Response to Christina Wassell, traditional Roman Catholic view
By Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Reformed Tradition
Old Divisions Are Less Divisive
The moving and illuminating account of Christina Wassell’s spiritual journey to the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of “following Jesus” presents challenges for any response from the Reformed tradition. First, my tradition immediately confronts issues which have been dividing points between Catholic and Reformed traditions for nearly 500 years. Second, Wassell’s presentation focuses largely on an internal dialogue with Catholicism, particularly between the changed practice of the Mass and Eucharist since Vatican II, and the Traditional Latin Mass. That dialogue is very insightful, but the Reformed tradition doesn’t have much theological skin in the game in that ongoing interchange.
To begin with faithfulness to the Reformed tradition, we can note major features referred to in this presentation of Roman Catholicism that immediately raise red flags for Reformed folks and have done so for centuries. For example:
• Transubstantiation, where the Bread and Wine at the Eucharist actually become Christ. The first Reformers, while differing among themselves about how Christ and the Spirit are present in the Eucharist, all rejected the prevailing understanding of the (Catholic) church.
• The priest in the Eucharist becoming “in persona Christi,” acting “as a stand in for the one true priest, Jesus Christ.” The Reformed view, while taking seriously the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, has a less elevated view of the one who presides at the Table. The priest as one who, in the Traditional Latin Mass, stands separate, with his back to the congregation, in persona Christi, is an affront to Reformed sensibilities and collegial understandings of how a congregation embodies its identity as the Body of Christ.
• The sacrifice of Christ as the victim, repeated each time the Mass is celebrated as this moment “steps out of time,” is contrary to the Reformed understandings of the one-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and the Lord’s Supper as the time which powerfully remembers this redemptive sacrifice, rather than repeating it.
This brief and certainly inadequate summary refers only to matters specifically mentioned in the carefully crafted paper by Christina Wassell, with its primary focus on how the practice of the Eucharist is understood. Other central issues arise in a Reformed response to a Catholic understanding of how we follow Jesus, such as the nature and embodiment of authority in the church, the number and meaning of sacraments, the understanding of how and through whom God’s grace functions, and the means of salvation, to cite a few examples.
The ecumenical good news is that serious and sustained dialogue at official levels between the U.S. Conference of Bishops and the major Reformed denominations in the U.S. has been undertaken for over 50 years. Differences have been clarified, common understandings have been affirmed, and bridges of relationship and trust have been built. The major historic points of division have been addressed, such as ministry, authority, baptism, the Eucharist, and much else in well-organized rounds of this dialogue with published results. I was privileged to participate in some of the more recent sessions. (These reports can be accessed through the office and website of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, and through the ecumenical offices of participating denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Reformed Church in North America.)
Most remarkable, in my view, was the report of the understanding and mutual recognition of baptism, titled “These Living Waters.” Four years of discussion (2003-2007) produced a remarkable, ground-breaking consensus. Then, ongoing dialogue resulted in an official declaration that the baptisms of those in the U. S. Catholic church, and those in the Reformed churches, would be mutually recognized and accepted. This took place in November, 201o. This significant step and its implications are still not widely known, but provide the foundation for a more hospitable relationship between the Reformed and Catholic communities.
Moreover, the historic theological differences held between Catholic and Protestant understandings of the role of grace in the process of salvation were overcome in a joint declaration between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican in 1999, sharing “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” After more years of dialogue, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, representing most of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches throughout the world, officially affirmed this joint declaration at a ceremony in Wittenberg, Germany in 2017, 500 years after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in that town.
These ecumenical steps between the Reformed and Catholic traditions over the past 50 years make it impossible for any response to Christina Wassell’s paper from the Reformed tradition to rely on the old stereotypes and judgments of Catholicism that long dominated this relationship. The ground has been shifting. Clear differences remain, but the fruits of this dialogue demonstrate how both Reformed and Catholic traditions are coming to understand far better what it truly means for each of these expressions of the church to follow Jesus, and to accept what is held in common.
One specific premise in Christina Wassell’s presentation requires a further response. If I understand correctly, she asserts that one’s participation in the Eucharist, particularly as experienced in the Traditional Latin Mass, results in such a mystical infusion of Christ’s presence that “following Jesus” simply flows naturally. There’s no suggestion of the need for the teaching of discipleship, nor any mention of how one appropriates Catholic social teaching. A Reformed understanding would differ here. One of its strengths has been its emphasis on how to teach and learn the practices of discipleship in the context of a world and life view centered on God’s purposes of justice and reign breaking into the world. Simply participating in the Eucharist does not automatically produce the fruits of such discipleship.
(Christina Wassell’s response to this matter, just posted, is quite helpful. Yet, it seems t0 maintain the assumption, repeated in her last sentence, that witness and action in the world for God’s justice flows automatically from the Eucharist, and it omits any reference to systemic “structures of sin” which have been clearly identified by Popes even before Vatican II and regularly addressed in expressions of public theology from the Reformed tradition.)
Finally, how can the Reformed tradition be enriched by the traditional view of Catholicism presented in Wassell’s paper? I suggest three ways.
First, the framework she presents is “The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living.” The personal journey she shares emphasizes how the practice of spirituality is the driving force which then reveals deep beliefs, particularly experienced through the Eucharist, which then flows into a transformed life. The Reformed tradition often wants to start with getting beliefs right, expressed through Confessions and catechetical instruction, which then, hopefully, produces fruitful spiritual practice. But there’s a danger in always starting with the head and assuming that the heart will follow. Wassell’s paper is a helpful corrective.
Second, the Reformed tradition regards the Eucharist, which we typically call the Lord’s Supper, as a celebration of memory, reminding us of God’s work of salvation. It is kept remote, celebrated by congregations sometimes only four times a year, or once a month. Christina Wassell provides a moving portrayal of what it means in the Eucharist to participate mystically in God’s saving activity in Christ through his Presence with us, and not simply to remember this. Our traditions my differ about the technical and theological explanations of what is happening in this liturgical celebration, but for countless Reformed congregations, moving from the “observance” of the Lord’s Supper to a richer spiritual participation in this mystery through the Spirit would deepen our sacramental life.
Third, the resources of spiritual formation in the Catholic tradition, expressed through mystics, the monastic movement, pilgrimages, Ignatian practices, and so much more, were largely jettisoned by the Reformation. While those examples were not included in Wassell’s paper, that dimension is reflected in the journey that she shares. The Reformed tradition can only be enriched by reappropriating practices of spiritual formation, adapted to our own context, but shaped by streams in the Catholic tradition which, for too long, we have ignored and set aside.