Lutheran Forum recently came to the end of its 2013 Theological Reading Challenge, with the last document on the reading-list being “The Gospel and the Church” (alternately known as “The Malta Report”). This 1972 documenta production of Lutheran-Catholic discussionwas written less than a decade after official international Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical dialogue got underway, as Rev. Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson notes in her review . Much has changed in the interim. Consequently, readers today find “an optimism about the text that is surprising,” Dr. Wilson writes, “but also refreshing now fifty years later, when any hope of visible unity appears to have stalled out entirely.”
She has a point: as good as Lutheran-Catholic relations are today, the achievement of unity between the two in the foreseeable future is unlikely. Together, Catholics and Lutheranswho have been represented by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF)have accomplished many great things in the course of the dialogue. The prime example of this is closer agreement on the doctrine of justification . Dr. Wilson highlights institutional weight as perhaps one reason why the call for unity has stalled. For my part, I cant help but wonder whether a larger problem is that a number of LWF churches have moved in a theological direction which is hindering, rather than helping, Catholic-Lutheran relations.
A recent example of this hindrance is the subject of human sexuality. Prominent LWF churches like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Church of Sweden have given their blessing to same-sex marriages and approved the ordination of practicing homosexuals. To their credit, other LWF churcheslike the 6.1 million member Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, for examplehave resisted such theological innovation, even breaking ties with the ELCA and the Church of Sweden over the issue. Nevertheless, supporters of such changes make up a significant portion of the LWF. Given that support, it is understandable that optimism over Lutheran-Catholic unity has waned. Catholics, after all, still uphold the historic and biblical teaching on this matter. And there are many other issues we could raisefemale ordination, for examplethat have strained the hope for unity.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that dialogue has ceased. It hasn’t. In fact, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity earlier this year released a new document entitled From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 . But even here, the communion envisioned is recognized as an unrealized goal; it is a future possibility. It is a hope. The following text describes a way ‘from conflict to communion,’ the foreword reads, a way whose goal we have not yet reached. It in its final chapter on ecumenical imperatives, the document calls on Catholics and Lutherans to again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal. The growing theological differences between Catholics and certain churches of the LWF, however, suggest this goal will become increasingly difficult to attain.
In that context, therefore, it is exciting to note a new dimension of Lutheran-Catholic discussions currently taking form: the International Lutheran Council (ILC) and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity (PCPCU) have announced plans to begin informal international dialogue together . While many churches of the LWF have embraced a theologically innovative understanding of doctrine, the ILC has not. The ILC instead represents confessional Lutherans, a group which affirms the normative authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions (the latter because they are believed to be faithful expositions of the Scriptures, as opposed to mere historical snapshots of how previous generations interpreted Scripture). As a result of these commitments, ILC churches tend to be more doctrinally conservative than many LWF churches*the upshot being that, on many issues where Roman Catholics and LWF Lutherans are at odds, confessional Lutherans and Catholics find agreement.
[Full disclosure: I am Communications Manager for Lutheran ChurchCanada, a member church of the ILC, and I have just recently been named as editor of the ILC’s news service. My thoughts here are, of course, my own.]
I previously reported on the first steps toward dialogue between confessional Lutherans and Catholics in an On the Square column for First Things back in February. At the time, I noted how initial discussions in Germany resulted in a report to the PCPCU and the ILC which called for dialogues on an international level. The ILC, at its World Conference in late 2012, unanimously voted to seek just that. This week, therefore, representatives of the ILC and PCPCU met at the Vatican to discuss the topic. The Lutherans were represented by ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt (Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany), Vice-Chairman Robert Bugbee (President of Lutheran ChurchCanada), Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver (ILC Executive Secretary), and Professor Dr. Werner Klän (Lutheran Theological Seminary Oberursel). [Professor Klän had previously taken part in the initial confessional Lutheran-Catholic discussions in Germany.] The Catholics were represented by Cardinal Kurt Koch (President of the PCPCU) and Monsignore Dr. Matthias Türk (PCPCU staff in charge of Lutheran-Catholic relations).
In light of the encouraging discussions taking place between confessional Lutherans and Catholics on the national level in several countries, the PCPCU and ILC at their meeting decided the time was right to enter into an informal dialogue on the international level as well. This dialogue between the ILC and the Roman Catholic Church will be administered by the ILC’s Executive Committee and the Johann-Adam-Möhler Institute for Ecumenism. The goals of these discussions would be to define more unity between the churches represented by the ILC and the Roman Catholic Church, a news release on the meeting explains, and to offer a deeper understanding of the work already accomplished by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue on the international and regional level. Once appointed, members of this discussion will meet twice yearly for three years before reporting back to the PCPCU.
This confessional input may well prove to breathe new life and hope into Lutheran-Catholic relations.
* I am, of course, painting in broad strokes here; as I mentioned earlier, some LWF churches also hold a high understanding of the authority of Scripture. Moreover, some church bodies hold membership in both the LWF and the ILC.
Photo: Members of the ILC and the PCPCU meet together at the Vatican (November 2013) to discuss international relations.