Guest Post: A Friend Responds to Peter Leithart’s ‘Too Catholic to be Catholic’

Christians from my pedigree talk a lot about the best way to be a faithful Christian while maintaining embodied practice of the faith within our current historical/cultural context. It is a real struggle. These discussion are (by and large) not about who is in and who is out, who is a Christian and who is not. Put simply, they have much more to do with how Christians relate to God and each other within the contexts of the broader church, its divisions, and the world. Fresh questions and fresh challenges. As a result, many of my peers from the Protestant world have converted to (or are in the process of converting to) Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. There are many reasons for this.

Here are a few from a friend of mine.

Jeremy is a graduate student pursuing a degree in philosophy. He is also in the process of possibly converting to the Eastern Orthodox tradition. You can read more about his journey towards Constantinople over at his blog. I asked Jeremy to write this guest post in response to a particular discussion that has taken place over the last few weeks within a small branch of Reformed Christianity that Jeremy and I are familiar with. What follows is Jeremy’s response:


A few weeks ago, Peter Leithart (a theologian I very much admire) posted something on his blog that amounted to a defense of his cheerful settledness within Reformed Protestantism, despite his obvious respect for ancient and medieval Christianity and the role he has played in others’ leaving Protestantism for Rome or the East. There have been many responses to his argument in the intervening time, and I’m not sure I have anything new to add, but it struck me that many of them lacked sympathy for his argument. As someone who has spent some time in Reformed Protestantism, but has also been slowly journeying towards more ancient forms of Christianity, I still feel the force of his worries, even though I have also come to see them as somewhat misguided. And it would be helpful to me, at any rate, to express why that is so.

Leithart’s basic claim, as expressed in the title of his post, is that he is “too catholic to be Catholic.” The argument, greatly simplified, is this: As a Protestant (or at least as the specific type of Protestant he is), he considers himself in agreement on the essentials of the faith with Catholics and the Orthodox, and would gladly welcome them to share with him at the Eucharistic table (though he does admit, interestingly, that he sees Catholics and the Orthodox as theologically wrong and, in practice, idolators). To become Catholic or Orthodox would involve breaking this Eucharistic unity with other Christians. Breaking Eucharistic unity is a grave sin and a dishonor to the unity of Christ. Therefore, it is better (at least with respect to ecclesiological unity) to remain Protestant.

As someone who has felt on the verge of conversion for quite a long time, I feel the pull of this argument quite strongly. Long after I have been satisfied with answers to the typical Protestant theological worries about icons, asceticism, Mary, etc., it is the ecclesiological disputes that still have a grip. Nevertheless, as I said above, I think this particular argument is misguided. Though it demonstrates an admirable sentiment and a right revulsion at the lack of Christian unity, I don’t think it has a strong theological foundation.

The basic problem is this: Leithart hasn’t given any analysis of what Eucharistic unity actually consists in, i.e., what is required for intercommunion, for different churches or individuals to be, in a real and visible way, parts of One Church. Is it right interpretation of the Bible? According to who? Acceptance of the creeds and councils? Which ones, and under what understandings? Baptism? Done in what way, at what age? These are just a few of the important differences that separate different Christians and their churches from one another.

Back in my more, let’s say, optimistically ecumenical days, I would have probably proposed something like the acceptance of the Apostle’s Creed at face value as the measure for essential Christian unity, and Leithart might have something similar in mind. As long as one can say the creed and mean it, that’s all that matters. Of course, it’s not clear what “face value” means here, and Catholics and Orthodox will mean something very different from Protestants when they talk about the Virgin Mary and the communion of saints and the catholicity of the Church. And what about baptism, which plays no role in this creed? And what about the Eucharist itself?

Though I think it’s correct that there is something like what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”, and that the things which bind us are far more important than the things that separate us, it’s also easy to overestimate the similarities. The fact is that Protestants, by definition (though some groups more than others), consciously reject a huge portion of what most Christians believed and how they acted for the majority of the Church’s existence. At the least, between, say, 300 and 1000 AD, Christian practice and understanding was fairly uniform and would involve things like a hierarchy of deacons, priests, bishops, and patriarchs; a veneration of relics and holy places; an understanding of the centrality of the Eucharist and Christ’s real presence therein; a special respect for Mary as the Mother of God; following a calendar which includes regular and occasionally intense fasting; ritualized and highly symbolic liturgy (to name just a few). Most of these things play no role in the faith of many Protestants and are viewed by them as, at the very least, unnecessary. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, for example, your average Christian from 1000 years ago would feel pretty comfortable in an Orthodox liturgy or traditional Catholic mass of today, but would be at a complete loss in a typical Protestant service (though this depends significantly on what type of Protestant we’re talking about).

But the key question in all this is not really about how similar or different various Christian groups are, but what Christian unity consists in. And it seems to me that the answer that developed within the lifetime of those who knew the apostles stressed two things: (1) apostolic succession through the office of bishops, and (2) accordance with apostolic tradition (what Ireneaus calls the “rule of faith”, and which was never seen as a competitor with Scripture, but as the proper interpretation and use of Scripture). Here are representative quotes from two important sources:

(1) St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-108 AD): “to the end that you may obey the bishop and presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ.” Epistle to the Ephesians, 20:2

“Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2

(2) St. Ireneaus: “For [the Church] is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? … Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches… since they are blind to the truth, and deviate from the [right] way, they will walk in various roads; and therefore the footsteps of their doctrine are scattered here and there without agreement or connection. But the path of those belonging to the Church circumscribes the whole world, as possessing the sure tradition from the apostles, and gives unto us to see that the faith of all is one and the same….” Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 4; Book 5, Chapter 20

[Discussing the authority of the writings of St. Clement of Rome]: “To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” Book 3, Chapter 3.

These are just a few statements but I think they illustrate the approach to the unity of the Church I mentioned, and they both happen to be very early – when these men became Christian, it was under the influence of people who knew the apostles themselves. And what is striking to me is the fact that the marks of unity defended here – faithfulness to apostolic tradition, secured by apostolic succession – are precisely those which Catholics and the Orthodox still claim to have and which the reformers gave up on. (Again, to be fair, different Protestants will feel differently about this – many will claim to be faithful to a true apostolic tradition which in others has been corrupted by various pagan traditions. I suppose I just don’t find these arguments convincing; at any rate, their idea of apostolic tradition is simply whatever can be gleaned by the best reading of the apostolic writings rather than what was the passed down (“traditioned”) understanding of those writings and the way they are best put into practice.)

There is obviously a lot more that could be said here, not least about the real differences between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. Nevertheless, I think a few things are clear: (1) Leithart has not given any clear analysis or defense of his understanding of the basis of Christian unity, and (2) The notion of Christian unity that seems most clear in the early Church closely matches that given by Catholics and the Orthodox and, I think, justifies them from thinking that Protestants fall outside of that unity. (It’s important to stress here that this disunity, unfortunate as it is, need not be read as a consignment to damnation or a complete withdrawal of fellowship or a revoking of status as a ‘Christian’; rather, it is a reflection of the sad fact on very many important matters of doctrine and practice (many of which were taken for granted for centuries), Christians now have stark divisions which cannot be skirted around. God willing, those divisions will one day be healed.)