The Future of Protestantism and Catholicism: A Few Orthodox Comments


Over at First Things, R. R. Reno reflects as a Roman Catholic on his recent attendance at Peter Leithart’s Future of Protestantism conference, in which Leithart et al advocated for a post-Protestant future, especially in terms of what Leithart calls “Reformed Catholicism.”

Reno notes that, while Protestants like Leithart may be looking at engaging with Catholicism to imagine their own future, Catholics largely aren’t interested in the likes of them when considering their own future. It’s an interesting piece, and I encourage you to read it first.

There are a few things I would like to comment on that appear in Reno’s piece. I agree with him that much of Protestantism is very much defined by how it isn’t Catholic. The “protest” continues—though Protestant originally did not refer to a protest in our modern sense of a complaint, but rather in the sense of making a profession of the truth, e.g., “I protest my innocence.” Sill, as Reno notes:

As Leithart put it in the provocative column that spurred the folks at Biola to plan the event (“The End of Protestantism”), “Protestantism is a negative theology; a Protestant is a not-Catholic.” Protestants don’t let man-made traditions usurp the Word of God. They don’t worship idols, don’t make salvation depend on their own efforts, don’t let the Virgin Mary replace Christ as our mediator, and so on. There’s a need for negation in the DNA of Protestantism, so much so that they often aim their “don’ts” at each other.

But having spent my first twenty-two years in the Protestant world and having remained in contact with it since that time, I think that while what Reno says may have been true for most Protestants for a long time, it is no longer universally so. Since the age of Revivalism, the Evangelical wing of Protestantism has its digestion of anti-Catholicism mostly long since accomplished. There may be the occasional reference to Catholics as a rhetorical foil in a sermon (though in my own upbringing, these were rare), but the average Evangelical, at least, doesn’t think about Catholics hardly at all. His church is focused on other things. It is in that context that this movement from Leithart actually comes. For many Protestants, Catholics are no longer the bogeyman and may actually be interesting as fellow Christians. His Protestantism is post-anti-Catholic.

And even outside Leithart’s more rarefied theologically aware circles, vast sweeps of the Evangelical world have become so focused on a more therapeutic-style and consumer-style approach to faith and worship that it’s no longer about what they’re against, but rather how they can serve the “felt needs” of congregants. I have often encountered Catholic apologists online who seem to believe that non-Catholic Christians mainly spend their time being anti-Catholic, but such triumphalistic psychoanalysis pretty much falls flat at an attendance of the Divine Liturgy (I don’t recall mentioning the pope on Sunday morning) or at a mega-church-style worship service. Catholics are just not on non-Catholics’ minds that much.

But the real meat of Reno’s piece is here:

Catholicism is different in this regard. The Church polices the boundaries of orthodoxy, of course. This requires negations, as the delicious denunciations of the Syllabus of Errors illustrate. But in the main Catholics tend to see the Church as self-sufficient, a world unto itself. Most Protestant’s [sic] sense this, and it can be very irritating to them.

I can imagine a speaker at a “Future of Catholicism” conference discussing the ways in which Pentecostalism in South America puts great pressure on the Church. Protestantism is obviously part of the world in which the Church finds herself. Moreover, the Church has an ecumenical vocation, and that requires engaging Protestantism. But on the whole when Catholics discuss or debate the future of Catholicism the issues are almost always intramural.

There are several points I would like to make here. First, while it may be true that people like Leithart and others within Protestantism want to engage with Roman Catholicism in order to ask about their own future, most Protestants are really not even concerned with Catholics at all. When asking about their future, it’s more defined in terms of market research, “reaching out,” “what will bring people in,” etc.

I have been fascinated lately by Evangelicals who are attempting to appropriate ancient Christian tradition, and thus interacting with Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but I think any broad survey of Protestants would show that most aren’t particularly interested by that stuff. It’s just not even on the radar. So while Reno’s observation about Rome being self-sufficient in terms of reflection on its future is mostly true (I’ll comment below on how it’s not), for most Protestants, it’s also true, as well. Most of them aren’t even that interested in what other Protestants are doing. On the whole, it’s a parochial world out there.

Reno also pays respect to the “ecumenical imperative,” but I found it unsatisfying, because the argument he’s set up contrasts pretty strongly with the quest for Christian unity actually being an imperative. If Christians really are committed to a full union in truth and communion between all Christians, shouldn’t their reflections on their own communion’s future be asking how they will be open to engagement with other communions? There does not have to be a tension here between remaining faithful to one’s own theological commitments and being ready for engagement. When a Catholic asks, “What is the future of Catholicism?” should he not also ask, “How will we act in the future to incorporate Protestants into Catholicism?”

