Talking Past Each Other

Talking Past Each Other

I’m told that a piece that I wrote recently for The Christian Century has caused a little bit of a stir. Apparently some of the anti-Catholic bloggers have latched onto this as yet another example of evangelicals getting too cozy with Catholicism.

My topic in that article is prayers to the saints, and I use an example of a dialogue I had with a Catholic theologian to show that we often talk past each other on important topics where we disagree. The question of praying to the saints is a case in point: I argue that we evangelicals quickly zero in on questions about salvation, while our Catholic friends are thinking primarily about the communion of the saints. My article is accessible online at

I’ll offer another example here of the same pattern of talking past each other. I was once involved in a Catholic-evangelical dialogue where we invited two Hispanic pastors, one a priest and one a Pentecostal, to talk about tensions in their local community. The Pentecostal pastor told the priest that he had recently attended a funeral mass at which the priest had presided. A young man from a Pentecostal family was involved in gang activity, and one of his gang members had been killed; the pastor attended the service in support of the young man from his church. “I was upset that you did not preach the gospel,” he told the priest. “You had dozens of young gang members there, and you simply went through your liturgy without inviting them to get right with God.” The priest responded that using funerals as evangelistic events was not the Catholic approach. “We want to show them how we as a church community go about processing the issues of grief, of dealing with the issues of life and death in our worshipping practices.”

The difference was clear in that exchange. The evangelical wanted the priest to preach salvation. The priest wanted to expose the gang members to the fellowship of the saints. This is the point that I make using technical terms: where evangelicals think soteriology, Catholics tend to think ecclesiology—and so we proceed to talk past each other.

The argument between the two Hispanic pastors got heated, but toward the end the mood changed. The priest said to the Pentecostal that he had to admit that he did miss an important opportunity: in retrospect, he said, he wished that he had used his homily as an opportunity to call the gang members to commit their lives to Christ. Then the Pentecostal pastor responded: “I have to say that I did appreciate the dignity of your liturgy. There was something comforting and reassuring about the rituals in that service. I wish we Pentecostals had a little more of that kind of thing!”

I found that exchange very illuminating. There are very real differences between us. It isn’t all simply talking past each other. But there is a strong element of that, and when we recognize that element, it becomes possible to narrow the gap and get at the real issues.


  1. Whether or not praying to (or rather, praying with) the saints leads toward idolatry or is beneficial, it doesn’t have much basis in scripture, so, as a Protestant I feel that my disagreement with Catholics (and Orthodox) on this point has mostly to do with the fact that they put more trust in the traditions of the church than I do. To me, expecting Christians who have already died to be able to read your thoughts when you are mentally invoking them assumes a more thorough understanding of the state of saints in the afterlife than is supported by scripture.

    So, anyway, I guess another important point for dialogue between Protestants and Catholics (and Orthodox) is how to evaluate the traditions of the church.

    Comment by Virgie — May 23, 2007 @ 1:37 pm

  2. Amen, brother! Thanks for your humility, clear thinking and challenging words.

    Comment by Dan — May 23, 2007 @ 7:21 pm

  3. Dr. Mouw,

    One question in regard to the article that you offered the link to:

    You state that you are “not ready to start talking with Christians who have already gone on to heaven.” And I understand that being a Protestant myself. However I have found that it is not uncommon that Christian widows carry on long conversations with their spouses. In fact I often find myself in conversations with my father who passed on years ago. Now here is the question, is this the same as praying to a saint? Does it pose a theological problem if I sometimes ask my dad to intercede on my behalf? He did while on earth. This sort of conversation seems to me almost instinctual. Any thoughts.


    Comment by Brian — May 24, 2007 @ 6:48 am

  4. […] Good words from Mouw on why and how Catholics and Evangelicals misunderstand each other: “where evangelicals think soteriology, Catholics tend to think ecclesiology—and so we proceed to talk past each other.” […]

    Pingback by The Boar’s Head Tavern » — May 24, 2007 @ 1:23 pm

  5. Well, I wondered if that would happen. It was a good article Dr. Mouw. Some very good points that I’m sure will be helpful for quite a few people. I happened upon it in the blogosphere, linked to it and commented further on the subject. Thanks for being brave and putting those thoughts out there. Peace to you.

    Comment by + Alan — May 24, 2007 @ 1:50 pm

  6. Greetings in Jesus!

    Dr. Mouw,

    This is a little off subjest but have you any thoughts you wish to express regarding Francis J. Beckwith’s return to the roman Catholic Church?

    Seems to have brought quite a noise in the Protestant Reformed academic circles.

    Comment by Terry Starks — May 24, 2007 @ 10:10 pm

  7. I have to wonder what your Catholic friend would think of this approach, because it seems to me that often when Catholics are thinking ecclesiology, they are at teh same time thinking soteriology, because they won’t make the sharp division between the two that you do above.

    Comment by Russ — May 28, 2007 @ 3:49 pm

  8. This quote from Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith (sec. 24) offers one cogent explanation for why evangelicals and Catholics seem to talk past each other:
    “Protestantism makes the individual’s relation to the Church dependent on his relation to Christ, while Catholicism contrariwise makes the individual’s relation to Christ dependent on his relation to the Church.”

    Comment by Edward Kim — May 30, 2007 @ 11:53 pm

  9. […] picture even clearer when those who read the piece began to take him apart over its assertion. He wades back in to clarify with another illustration.  I appreciated the attempt to help paint an even clearer picture.  I was left thinking […]

    Pingback by Listening Past Each Other … Keeps us Talking Past Each Other … When Talking Heads Get in the Way … | The Edge of the Inside — October 5, 2010 @ 8:37 am