GRAND RAPIDS — More than 400 years after the Protestant Reformation, the Christian Reformed Church is trying to take back a historic slap against the Catholic Church.
It’s not easy.
Delegates to the CRC Synod spent about three hours Wednesday attempting to tone down a 1563 Protestant doctrine declaring the Catholic Mass "a condemnable idolatry."
That section of the Heidelberg Catechism, a preaching and teaching tool for many Protestant churches, still smarts for West Michigan Catholics who work with or marry CRC members.
Two years ago, the CRC Synod declared the controversial passage no longer should apply as written. What they could not decide — and still could not Wednesday — was what to put in its place.
In classic CRC fashion, delegates debated a complicated compromise. A study committee proposed keeping the passage but putting it in brackets, accompanied by a footnote explaining members are not required to recognize it.
The aim is to preserve the integrity of a historic text but also "function as a warning" against any idolatrous teachings that deny Christ’s final sacrifice.
Advocates said the catechism got the Catholic Mass wrong in the midst of the Reformation’s theology war. The CRC consulted with Catholic bishops and their findings were reviewed by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by the future Pope Benedict XVI.
"It demonstrates the maturing of the Christian Reformed Church to the point where we can look at our own mistakes of the past and own up to them," said the Rev. Lyle Bierma, a Calvin Theological Seminary professor who chaired the committee.
The condemnation muddies good working relationships with Catholics and is unlike any other catechism passage, said the Rev. Harry Winters Jr. of Akron, Ohio.
"It’s the only one that instead of expressing what we believe, turns on someone else, expresses what they believe and condemns it," Winters said.
Bishop Walter Hurley, leader of West Michigan’s 163,000 Catholics, gave the Synod high marks for tackling "a complex issue rooted in historically conditioned documents."
"I respect whatever decision they make," Hurley said. "It’s something I find encouraging and that can only bring us closer together."
But delegates got tangled in the wording of a proposed footnote longer than the passage itself. Some argued to keep the condemnation as is, saying the Catholic Eucharist denies that Christ’s crucifixion paid for humanity’s sins once and for all.
"If the Roman Catholic Church conforms to that, glory be to God," said the Rev. James den Dulk of Sparta. "But don’t change the Heidelberg Catechism until that time."
Well that is at least progress, but I would suggest that Rev. James den Dulk simply pick up a Catechism to find what the Church teaches on the subject so that he can affirm his "Glory be to God."
The sacrificial memorial of Christ and of his Body, the Church
1362 The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body. In all the Eucharistic Prayers we find after the words of institution a prayer called the anamnesis or memorial.
1363 In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. 184 In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them.
1364 In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. 185 "As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out." 186
1365 Because it is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution: "This is my body which is given for you" and "This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood." 187 In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." 188
1366 The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:
[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper "on the night when he was betrayed," [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit. 189
1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: "The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different." "And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory."