Following the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, a number of Lutherans (myself included) were left wondering what support his successor might lend to future Lutheran/Roman Catholic discussions. Few Roman Catholics have understood Lutherans so well as did Benedict. As John Allen Jr. has written, “Lutherans are to Benedict what the Orthodox were to John Paul, the separated brethren he knows best and for whom he has the greatest natural affection.” The theological disagreements between Roman Catholics and Lutherans were of course not undone under Benedict’s papacy, but one could at least be sure that the subject itself was of importance to the man.
What ought we to expect from newly elected Pope Francis? Some Lutherans are beginning to fill in the blanks for us. In a news release, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America quotes Bishop Mark Hanson as saying he is “encouraged that Pope Francis has worked with Lutherans in Argentina.” Unfortunately, the release fails to give any examples of that work. The Lutheran World Federation does a bit better and mentions that Pope Francis (then still Archbishop of Buenos Aires) took part in local Buenos Aires activities commemorating the adoption of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, but is also light on details.
Lutherans in Argentina are also speaking positively to the media (here and here) about the former archbishop’s elevation, so its fair to say he’s had some involvement at the national and local level with Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. And if the associations of the pastors above are anything to go by, Pope Francis’ past dealings with Lutherans have impressed members from both the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the International Lutheran Council (ILC), the two largest global associations of Lutheran churches. (Of the Lutherans interviewed in the above two articles, Edgardo Salvucci is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina (an ILC church with just over 28,000 members), and Cloivis Eloi Kurtz is a member of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Argentina (a LWF church with about 11,000 members). Both sound optimistic about good relations with the Pope going forward.
Whatever Pope Francis’ previous experience in Catholic/Lutheran dialogue, one thing is sure: he will have the opportunity for more of it during his papacy if he should so choose. Dialogue with the Lutheran World Federation continues, and burgeoning dialogue with confessional Lutherans is also on the horizon.