Eijk on Trent – Protestants feel insulted, but for the right reasons?

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkCardinal Eijk just can’t win. In an interview for the Reformatorisch Dagblad, which was published yesterday, he explained that the Council of Trent is still current. The statements of that Council, which aimed to put an end to certain practices which had caused the Reformation, but also wanted to emphasise the content of the faith and the consequences thereof in daily life for those who professed it, has not been scrapped in any way in the centuries after. What was said there still goes.

Protestant faith leaders in the Netherlands are none too happy with the cardinal’s clear and open explanation. The chair of the Protestant National Synod claimed that Cardinal Eijk “would give the faithful a burn-out some day”. “The claim that the church is always right is not in line with the Bible”, Gerrit de Fijter said. Well, that’s  right, if you have a Protestant understanding of what a church is. The Catholic definition of the Church, the body of Christ which enjoys the promised inspiration of the Holy Spirit, can make certain dogmatic statements (which is not the same as saying she’s always right…). Former head of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, Bas Plaisier (who himself is not too concerned with ecumenical respect for other churches) “does not understand what the cardinal is doing”, calling the statements “formal and hard”. Even Catholic professor Marcel Poorthuis had his reservations. While agreeing that Cardinal Eijk is correct in his statements about the Council and the heresies it addresses, he puts Pope emeritus Benedict XVI opposite to the cardinal, referring to the retired Pope’s statement that Martin Luther was a man of the Church. He even goes so far as to say that he expects Luther to be rehabilitated by the Church.

Cardinal Eijk called the Council of Trent a sign of the Catholic Church’s “capacity to purify herself” from errors and sinful practices. Examples of these are “the trade in offices, the unbiblical understanding of the priesthood en the lack of discipline in monasteries. In that regard, Trent has put things in order. The Council has also been very fruitful. When all the decrees had been implemented this led to a restoration of order in the Church.” The Council also delineated certain truths of the faith, which are still unchanged and valid.

The cardinal relates the anathemas that the Council issued to the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians, which says, “Anyone who preaches to you a gospel other than the one you were first given is to be under God’s curse” (1:9). “If someone does not share the faith of the Church in the Eucharist,” the cardinal explained, “he can’t receive it either. This curse or anathema essentially means you are blocked from receiving the sacraments, and in that sense it is still applicable.” But, the cardinal continues, these anathemas apply to people who refuse the truths of the Church “in full knowledge, aware of the truth and with free will”. “In a way that is a theoretical question. There are many people who have an incorrect image of the Catholic Church because they were raised that way, or they have another idea of God. You can not directly blame someone for that. You can therefore not understand the anathemas of Trent as being eternally damning for someone. God is the judge; you can and may not make that judgement as a human being.”

A clear explanation of what the Council taught about those who do not adhere to what they know to be the truth of the faith. Does this mean, as the critics I mentioned and quoted above assume, that modern Protestants are damned by the Catholic Church? No, it does not, because to be damned you must know and be aware that the Catholic Church teaches the truth and decide freely to not follow that truth. Clearly, that is not what most Protestants do: they do not believe that the Catholic Church teaches truth. If they did, why remain Protestant? Are they damned by the Council? No. Can they receive all the sacraments? Also no, but for different reason: the sacraments are also a profession of faith and an expression of the desire to belong to the community of faithful that is Christ’s Body. If you don’t share that faith, well…

Yes, all this may not be nice to hear, but it is certainly worthy of being taken seriously and read carefully before being commented on. But, seeing the cardinal as the big bully is perhaps the easier and more comfortable way…

In ecumenical relations with other church communities there is one thing that must always be at the centre: the truth. The truth that the Church, or any other community, claims, must not be hidden for the sake of “being nice to each other”. Cardinal Eijk’s explanation is not a nice one, but it is true. It is what the Catholic Church continues to profess and uphold as truth. Ecumenism is a good thing, but it can never be a reason to ignore who we are and what we hod to be true.