Too catholic to be Catholic – Peter Leithart


As one who has heard, read, and appreciated Peter Leithart over the past few years, and who has recognize that Leithart values tradition and values a strong ecclesiology, I was particularly fascinated to read his account of why, in light of those values, he will  not become Roman Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox). I find this, on the face of it at least, a valid objection to a Protestant joining one of these older, closed communions. It seems a reason to pause, however much a Protestant (especially of the frustratingly amnesiac, hyper-pragmatic “evangelical” variety) may wish to affirm the greatness and integrity of much historic catholic theology and practice.

The executive summary of what Leithart argues here is this: true ecumenism is incompatible with joining either Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

Here’s a sampling of his thought on this score:

“Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople?  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?  Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love?  For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist.  To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus.  To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized.  And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized?  Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that?  I’m too catholic to do that.”

“Catholicism and Orthodoxy are impressive for their heritage, the seriousness of much of their theology, the seriousness with which they take Christian cultural engagement.  Both, especially the Catholic church, are impressive for their sheer size.  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.”

To be sure, he has some of the usual substantial objections to points of Roman Catholic belief and practice. For example:

“I agree with the standard Protestant objections to Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Certain Catholic teachings and practices obscure the free grace of God in Jesus Christ; prayers through Mary and the saints are not encouraged or permitted by Scripture, and they distract from the one Mediator, Jesus; I do not accept the Papal claims of Vatican I; I believe iconodules violate the second commandment by engaging in liturgical idolatry; venerating the Host is also liturgical idolatry; in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, tradition muzzles the word of God.”

But in the end, it is not those reasons, but the lesson learned from Peter, that keep Leithart on this side of the Tiber:

“I still remember the pain I felt when I first understood (with James Dunn’s help) what Paul was on about in Galatians 2, when he attacked Peter for withdrawing from table fellowship.  The division of the church, especially since the Reformation, has largely been a story of horror and tragedy, with the occasional act of faithful separation thrown in.  I regard the division of the church as one of the great evils of the modern world, which has seen more than its share of evils (many of which are, I believe, quite closely related to the division of the church).  What more horrific sight can we imagine than to see Christ again crucified?  Christ is not divided.”

For the whole thoughtful essay, see here.

He responds to critics of the essay here. Some of those critics’ writings can be found under “related articles” below. I post them below not because I agree with any or all of them, but in order to give easy access to the debate surrounding Leithart’s article.

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3 responses to “Too catholic to be Catholic – Peter Leithart

  1. Thanks for flagging this up, Chris. It’s a welcome reminder that there’s more to Leithart than his recent jaw droppingly unfair denunciations of Anabaptism. As a Mennonite married to a Roman Catholic I experience daily the pain caused by a withdrawal of table fellowship. Leithart is right in underlining the evil of a divided church. He put me in mind of the challenge Anna and I received on Good Friday to walk an extra mile together: http://radref.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/walk-extra-mile.html

  2. Thanks Chris,

    Among the list of related articles I think you should definitely include Matt Yonke’s Catholic response: “Too catholic to be Catholic: A Response to Peter Leithart.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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