Proof's in the Pudding

Michael Metzger

If the proof is in the pudding, you might be surprised to learn which Christian tradition tends to be the most community-oriented.

I grew up in the Midwest in a nominally Episcopalian family. As a young boy, I asked my Dad why we weren’t Catholics. He said it was because Episcopalians drive better cars. So much for my theological education.

As a theological pygmy, I assumed Catholics were not Christians or, if Christians, certainly inferior to Protestants and other Christian traditions. That was reinforced when I came to Christ. An evangelical college ministry was instrumental in my conversion. The subtle message was that few Catholics practice the faith, Protestants do, and evangelicals are most fervent. But numerous surveys indicate otherwise.

I’m not talking about surveys done by Christian organizations. The International Social Survey Program and the World Values Study have studied human behavior in many countries where there are enough Catholics and Protestants to make fair comparisons. The most crucial of the measures were a series of questions in the 1986 International Social Survey Program research on social networks. In a nutshell, Catholics are more community-oriented. Protestants are more individualistic.[1]

These differences play out in all sorts of fascinating ways. Catholics tend to picture society as supportive and not oppressive. They get involved in all sorts of civic organizations. Protestants tend to picture society as oppressive and not supportive. They tend to be less involved, more often cocooning in church groups.

Catholics are more likely to emphasize “fairness” and “equality.” This causes many to think broadly about societal problems like income disparity or social fragmentation. Protestants are more likely to emphasize “freedom” and “individualism.” This causes them to think narrowly about their work as a place for personal advancement.

With the exception of those in Great Britain, Catholics are more likely to advocate for the strengthening of authority and of the family. Protestants are more likely to insist on the importance of sexual fulfillment as a condition for a successful marriage. Yet two representative samples of American married people indicate Catholics have sex more frequently, persist longer in sexual intercourse as one grows older, and have more sexual playfulness than Protestants.

Catholics are more willing to accept political extremes of either the left or the right into their neighborhoods. Protestants less so. With the exception of Australia, Catholics are also more willing to accept those with drinking and emotional problems (which might be due to alcoholism being a more acute problem than in the countries surveyed).

Modern empirical social science has, for over a century, observed a shift in Western societies. The consensus has been that Westerners, particularly Americans, are becoming more individualistic. However, recent studies indicate the trend is more complex, uneven, and multidimensional than we assume it to be. While the erosion of communalism is widespread, it’s less so in Catholicism. What accounts for the residual strength of the supposedly outmoded Catholic social ethic?

An emphasis on the imagination. The Catholic tradition places great weight on metaphor and imagination. Protestants stress information (worldviews, concepts, etc.). Catholics believe behaviors are anchored in our imagination early in the socialization process and provide patterns that shape the rest of life. These patterns are encoded in collective, sacramental practices—congregational prayers, the Eucharist—even if buried in the sub-conscious. Since 95 percent of our behaviors are sub-conscious, collective practices largely account for Catholics being more community-minded than Protestants.

I’m not suggesting that everyone convert to Catholicism. Jesus chided the Pharisees for claiming to believe in things they didn’t actually do. Americans are famous for saying they believe in community. But the surveys indicate Catholics are more communal than Protestants. Since the proof is in the pudding, Protestants would be well served to learn from the Catholic tradition that practices community as much as it preaches it.


[1] These statistics are cited in Andrew Greeley’s The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 55-133.


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  1. Mike,
    I grew up Catholic; my wife grew up Evangelical.

    In my early 20s it was an Evangelical that opened my understanding how I can personally know God. I could have and should have learned this from my father, but that’s another story.

    Finding and attending a Protestant church with the right creed and doctrine became primary.

    After 20 years, I was done. I felt lied to. What I really wanted was to love my neighbor and 20 years of participating as an Evangelical didn’t help with that.

    We joined a home fellowship. It has been God’s instrument for meeting my needs as a husband and a father. It’s been a surrogate for missing out on a proper family upbringing.

    My wife wanted more.

    She needs “big church”. I love her needs; they are sacred.

    If we were going to do “big church” it had to be in the neighborhood. There’s 8 of them. We chose one. The doctrine and people were great. But the pastor lived 45 minutes away. Most members lived more than 20 minutes away. No one was from the neighborhood.

    In my disappointment of a neighborhood church with no neighbors, my wife recommended we try the Catholic Church.
    Whenever my family came to town, we would attend Mass with them at the closest Catholic Church (two stop signs away). My wife always liked the Mass.

    We were re-married there on the exact date of our 11th anniversary with three sons in tow. It was rich. It was fulfilling. And it was anchored in a community of our neighbors. The honey moon was great too!

    My disagreements with some aspect of Catholicism hasn’t changed. What changed was my desire and capacity to put loving my neighbor as primary. And I am teaching my sons that they can know God personally, and sometimes, I use the Mass to help them understand that.

  2. Great Article Mike!

    I especially love the part about imagination. I’ve made it my personal goal as a father to teach my children about the importance of imagination. In fact, if you were to ask my oldest daughter, “what makes you beautiful?” she would tell you her imagination.

  3. Mike…

    Thought-provoking article…per usual.

    One Question: Can you define “imagination” as you use it above? In my mind “concept” is closely related to the imagination. I believe most definitions of the word include “concept.”

    Seeking to understand …


  4. Brian:

    “Concept” comes from the same root as “conceit.” A concept is the conceit that we can actively construct or conceptualize far than finite human beings can. Concept is the opposite of perception, or imagination, which is receptive (passive; not active). Imagination receives, as in Mary, learning she is pregnant yet a virgin, asking the angel to “widen her imagination” (Louise Cowan’s phrase). She’s not seeking a “concept” of what is going on.

  5. Also, note C. S. Lewis’ distinction between imagination and reason. Imagination is the locus of meaning; reason the locus of facts. Concepts deal with facts and are the products of reason. Not bad. Just not imagination.

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