And of course that last question brings me to my biggest issue with the piece. At every turn, Reno stops short of actually talking about ecclesiology. The question “What is the Church?” is what undergirds all these discussions. For communions with a strong ecclesiology who regard their own body as being in some sense exclusively the one, true Church (though that exclusiveness has been defined with more nuance in the past several decades from Rome and whose nuance has been reflected upon by Orthodoxy without precise definition), questions about the future will of course be much more “intramural.” It is because of their ecclesiology that they will largely look to themselves. If a communion is the one, true Church, going outside its boundaries to ask how it should change is tantamount to an admission that it isn’t that one, true Church.

Orthodoxy is particularly so committed to its tradition that the idea that there ought to be some radical revision of dogma, theology, spirituality and worship is pretty much unthinkable. When the Orthodox think about our future, it is in the spirit of how we can more fully express our tradition in the world in which we find ourselves. The Orthodox problem is not that Orthodoxy needs to become something else; it is that we as Christians are not really Orthodox enough.

Based on the record of post-Vatican II Catholicism, however, such radical revision is rather less unthinkable for Catholics. Despite Reno’s strong claim that Rome isn’t that interested in what Protestantism is doing—noting, for instance, that no Protestants are quoted at Vatican II—one only has to visit pretty much any Roman Catholic parish in America to see that what Protestantism is doing has had a major influence on Catholic faith and life. I even recall visiting a Catholic cathedral and thumbing through the pew book and noting the inclusion of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a hymn penned by history’s perhaps most famous ex-Catholic. One would hope that a hymn by Martin Luther would be as far as it goes, but, alas, it’s not. In some areas, Roman Catholic theology has actually gotten quite a lot more Orthodox for its engagement over the past few decades with Orthodoxy (along with its own internal Ressourcement patristic movement), but life on the ground has gotten quite a lot more Protestant.

And certainly, Leithart and company, along with their co-religionists in the rest of Protestantism, have almost no problem countenancing such revision, though they will all draw certain lines in the sand—usually, thank God, at particular dogmas. I would like to write more about this in the future, but I will at least note here that this spirit of revision among some Evangelicals that has led them to engage with Christian history is both promising and problematic. I will be forthright and say that its promise, for me, is that it may lead more folks into Orthodoxy. But its problem is this: Once you have the conscious sense that you can change what you do and incorporate something from history, why can you not change it again and just get rid of that? The conscious sense of having church life in your own hands is a toothpaste that cannot be put back into the tube. It is also why I fear for the future of Catholicism, whose toothpaste (if I may) got mightily squeezed in the years following Vatican II.

In the end, the question here is still “What is the Church?” If a Christian answers that question, then how he thinks about his communion’s future and about his own future will have a lot more clarity. For Protestants, even Leithart-style Protestants, the Church has little in the way of clear boundaries (not none, mind you, but little), and so the future is always up for grabs. Leithart himself has even promoted the idea of ecclesiological Darwinism, so the future need not look much like the present or the past. For Catholics, somewhat ironically, the future is also up for grabs, not to the degree or for the same reasons as Protestants, but because Rome’s ecclesiology is focused on one apostolic see, whose will to change can effect significant revision.

For the Orthodox Christian, the Church’s future is not about how the Church has to change, but about how Christians have to change in order to be more Churchly. Among these changes is not just an “ecumenical imperative” but rather a mission given by Christ to go into all the world and make disciples of every nation. Those who also believe in Jesus Christ as God in the flesh are especially important to us. As an Orthodox Christian reflecting on the future of Orthodoxy, my question is how I will attain the love that will not only engage with both Catholics and Protestants and even non-Christians but also that will bring me to offer myself up as a sacrifice to be sanctified by the timeless and unchanging Way given by Christ first to His holy apostles.


  1. There’s a desire in many people, at least in my younger generation, to be part of something bigger…even bigger than their megachurch. For that, it seems these congregations provide mission trips or talk about missions that the church is funding so that need is filled. They’ll also “brand and franchise” their way of doing things into sister congregations.

    It didn’t satisfy me, and I eventually found Orthodoxy. There is a sense of beauty when we enter into that timeless space of every divine service and join the church triumphant and militant in worship of our Savior…even if there are only a handful of us visibly present. That’s something that big buildings funds, sister franchises in other cities, and iPhone selfies with kids in third world countries just can’t compare to.

  2. Great article, Father. I recall, about 15 years ago, attending a Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, PA.and thinking through the missal. To my amazement, there was “A Mighty Fortress…”. In the composition notes, they cited that the lyrics were written by “A German Monk”. It was, literally, a “laugh out loud” moment.

