Too catholic to be Catholic?

Peter Leithart has written an interesting post on a question that he is asked (with varying degrees of friendliness or hostility, depending on source): why not just swim the Tiber already?

Leithart talks of the pain which the church’s divisions cause him, which I think many of us can share:

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.  I think our main response to this half-millennium of Western division, and millennium-plus of East-West division, should be deep mourning and repentance.

However, he continues, “it’s because I am so passionate to see the church reunited that I, not grudgingly but cheerfully, stay where I am”. He then presents two broad arguments as to why he considers himself to be “too catholic to become Catholic or Orthodox”.

The first is a fairly familiar list of objections to Catholic teachings (though I’ve been a Lutheran for long enough to do a double-take at his suggestion that iconoclasm is part of “true catholicism”):

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.

These are not, however, the “primary driving reasons” for Leithart to remain Protestant (probably just as well, I suspect a Catholic reader of that list would observe). Far more important to him is the question of what becoming a Catholic would say about his former Christian life, and the life and faith of those he left behind:

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 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.  […] Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that?  I’m too catholic to do that.

I do wonder how “catholic” Leithart really is here, though. After all, his list of objections to Catholic and Orthodox teachings imply that Catholics and Orthodox believers are obscuring the free grace of God, muzzling the word of God, and engaging in systematic idolatry in almost every element of their worship. It’s hard to see how that is any better than the Catholic Church calling Peter Leithart a “separated brother” or claiming that he is not validly ordained.

Setting that aside, it seems to me there are two slightly separate issues here: the question of whether one could be a Catholic, and the question of whether one could become a Catholic. What Leithart sees as the errors of Catholicism would prevent him from being a Catholic, and what he sees as the sectarianism of Catholicism would prevent him from becoming a Catholic. Or to put it another way: however truly “catholicity” might be found in the Roman Catholic Church (as it clearly is, for Leithart, even if in his view mixed with errors), the costs of becoming a Catholic would only be worth paying if to do so were absolutely necessary. And for Leithart, it is not necessary.