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Defending Reformation feast days

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Against a detractor of the same
γνῶθι σεαυτόν.
Know thyself.
—The Oracle at Delphi

Every year, a substantive minority of Christian churches celebrate the Protestant Reformation during the final week of October. The first of these “feast days” is Reformation Sunday, which takes place on the last Sunday of the month; the second is Reformation Day, which is celebrated on October 31, when Martin Luther nailed up his Ninety-Five Theses. Curiously, some other Christians really, really hate this. In a recent declamation against such apparently superstitious practices, the Rev. Robert Hendrickson, sub-dean of St. John’s Cathedral (Denver), pontificated:

Those churches that celebrate “Reformation Sunday” are celebrating human blindness to the wholeness of Christ’s own Body. They are celebrating our inability to find wholeness in the midst of division. They are celebrating the triumph of “rightness” over relationship. They are celebrating the elevation of “right thoughts” over grace and comprehension.

Not unlike the Inquisition in its more catechetical moments, Hendrickson is here to set us straight and tell us precisely what we should and should not think about Reformation feast days.

Hendrickson’s definition of catholicity is central to his argument. Importantly, his definition has nothing to do with what the early Church fathers (or anyone else ever) understood by the term. For example, from the fourth century onward, the ecumenical councils defined catholicity with reference to both orthodoxy and unity. We catch elements of this in the Creed of St. Athanasius (whether rightly or wrongly attributed), which defined the Catholic faith as orthodox belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation. Similarly, St. Vincent of Lerins understood catholicity as “that which has been believed always, everywhere, and by all.” From this ancient viewpoint, catholicity unites because it is objective in its content no less than its presence (and from this same ancient viewpoint, the two cannot be separated). But Hendrickson thinks differently. “Sadly,” he laments, “we have determined that dogma somehow takes precedence over the harder and more essentially catholic work of being in relationship.” Hendrickson privileges the subjective over the objective because “The wholeness of Catholicity is not about right or wrong.” By offering a definition of true (re: right?) catholicity, Hendrickson shows us how wrong it is to insist on being right. Thank Heaven for this clerical clarification, liberating us from all orthodox obfuscation!

But if all of this is so, why speak against Reformation Sunday? If Catholicity “is not about right and wrong,” then there is no rational basis for speaking against any Reformation feast day. If Hendrickson were consistent, he would not complain about such popular Protestant pieties. Rather, he would embrace “the harder and more essentially catholic work of being in relationship” with those who celebrate Reformation Sunday. The law is our teacher — but if there is no law, then no divine pedagogy exists which might train our reason. Without reason, the will alone becomes the sole determinant of our actions. Justification is always external to the one who longs to be justified — and thus like reason, the will cannot justify itself. By irrationally rejecting the need for reformation, Hendrickson therefore also rejects the possibility of justification. He invites us to partake of an ecclesiology which simply wills, with neither reason nor rhyme. Such a will is wholly in bondage to itself.

Perhaps Hendrickson is also fundamentally wrong in the motives that he ascribes to his purportedly uncatholic adversaries. Perhaps those who celebrate Reformation feast days are less blind to the realities of the Church than those who decry such solemnities. Those who celebrate Reformation Sunday at least recognize the objective presence of the Church’s own history, and despite much historical wretchedness (on everyone’s part) these Protestant pilgrims have found something historically good which elevates their minds to the contemplation of more divine things. No doubt, in praising Martin Luther (and whomever else), they are positively medieval in their devotion to a set of rose-tinted ahistorical claims about glorious reformers who lived in a glorious past that never was. And yet, it has ever been thus in the Church Catholic, with its cult of the saints, with its miracle-working relics and its wonder-working tombs. If our only alternatives are between Hendrickson’s “catholicity” and the celebration of Reformation feast days, then it is better for us to ponder the words and deeds of the imperfectly pious than to waste our time with inarticulate and misguided bursts of wholly untheological passion.

In his clumsy opening salvo, Hendrickson wishes us to believe that “There is no such thing as “Reformation Sunday.” Or, at least, there is no such thing as Reformation in the heart of God. There is only the Church.” Sed contra: the Church is in via and on our earthly pilgrimage there will always be a need for reformation — for repentance, restoration, and renewal. The metanoia of the individual and the metanoia of the Church are one and the same; they long and strive for the same eschatological end, when our theology will no longer be in via but in se. In his higher, mightier, and holier-than-thou snub of Reformation feast days, Hendrickson has fundamentally missed the most basic of Christian messages: “Follow thou me.” In these words of Jesus, we are called to repentance and thus to the Church in space and time, in and as the company of all faithful people. Few things are more hypocritical than clergy who cry out “the Church, the Church” even as they butcher orthodoxy, devotion, and unity. If we truly anguish over the Church, then let us beat our breasts, rend our clothes, and sign our foreheads with ashes. The cry and the lament of Reformation should move us to nothing if not these.

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