Peter Leithart’s “The Tragedy of Conversion” to Catholicism or OrthodoxyOct 18th, 2013 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Peter Leithart recently wrote an article in First Things titled “The Tragedy of Conversion,” in which he laments the conversion of Protestants to Catholicism and Orthodoxy as tragic. Orthodox subdeacon Gabe Martini, whose work is well worth reading, replied here, and Orthodox writer Robert Arakaki replied to Leithart here. So I’m a bit late. But perhaps I can add something to what Gabe and Robert have already said.
The ancient chapel under the house of Ananias on Straight Street in Damascus
photo by Jenn Helvering
In his article Leithart first writes:
I’m talking about cross-Christian conversions, from Protestant to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, or the opposite. In calling such conversions “tragic,” I’m not suggesting that they always have adverse consequences for the convert. They may do, but not necessarily. In my view, someone who converts from drifting, unanchored liberal Protestantism to join a vibrant Catholic parish has made a step in the right direction, a step in the direction of Jesus.
In what sense then are these conversions tragic? Leithart continues:
What I have in mind is the logic behind some conversions, namely, the quest of the true church. Protestants who get some taste for catholicity and unity, who begin actually to believe the Nicene Creed, naturally find the contemporary state of Protestantism agonizing (as I do). They begin looking for a church that has preserved its unity, that has preserved the original form of church, and they often arrive at Catholicism or Orthodoxy.
What Leithart is criticizing as tragic is the quest for the true church. But the quest for the true church is a false quest only if there is no such thing as the true church. If there is such a thing as the true church, then we should seek it out. But, so far, Leithart has offered no reason to believe that there is no such thing. Simply presuming that there is no such thing begs the question against those testifying that there is such a thing. By subsequently wording the search as the search for “a church that has preserved its unity, that has preserved the original form of church” rather than as the search for “the Church Christ founded,” Leithart implies that he does not yet fully understand the “logic” of those he is criticizing. He still sees this logic as a search for qualities (e.g. unity, original form) rather than concrete identity, i.e. the very Church Christ founded. True church gets translated into “a church that has preserved its unity” and “original form.”
Protestantism defines ‘apostolicity’ in terms of form, not matter, whereas the Catholic (and Orthodox) understand apostolicity not as having certain platonic qualities (unity, form, truth) that could be instantiated into any community at any time, but among other things as being the very body, the very people, the very same community that, after Christ’s ascension, was composed of Mary and the Apostles, and into which they then poured their lives; that very same body that was in that sense built on the Apostles has spread all over the earth in organic continuity through time and space. By treating these converts’ quest as a search for unity and original form, Leithart overlooks the role of the paradigm shift these converts have undergone in their understanding of apostolicity, namely, from form, to body. The question for them is no longer “Which form?,” and the endless ecclesial consumerism that entails. Rather, the question is “Which body is the one Christ founded?” Therein do we find Christ’s form. Therein do we find Christ’s unity. Therein do we find Christ’s truth. One does not rightly become Catholic or Orthodox (according to either theology) because of their form or age per se, or the incense and candles, but ultimately because of their claim to be the Church Christ founded.
Apart from all the detailed historical arguments, this quest makes an assumption about the nature of time, an assumption that I have labeled “tragic.” It’s the assumption that the old is always purer and better, and that if we want to regain life and health we need to go back to the beginning.
Here again Leithart shows that he does not fully understand these converts. They do not think that the older Church is purer or better than the present Church. Holiness is one of the four essential marks of the Church (see here); the Church is not becoming less holy over time. Their “logic” has nothing to do with time per se. It has to do with matter, being incorporated into the very same body Christ founded. Which of the Apostles’ bones lies under an altar in Moscow, Idaho? Is that the Church Christ founded, or in full communion with the Church Christ founded? That’s a window into their logic.
