Peter Leithart and the problems with (some) Protestant ecumenism

Throughout the past year, Peter Leithart has written frequently about ecumenism and Protestant-Catholic/-Orthodox dialogue on his First Things blog. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) I have deep respect for Leithart’s work in general, but these blog posts strike me as oddly and uncharacteristically unhelpful. Helpful or not, though, these posts are very much representative of contemporary ecumenical conversation in general, in that almost every one of them hinges on two ecclesiological assumptions that are as problematic, from the Catholic and Orthodox perspectives, as they are ubiquitous.

The first assumption at work is that church “schism” necessarily and simply equates to church “division” (and therefore that both parties involved in a schism are always, to at least a comparable degree, guilty and arrogant). This assumption leads Leithart to make declarations like these:

Division is childish. It’s childish to retreat into our safe places, where everyone is like us.

We cannot have mature Christianity in the midst of our divisions, because maturation is maturation toward unity. So long as we remain divided, we remain children.

But there’s an obvious problem here: Neither Orthodox nor Catholic believers exactly believe (or at least, according their respective traditions, ought to believe) that the Church is “divided.” They believe, generally speaking, that other groups have separated themselves from the Church, and therefore that those other groups ought to return to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church whence they departed.

Of course this doesn’t mean that all non-Catholic or -Orthodox communions are equally “schismatic” in doctrine or even lineage (there’s a clear difference between Lutherans and Mormons); nor does it mean that these communions don’t often contribute worthily and superlatively to the theological conversation. But it does mean that Leithart’s declarations about “church division” only hold water from the perspective of a radically Protestant ecclesiology — which quite straightforwardly asserts that the Catholic and Orthodox communions sorely misunderstand themselves. All Leithart is really doing in making such declarations, then, is re-stating Protestant first principles and dubbing immature those (read: Catholics and Orthodox) who disagree with them. This is neither a helpful nor a charitable strategy.

Besides, putting practical considerations aside, how far is Leithart willing to extend the logic of his claims? Was the Church “childish” in dividing itself from, say, the Arians or Montanists? Are all schisms really divisions, or only some? And how might one distinguish truly “childish” church divisions from properly excommunicative schisms? Obviously, Leithart is discontent with the job the Catholic and Orthodox churches have done in distinguishing schisms from divisions, and believes himself to have somehow arrived at a better means of doing so … but this is just to say (again) that Leithart’s ecclesiology is Protestant, and that his ecumenical desire is for Catholics and Orthodox to abandon their traditional self-understandings and come to understand themselves in a Protestant fashion.

Not that any of this is offensive or necessarily wrong. It’s simply crucial to note that the same basic ecclesiological “intolerance” is operative in Protestant writers no less than Catholic and Orthodox ones. Protestants understand Orthodox in terms of Protestantism, just as Catholics understand Protestants in terms of Catholicism.

The second assumption at work here — distinct but certainly not separable from the first — is that doctrinal agreement is essentially equivalent to ecclesiological unity (and therefore that all churches are basically on equal ecclesiological and/or sacramental footing, being “divided” only insofar as they choose to disagree with each other). There’s not much that needs to be said here, since the foregoing paragraphs all address this assumption indirectly, but at least one point is worth making.

Unless I’ve missed something, Leithart never once mentions apostolic succession in his ecumenical posts. Nor does he mention (much less grapple with) the Cyprianic understanding of the episcopate as the center of ecclesiastical unity and sacramental validity. This is ecumenically problematic. From the Orthodox and Catholic perspective, apostolic doctrine is inseparably bound up with apostolic succession, and one cannot properly discuss one without the other. Thus to speak of “church unity” without any reference to apostolic succession or sacramental validity is, again, to speak in a radically and distinctively Protestant — i.e., non-Catholic or -Orthodox — way.

My point in all this is not to complain about Leithart (whom, again, I really do respect, and whose opinions I apologize for presenting extremely). I’m simply worried that the ecumenical movement he represents all too often masks its ecclesiologically dogmatic intentions with a welcoming rhetoric of “receptivity” and “unity.”

Of course the Orthodox and Catholic churches have much to learn from Protestant communions, in both belief and practice; and of course the division of the Christian world is tragic and, in a real sense, “childish.” But the mending of that division is unlikely to come from Leithart’s approach, which seeks (however subtly) to begin the conversation by demoting the Catholic and Orthodox churches to the status of Protestant denominations. Ecumenical dialogue must revolve around and wrestle with — rather than assume or ignore — the fundamental points of ecclesiological contention: sola scriptura, apostolic succession, the papal claims, and so on. The best way to do so, I submit, is to start the dialogue at the beginning of our shared Christian story, with the earliest bishops and martyrs of the Church’s life.

I’ll close this long-winded post with the far more charitable (and ecclesiologically precise) words of Gregory of Nazianzus, who so exceptionally attained the balance of truth and love that all ecumenical dialogue requires:

We seek not conquest, but the return of our brethren, whose separation from us is tearing us apart.

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