“Too catholic to be Catholic?” A Response to Peter LeithartMay 24th, 2012 | By Matt Yonke | Category: Blog Posts
Dr. Peter J. Leithart, fellow at New St. Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, recently posted an article at his blog that has caught the attention of many who participate in the ongoing Protestant-Catholic dialog. Last year Leithart faced disciplinary charges before the PCA for his Federal Vision theology, though he was subsequently acquitted. His writing in journals such as First Things and Touchstone have earned him a reputation as an ecumenical figure — a dirty word in some Reformed circles where it’s taken as a synonym for compromise. His recent article, titled “Too catholic to be Catholic,” is a response to this criticism, and to the assertion by some that his ecumenical attitude helped them down the road to conversion away from Protestantism, and toward either Orthodoxy or Catholicism. In this article he seeks to explain why he remains Protestant, and why he thinks Protestants should remain Protestant.
“Too catholic to be Catholic”
Leithart begins his explanation by expressing his desire for church unity, and laments the divisions that separate Christians. He says that our response to such divisions “should be deep mourning and repentance.” And Catholics can agree that these divisions ought to provoke us to sorrow, to self-examination for any way in which we contribute to their perpetuation, and to a commitment never to abandon the effort to be instruments of Catholic-Protestant reconciliation, through our prayers and our effort to engage in good faith dialogue. So far, so good.
His defense against the charge of leading others away from Protestantism — and his own stated reason for remaining Protestant despite his respect for many in the Apostolic Churches — is his “reformed catholicity,” a term he does not directly or explicitly define. His reformed catholicity, he claims, is not in conflict with his long-standing desire for unity among Christians. On the contrary, claims Leithart, he is “too catholic to be Catholic.”
Before explaining what he means by that, he makes clear to his audience that he does indeed hold to the distinctly Protestant objections to Orthodoxy and Catholicism, listing some Catholic teachings with which he disagrees. But he says those are not the “primary driving reasons that keep me Protestant.” What he means by “I’m too catholic to become Catholic” is made clearer by his explanation that becoming Catholic would require him to do or believe four things.
1. It would require him to start going to a “Eucharistic table” where his Protestant friends are not “welcome.”
2. It would require him to believe that Protestants are “living a sub-Christian existence” by their lack of apostolic succession.
3. It would require accepting that he is not presently ordained.
4. It would require him to believe that Protestants are “separated brethren.”
Becoming Catholic would require him to believe that Protestantism as such is wrong about the relation of apostolic succession to the Eucharist, and the visibility and identity of the Catholic Church as the Church Christ founded. It would require him to believe that Protestants as such by not being in full communion with the Catholic Church are deprived of certain gifts Christ established in His Church. And Leithart does not believe those things. He is more catholic than Catholics, in his opinion, because he considers all Christians, or at least all baptized Christians, or at least all Trinitarian baptized Christians, or at least all baptized Trinitarian Chalcedonian Nicene Creed-affirming Christians, to be fully incorporated into the Church. And therefore what belongs to ‘catholicity,’ for Leithart, are only the beliefs and practices all those Christians have in common. This turns out to be a smaller set of doctrines than taught by the Catholic Church. Hence, what he means by claiming to be “too catholic to be Catholic” amounts to this: he believes that the essentials of the faith are nothing more than what all baptized Trinitarian Chalcedonian Nicene Creed-affirming Christians have in common.
Boundaries of the Table
For Dr. Leithart, it seems that the question fundamentally centers around table fellowship. Because Protestants are not permitted to receive from the altars of the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Churches, those tables are deemed “less catholic” than his own table where he openly states that Catholics and Orthodox are welcome to partake.1
However, closed communion is and has always been the catholic practice, the universal practice of the Church universal. St. Justin Martyr (d. AD 165) explained that before receiving the Eucharist, a person not only needed to be baptized, but also had to assent to the Catholic teaching. He writes:
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. …
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. ( First Apology, 65, 66)
The early Church would not even allow Catholics in open mortal sin to receive the Eucharist, let alone allow heretics to do so.2 A fortiori, heretics were excluded, until they repented of their heresy. Even the early Protestants fenced the table from Protestants of other traditions. The practice of an open communion table is a relatively recent phenomenon arising in Protestant revivalism and Evangelicalism. It is Leithart’s ‘open-communion’ practice, therefore, that is not catholic, because it has never been the practice of the universal Church.
