Catholics and Lutherans Find Common Ground as Reformation's 500th Anniversary Approaches

A U.S. task force commissioned by the U.S. bishops and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has produced a new ‘touchstone’ on the way toward full reconciliation — but substantial obstacles still remain.

Pope Francis meets with Rev. Jens-Martin Kruse at Rome's Evangelical Lutheran Church on Nov. 15.
Pope Francis meets with Rev. Jens-Martin Kruse at Rome's Evangelical Lutheran Church on Nov. 15. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

WASHINGTON — After 498 years since the Reformation, Catholics and Lutherans have moved from the divisions of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to 32 statements of agreement, according to a groundbreaking new document that summarizes the results of 50 years of ecumenical dialogue.

A new milestone in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue was marked in October, when top theologians, representing respectively the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), created a new baseline for further ecumenical discussion called “Declaration on the Way,” which revealed how much closer the two churches had come together.

“It is a step moving towards unity,” said Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, co-chair of the Catholic-Lutheran task force of scholarly theologians that worked for two years to produce the document. “It very much fits with Pope Francis’ call for dialogue and drawing closer together.”

Bishop Madden said the declaration was a response to the expressed desire of Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, that the achievements of the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue be compiled and summarized in a single document.

The declaration’s 32 “Statements of Agreement” on the nature of the church, ministry and the Eucharist — complete with supporting documentation and scholarship — are drawn from the past 50 years of Catholic-Lutheran national and international agreements. The declaration also contains 15 points of disagreement of varying degrees that it recommended should be explored in further dialogues. It also contains suggestions for how both Catholic and Lutheran parishes could grow closer together, while the theological dialogue is ongoing.

“It has been well-received. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity said they were happy with the document,” he said, adding the Vatican office suggested that the document be shared at the parish level — “so that the people in the pews might get some benefit from it” — and be forwarded to International Commission for Lutheran Catholic Dialogue.

“We’re hoping that people will prayerfully heed this document,” Bishop Madden said.

Rev. Joy Schroeder, a pastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, professor at Trinity Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and member of the task force, said the ELCA will be likely voting on the document next summer to affirm this.

“It is our hope that the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity will find some ways to even more formally approve this declaration of consensus that we’ve already found,” she said.


Unprecedented Agreement

Jesuit Father Jared Wicks, a professor at the Pontifical College Josephinium in Columbus, Ohio, and a member of the task force, said the main effort was on the 32 points of agreement “and demonstrating them solidly from the dialogues that have taken place — the work of our predecessors.”

As a secondary effort, the task force identified 15 points of differences, which they suggested be material for further dialogue carried on both in the United States and globally.

“In 10 of those 15 points of differences, we showed there is very good convergence,” he said, such that they did not judge them as “church-dividing,” but legitimate areas of disagreement. However, “five were clearly out there as church-dividing differences.”

One of these dividing differences was women’s ordination, which the declaration described as a “formidable obstacle.” The Catholic Church and the members of the LWF also hold divergent views on some moral issues, such as homosexuality.


Working Through 500 Years of Division

The milestone in dialogue comes as the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation are getting ready to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

“We both see this as no time for celebration, but, rather, a time to see how we can go further along the way,” Bishop Madden said.

The Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has produced a common history of the Reformation and the theological issues involved in a document called “From Conflict to Communion — Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.”

A joint ecumenical commemoration is also in the works for 2016.

Rev. Schroeder said that the commemorations will eschew a sort of “Lutheran triumphalism,” but instead take a different tone: “celebrating the gifts that Luther gave to the Church, but also commemorating the pain that the division has caused.”

“It would be my hope that Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches together might commemorate this 500-year anniversary,” she said. “We hope that this declaration will be well-timed, so that Catholic and Lutheran parishes might study this together, as well as Lutheran and Catholic seminarians, so that we understand how much we have in common.”

While the ecumenical agreements are important, the expectations for the immediate future are tempered by realism.

“Christians should always be hopeful, but hopeful is not to mean optimistic,” Michael Root, a professor at The Catholic University of America, who has taken part in ecumenical dialogue representing the Lutheran side of his faith until his conversion to Catholicism in 2010. But unforeseen changes do happen, he said, such as the Church’s affirmation of ecumenical dialogue that took place at the Second Vatican Council.

