How Do Protestants and Catholics View Each Other in 2017?

How Do Protestants and Catholics View Each Other in 2017? September 5, 2017

Every so often we worship at the Lutheran church down the street from our house instead of driving twelve minutes to the Evangelical Covenant church where we’re members. As we walked those two blocks this past Sunday, we passed some neighbors headed the opposite direction. “Headed to church?”, they asked. “That’s right,” I nodded. “Us too,” they said and turned right, towards the nearby Catholic parish.

It was a typically mundane, innocuous suburban interaction. But during a worship service that included the hymn “We Are All One in Christ” — written by a Lutheran composer who studied chant at St. John’s Abbey — my historian’s mind kept wondering:

When St. Rose of Lima and Roseville Lutheran were founded, about twenty years before Vatican II, would their congregants have been quite so pleasant to each other? Had our paths crossed back then, would we have believed that the other was headed to a truly Christian church? And what of our ancestors back in Europe?

Was my brief encounter with our Catholic neighbors indicative of a historical shift? Five hundred years after the Reformation, how do Protestants and Catholics view each other?

Embed from Getty Images

As it happens, the Pew Research Center has been trying to answer such questions, conducting months of interviews with thousands of Protestants and Catholics in the United States and Western Europe.

To be sure, they found evidence of enduring religious divisions five centuries after Martin Luther’s 95 Theses:

  • In Western Europe, there’s only one country where Protestants or Catholics don’t clearly outnumber the other: the Netherlands, where each tradition claims about 20% of the population but the religiously unaffiliated make up nearly half the Dutch people.
  • Ten countries have majorities representing one side of the Reformation or the other: more than 50% of respondents in Italy, Portugal, Ireland, Austria, France, Spain, and Switzerland identified as Catholic, and only Switzerland had a sizeable Protestant minority (19%); Finland, Denmark, and the UK were the only countries in Western Europe in which most people in the survey identified as Protestant. (Note that Pew treats Anglicans as Protestants. Which is my cue to mention that another recent survey finds that only 15% of Britons identify with the Church of England.)
  • Germany is the one place where Catholics (42%) and Protestants (28%) each account for more than a quarter of the population and neither has a majority.
  • In that country, almost every Protestant knows a Catholic, and vice-versa. But in Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and the countries of Scandinavia, fewer than 60% of Protestants or Catholics even report knowing anyone of the other tradition.

(For this survey, Pew didn’t break down the American religious population by state, but you can check out the maps in the larger Religious Landscape Study to see patterns of Catholic and Protestant identification by region and state. Compare the Northeast and Southwest to the Southeast and Northwest and you’ll certainly see stark differences in relative size of the Catholic population.)

But when Pew asked Protestants and Catholics about the other group, it seemed that the old differences didn’t matter all that much. In Western Europe, vast majorities of Protestants would accept Catholics as family members: 95% or higher in every country with a large Protestant population, save Finland at 85%. Catholics were slightly more likely to disagree with the same question, but the lowest number was still quite high: 76% (Portugal). In the religiously divided country where the Reformation began, 98% of Protestants and 97% of Catholics would welcome members of the other tradition into their families.

Perhaps most significantly, relatively few Americans or Europeans still thought that Catholic and Protestant differences obscured their basic similarities:

“Protestants and Catholics are more similar than they are different”

“Protestants and Catholics are more different than they are similar”

Western Europeans: Countries that are more Protestant than Catholic



Western Europeans: Countries that are more Catholic than Protestant



Americans: White Evangelical



Americans: White Mainline



Americans: Black Protestant



Americans: Catholic



Americans: Religiously unaffiliated



At least in the U.S. survey, some respondents were then asked to explain the similarity or difference in their own words. To explain likeness, most appealed to a shared belief in God (20%), Jesus (18%), or salvation and resurrection (10%). Others referred to common religious practices. Among those who thought the differences were greater, the reasons given were more diffuse. Only beliefs about Mary and the saints (9%) and the pope (7%) were stated by more than 5% of respondents as being the most important difference.

But notably, the figure for soteriology was only 5%. And that seems to fit one of the other big findings of the U.S. survey: most Americans (62%) — including most Protestants (52%) — believe that both faith and good works are necessary for salvation. Only among white evangelicals (67%) did a clear majority affirm sola fide. (In the European survey, 47% of Protestants agreed that faith and works were both necessary for salvation.)

Roseville Lutheran Church
Roseville (MN) Lutheran Church, est. 1942 – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (Chris Gehrz)

Now, when Pew asked respondents to explain in their own words what “determines whether a person will gain eternal life,” most Protestants spoke in some way of faith in or relationship with God (53%). Another 15% emphasized that it was necessary to repent and ask forgiveness of sins, and 3% that salvation was above all a matter for God to determine in his mercy. So we should keep in mind the limitations of a deceptively simple “faith vs. good works” question.

But a significant minority of white mainline Protestants (28%) were almost as likely as Catholics (32%) to state that eternal life is conditional on doing good works in this life. So while those American Protestants were slightly more likely (69%) than their evangelical brethren (67%) to know that it was Martin Luther who inspired the Reformation, it’s less clear how much they know or affirm his actual teachings.

What do we make of this? Should we celebrate a reconciling of religious differences, or lament failures in catechesis? What does the Reformation mean for Protestants and Catholics today? (See two of Tal’s recent books for much more sophisticated thinking on the shifting legacy and memory of the Reformation.)  For that matter, just what does it mean to be Protestant? (“Not Catholic,” said a third of Americans surveyed by Pew — by far the most common open-ended reply to that question.)

We’ve got all fall to debate such questions. For now, I’ll just note one final Pew result: while 85% of atheists know what the Reformation was, only 56% of American Millennials do!

Which might suggest that a certain YouTube video needs to reach an even wider audience than it has so far…

Yes, those are my dulcet tones. The next time I’m tempted to forget that “did we in our own strength confide / our striving would be losing,” someone be so good as to remind me that far more people have heard me singing something set to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” than will ever read one of my books or take one of my classes.

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