Why does the Catholic Church not allow Protestants to receive the Eucharist? The Eucharist is not offered to non-Catholics because the Eucharist is a sign of our Catholic unity (CCC 1323, 1325, 1398). St. Paul teaches this when he writes, “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor 10:17) If we were to extend the Eucharist to those who are in heresy or schism from us, we would in that respect make the Eucharist into a lie. As Pope John Paul II wrote:
Precisely because the Church’s unity, which the Eucharist brings about through the Lord’s sacrifice and by communion in his body and blood, absolutely requires full communion in the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical governance, it is not possible to celebrate together the same Eucharistic liturgy until those bonds are fully re-established. Any such concelebration would not be a valid means, and might well prove instead to be an obstacle, to the attainment of full communion, by weakening the sense of how far we remain from this goal and by introducing or exacerbating ambiguities with regard to one or another truth of the faith. The path towards full unity can only be undertaken in truth. In this area, the prohibitions of Church law leave no room for uncertainty, in fidelity to the moral norm laid down by the Second Vatican Council. (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 44)
For the Eucharist rightly to signify our true and full union in Christ’s Body, the Church ordinarily offers the Eucharist only to those in full communion with her, not to those remaining in heresy or schism from her. Even the exception provided in canon law allowing Protestants to receive the Eucharist when there is grave necessity requires that the Protestant manifests “Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments.” In other words, the Protestant in such a case must believe what the Catholic Church teaches about the sacraments.3 As the Holy Spirit by St. Paul admonishes, we are to “discern the body” (1 Cor 11:29), lest we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves. So because Protestants [typically] do not discern the Real Presence (Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity) of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church has an obligation to protect them from sinning in receiving the Eucharist without discerning what it actually is. Finally, because the Church has definitively decreed certain things about the Eucharist (cf. Trent, Session 13), it is necessary to believe and not to deny those things, in order for us to be in unity regarding the Eucharist, having “one faith,” so that our participation in the Eucharist is a true sign of our unity in the “one faith” of the Church. What Leithart proposes, in calling for the Catholic Church to allow Protestants to receive the Eucharist, is a call to repudiate the meaning of the Eucharist, by allowing those who publicly reject or deny the Real Presence and the Catholic teaching regarding the Eucharist, to partake with us.
Leithart appeals to St. Paul’s account in the epistle to the Galatians of St. Peter withdrawing from eating with the Christian Gentiles in Antioch, as a reason why the Catholic Church should not close the Eucharist to Protestants. He writes:
Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles?
Leithart’s objection here presupposes that the Gentile Christians of Antioch were ecclesially related to the Jewish Christians, the way Protestants are ecclesially related to Catholics. But that presupposition is precisely the ecclesial question in dispute, since Leithart treats as a ‘branch’ what in Catholic ecclesiology is nothing less than a schism from the Church.4 Leithart believes that Catholics and Protestants are merely different branches of the same tree. But the Catholic Church teaches that Christ founded a visible catholic Church, and that not only is it possible to be in schism from that visible catholic Church, but that Protestants are in fact in schism from that visible catholic Church, by refusing submission to the successor of St. Peter and all the bishops in communion with him.5 The Gentile believers in Antioch, by contrast, were fully incorporated into the Church, not refusing submission to St. Peter and the other Apostles.
Regarding Leithart’s objection to the Catholic practice of closed communion, Katie Plato, a former Baptist who recently became Catholic, says this:
Why would Dr. Leithart and other Protestants who are offended at the exclusive nature of the Catholic Mass want to participate? They don’t believe in the Sacrifice of the Mass or the Real Presence. When the Eucharist is offered in Mass, why cry foul at not being able to participate in something you don’t believe in? The blog post appealed to the emotion of feeling excluded, but the debate truly lies in the nature of the Eucharist; and Catholics and Protestants have very different ideas. Christianity, by nature, is exclusive. Dr. Leithart would agree. Not everyone should be able to participate in the Eucharist, one has to ascribe to a certain set of beliefs, something Dr. Leithart’s denomination practices as well. Most denominations have some sort of criteria for partaking in the Lord’s Supper. Dr. Leithart makes it sound like the Catholic Church stands alone and is mean and unjust for “denying access to the table of my Lord.” Phrases such as “sub-Christian,” used in this context, incite emotion and give the impression that this is what the Catholic Church teaches, which is unfair rhetoric. The debate should not lie in who is excluding whom (because we all do it), but rather in what the Eucharist is.
In Mass, it is not just the table of my Lord, but the Body of my Lord. Catholics have offered the Sacrifice of the Mass for over 2000 years, since Jesus Christ instituted it at the Last Supper. It is the same now as it was back in the time of the apostles and early Church Fathers. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of the Apostle John, states: “They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which, in His goodness, the Father raised from the dead. Therefore, those who argue against the gift of God will die in their disputes.” The burden of proof does not lie with the Catholic, but with the Protestant, who 1500 years later, adopted a new definition of the Eucharist. It is unfair of Dr. Leithart to accuse Catholics of “distancing themselves from other Christians,” and then claim to be “more Catholic.” He is using novel definitions of both the words “Catholic” and “Eucharist,” and is trying to make them mean something different than they have traditionally meant. (“Schism and the Eucharist.”)
