The Protestant Cafeteria and the Catholic Steakhouse: A Parable of Paradigms



When learning of someone considering entering the Catholic Church, some Protestants will compare their list of beliefs with the Catholics as if to say, “Look, we’re much closer than you think – you can get a lot of what you’re looking for here!” Some even use doctrinal, moral, or aesthetic similarities as a reason not to become Catholic (after all, if you can have A,B, and C without X,Y, and Z, then why not?).

The issue that many (on either side) do not understand is that framing the issue in this way implicitly applies the Protestant paradigm to a question about Catholicism, resulting in confusion.

The Protestant Cafeteria

The Protestant paradigm can be compared to dining in a cafeteria. A lot of different food is available, and one’s meal ends up being a collection of whatever foods suits their tastes at the time. At one extreme you have those who have given up most rich food and only eat things they define as healthy, at the other you have those who will eat practically anything. There may be some food one thinks is objectively bad to eat, but virtually any combination is acceptable otherwise, and most differences do not amount to much. The mere fact that everyone is in the same cafeteria is enough to ground a sense of unity.

In this analogy, food choice can be compared to the doctrines and practices of various Christian groups. At one end of the Protestant spectrum you have, say, Fundamentalist Baptists who have eschewed nearly everything the historic Catholic Church affirms and reduced their religious practices to reading the Bible and singing hymns. At the other end you maybe have high church Anglicans who are only a few degrees away from practicing a complete Catholic mass. What they all have in common, though, is the cafeteria mentality: what ends up on the plate is ultimately up to the individual.

The Catholic Steakhouse

To extend the analogy, the Catholic meal is more like what one is served at a fine steakhouse. There one chooses from a limited menu, but trusts that one’s plate will contain excellently prepared food in appropriate measures. There are options, of course – and personal taste still enters in to some degree, but there is nothing like the choices available in the food line at the cafeteria. Further, the food costs a lot more at the steakhouse!

The Catholic Church is made up of a rich theological history that has, over the centuries, solidified into a fairly rigid (if deep and wide) set of doctrines and practices. one cannot, therefore, “church shop” as a Catholic – at least not in the same way a Protestant can. Catholics do not have hundreds of “Confessions” or “Doctrinal Statements” to choose between – we have the Nicene Creed. Protestant services can vary from a simple prayer meeting to a full-blown rock concert to a service that rivals the most traditional of Catholic Masses – and while Catholic parishes have a certain amount of leeway when it comes to Mass presentations (too much, if you ask many Catholics!), there are rubrics and liturgical rules that are to be followed. What all Catholic Churches have in common, though, is the sacramental reality that is behind its doctrines and practices that is lacking in most Protestant versions.


The Trade Off

One who is used to the cafeteria dining experience may look through the window into the steakhouse and not see very much difference – certainly not enough to warrant the high costs. Such a person might think it insane to pay $100 for a comparatively small cut of steak and a single potato when he can get a pile of steaks and potatoes for pocket change at the caf. Further, such a person might be appalled at the lack of choices offered by the steakhouse. Where are the muffins, candy, sandwiches, and condiment packets? Why would anyone give up so much to get what they could (nearly) have for so little?

What discriminate diners can agree upon is that what they are eating is simply not the same thing. The steak one gets at a cafeteria is likely to be as far removed from the steak at the steakhouse as are the caf’s hot dogs. Though both are labelled “steak” – they remain essentially distinct. One who is truly desirous of a steak is not going to be satisfied with the cafeteria variety. Ironically, for both the cafeteria and steakhouse clients, the quality of the food is worth its price and selection – what counts is what is desired.

In a similar way, the doctrines and practices of some Protestant groups may seem to rival (perhaps even surpass) that of the Catholic Church. In this analogy, though. it is the sacramental reality offered by the Catholic Church that comes into play – not simply its outward appearance. Despite the many material similarities Protestant services may share with the Catholic, the formal reality is much different. If one desires the Eucharist, for example, one will not find it in the bread/wafers/crackers offered by Protestant groups regardless of the name attached to them.

At the end of the day, the surface similarities between the most “Catholic” of Protestant groups and the true Catholic Church remain, in reality, essential differences. What is being offered is simply not the same thing.


When people enter the Catholic Church for legitimate reasons, it is not because they have surveyed all the Christian groups and found that Catholicism most closely matches their particular doctrinal or practical tastes. Stained glass windows, candles, Trinitarian theology, chant, missions, inspiring architecture, vestments, philosophy . . . all of these things can and have been adopted by non-Catholic groups. But the Catholic is not simply compiling a particular collection of practices and doctrines – he is looking for the Church which Christ established and the sacramental reality it offers.

That is why, in the end, comparing (however favorably) the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church to even its closest Protestant mimic is not enticing to those who desire the reality that undergirds them.

*This analogy illustrates an paridigmatic perspective that is often confused between Catholics and Protestants – and as such, it should not be taken to perfectly represent Catholicism (which has more than its fair share of “cafeteria believers”) or Protestantism in every particular. The Catholic Church in fact recognizes the sacramental reality behind some practices that Protestants retained from the historic Catholic Church, and its non-unique Christian theology was established long before the Reformation (note, though, that even when certain doctrines or practices point to the same objective reality, their appropriation is often illegitimate because they are not truly faith-based). It is only the distinct overall approaches (which, sadly, often overlap) that I wish to illustrate here.


One thought on “The Protestant Cafeteria and the Catholic Steakhouse: A Parable of Paradigms

  1. not as well argued as most of your posts…your presuppositions are showing…as a believer raised Lutheran with Catholic family members with which to discuss for hours the differences and similarities, then becoming a member and ordained elder in the Presbyterian church, attending an evangelical seminary (with you and your bride), I got dunked and became a Baptist…I have carefully studied and explored the cafeteria and compared/contrasted it with your steakhouse…I have engaged with charismatic and evangelical Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Copts, and the various Catholic orders (Benedictine, Franciscan, Jesuit)…not an exhaustive or complete theological study, but there is more unity than division in most faiths in the pantheon of Christendom…I see it more as both/and than either/or…some of the more dogmatic may be surprised who they find in heaven! Love you, Brother!

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