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Exploring the Different Languages of Catholics and Protestants


The Coming Catholic Church

The innate differences between Catholics and Protestants
are shaping attitudes about Catholicism in America today.

There have been few times in history when the future of the Catholic Church has been more hotly debated. After two years of intense scrutiny into inappropriate sexual behavior, lawsuits by former parishioners and allegations of a church cover-up, the viability of the church, especially for a new generation, is unclear.

“The danger of losing young people is greater than ever,” said David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003). Paraphrasing University of Notre Dame historian John McGreevey, Gibson added that “over-40 Catholics are defined by the Second Vatican Council, while under-40 Catholics are defined by the sex abuse scandal.”

Gibson and Mark Massa, S.J., professor of theology and co-director of the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, discussed the future of the church as part of a May 28 symposium in the McNally Amphitheatre on the Lincoln Center campus.

To understand where the church is headed, it’s important to understand its history and how Catholicism is viewed in society. Anti-Catholic rhetoric and suspicion of Catholic practices have long been a part of the American fabric, said Father Massa, but it has been re-energized of late by media coverage of the church sex scandal and in movies such as Dogma and Elizabeth.

“Mainstream media is the new cultural location for Catholic hostility,” said Father Massa, author of Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003). “It’s a new manifestation of the old mistrust of Catholics.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that the beliefs of Catholics and Protestants are rooted in diametrically opposed conceptual languages—analogical language for Catholics and dialectical language for Protestants.

Referencing the work of David Tracy, author of The Analogical Imagination (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000), Massa said Catholics use analogies to explain what they can’t understand—for instance, using manmade objects such as bread and wine to represent God. Although analogical imagination inspires a “vibrant sense of communal cohesion and loyalty, the rights of the individual may be devalued in favor of the community,” said Father Massa.

This runs counter to the core Protestant belief that created things are separate from God and that it is sinful to use them to represent God. Further, individual rights are central to dialectical language, as is the right to question social institutions.

The church sex abuse scandal can be viewed as an extreme manifestation of the analogical community-over-individual principle. In the eyes of many Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the loyalty of church leaders to the institution won out over the rights and protections of individuals.

“The unchecked loyalty, lack of accountability and secrecy represent the legitimate fears of Protestants,” said Father Massa. “An over-trusting community can become too trusting, and the Catholic community can learn a thing or two from Protestants in that regard.”

That’s not to discount the value of analogical language. The totalistic Christian view, according to Father Massa, is that both are necessary.

“The accountability of dialectical language must balance the loyalty of analogical language,” he said, and Catholics must overcome a long history of passivity. “It’s not disloyal for Catholics to expect church leaders to be accountable. The pope is not the church, the bishops are not the church. We are all the church, and Catholics have a duty to demand accountability.”

While these issues can be difficult and at times painful to confront, such debate is necessary to move forward, according to Gibson, and to lay the groundwork for the church to come.

“In a time of ferment and turmoil, it’s great to have a gathering like this,” he said. “The Second Vatican Council didn’t spring up out of nowhere. We have to prepare the ground, and this is part of that tilling of the soil.”

— Suzanne Stevens

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