Dr. Leithart’s claim to greater catholicity in his policy of open communion ignores the fact that for Catholic or Orthodox Christians to partake of the Eucharist in his community would be a grave sin for them. He is openly inviting Catholics and Orthodox to disobey their own pastors and renounce fundamental tenets of their faith for his own vision of greater catholicity. This would in theory be a just call if he believed and taught that his denomination is the one true Church that Christ Himself founded and apart from which no one can be saved. But he doesn’t claim that. He believes the Presbyterian Church in America, of which he is a member, and the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC) in which he serves, are simply two of many branches of a visibly divided catholic Church, each branch teaching error to some varying degree.
In that environment, how can he call for other Christians to forsake their camp for his? The Catholic Church can call all Christians and all men to partake at her altar and forsake all others precisely and only because she makes the audacious claim that she is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded, not a branch of a once visible but now divided Church.
In fact, for the ancient Church, the very purpose of orthodoxy was the protection of the Sacred Mysteries. Who could and could not receive at the Lord’s table was determined by who did and did not confess the faith once delivered by the Apostles. When doctrinal controversies broke out, what was at stake was who was and was not the Church. For example, when the Arians were declared heretics, there was no practice of intercommunion because of some greater vision of catholicity with them. Far from it! They were excommunicated, that is, they quite literally could not receive Holy Communion. So today, to receive communion in the Catholic Church, one cannot be a confessing heretic. To do so would be a grave sin.
One must wonder, if Dr. Leithart is willing to commune persons he refers to as liturgical idolaters, those who muzzle the grace of God, those who distract from the one true Mediator, Jesus Christ, what would he do with an Arian? What do the boundaries of orthodoxy mean if not the boundaries of table fellowship? But this is precisely the problem that the heretical minister has found himself in since the beginning – if he claims a closed table for himself he will find it so small as to make an unconvincing argument for his being the, or a part of the, universal Church. So he opens wide the doors to all and sundry “in good standing with a local church.” That way his position looks catholic. But despite the appearances of universality due to the number of people to whom he opens the table, that table is not one, is not holy and is not Apostolic since it has departed from the Church and the altar Christ founded.
The question of whose table is the table of the Lord must be answered by objective, authoritative and non-arbitrary standards for what is catholic and what is not. But Leithart does not provide that standard. His co-pastor at Trinity Reformed Church, Toby Sumpter, argues elsewhere that the table is Jesus’ table and any human limitations on it are man-made and pharisaical because only Jesus can make the rules about His table. But this argument works only if one does not stop to ask what is the principled standard for catholicity such that it is not contrary to catholicity to exclude Arians, Sabellians, Nestorians, or Monophysites from the Eucharist, but it is contrary to catholicity to exclude Protestants. It only works if one does not stop to ask what if Jesus did set up rules for His table and those rules are the rules enforced by the Catholic Church today. The argument Leithart puts forward here is formally identical to what a liberal Presbyterian female pastor might make to admit a practicing homosexual couple to the Lord’s table. It construes the Church’s rules regarding the table as too restricting, by disregarding the authority by which those rules are made, and replacing them with its own opinion regarding who should be allowed to the table.
Ad hoc catholicity
Leithart’s claim to be “too catholic to be Catholic” because his table is open to more people presupposes the truth of the Protestant rejection of both apostolic succession and the essential visible unity of the Church Christ founded. If apostolic succession is essential both for ordination and for the Eucharist, and if the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded and established with a divinely authorized magisterium, then Leithart should believe and do the four things he lists. Only if apostolic succession is unnecessary for the Eucharist, and the Catholic Church is not the Church Christ founded, are those four things good reasons not to be Catholic. So what Leithart means, in part, by “I’m too catholic to be Catholic,” is that he is too Protestant to be Catholic; he is not providing any objective criterion or evidence showing that the Catholic Church lacks ‘catholicity.’ But he is using the term ‘catholicity’ as if he is appealing to an objective standard to critique the Catholic Church, not as though he is merely saying that he doesn’t agree with certain Catholic doctrines. The astute reader must see through the rhetoric.
Any heretic could excise genuinely catholic doctrines, and then claim that only the remaining doctrines are truly catholic, and that by teaching the other doctrines the Catholic Church is going beyond ‘catholicity.’ Because anyone can co-opt the term ‘catholicity’ for himself, and reject any particular doctrine by claiming that he is “too catholic” for that particular doctrine, the appeal to ‘catholicity’ as a basis for not being Catholic requires an objective, authoritative and non-arbitrary standard for what is catholic and what is not. Otherwise, if one appeals to ‘catholicity’ as defined by which doctrines one accepts or rejects, one is engaged only in self-serving rhetoric. But Leithart does not provide that standard for ‘catholicity.’ He never provides that standard because he cannot do so; without a magisterium there is no non-arbitrary way of objectively determining what is catholic and what is not, what is orthodox and what is not, which Church decisions are binding, and which are not, which elements of Tradition are authoritative, and which are not, who is in the Church and who is not.6 The one objecting to Catholic catholicity has to substitute himself for the magisterium, and use his own stipulated definition of ‘catholicity,’ hoping that no one notices. But informed people do. See Orthodox priest Fr. Andrew Damick’s reply to Leithart titled “Too catholic to be Catholic: Communion with Idolators?,” and see Missouri Synod Lutheran Chris Jones’ reply to Leithart here.7
Leithart arbitrarily excludes certain doctrines and practices that belong to the fullness of the Catholic faith, such as communion of saints, apostolic succession, distinction of bishop and presbyter, justification by infusion of agape, Eucharist as sacrifice, veneration of icons, etc. He treats all these as non-catholic accretions, rather than as catholic beliefs or authentic catholic developments, and in doing so he implicitly presupposes ecclesial deism.8 But he provides no evidence that these are not catholic doctrines. Regarding the four things he would have to do to become Catholic, Leithart claims that believing that Reformed persons are in error in these four respects is incompatible with catholicity. But for Leithart, believing that Catholics are in error on these four points is perfectly compatible with catholicity. As noted above, “I’m too catholic to be Catholic” turns out to mean “I’m too Protestant to be Catholic,” and that’s no reason to be Protestant, or Catholic.
