Report on Catholic-Reformed Relations

Author: Mons. John A. Radano

Report on Catholic-Reformed Relations

Mons. John A. Radano

New steps towards the healing of memories

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) have completed two phases of International dialogue, the first during 1970-77, the second 1984-90, both of which published reports.

A third phase began in 1998 and its participants are now working to finalize its report. There have been other important contacts as well.

The two reports have documented important convergences on issues such as (1977) teaching authority of the Church, the presence of Christ in the world, the Eucharist and ministry, and (1990) Christ as the one Mediator between God and humanity, the notion of justification, classical Reformed and Catholic notions of the Church.

The reports have also documented the significant differences still remaining, especially on the questions of the ministry and of the Church.

Over the decades significant attention in Catholic-Reformed relations has been given to the healing and reconciliation of historical memories. This is reflected in the international dialogue report (second phase), in specific statements and gestures of Pope John Paul II and also in specific actions taken by some member churches of WARC.

The report of the second phase of dialogue (Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, 1990) dedicated the first of four chapters to the theme: "Toward a Reconciliation of Memories". It was one of the first extensive treatments of the matter in international dialogue. It sought mutual understanding of what happened in the 16th century by presenting a Reformed perspective and then a Catholic perspective of ecclesiological and Reforming concerns at that time.

Initial versions were done by each separately; the final versions were the result of reading and reviewing the drafts together, learning from one another, and, because of
this, modifying what had been written separately.

The two admit that "over the centuries our forbears had often misunderstood each others' motives and language" (n. 15). All of this, it says, has contributed now to a "certain reassessment of the past, clearing away misunderstanding".

It urges that the next step be to move towards "a reconciliation of memories" in which we begin to share "one sense of the past rather than two" (n. 16). The dialogue thus gives our two communities a push to go in that direction.

Papal attempts to foster healing

Pope John Paul II has also made important statements and gestures over the years, in meetings with Reformed Christians, which foster a healing of memory. For example, addressing French Protestants in Paris, 1980, the Pope urged that "our personal and community memory must be purified of the memory of all the conflicts, injustice and hatred of the past... through mutual forgiveness from the depths of our hearts" (Information Service [IS] 44 [1980]:84). To achieve a healing and purification of memory the Pope has called for common study of history.

While visiting Switzerland in 1984, when the Reformed were celebrating significant anniversaries of the Reformers Zwingli and Calvin, he expressed the hope that Swiss Catholics and Protestants would "write the history of that troubled and complex period together with objectivity rooted in charity (IS 55 [1984]:47).

When visiting Czechoslovakia in 1990 where the reformer John Hus (15th century) is remembered, John Paul II challenged experts to "define more precisely the place which John Hus occupies among the reformers of the Church" (IS 75 [19901:139).

In Debrecen, Hungary, December 1991, after addressing an ecumenical service in the Reformed Church, John Paul II personally visited and offered prayers at a monument, on the church grounds, to Reformed people who, during the 17th century religious wars, were sold as galley slaves (IS 80 [1992]:4).

All of these gestures help to promote a healing of memory.

Member churches of WARC have taken actions which foster a healing of memory with Catholics. Two significant events took place in 2004.

One was an action by the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) relating to The Book of Confessions, a collection of Reformed confessions written from the 16th century up to recent times, through which it states its faith and bears witness to God's grace in Jesus Christ. Through these confessions the PC (U.S.A.) declares what it is, what it believes and what it resolves to do.

The confessions, as a report before the Assembly reminded them, guide, direct and equip the whole people. Persons being ordained as ministers, elders or deacons in the PC (U.S.A.) vow to receive and adapt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confession and to be instructed and guided by them.

A statement concerning The Confessional Nature of the Church adopted by the 1986 PC (U.S.A.) Assembly explained, from a Reformed perspective, that "Most confessions have been intended as polemical defence of true Christian faith... against perversion from within as well as attacks from outside the church. They are the church's means of preserving the authenticity and purity of its faith".

Given the polemics of the 16th and 17th centuries, some of the confessions from that time include strong anti-Catholic language.

