Catholic involvement in the Reformation?

The title is a bit deceptive, I know, but it has some relevance. Nederlands Dagblad reports that the Catholic Church in the Netherlands will officially take part in the commemmoration of 500 years of Reformation. The program titled Refo500 builds up towards 2017, when it is 500 years since Martin Luther  published his Ninety-five Theses. Since then, of course, the various (and increasingly numerous) Protestant church communities have gone their own way.

Much can be said about the Reformation from a Catholic point of view and the question may be asked of how useful it is to partake in an event that seemingly celebrates the fact that a significant number of Christians are no longer part of the one Church. What possible merit could their be in a Catholic acknowledgement of the Reformation as a good thing (because that is the point of celebrating, of course)?

Speaking for the Catholic Society for Ecumenism, Mr. Geert van Dartel says, “We think it is important that this commemoration is not one-sided, from a reformed standpoint. […] The Reformation was a process of action and reaction.”

He has a point. The Reformation directly led to the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, which was a major impulse for the Church, and its influence is still visible. However, the Counter-Reformation, as the name implies, was very much anti-Reformation.

Karla Apperloo of Refo500: “We did not describe the term ‘Reformation’ when it comes to content. That allows space for a Catholic partner to also shine a light on the Catholic Reformation.”

Let’s hope that this space will be used for more than a mere focus on how much we have in common. That is important, of course, and the commonalities between the Church and church communities must be the basis for future ecumenism, but the differences can’t be ignored. The simple fact is that the gap between the Catholic Church and the Protestant church communities is bigger than that among any two Protestant communities. A focus on the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Catholic identity, at least from the Catholic parties, will do more for ecumenism then a celebration of mutual friendship.

The Society for Ecumenism als states that: “The divisive meaning of the great theological questions from the 16th century […] have been superseded by faith.”

And that is a bit worrying, because it seems to indicate that faith alone is left, and that all the problems and divisions are gone. But they are not. The understanding of what makes a Church is radically different between Catholics and Protestants.

I noticed that myself during the conference of Christian student groups in Groningen, a few weeks ago. The various Protestant groups seemed to consider their brands of Christianity to be mere ‘tastes’  or ‘preferences’: it doesn’t really matter what sort of Christian you are , as long as it suits you. That approach makes the individual believer, and not God, the arbitrator of what faith  and church are: they establish the church and decide what it should be. The Catholic sense of what the Church is is the total opposite: The Church has been instituted by Christ, and so He has the final power of decision. We are workers in His vineyard, but we can’t decide what His Church must be or do. The Holy Spirit does so through His people, but the initiative always lies with Him. The foundations of the Church have been given, not made by us. The Church is therefore much more than a taste of preference. It asks us to join Christ on His terms. It requires a certain level of faith and trust that through God we will find true freedom and life.

The differences are there, even in as summarised a version of the problem as mine above. We may share the same faith in Christ, but that does not mean we are all the same. In order to be the same, we must first now what ‘the same’ means.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a detour from the Refo500 events. Let’s hope and pray that a Catholic presence will make a difference. 500 years of Reformation is long enough. Time for the experiment to be over.

A look back at the conference

The conference I attended yesterday afternoon was certainly interesting. All in all, a dozen or so student societies and other groups were represented, all of them Christian in some way, shape or form.  The introductions included some words from Prof. Zwarts (pictured), Rector Magnificus of the university, about what he thinks the role of the Christian societies in the larger framework of the university should be. He sees them as anchor points in the expanding student population in the city, that can help people keep their bearings in the large anonymous and often new world of university life. He said he counts on them to maintain the human side of things, while the university obviously works on the academic and official business. It was quite surprising to see how much value Prof. Zwarts attaches to having specifically Christian groups involved with a secular university.

The first major item of the conference were the so-called ‘talks by representatives of the various groups’. I was one of those, teamed up with a fellow representing a Reformed (Liberated) group. It turned out to be more of an interview times five. In five ten-minute rounds we were asked questions about who we were and what we did, with a new audience every time. So a lot was repeated, but it was quite informative. For one, I found that the Reformed (Liberated) group is not too dissimilar from our student parish in the way it works, so perhaps some cooperation may be possible with them in the future.

After a break and a short talk by a professor in early church and New Testament studies on open communication (he postulated that the two seemingly separate bodies of church and society, while legitimately so, should not be isolated from each other), we teamed up in smaller groups, not by affiliation of denomination, but toally random, to throw ideas for future cooperation about. What could we do and what not, what kind of ideas already exist, what can we learn from each other, that sort of stuff. These ideas were then dicussed by the chairman for the day, who picked a few good ones and suggested we realise them.

All in all, the conference was fruitful. Form our perspective there is certainly is a wide gap between the various Protestant denominations on the one hand and the Catholic Church on the other, but there was a lot of interest in us and enthusiasm for our presence. In the past, Bishop Eijk pulled us out of the general Christian platform to maintain our identity (and rigthly so, because a short while later that platform went from generally Christian to generally spiritual), but many people apparently were sorry to see us go.

In the next couple of days, the suggested ideas will be committed to paper and hopefully we’ll be able to work some of them out and maintain the contacts we have tentatively established. I think that the Reformed (Liberated) group and their miniter, as well as the Navigators, whose motto is as simple as knowing and witnessing Christ, can be good partners for us. We will be working towards a first event on Shrove Tuesday; we invited representatives of the groups at the conference to come and visit us then for drinks, a tour of the cathedral and a chance to get to know us a bit more.