If Leithart were in fact a heretic denying actual catholic doctrines taught by the holy Catholic Church Christ founded, everything would look exactly as it in fact does. So Leithart’s claim that apostolic succession, communion of saints, veneration of icons, adoring the Host, etc. are not “catholic” is no reason to believe that they are not catholic, because it provides no reason to believe his paradigm (i.e. that all these are accretions) over the Catholic paradigm, according to which by denying Catholic distinctives Leithart is denying genuinely catholic doctrines. Leithart provides no principled basis for determining which beliefs and practices are or are not ‘catholic.’ The reader is left needing to choose between Leithart’s opinion regarding which doctrines and practices are ‘catholic,’ and the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding which doctrines and practices are catholic.
Ordination and Separated Brethren
Just as with access to the Eucharistic table, it is unacceptable to Dr. Leithart that ordinations performed by sincere Christians should be invalid. But this objection seems largely personal. He cannot imagine his ordination to be invalid or that he may never have presided over a valid Eucharist. But the question should not be whether it is imaginable or conceivable that one’s ordination is invalid, but rather what is the authoritative basis for determining objectively and without special pleading whether one’s ordination is valid or invalid?
What difference does that make, exactly?
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the Catholic Church is right and Leithart is wrong: how would he know? What would be different? Leithart seems to be using his own [fallen] reason to infer from his personal experience that the presence among his fellow Protestants of genuine faith in Christ, implies that they do not need to believe any uniquely Catholic doctrines in order to participate in the Eucharist, and that therefore these Catholic distinctives are superfluous. He infers that Protestants cannot be “separated brethren” because they truly have faith in Christ. If, however, separated brethren can truly have faith in Christ, then it does not follow that Protestants are not “separated brethren,” and that belief in the Catholic distinctives is unnecessary for legitimate participation in the Eucharist. In other words, if “separated brethren” can and do truly have faith in Christ, but more than faith in Christ is needed for rightly receiving the Eucharist, then the presence of faith in Christ among Protestants is no evidence at all that Protestants should be admitted as such to the Catholic Eucharist.
Similarly, how would he know if he were not validly ordained? Does he think he that invalidly ordained people feel the absence of ordination when they attempt to consecrate the bread and wine? In other words, does he think an invalid ordination is self-evident to one who is invalidly ordained? If not, then what are the objective and ‘catholic’ criteria for distinguishing a valid ordination from an invalid one? Again, Leithart’s argument regarding his ordination is formally equivalent to that of a liberal female Presbyterian who says, “I’m more catholic than Catholics, because they won’t recognize my ordination.”9 When he denies that Protestantism is less than complete Christianity, he seems to be using his personal experience with other Protestants to infer by way of human reason that no more grace is available within the Catholic Church than when separated from her, and that therefore Protestants do not need to return to the Catholic Church, because they are not missing any grace by remaining separate. This experiential criterion of doctrine is a form of rationalism, because it treats human reason, rather than the divine authority of the revelation of Christ mediated to us through the Church, as the final arbiter regarding what is orthodox and what is heretical.
Finally, when he says: “Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that,” the answer should be this: “When one discovers that other Christians with whom one is presently associated are in heresy or schism from the Church, one should leave that heresy or schism. Doing so has as a foreseen but unintended consequence that one distances oneself from those Christians in that respect. In this situation, distancing oneself from an ecclesial community that is in heresy or schism is the way to embrace the greater good of being in full communion with the Church that Christ founded.”
Sectarianism and Contracted Catholicity
Leithart views the Catholic practice of closed communion to be sectarian, writing:
“But when I attend Mass and am denied access to the table of my Lord Jesus together with my Catholic brothers, I can’t help wondering what really is the difference between Catholics and the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans or the Continental Reformed who practice closed communion. Size and history apart, how is Catholicism different from a gigantic sect?”