Against anti-Catholic language

In light of this, the PC (U.S.A.) Assembly in 2004 approved the following policy statement in which it distances itself from such anti-Roman-Catholic language in the confessions, saying that it does not represent PC (U.S.A.) understanding of the Catholic Church today:
"Specific statements in the 16th and 17th century confessions and catechisms in The Book of Confessions contain condemnations and derogatory characterizations of the Catholic Church: Chapters XVIII and XXII of the Scots Confession; Questions and Answer 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism; and Chapter II, III, XVII and XX of the Second Helvetic Confession. (Chapters XXII, XXV and XXIX of the Westminster Confession of Faith have been amended to remove anachronous and offensive language. Chapter XXVIII of the French Confession does not have constitutional standing). While these statements emerged from substantial doctrinal disputes, they reflect 16th and 17th century polemics. Their condemnations and characterizations of the Catholic Church are not the position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and are not applicable to current relationships between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Catholic Church".

The polemical statements in question will not be removed from these confessions because they are historical documents. However, this new policy will be made clear by inserting the policy statement just mentioned into the Preface to The Book of Confessions.

The Office of the General Assembly was also instructed to include footnotes to relevant sections, referring to the policy statement in the Preface of all future editions of The Book of Confessions.

Furthermore, hoping to broaden the impact of this action, the Assembly asked that conversations be initiated with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, seeking a WARC statement on this issue.

The impact of Ut Unum Sint was felt here. The "Rationale" given to the Assembly to explain this action says the issue of 16th and 17th century condemnations has been before their ecumenical committee "since the two conversations between a delegation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Vatican's Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU)". This refers to two meetings.

The PC (U.S.A.) used the occasion of a visit of the Pontifical Council's then President Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy to its headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, in December 2000, to prepare a written response to the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint concerning the Petrine Ministry. This was discussed with the Cardinal during his visit.

A large PC (U.S.A.) delegation followed this up with a visit to Rome in March 2001, where for two days the delegation continued the discussion on their response, now with the new PCPCU President, Cardinal Walter Kasper, and the Council's staff and consultants. The communiqué from the latter meeting made various proposals for further exploration of issues which have separated us..

Among these was the continuing study together of the events in the 16th and 17th centuries which led to our divisions, and the hope that it may become possible to declare that the pejorative statements made against each other in the past are not in keeping with our view of each other today.

The action taken by the Assembly, described above, is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s implementation of that proposal.

Clarifying Catholic teaching

A second event in 2004 concerns an other WARC member church, the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA). This church has also recently taken a significant action in its 2004 Synod.

It acknowledged that the presentation of the Catholic Mass in Question and Answer 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) does not correctly represent Catholic teaching. Q&A 80 says of the Catholic Mass, for example:

"But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have their sins forgiven through the suffering of Christ unless Christ is still offered for them daily by the priests".

Based on this and other matters, such as a presentation lacking nuance of Catholic teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it states:

"Thus, the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and [basically nothing but] a condemnable idolatry".

Q&A 80's presentation on this was challenged by CRCNA members at the 1998 CRCNA
Synod meeting. This led CRCNA to engage in dialogue with Catholic theologians appointed by the Bishops' Conferences of the U.S.A. and Canada, to seek clarification concerning Catholic teaching on the Mass.

The proper presentation of Catholic doctrine on the Mass as expressed in the resulting report was confirmed by the U.S.A. and Canadian Conferences of Bishops and by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Thus, based on recommendations of its Interchurch Relations Committee, the CRCNA Synod in 2004 declared that:

"Q&A 80 can no longer be held in its current form as part of our confession given our study of official Roman Catholic teaching and extensive dialogue with official representatives of the Roman Catholic Church".

The Synod will also bring this discussion and the relevant reports to the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC), an international body of about 35 Reformed Churches of which CRCNA is a member (besides recently becoming a member of WARC), for review at REC's next assembly in July 2005.

Thus, a healing of memory between Reformed and Catholics has been fostered through dialogue, through statements and gestures of Pope John Paul II and through actions by some Reformed churches acknowledging that certain judgments made in 16th- and 17th-century confessions no longer apply today.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 February 2005, page 11

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