The Reformation & An Ecumenism Of Indifference
A group of Catholic protesters in Brussels were carried out of the Catholic cathedral there for praying the rosary during a Protestant service marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Catholic Archdiocese of Brussels gave the Protestants permission to hold their service thereThe protesters handed out a leaflet that read:
Our Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula is a Catholic building built by our fathers to be a House of God, for the celebration of the holy Mass, for the praise of God and the saints.
The occupation of our cathedral by Protestants to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is therefore a profanation.
Indeed, the so-called Reformation was really a revolt: under the pretext of combatting abuses, Luther rebelled against the divine authority of the Catholic Church, denied numerous Truths of the Faith, abolished the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments, rejected the necessity of good works and the practice of Christian virtues. Finally, he attacked the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints, the religious life and monastic vows.
This terrible revolution was a great tragedy for Christian society and for the salvation of souls. And the Lutheran errors are still heresies today because the Truth is eternal.
It is nice not to have a dog in this fight, being Orthodox, but I have to say that I do not understand why Catholics would allow Protestants to commemorate the Reformation in a Catholic church, nor why Protestants would want to do so. I may have misread the story, and it disappeared behind a paywall before I could get past the first paragraph, but a Belgian newspaper reported that Evangelical Protestants in Brussels chose not to participate in this commemoration; it was the Belgian version of Mainline Protestants.
Although a large majority of Belgians – around three quarters of the population – are nominally Catholic, and a majority (though declining) of children are baptised Catholic every year, observance is extremely low even by Western European standards. The last official statistics showed weekly Mass attendance at a mere 11 per cent, but those figures were published as long ago as 1998. The very fact that the Belgian hierarchy no longer publishes estimates lends support to anecdotal accounts suggesting that observance has fallen markedly since then, even in traditionally devout Flanders. In today’s Belgium, religious observance is mainly the preserve of the elderly, or of the Muslim minority.
More recent figures from the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels show that mass attendance in the capital has declined to only 1.5 percent of the population. Parishes there average only 100 attendees at Sunday mass. More:
This is striking, because Belgium is a nation that was largely founded on its Catholic identity. The country was originally carved out of the southern provinces which, during the Dutch War of Independence, had resisted the Protestant Reformation and remained loyal to Spain. The University of Louvain was for centuries a major centre of Catholic thought, and Belgian Catholic art was recognised across Europe. And, while the country has become ever more polarised between its Flemish and French-speaking halves – with decentralised governments, separate media, political parties, educational systems – the Catholic Church, along with the monarchy and the national football team, is one of the very few all-Belgian institutions left standing.
Little of this culture remains, though. Even considering the linguistic divide, Flanders was traditionally very strongly Catholic, while French-speaking Wallonia was more influenced by the secular regime in neighbouring France. But today, while Belgium threatens to split in two, that religious divide has mostly disappeared.
This is why the Archdiocese welcomes Protestants to celebrate the Reformation in the Catholic cathedral, and the non-Evangelical Protestants accept: they are unified by indifference. If Christianity is to have a future at all in Belgium, it will be in the Evangelical churches that stayed away, and among Catholics who showed up to protest by praying the rosary. There is no reason at all for these Christians to consider each other enemies. But it is a great paradox that Christians (on both sides of the Reformational divide) who take the faith and its claims seriously understand how inappropriate it is to have this event.
One imagines that Pope Francis would disagree. Two years ago, he appeared to give a Lutheran woman permission to receive Communion in a Catholic church, after consulting her conscience.
I first visited Belgium in 2004 to attend a theology conference in Leuven. The conference Mass was the most bizarre liturgical experience of my life. It did not take place in any of the many churches in Leuven, but in the conference room itself. Part of the ritual took the form of watching a video of the 11 September 2001 attack on the twin towers while listening to mood music. One of the participants from Holland was dressed in a folk costume and looked like a member of The Village People. There was also a Nigerian priest who was treated like an idiot because he expressed respect for Cardinal Arinze. I took some flak for being critical of the culture of modernity and one polite person apologized to me by saying, “You see, around here people think of you as an ally of Joseph Ratzinger”!