Wisconsin Synod Lutherans and the Continental Reformed who practice closed communion are not the Church Christ founded. There’s the difference. The Church Christ founded cannot be a sect, that is, a schism from the Church. Leithart does not give any explicit reason for opposing closed-communion; he merely compares the Catholic Church’s practice to that of these two other Protestant denominations. But his reason is easily discernible. What is offensive and off-putting, from the point of view of Protestants like Leithart who hold a ‘branch’ ecclesiology in which persons of many different faith traditions belong to one invisible ‘body,’ is a refusal by one branch to recognize that we’re all branches, and thus to allow communion between the members of the various branches. That is why he opposes the closed communion practices of Wisconsin Synod Lutherans and the Continental Reformed. Their understanding of themselves as branches of a larger whole does not fit well, all other things being equal, with their refusal to commune with the other branches of that one invisible whole. In this way Leithart’s objection to the Catholic practice of closed communion presupposes that the Catholic Church is a mere branch, like Wisconsin Synod Lutherans or the Continental Reformed. But that’s not what the Catholic Church believes and teaches about herself. So Leithart’s objection to the Catholic practice of closed communion presupposes a Protestant ecclesiology that he imposes on the Catholic Church, and in that respect presupposes precisely what is in question between the two paradigms.
“To become Catholic I would [have] to contract my ecclesial world. I would have to become less catholic – less catholic than Jesus is.”
When one goes from believing only in an invisible catholic Church, to believing that Christ founded a visible Church, and embracing that Church, one has to contract one’s ecclesiology just as going from Docetism to Chalcedonian Christology requires a contraction in one’s Christology, acknowledging that this Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary at the time of the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria, is the Son of God. But, becoming Catholic does not require becoming “less catholic than Jesus is.” To be Catholic does not require denying that non-Catholic Christians can have faith in Christ. If the Catholic Church is who she claims to be, and Catholic ecclesiology is correct, then becoming Catholic requires becoming just as catholic as Jesus is, which means being in full communion with the Church Jesus founded and not in communion with any sect founded by mere men.
Leithart is here pitting the visibility of the Church against its catholicity, as if the two are mutually exclusive. He claims that to become Catholic, and embrace the notion that Christ founded a Church with essential visible unity, he would have to “become less catholic.” But ‘catholicity’ has no meaning apart from the visibility of the Church, because apart from visibility, ‘catholicity’ can mean anything. For the catholicity of the Church to have any principled content, the Church must be visible, and it must be visibly one, so that there is an objective and authoritative standard for what is and is not catholic. Protestant ecclesiology does not have a visible catholic Church, and therefore cannot provide such a standard for catholicity.10 Pitting visibility against catholicity is part of the error of gnosticism, that grace cannot come through visible sacraments whose power comes through the physical laying on of hands, that the Church Christ founded cannot be an essentially visible Church, and that Christ cannot have a visible material body delimited in space and time. If Christ can be truly incarnate and yet the Savior of the whole world, then He can be the Head of a visible Body that is also catholic. Just as the incarnate visibility of Christ does not detract from the universality of His salvific will and work, so the essential visibility of His Body the Church, does not detract or diminish her catholicity.
Leithart seems to think that valid baptism and confession of the Creed is sufficient for full communion. But baptism is not in itself sufficient for full communion, for persons who have attained the age of reason.11 We are not just “one baptism,” but also “one faith,” and “one Body.” A baptized schismatic does not have a right to Eucharistic fellowship until he has forsaken his schism, and returned to full communion. Similarly, a validly baptized heretic does not have a right to Eucharistic fellowship until he has forsaken his heresy and embraced the whole Catholic faith. Because Leithart’s communion at Trinity Reformed Church is open to Catholics and Orthodox, his communion can signify unity of faith only if what belongs to the faith is limited to what Trinity Reformed Church, Catholics, and Orthodox all have in common, everything else being adiaphora. But such a notion undermines the justification for Protestant separation, as Carl Trueman points out. If, on the other hand, Leithart thinks that the canons of Session 6 of the Council of Trent are heretical, then his communion does not signify having “one faith,” since he opens it to orthodox Catholics whom he believes to be heretics.
The Contradiction of Pleading for Communion in what one Condemns as Idolatrous
One difficulty with Leithart’s position is the contradiction between opposing the Catholic Church’s practice of closed communion, while at the same time referring to Catholics as liturgical idolaters who worship a piece of bread. This has been perhaps the most common criticism of Leithart’s article since it was published. Leithart has issued a follow-up post titled “Israel, Idolatry, and Separated Brothers,” to explain this apparent contradiction. There he writes:
[S]ince Vatican II the Catholic church has acknowledged that while the church subsists in Catholicism, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” (Lumen Gentium, 8) and has famously recognized that some outside the Catholic church are “brothers,” albeit separated ones.
