrender your life and place your trust in Him?" Nothing added, nothing taken away. I love and respect my Catholic friends and family and would never drive a wedge between us based on varying rituals and traditions. God has called us to love one another.

Given it was the first, & hence only, time I had posted on this site, I did consider your rejection of my thoughts on the basis of "too many times to quickly" to be somewhat curious. Now seeing the slant of the thoughts that have been submitted, it seems that censorship is being exercised. Very disappointing!!

As an evangelical, I've heard misconceptions about Catholics. I've also heard some incorrect generalizations of Protestants by Catholics. I've met a lot of lapsed Catholics, damaged by their upbringing. The same with Protestants, evangelicals, and people in other religions.

I listen to the kind of radio show that you mention in this article. I learn from it. To me, a significant difference is the Catholic Church's scholarly approach to scripture. This is mostly good in that it fosters a slower and more thoughtful method. The evangelical church is catching up, though. Both the Catholic and evangelical church has a long history of sticking to their guns on: value of human life, sexual intimacy held for marriage between a man and woman, limited government interference in the church, sharing the gospel (not treating it like something to be practiced privately).

The body of Christ is many parts. It's imperfect in this world because we are. As Paul said, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you.'"

I was raised in a very faithful Catholic home. I went to all the religious training classes and through all the sacraments required. I know the doctrine very well.
I was saved as an adult so I have known both sides for many years. The bottom line is the difference between works and grace. Please don't get stuck in the ecumenical trap. Biblically if you do not trust in Christ alone to save you then you are not a true child of God. We are still to love them, but don't think that Catholicism teaches the pure Word without adding something. I have had this conversation with many friends and family. They choose their own way to heaven, however they think they can get to God on their own. Don't be fooled.

Beamer, I think it may have been a technical glitch that prevented your previous posting. (That has actually happened to me as well.) Please try again -- we'd love to hear your thoughts.

I appreciate the helpful dialogue here and the diversity of views. One important note I want to emphasize is that my piece does clarify that there are key and essential differences between Protestant and Catholic belief. This piece doesn't get into those differences, but the Kyria download mentioned above does explore those very significant theological differences in detail. My purpose here is not in any way to whitewash or blur significant differences, but rather to encourage a Christ-like and respectful demeanor in conversations with Catholics with whom we Protestants share over two thousand years of church history.

Thanks again, and I hope to hear more from Beamer or others who have different views.

I am delighted to say that I had the pleasure of leaving Christianity altogether to become a Jew-by- Choice and haven't regretted it for one minute!

Finding common ground between Catholics and Protestants would be much easier if both parties could realize that one of the issues that seem to divide them -- the role of grace in salvation -- is really merely a matter of emphasis.

The common Protestant misconception is that Catholics do not believe in salvation by grace, but rather that salvation results from the grace of God adulterated with the actions ("works") on the part of the believer. This is a misguided view of the Catholic perspective, which in reality involves no substantive difference, but only a difference of emphasis.

Several years ago, I preached the homily on just this subject at a Catholic Mass. (I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, but this was in the haycyon days when I was.) In my talk, I asserted that Catholics believe in salvation by grace no less than Protestants, but that Catholic teaching emphasizes the sovereignty of the individual's choice to accept or to reject the grace that God proffers. I illustraed that point the following way: standing before the congregation at Mass, I took out my wallet. I reached into my wallet, removed a $20 bill, and held it up in full view of my audience. I then told the folks that the money I was waving before them was quite real. It was not stage money. It was a genuine, $20 bill. I then told them "Anyone who wants this $20 bill can walk forward and take it". But, I said, the person would have to come up and take the money. I was not going to walk out into the audience and simply give the money to anyone.

The reaction fascinates me to this day. There were several minutes of awkward silence. People shifted uneasily in their pews. They looked at one another, smiling hesitantly. There was some slight low murmuring, some nervous laughter. I stood there waving the $20 bill around ... and beginning to get slightly nervous. If no one took the money, the whole homily would fall flat.

Finally, a beautiful little 12- or 13-year-old girl got out her pew, walked forward slowly, introduced herself as "Megan", took the $20 bill, and returned to her place beside her parents, who were beginning to turn slightly red.

Then I asked the folks "What did Megan do to earn the $20? Did she wash my car? Did she mow my lawn? Did she run an errand for me?" To each individual question a couple of voices ventured a low-pitched "Nothing" ... with each question, the momentum grew and more and more voices repeated the word: "Nothing ... nothing ... nothing". Now I had 'em! I asked another question "OK ... she didn't earn the money, but she had to do something to get it, right?" Of course, everyone nodded.