My overall impression was that Leuven was like a town that had been hit by a neutron bomb – the kind of bomb that kills people but leaves buildings intact. All the Gothic buildings remained – the outward symbols of a once vibrant Catholic culture were still on view as tourist attractions – but the people who worked within the buildings seemed not to be the original inhabitants, but another people who had moved in after some terrible cataclysm and were ill at ease with what had gone before. Our Lady, the Seat of Wisdom, and Patroness of Leuven, appeared marginalized.
A few years later I attended another theology conference, this time in Krakow. A Belgian professor delivered the keynote address in the hall of the Polish Academy of the Arts and Sciences. He veered off topic and gave a rousing oration in favour of the projects of the culture of death (eugenics, euthanasia, a tax on babies, and so on). He even argued that anyone who opposed contraception should be convicted of a criminal offense. To be sure, not all the conference participants were supporters of Humanae Vitae, but they were completely shocked that such an anti-life and totalitarian speech could be given in the hall of the Polish Academy just a couple of hours drive from Auschwitz. What stunned the participants was the closeness of the ideology of the speaker to that of the Nazi ideologues whose spectres (metaphorically speaking) still haunt the streets of Krakow.
A quick Google search revealed that the illustrious academic had been Jesuit educated in Antwerp and was a product of the University of Leuven. A more recent Google search revealed that last year he ended his life by being given a lethal injection in the presence of his children. He at least had the virtue of practicing what he preached, but I wondered how someone who was Jesuit educated in the 1930s could end up in such a spiritual state. In an interview given not long before his death, he said that religion is nonsense, a childish explanation for things that science has yet to fathom.
So much for the Catholic Church in Belgium.
I’m sure I’ll be blogging more than a few times this week about the Reformation. I’ll put my cards on the table here: I think the Reformation was a catastrophic tragedy for Christianity.
I understand and respect Catholics who believe that Luther et alia were bad men who did a bad thing. I mean, I understand why they believe that, and it makes sense given their theological convictions. I don’t begrudge them that view. But you don’t have to dig too deeply into history to be shocked and appalled by the corruption in the Roman Catholic institution of the 16th century. If it had not been for that corruption, the Reformation would likely not have happened. The Reformation can be seen as a judgment on the Church of Rome for its sins. If I were Catholic, I would mark the Reformation’s 500th anniversary in mourning for the wounds to the church universal, caused in large part by the sins of my Catholic ancestors.
I understand and respect Protestants who believe that Luther et alia were heroes who liberated true Christianity. It makes sense given their theological convictions, and I don’t begrudge them that view. But five centuries on, it is hard to see that the radical fragmentation within Protestantism is what the Reformers desired, or even foresaw, and it’s also hard to believe that Jesus, who prayed for church unity (John 17:21) is pleased by the dissolution the Reformation caused.
As you know, I was born into Protestantism, converted to Catholicism as an adult, and then later to Eastern Orthodoxy. I love my Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters in the Christian faith, and am grateful for what they have taught and given me, and continue to teach and give me. Yet I will observe the Reformation’s anniversary as an occasion for mourning the tragic divisions within the Church — a division that implicates Orthodoxy too, in the Great Schism of 1054, separating the Orthodox East from the Roman Catholic West. If I am alive in 2054 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of that event, you can be sure that I will be praying penitentially over the sins of the Catholics and the Orthodox that led to that tragedy.
I favor ecumenism, to a point. I do not believe in an ecumenism that effectively denies the differences among the various expressions of the Christian faith. To me, that’s what this particular Protestant ceremony permitted in a Catholic church did, on both Protestant and Catholic sides. That is an ecumenism of indifference, and neither Protestantism nor Catholicism (nor, for that matter, Orthodoxy) can stand on it without falling.