From the perspective of 1-2 Kings, this is altogether too sanguine a view of the state of the church. In the history of Israel, the line that divides the northern kingdom of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah is a line that divides brothers, a line that divides two covenant nations, a line that runs right through the middle of Israel herself. At the beginning of the history of the divided kingdom, Yahweh warns Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, not to attack the northern kingdom and force them back into the Davidic orbit, and in that warning describes Israel as Judah’s “brothers” (1 Kings 12:24). The prophets pick up on similar familial language: Ezekiel describes Jerusalem and Samaria, capital cities of northern and south, as twin sisters (Ezekiel 23). More remarkably, toward the end of the Northern kingdom, after a long history of calf worship and worse, Yahweh holds back from finally destroying Israel because of the promises He made to the patriarchs: ”Yahweh was gracious to them and had compassion on them and turned to them because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (2 Kings 13:23).
Sectarianism is a comfort. If my church is the only church, then there’s no tragic division within Christendom, no rent in the fabric, to tearing of Christ’s body. 1-2 Kings gives us no such comfort: Christ has been divided in our divisions.
In this follow-up post, Leithart’s interpretation of the Old Testament and his application of that interpretation to the Church implicitly presuppose that what was true under the Old Covenant, must remain the case under the New Covenant. Since the people of God under the Old Covenant could be divided, therefore, according to this presupposition, the Church of the New Covenant must also be divisible. By way of such an assumption one could argue against the Eucharistic sacrifice, on the basis of Old Testament animal sacrifices, or against baptism, on the basis of Old Testament circumcision. This presupposition does not take into consideration that the New Covenant is a new and better covenant. “Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant” (Heb 7:22), “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.” (Heb 8:6) When Jesus came, He established His Church, and it is better than the order established under the Old Covenant. The Church is the pillar and ground of truth, and the Spirit has come to dwell within her, and shall never be removed from her, because the bond of union between Christ and His Church is indissoluble, as is the hypostatic union. St. Cyprian, the third century bishop of Carthage taught that the Church’s visible unity cannot be divided:
This sacrament of unity, this bond of a concord inseparably cohering, is set forth where in the Gospel the coat of the Lord Jesus Christ is not at all divided nor cut, but is received as an entire garment, and is possessed as an uninjured and undivided robe by those who cast lots concerning Christ’s garment, who should rather put on Christ. Holy Scripture speaks, saying, “But of the coat, because it was not sewed, but woven from the top throughout, they said one to another, Let us not rend it, but cast lots whose it shall be.” (John 19:23-24) That coat bore with it an unity that came down from the top, that is, that came from heaven and the Father, which was not to be at all rent by the receiver and the possessor, but without separation we obtain a whole and substantial entireness. He cannot possess the garment of Christ who parts and divides the Church of Christ. On the other hand, again, when at Solomon’s death his kingdom and people were divided, Abijah the prophet, meeting Jeroboam the king in the field, divided his garment into twelve sections, saying, “Take you ten pieces; for thus says the Lord, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and I will give ten sceptres unto you; and two sceptres shall be unto him for my servant David’s sake, and for Jerusalem, the city which I have chosen to place my name there.” (1 Kings 11:31) As the twelve tribes of Israel were divided, the prophet Abijah rent his garment. But because Christ’s people cannot be rent, His robe, woven and united throughout, is not divided by those who possess it; undivided, united, connected, it shows the coherent concord of our people who put on Christ. By the sacrament and sign of His garment, He has declared the unity of the Church. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 7)
By contrast, Leithart’s notion that since the people of the Old Covenant could be divided, therefore the Church can be divided presupposes that the New Covenant is no better than the Old. Of course Leithart would explicitly and sincerely deny that the New Covenant is no greater than the Old, but he does not seem to realize that his argument depends on that presupposition. And that presupposition implicit in Leithart’s theology, is the error of the Judaizers. St. Paul condemns this error strongly in his letter to the Galatians. In the Old Covenant, the law was written on stone, but in the New, it is written on the heart. And this New Covenant people is the Church, the “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim 3:15), the family of God, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and the New Jerusalem. Greater is He who is in this Temple, than he who is in the world, and hence the enemy cannot prevail against the Church, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.” The Spirit who indwells this people is leading them into all truth. Christ has promised never to leave them or forsake them.
The fundamental problem with the error of the Judaizers described in St. Paul’s letter is that it implicitly denied the incarnation of Christ. It clung to the Old Covenant, because of its implicit assumption that no one greater had come along, and hence no better covenant had been made. Likewise, a notion that the Church, which is Christ’s Mystical Body, could fall into heresy and apostasy (or even extinction) for almost fifteen hundred years, or be divided, implies that the person whose body this community was said to be, was a mere man, not the Son of the living God. In this way, this presupposition is the ecclesial equivalent of returning to the necessity of circumcision. What Leithart needs to provide here, in order to ground his argument and address this problem, is objective criteria for determining what the apostolic faith is and is not, and what is his authority to bind others to his definition. He needs to explain on what basis he presumes that the Church formed by the Precious Blood of the New Covenant, could shatter in the same manner as Old Testament Israel.