"What did Megan have to do?" I asked. A hand went up. "Yes, sir?" The man replied "She had to trust you enough to come up and take it out of your hand. She had to believe what you said. And, more than just believing your words, she had to believe you." I replied "Right!" I could have high-fived the guy!

The result was amazing. If you've done any teaching or public speaking, one of the most rewarding moments is when you see -- you actually can physically see it -- when you see the light of new insight dawning in someone's eyes ... in this case, a whole sanctuary full of "someones". That dawning is a holy moment.

The people at Mass that day -- many of them, anyway -- went home with an understanding of the important difference between earning salvation and cooperating with it.

And the lesson only cost me $20!


JRC, that's a nice homily, but I don't believe that that's what the Bible teaches. In John 6:44, Jesus says "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day."

More from John 6:35-40
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”

@Michelle: Which of those verses denies the role of human choice? How do you reconcile your interpretation of those texts with, e.g., the story in Acts of ... was it Festus? ... whom Paul "almost" persuaded to be a Christian?


Actually, I think it was Agrippa, not Festus ...


I was raised Catholic for the first few years of my life (by born-again parents who were searching for a church), and was saved at 7 years of age. I attended a Baptist church most of my life and attended a Catholic high school. I was shocked and appalled--first at the 'extra' books in the Bible, a text I had been brought up to believe was perfect in its 66-book incarnation--and then at some of my teachers' assertions (the story of Creation is an allegory? Really?). However, I eventually learned that learning to disagree satisfied my teachers, who often remarked to my parents that I was, ah, 'quite spirited' during discussions...

I must admit though: I am fascinated by the pageantry of the Catholic mass. I have a good friend who is an Episcopal (which seems to be about as Catholic as one can be without actually being Catholic), and I've attended services with them many times. I also enjoy watching the mass held on EWTN. The reverence for our sovereign God can be clearly felt in those observances. The beautiful furnishings, the fabrics and colors for special events--much different from my own church, which meets in a gym! =)

My mom took care of a very devout Catholic lady recently, but she demonstrated the difference between religion and relationship perfectly--she was never certain of her salvation and kept praying the rosary incessantly. I don't know if she ever came to a relationship with the Savior who loved her. It's when we lose sight of our relationship that religion--be it Protestant or Catholic--can become a huge stumbling block. This also takes care of praying to anyone else besides the Trinity; Marian devotion is part of religion. I also believe that visions and 'divine appearances' of Mary may be demons in disguise, meant to lead people astray. That's a whole different topic, though!

Unfortunately, my husband's mother is very anti-Catholic and my husband and I are devout Roman Catholics. In 2006 my husband converted to Catholicism because the Church's doctrine just made so much more sense to him than in the churches in which he was raised. His mother could not have been more irate when he told her of his conversion. Sadly, she refuses to approach conversations with an open mind, but rather, with an antagonistic, argumentative attitude. My husband and I would love to have a mature dialogue with her to answer any of her questions earnestly. But when she does ask questions, it is in a accusatory tone and it's obvious that she is not open to an honest dialogue. I pray for her, for her to one day be open and to be given the ability of understanding, to be able to participate in a mature conversation and to actually listen instead of accusing and then tuning us out when we try to help her understand. We really do have more in common than she will allow herself to admit or see and what a better relationship she might have with her son if only we could focus on the similarities and not place a magnifying glass on the differences. We are all God's children, we are all Christian and Jesus Christ is all our Lord and Savior, and we will all be together eternally in Heaven, so we should try to get along here on earth too while we are here.

Two of the greatest obstacles to finding common ground between Catholics and Protestants are (1) most Catholics don't know what their own Church teaches, and (2) Protestants often take the word of those same I'll-informed and theologically illiterate Catholics about Catholic teaching. Put (1) and (2) together, and you are guaranteed to end up with the blind leading the blind.

Regarding (1), for the better part of 2 millennia, the Catholic laity was along the most uneducated and illiterate people on the planet. This is why stained-glass windows and statuary so predominate, even today, in Catholic church architecture: since people cannot read, the only way to teach them is to have them, quite literally, look at pictures. Only in the last 20-30 years has there begun to develop a practice of adult Catholic religious education.