That, I think, is a thoroughly un-Christian assumption. Truth is not just the Father; the Son – the supplement, the second, the one begotten – identifies Himself as Truth, and then comes a third, the Spirit, also Truth, the Spirit of Truth. Truth is not just in the Father; the fullness of Truth is not at the origin, but in the fullness of the divine life, which includes a double supplement to the origin.
Of course nothing about believing that Christ founded a visible Church that has continued up to the present day, and into which we must be incorporated, either presupposes or entails or requires believing that Christ is not the Truth, or that the Holy Spirit is not the Spirit of Truth. Leithart’s line of reasoning has gone wrong at the beginning, when he assumed that these converts’ logic was about a search for old form and old age, and not about identifying and entering the very Church Christ founded. He treated what was sought per accidens as what was sought per se.
Next he writes:
History is patterned in the same way. Eden is not the golden time to which we return; it is the infancy from which we begin and grow up. The golden age is ahead, in the Edenic Jerusalem.
And the church’s history is patterned in the same way too. It’s disorienting to think that we have to press ahead rather than try to discover or recover the safety of an achieved ecclesia, disorienting because we can’t know or predict the future. But it’s the only assumption Trinitarians can consistently make: The ecclesial peace we seek is not behind us, but in front. We get there by following the pillar of fire that leads us to a land we do not know.
Here Leithart mischaracterizes the convert’s goal as “safety,” rather than as being in the Church Christ founded. He asserts without any supporting argumentation that “we have to press ahead rather than try to discover or recover the safety of an achieved ecclesia.” Why we have to choose between these options he does not say. He seemingly implies that persons who look back into history to find and trace forward through history the Church Christ founded, are not being consistent in their Trinitarianism. But here too he gives no supporting argumentation, only offering a mere assertion. He concludes by asserting that the way to ecclesial peace is not behind us, but only in front.
What is presupposed in such a claim? Such a claim presupposes that the Church Christ founded is invisible, and hence that there is no such thing as schism from the Church founded, and no such thing as full communion with the Church Christ founded. If Leithart were correct, the Donatists did not need to look back to their separation from the Catholic Church in 311 to know the way to ecclesial peace with the Catholic Church. From that point on they should have marched forward blind to their history, blind to the fact of their being in schism from the Church Christ founded, studying Scripture and hoping that the Spirit would lead them into ecclesial peace.1 But that’s not how Sts. Optatus and Augustine addressed the Donatists. Sts. Optatus and Augustine articulated to the Donatists the history behind the schism, in order to make the case that the Donatists needed to return to the holy mother Church from which they had previously departed. And while Leithart acknowledges that he finds the “contemporary state of Protestantism agonizing,” his just-keep-swimming prescription implicitly assumes an invisible church ecclesiology according to which he should not find the contemporary fragmentation agonizing. The agony testifies to the required visible unity of the Church, but if Christ founded a visible Church, we must look back in history to trace her forward to the present, and make sure we are in full communion with her. The notion that unity comes only from the future presupposes that either Christ did not endow His Church with unity when He founded her, or that this unity has been lost. Both presuppositions, however, are not theologically neutral. The former entails that pursuing unity in this age outdoes Christ; the latter entails some form of ecclesial deism.
So Leithart’s admonition not to look to history to find the Church Christ founded is not a theologically or ecclesiologically neutral prescription. It presupposes that Christ did not found a visible Church, only an invisible one such that schism is only through apostasy. But that’s precisely one of the points in question between Protestants on the one hand, and Catholics and Orthodox on the other. So his prescription to these converts and to potential converts, is a question-begging prescription. It presupposes precisely what is in question between the paradigms.
In short, Leithart thinks these conversions are “tragic” because he thinks they are based on a faulty logic about time, a logic inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity and thus with Christianity. The problem with Leithart’s claim is not only that nothing about searching for the Church Christ founded is inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity, but fundamentally that he goes after a straw man, by construing the logic of these converts the way his own paradigm treats apostolicity, such that finding the Church Christ founded is reduced merely to finding a church that has preserved its unity and original form. And it goes without saying that knocking over straw men is a tragic sort of logic.