Of course Leithart explicitly affirms the incarnation and the Creed. His ecclesiology, however, implicitly denies the incarnation, not by recognizing continuity between the Old Covenant people of God and the Church Christ founded by His blood of the New Covenant, and not by noting shared characteristics between both, such as twelve tribes and twelve Apostles, but by presupposing that what was true of the Old Covenant people must be true of the Body of Christ formed from the sacraments signified by the blood and water that flowed from the Second Adam’s side.
In disagreeing with the theology underlying Leithart’s exegesis, we are not denying the rhetorical brilliance of his reading of the Book of Kings vis-a-vis the Church. By means of this reading, Leithart has, on his own theological terms, justified his (partial) embrace of Catholics and Orthodox as genuine brothers who are tragically engaged in what he sees as liturgical idolatry. It would be churlish for Catholics not to at least appreciate his attempt (and the attempts of others) to find biblical and theological grounds for embracing us as fellow Christians.
However, as we have already noted, there is a glaring problem with Leithart’s theological terms; namely, he maintains, contrary to Scripture, that “Christ has been divided in our divisions” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13). And the reason that Leithart takes this position is that he fails to appreciate (relative to the matter at hand) that the Church is not simply an extension of or replacement for Israel under the Old Covenant. The Church is related to Israel by virtue of being the mystical Body of the Christ of Israel, in whom all of God’s promises are “yes.” But it is not simply to Israel that we look in order to understand the nature of the mystical Body. Rather, we look to Israel in (and through) Christ.
Israel is a type of the Church, but the Church does not simply recapitulate Israel. The Church, as the Body of Christ, fulfills (not completely, but truly) God’s promises to Israel. By virtue of the Incarnation, The Church’s sacraments are not merely New Covenant versions of Old Covenant rites,12 and ecclesial divisions are not ontologically equivalent repetitions of the political and cultic divisions between the Northern and Southern kingdoms. Christ’s physical Body was broken for us, but his mystical Body is not divided by us in our divisions. Rather, our divisions are overcome in that Body, which is the Church. But this would not be possible if the Church herself were divided, on the principle that nothing can give what it does not have (in this case, unity).
But the Church does have unity, because there is one King and Head, and therefore one Kingdom and Body. Furthermore, the Son of David has already cast down the high places (including Israel’s own Temple) and established one altar and one sacrifice in which people in all nations participate until his coming again (cf. Malachi 1:11; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Christ is the antitype of David and Josiah, and He is greater than these. Our Lord reigns in the Church through those to whom He gave charge over the Church, especially the one to whom He gave the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:16-19; cf. Isaiah 22:20-25). On Leithart’s reading, the keys and the kingdom have once more been divided, which implies that Christ is no greater than David. And therein lies Leithart’s theological error. David died and did not rise again, and so could not provide for the continuing unity of his kingdom. But Christ died and rose again, to die no more. His Body remains unbroken.
The implication of orthodox Christology, which is the lens by which we come to better understand biblical typology, is that Church divisions, where they result in an enduring break of communion, are always schisms from the Church, not divisions of the Church. Christ is not divided–he has one Body. Christ is not a polygamist–he has one Bride. In the confusion resulting from schism, the task of everyone who names the name of Christ is to discern which of the various communions is the mystical Body of Christ, the one Church that He founded.13
The reason for raising these objections to Leithart’s inclusive vision of a shattered Church is not to be anti-ecumenical, but to avoid the false ecumenism latent in Leithart’s ecclesiology, according to which a future united Church, insofar as it is not a body that currently exists, would be discontinuous with the Church that Our Lord established and promised to preserve throughout the ages. It is with and in this Church, not some nebulous future Church, that we are all called to communion.14
Finally, regarding Leithart’s claim about sectarianism, if one defines ‘sectarianism’ as the claim that the visible body to which one belongs is the Church Christ founded, then assuming that ‘sectarianism’ [so defined] is always wrong presupposes either that Christ never founded a visible catholic Church or that, having done so, at some point He allowed it to fall out of existence. But if Christ founded a visible catholic Church, and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it, then there is until Christ returns only one case in which ‘sectarianism’ [so defined] is right, because the ‘sect’ in question is no sect at all, but the very Church Christ founded. Because Leithart conceives of ‘catholicity’ as the denial of ‘sectarianism,’ according to the definition of ‘sectarianims’ just provided, he must conclude that the Catholic Church is both sectarian and not ‘catholic.’ But all this presupposes that either Christ never founded a visible catholic Church, or that if He did, the gates of hell prevailed against it some time ago. And that’s not a safe assumption.
The Church of the Future
In the last paragraph of his article, Leithart writes:
We can’t see the future; we can’t know how God is going to put back the fragmented pieces of His church. We can trust and hope that He is and will, but all we have access to are the configurations of the past and present. It’s tempting to imagine that the future of the church will be an extension of some present tradition – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, whatever. But the future never is a simple extension of the past and present (how can it be, with the massive surge in Christianity in the global South?). So I remain contentedly and firmly in my reformed catholicity, but I remain also eager and impatient for the church to come. Of that church we know nothing except that it will be like nothing we know.