Regarding (2), a lot of Protestants have a (perhaps unconscious) vested interest in getting miseducated about what the Catholic Church teaches. Protestants are the heirs of 500 years of theological controversy and acrimony, often violent, with Catholics. Consequently, Protestants sometimes have a vested interest in the teachings of the Catholic Church being depicted in as absurd a light as possible, the better to make Protestants' historical adversary look bad. Conversations with ill-educated Catholics are prefect for obtaining bad information for this purpose. The best way to make Catholic teaching look as laughable as possible is to talk to a typical Catholic. If you are a Protestant and if all you know of Catholic teaching is what you learned from average Catholics, then most of what you think you know is probably wrong.

That's why, unless you're talking about conversations between seminary professors, dialogue among lay Catholics and lay Protestants amounts to a mere pooling of shared ignorance.


@Sandra: We really do have more in common than she will allow herself to admit or see and what a better relationship she might have with her son ...

I could have written those words about my own mother. I became a Catholic in 1982. I had been, at various times in the past, a fundamenalist Baptist, then a conservative evangelical Protestant. Then I became a Catholic. (Presently, I am, if labels are necessary, a kind of half-baked Buddhist who believes in God sometimes and other times not. My spirituality now is about as variable as the weather.) Anyway, when I became a Catholic, that alienated me from my mother, who wasn't even happy about my decision to become a non-denominational conservative evangelical Protestant. So when I became a Catholic and started to "worship Mary and the Pope" -- 2 misconceptions she came by courtesy of some of those theologically illiterate Catholics I mentioned earlier -- she was certain I was going to Hell, a sentiment she was more than willing to express to anyone with a working knowledge of the English language. She did everything she could to undermine my Catholic commitment, e.g., trying to get me to eat meat on the meatless Fridays of Lent, etc.

We never reconciled. She died in 2002, no doubt thinking I was still going to Hell. In the end we had no relationship. I did not even attend her funeral.

If that is what the woman you wrote of wants, if that is the kind of alienation she wants between her and her son, then by all means, she should stick to her opposition. Then perhaps her son will take a page from my book and not attend his mother's funeral, either.


Is the difference really semantics or the basis for truth?
From the leaders of the Catholic church come the dogma to which it holds as a religion. Here are a few excepts taken off the site naming the Roman Catholic Church Dogmas http://www.theworkofgod.org/dogmas.htm They are exact quotes from the teaching of the Catholic Church. When I took a correspondence course to find out the doctrine, I was surprised to find these teachings about salvation. Headings are mine.

1.Membership in the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation and other people cannot be saved.

"Membership of the Catholic Church is necessary for all men for salvation."

2. Baptism is necessary for salvation

"The instrumental cause of the first justification is the Sacrament of Baptism. Thus it defines that Faith is a necessary precondition for justification (of adults)."
"Baptism confers the grace of justification."

3. Works are added to faith for salvation

"The justification of an adult is not possible without faith.Besides faith, further acts of disposition must be present"

4. Salvation is lost with every sin committed

"The grace by which we are justified may be lost, and is lost by every grievous sin."

5. Grace comes through sacraments

"The Sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for the salvation of mankind.All the Sacraments of the New Covenant confer sanctifying grace on the receivers."

Decide for yourself if you think someone who believes these truths is a Christian, as defined by the Bible in Eph. 2:8,9 "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,not a result of works, so that no one may boast." Every Vatican Summit has upheld that faith without works is anathema. Christ taught that salvation is through belief on His work not ours.

Thank you for this post and your respectful attitude towards a more ecumenical understanding of the different churches. I am neither Protestant nor Catholic :) I am actually a Coptic Orthodox Christian from Egypt.

I've read the article and previous comments, and I'm quite happy that Christians' attitudes are changing to realize Christ's command to love each other ...

@Jeannie Vogel: I may not agree with all the Roman Catholic Church dogmas, but I would encourage you to research the Bible more before simply criticizing them all with one verse.

And on the debate between FAITH and WORKS which is a major difference between the churches, allow to clarify that of my Church. I think it is also very similar to that of the Catholic Church. It is a balance between these two:
(1) God's grace and salvation
"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Eph. 2: 8-9) and the following verse in the very same chapter of Ephesians:

(2) The role of Works
- "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2: 10)
- "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your[d] works, and I will show you my faith by my[e] works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?" (James 2: 14-20)

Thank you, JRC, for that great example about the $20 in your comment. I would recommend Jeannie Vogel to read it too

God bless you all!!

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