  3. Which Catholic church? The Pope says one thing ex-cathedra and the local churches do what they like (or so it seems). The mixed messages add to the confusion. The link below written by a catholic layman addresses the exasperation some feel about one aspect of the church’s inconsistent messages. The catholic church seems to be going in so many directions at once. How can Catholics and Protestants coalesce into some kind of “unity” if protestants go hither and yon with catholic lay people trailing along behind them?

  4. Among these changes is not just an “ecumenical imperative” but rather a mission given by Christ to go into all the world and make disciples of every nation.

    OK, let’s say you get your wish: the whole world is evangelized. Everybody on the planet knows where to find an Orthodox parish and has a choice as to whether or not to be baptized in the Faith. What then?

    Does our mission include traveling to the Phillipines and telling indigenous Catholics that their forefathers got it wrong when they were baptized by Jesuit missionaries? As the True Church, the answer has to be yes but I question the efficacy of such a mission.

    Orthodoxy in America, outside of its traditional membership, is a redoubt for intellectually-minded adult converts. This demographic seems to be striving for the imagined purity and nascent enthusiasm of the Church in 33 AD, back when we were still trying to figure out what constituted a valid Eucharist. In point of fact, the Church is a venerable institution that has been in existence for two millennia. If you had asked the Church in Late Antiquity with the Emperor himself at Liturgy and the Slavs en route to the Faith, I imagine they’d have told you they finished the job.

    There are undoubtedly parts of the Global South and Asia where nobody knows where to find an Orthodox parish. Is this where our efforts should be focused? And we are pretty late in the game there as well. Benny Hinn draws huge crowds in Asia. Africa and South America have their own venerable Catholic and even Anglican dioceses.

    The competition between all the Christian churches for some corner of the world yet remaining un-churched is bound to get pretty intense.

    1. “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations.” A church that doesn’t seek to bring all people into the church isn’t THE church, or it has lost some memory of what it is to be about. The church is by definition missionary.

  5. “Does our mission include traveling to the Phillipines and telling indigenous Catholics that their forefathers got it wrong when they were baptized by Jesuit missionaries? As the True Church, the answer has to be yes but I question the efficacy of such a mission.”

    Interesting point. From one point, we are ceratin we are “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”, but could Divine Grace be found out of Orthodoxy? There is no Ecumenical council which laid genral rules. Somethimes, there are attempts to draw such rules on analogy with canons of Second Ecumenical Council. There is example of Novatian shism. Seems there was some kind of consenus, their sacraments were efficient. Also, Metropolitan John of Pergamon raises example of Saint Isaac of Niniveh (In ur Menaions we could find hem as Isaac the Syrian), bishop of Church of East, then certainly Nestorian, which is accepted as Saint by Orthodoxy. He was not part of Communio in Sacris, but he is recognised as part of Communo sanctorum. Also, Hilarion of Volkolamsk is reaching similar conclusions about Miaphysites and Roman Catholics. (Well, I think Church of East could be added to this group, of course if entire Church confirm opinions of their Eminences on this subject. Of course we speak about opinions, since there could be divergence among this two eminent theologians, on certain aspects of question). I allways remember one metaphor, by Orthodox professor of Liturgics, who compared Church to ship traveling to safe port. We do hold, that ship will bring its passengers to port, but what about people trying to reach port on smal boats? We could hope they will.

  6. We have a conference happening in Tulsa next week called “Praxis,” which is a group of neo-liturgical leaders coming together to express their different ideas about the common failed experiment called evangelicalism. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it, it is a wonderful – bloggable – opportunity. Tulsa is one on the epicenters of this movement. My guess is that the local Orthodox Churches here will see a sizable increase in attendance the week following. 🙂

  7. So, I just got around to reading this. I suspect that video used to demonstrate the influx of Protestant liturgics into Roman Catholicism is actually a video of Anglicans (or perhaps Old Catholics). The giveaway is the deaconess.

      1. To be clear, it was not my intention to say your point was unfounded, but merely that the particular example didn’t support your conclusion. 🙂

  8. Father Andrew’s comment, for Roman Catholics, “the future is up for grabs” is why I became Orthodox. One can imagine a new “progressive” Pope steering the Catholic church in a new direction. Protestant styles of casual worship and modern religious ideas have influenced many Catholics parishes. Also,I have read biblical and theological works by Catholic academics that are similar in methodology and content to (liberal) modern Protestant works. Finally,true,it is so difficult to engage some other christians in humility and love.

  9. What’s up with that ash wednesday selfie? My ashes NEVER were that neat when I was Catholic lol

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