“One needs to be open to do the work,” he said.

Root said the dialogues have resulted in real achievements and have covered enormous ground in the past 50 years.

“When the dialogue first started, there were few contacts, and they were far more negative,” he said.

Father Wicks noted that the prelude to Vatican II’s endorsement of ecumenical dialogue was the common persecution and martyrdom that Lutherans and Catholics experienced at the hands of Nazi Germany. This ecumenism of blood was a pivotal moment that followed with ecumenical contacts between their respective theologians from 1945 until the start of the Second Vatican Council.


Shared Communion?

The declaration’s conclusion invited the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation to create a process and timetable for addressing the remaining issues. While acknowledging that existing differences between the churches prevent them from sharing in communion, it suggested that expanded opportunities for Lutherans and Catholics to receive holy Communion together, such as in the case of spouses in mixed marriages, be explored.

According to the Ecumenical Directory, Catholics can only receive the sacraments from a minister the Catholic Church recognizes as validly ordained. However, non-Catholic Christians can receive holy Communion in danger of death, when their own minister is not available, and if they “manifest Catholic faith in this sacrament and be properly disposed.” The directory also gives bishops the discretion to establish general norms for evaluating “situations of grave and pressing need” besides danger of death.

“We make mention that most people are not aware of that, and we wanted to see if there could be an amplification of those provisions,” Bishop Madden said.

Father Wicks said one of the issues involved for a couple in an “ecumenical marriage” is that reciprocal communion is not possible under the current discipline. A further issue is that for a Lutheran to manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament would mean to assent to the content of the Church’s Eucharistic prayers, which include invocations of the saints and recognition of the authority of the Pope and the local bishop. He or she could not simply refuse to assent to the content of the prayers and then present themselves for Communion.

“We’ve got to walk carefully along this route,” he said.

The issue of shared communion was highlighted by Pope Francis himself in November, when he took part in a question-and-answer session at Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. In response to a question posed by a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man who asked if she could receive Communion by virtue of her Christian baptism in accordance with her own conscience, the Holy Father replied that she should “talk to the Lord” about receiving holy Communion “and then go forward,” although the Pope also cautioned that he “wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence.”

Some observers, including the pastor of Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, subsequently interpreted the Pope’s comments as constituting a papal authorization of intercommunion with Lutherans. In a Dec. 12 interview with the Register, Rev. Jens-Martin Kruse called the Holy Father’s comments an “open door,” adding that he thought his own parishioners now feel at more liberty to receive Communion that they did previously.

However, in Dec. 22 comments to the Register, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said such interpretations of the Pope’s remarks were erroneous.

“Misunderstandings come up again and again because of a failure to take account of the fact that, unfortunately, there is actually a different understanding of the Church between Catholics and Protestants, and these differences are not only theological-conceptual, but of a confessional nature,” Cardinal Müller said.


Confessional Lutherans Take Note

The “Declaration on the Way” will also have a positive impact on the ecumenical dialogue under way between the Vatican and the International Lutheran Council (ILC), which represents confessional Lutherans, who hold different theological views than the churches belonging to the Lutheran World Federation, such as the ELCA.

The dialogue with confessional Lutherans is not as far along as the one between the Vatican and the LWF, ILC spokesman Mathew Block told the Register. However, Block pointed out that the ILC and the Catholic Church are in agreement in areas that divide the LWF and the Catholic Church: women’s ordination and a number of moral issues, including same-sex unions.

“Those are subjects on which we find agreement,” Block said, adding that agreement on these points can allow the dialogue to progress to “deeper issues.”

But the declaration serves as a “good summary” of what has been agreed upon between the LWF and the Vatican, and Block said he was sure the ILC would take it into account in its own dialogue with the Vatican.

“It will certainly be a helpful touchstone,” he said, adding that it will help the ILC focus on those points of doctrinal variance it has with the LWF. For instance, the ILC believes that there are still issues on justification that need to be explored, even though the LWF and the Vatican announced a historic agreement in 1999.

“Particularly as we see the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, it is nice to know that Catholics and Lutherans can sit down, talk through these things and try to find the unity for which Christ prayed for his Church.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.