According to Leithart we can’t see the future, but somehow we can know that before Christ’s return God will put back the pieces of His “fragmented” Church. We cannot see the future, but we should be “eager and impatient” for this future. We cannot know how God is going to put back the “fragmented pieces of His church,” but somehow we can know that the reunited ‘Church’ will not be “an extension of some present tradition.” We cannot see the future, but we can know that the future is never an extension of the past and present. We “know nothing” of the Church of the future, except that “it will be like nothing we know.” How Leithart knows that the future Church will not only not be the same institution Christ founded, but will also be “like nothing we know,” he does not say. He merely asserts it to be true, as if he is a prophet who need not substantiate his claims. You have to tip your hat to someone who can [almost] get away with claiming in the very same paragraph that we cannot see the future, while telling us all about forthcoming events in the future. His only evidence for his claim about the future is “the massive surge in Christianity in the global South.” He seems not to realize that this massive surge is fully compatible with the Catholic Church being the very same institution Christ founded two-thousand years ago, and remaining so until Christ returns.
In his follow-up article, Leithart provides a clue to the basis of his prognostications regarding the future of the Church, when he writes:
Josiah’s reign gives us a vision of the church’s future devoutly to be wished: Brothers separated for centuries sharing one table; a divided people guilty of multiple idolatries restored to fellowship with God and with one another. If the history of Israel figures the history of the divided church, Josiah’s reign gives hope that the rending of the corporate body of Jesus is not permanent, and that like the rending of Jesus on the cross it will in time be followed by a glorious corporate resurrection.
All this, of course, presupposes that the historical trajectory of the Church must follow the historical trajectory of Israel. And that presupposition is not itself theologically neutral. As explained above, insofar as such a presupposition carries with it the assumption that the New Covenant Church must be divisible because the Old Covenant people were, it is an implicit denial of the incarnation.
True Catholicity Stands with Christ and His Vice-Regent
As is nearly always the case, the reason the term “catholic” is arbitrary in Leithart’s explanation of his position is that Protestant ecclesiology operates without reference to the visible principle of unity that Christ established in His Church: the Pope of Rome. When one is restored to full communion with the successor of St. Peter there is no need to speculate or fret over where the boundaries of catholicity lie or who is being too stingy or not strict enough with their catholicity.
To be catholic enough is to be Catholic. To be less than Catholic is to be out of touch with the Universal Church, which is to say, not catholic at all. From a Catholic point of view, the ‘reformed catholicity’ Leithart proposes is in part the very cause of the divisions and fragments he laments, by making each man his own arbiter regarding what is orthodox, and what is not. Behind the false ecumenism of an arbitrarily ‘expanded catholicity’ is the same dispute over ecclesiology at the heart of the Protestant-Catholic separation that occurred in the sixteenth century: Did Christ found an essentially unified visible catholic Church with a principle of unity in the unity of her hierarchy, in the unity of her faith, and in the unity of her sacraments? If so, then ‘catholicity’ is defined by and flows from this Church, in which case it is impossible to be more ‘catholic’ than her.
- See his congregation’s statement titled “On Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Reformed Catholicity.” [↩]
- As St. Ambrose says, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs, neither cast your pearls before the swine;” that is to say, that partaking of the holy Communion is not to be allowed to those polluted with impurity.” Concerning Repentance, Book II, chapter 9. [↩]
- See Canon 844, §4. [↩]
- See “Branches or Schisms.” [↩]
- ‘Schism’ is defined in both canon law and the Catholic Catechism as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” CCC 2089. [↩]
- This was one of the problems with John Armstrong’s position, as Devin Rose pointed out. And this was also the same problem with the position advanced by Christianity Today‘s managing editor Mark Galli. [↩]
- Update: See also Orthodox convert Adam Saverian’s “Too Catholic to be Catholic, or Not Catholic At All?.” [↩]
- See “Ecclesial Deism.” [↩]
- Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman did not allow concern about his Anglican orders to be a stumbling block in his conversion. If his orders were valid, then he didn’t have to worry. If the Catholic Church was right, and his Anglican orders were invalid, then he had nothing to lose. [↩]
- See “Why Protestantism has no visible catholic Church.” For the meaning of ‘catholicity’ as understood and defined within the visible Church, see comment #21 in “A Reflection on PCA Pastor Terry Johnson’s ‘Our Collapsing Ecclesiology.’” [↩]
- See “Baptism, Schism, Full Communion, Salvation.” [↩]
- See the post “Sacramentalism” for further elaboration of this point. [↩]
- However, the case could be made, from a Catholic point of view, that the situation of the Northern Kingdom of Israel is analogous to the situation of the Orthodox Churches in relation to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (short of Christ being divided). As the Northern tribes of Israel are true tribes, the Orthodox Churches are true Churches. [↩]
- See “Ecclesial Unity and Outdoing Christ: A Dilemma for the Ecumenism of Non-Return.” [↩]