Please Stop Reinventing The Wheel: An Invitation To Peter LeithartNov 9th, 2014 | By Jason Kettinger | Category: Blog Posts
The contributors here at Called To Communion have previously replied to Peter Leithart. His recent “Staying Put” essentially repeats everything he said in “Too catholic to be Catholic,” so I shall not belabor the points made in our response to that post.1
I wish first to affirm here — and I do so with the enthusiastic support of everyone here at Called To Communion — the desire to recognize and celebrate every authentic work of God, no matter from whence it comes. Indeed we do have united hearts with every Christian, and in fact with every potential Christian in the world. Lumen Gentium 8 is direct:
This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic … This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.
Dr. Leithart’s desire to celebrate agreement among Christians is consonant with this vision of dialogue and ecumenism articulated by the bishops at Vatican II. Indeed the motives for dialogue with other Christians and people who are not yet Christian are the fundamental dignity of each human person and the reality of the world God has made. Creation manifests in itself truths about God, which can be known either by reason or by supernatural revelation. So separations between Christians demonstrate a dispute regarding either what has been revealed in Christ, or what constitutes the proper response to that revelation. In any case, the heart of that motive is charity, and God’s own desire for communion with every person. That communion ought to extend horizontally between people made in the image of God, and remade in the likeness of God by redemption in Christ. The Church is that supernatural society of communion with God and one another in Christ, whose source and summit is the Eucharist, both the sign and reality of full communion. Because of this, a visible separation between Christians represents at the least a failure to realize fully the horizontal implications of faith in Jesus Christ.
I sympathize with Dr. Leithart’s lament that were he to become Catholic he would no longer be able to share a Eucharistic table with his brothers in Protestant communities. But in this implicit leveling out of doctrinal and ecclesial distinctions he advocated, does he not show a certain disrespect, even if unintended, toward those very communities and to the distinctions which prompted their formation? Agreement was not what occasioned the formation of the distinct communities. In fact, disagreements are and have been the occasion for the forming of distinct communities. A Reformed view of the Eucharist is not a Catholic view, for example.
So one impediment to sharing the same Eucharistic table is a basic recognition that these groups do not agree on what it is, and what it means. To fail to recognize this is to pretend a unity exists when it does not in fact exist. What leads the Catholic Church to take Protestant communities and the people within them at their word concerning dogma, and as such, to deny them participation in the Eucharist as a matter of charity is basic respect for the freedom of conscience. If transubstantiation is a falsehood that needs to be “corrected” by Reformed doctrine, one cannot consistently claim that it is wrong to be denied the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. Receiving the Eucharist in the Catholic Church signifies agreement with what the Catholic Church teaches concerning herself and the Eucharist, among other things. Dr. Leithart’s fathers in the Reformed tradition were not so sanguine about the matter, to put it mildly. He cannot both affirm Reformed doctrine and affirm Catholic doctrine by participating in the Catholic Eucharist.
The problem with this whole project as laid out by Leithart is that it elevates theological and ecclesiological discontinuity to the level of a principle. We’ve called that principle many times “ecclesial deism,” and it is worth considering again.2 If one posits that the truth about God and what He has revealed has been lost or hidden, one can explain why the doctrine of God and the practices of His people would change from what we find in the early decades and centuries of the Church until whichever time one claims the truth was recovered. But as the name “ecclesial deism” implies, it also poses a significant challenge to the basic outline of the biblical story: a God who is very much involved with His people, and is never willing to leave them without the truth even if their unfaithfulness to it has covenantal consequences that are stern. The Reformation narrative by definition, however, must presuppose that the true doctrine of God had been lost sometime in the early centuries after the coming of Christ, only to be recovered by the reformers in the 16th century.
Even if one has not yet concluded that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded, the above considerations should at least prompt one to revisit the assumption that the Church is fundamentally invisible. Conceiving of the Church as fundamentally invisible allows us to disregard the visible disunity of various Christians in separate communities, but it also makes relative the doctrinal claims that the existence of those various communities does certainly signify. In this way, it does not allow Leithart to choose between Reformed doctrine or Catholic doctrine, because it forces him to render those differences as secondary for the sake of “unity,” a unity that is not visible in any discernible respect. If Leithart chooses this ecclesiology, he cannot argue for the particular dogmatic claims of the Reformed tradition, because those claims are no more or less credible than any other ones. If he chooses the dogmatic distinctives of the Reformed tradition, he must exclude those dogmatic assertions that are contrary to the definitions of that Reformed tradition. He is forced then either to admit that there is no real unity in this invisible conception of the Church, or that he cannot be certain that his own position is dogma. Leithart is not asserting that his visible community with its dogma constitutes the Church, so it is unclear from whence Leithart’s dogma comes. An ad hoc journey through history and tradition seems hardly fitting or proper to explain the work of God who is faithful. In order to be good disciples Christians must know the truth revealed by God in the places closest to their lives.
I can recall the first moments when I realized that I could be wrong in my doctrine and ecclesiology. I can remember the fear that I felt when I first took the claims of the Catholic Church seriously, that is, to ask myself frankly if they were true. If the Christian story is a story of God’s faithfulness to His people, what would I be looking for in the witness of history in order to see that faithfulness? Where would I need to go, and what would I need to do, to confess that faithfulness with those whom God has gathered in His Church? What if the Catholic Church is that Church? Until I had imagined that it could be, I hadn’t asked. The claim that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded accounts for the numerous points of agreement between the Catholic Church and Leithart’s position and that of others. I surmised that it would not be reasonable to be at variance with the Catholic Church if I had no ground to believe the contrary assertions were true, and no way to account for the agreement between us.
I once wrote, “the old saw that, “If I’m wrong, I’ll be on my knees tomorrow morning outside the Vatican doing penance” is a toothless phrase if one’s hermeneutic of Scripture, history, and Church disallows the very consideration that one is wrong.” Christians indeed share much in common, and the fullest expression and experience of unity involves reorienting oneself to the authority by which that common faith was articulated. We might begin with a principled approach to the first two ecumenical councils. If they indeed represent true articulations of the common faith, perhaps the authority that promulgated them was established by God. Moreover, it would not be principled to reject further ecumenical councils because one disagreed with their conclusions. If Christianity is a faith received, then we must receive it; we must receive those who have given it to us, and we must receive all those who profess it with us. Seeking full communion with the Catholic Church would only represent a denial of Reformed faith insofar as the Reformed tradition arose to deny articles of faith previously held. Dr. Leithart deeply believes that to become Catholic would make him less catholic. I can only say along with Philip, “come and see.”
- See also “Peter Leithart’s “The Tragedy of Conversion” to Catholicism or Orthodoxy.” [↩]
- See “Ecclesial Deism.” [↩]