Please Stop Reinventing The Wheel: An Invitation To Peter Leithart

Nov 9th, 2014 | By | 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.

Peter Leithart

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.”

  1. See also “Peter Leithart’s “The Tragedy of Conversion” to Catholicism or Orthodoxy.” []
  2. See “Ecclesial Deism.” []
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  1. I’m no expert, but I visit this site regularly for the great articles. So I hope you’ll bear with me if my comment seems simplistic or if I make any egregious error in my thinking…

    The reason I’m commenting at all and mentioning my ‘lay’ credentials is that one of the key aspects of ‘Emergentism’ and ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ I’ve seen – even as a non-expert – seems to be a mentality which assumes that:
    “The Catholic Church is right about X, Y, and Z, but they drifted of the rails, but now we’re re-establishing their own doctrines to orthodoxy.”.

    I came across this mentality first in Scott McKnight’s, ‘The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus’, which I read on the recommendation of an Evangelical friend trying to show me how ‘catholic’ she was. Her thinking was that the more she believed things like this, the more she thought she should be allowed to receive Communion, as if consonance in belief alone is the criterion of membership.

    But what’s wrong in this view, it seems to me, is that to be Catholic is not to be in a coterie of like minds, but a Communion (as the article above implies), but she thought it was, using her Protestant frame of reference: you join a church because you agree with it.

    I have to admit, as an ex-Evangelical, I get a sense of deja vu about all of this. It seems to me that Leithart’s position, like many of my friends who are following this latest trend (as Protestantism can’t stay still), like to show me just how inclusive and ‘catholic’ they are, smugly implying, “We use candles, water, and other Sacramentals, but correctly, unlike you Catholics”. So, it’s as if, in the next breath, they’d say, “But, here I stand. I can do no other”, or, “I am nothing, if not an Ockhamist”.

    In other words, for me, the issue is that of Metaphysics rather than Epistemology. When I was thinking about entering the Church (dare I say ‘being called’?), it was not about assenting to doctrines at all (which was a relief as I found some of them pretty incomprehensible on both sides of the Tiber), but letting go – a sense that I was joining ‘The Church’ – something which transcended me, time, and space. But it wasn’t a ‘putting my head in the oven’ either.

    What dawned on me was that it seemed wherever I was as a Protestant I was part of a Social Construct, or to use a more theological term, part of a ‘tradition of men’. It’s as if one could say that Catholicism develops, whilst Protestantism evolves, and it seems to me Peter Leithart’s views can only ever be Peter Leithart’s views, not those of ‘Church’, however much they ‘mimic’, or align with them, because he sees his own interiority as the sole criterion of truth (not the Lord’s authority in his Church), and that’s more of a problem than the truth or falsity of the doctrine, it seems to me.

    I might be wrong, but is it not the case that when people have become obsessed with purity/perfection at the expense of everything else, they have been excommunicated? (Thinking of the Donatists, Cathars, Jansenists, Leonard Feeney, SSPX, and possibly even the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, at some stage?)

    So, in a sense, however much his ideas correspond with ours, he’s no nearer to me or any other Catholics – in real terms – because being Catholic is not about agreement but being in communion – ‘Docility’ – or, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt”, as Newman succinctly put it. It’s not that one switches off one’s mind as reason is not incompatible with the faith, so much as an act of intellectual humility, and an admission of one’s own self-deceptions and denials of reality?

    It seems the question is whether he’ll accept that the Church is the Church – She just Is – and not a meeting of like minds. If people go off the rails, the Church won’t. There’s no need to be Chicken Little/Licken. The Church is a body, not something we build with Lego through ‘Intelligent Design’. It is God himself, ‘deigning’ to commune with, and guide, his people.

    Oops! It’s a bit long. Sorry.

  2. @Paul Rdden

    “So, in a sense, however much his ideas correspond with ours, he’s no nearer to me or any other Catholics – in real terms – because being Catholic is not about agreement but being in communion – ‘Docility’ – or, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt”, as Newman succinctly put it. It’s not that one switches off one’s mind as reason is not incompatible with the faith, so much as an act of intellectual humility, and an admission of one’s own self-deceptions and denials of reality”

    Wow, you should be on the staff at Catholic Answers ( your post sums it up perfectly! Your comment above is why I am Catholic today.

    God Bless

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