In 1976, Joseph Ratzinger—then still a professor—suggested “it might be possible to interpret [the Augsburg Confession (CA)—i.e., the primary Lutheran confession] under the laws of the empire as a catholic confession.” He continued: “Efforts are underway to achieve a Catholic recognition of the CA or, more correctly, a recognition of the CA as catholic, and thereby to establish the catholicity of the churches of the CA, which makes possible a corporate union while the differences remain.”
While Ratzinger—now Benedict XVI— would not continue a campaign for such acceptance, it is nevertheless a striking comment from the man who would be pope. At the very least, it demonstrates a particular interest in Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue which has continued into the present.
This past September, for example, Pope Benedict XVI met with former students in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, to discuss the subject of Roman Catholic dialogue with Lutherans and Anglicans. This get-together between the pope and his former students is an annual tradition that dates back to the 1970s, and the topics of discussion are chosen by the pope himself. Benedict even invited an emeritus Lutheran Bishop, Ulrich Wilckens, to lead the discussion.
While this is the most recent nod by the pope to Lutherans, it is hardly the first. Only a few months earlier, Pope Benedict XVI announced the new prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The man chosen? German Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, a veteran of Lutheran-Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogue. Among other things, he served as the Catholic head of the International Lutheran/Roman Catholic Commission on Unity.
These events reflect increasingly congenial relations between Roman Catholics and Lutherans. But what is more, there are signs Roman Catholics are interested in exploring deeper ties with a specific group of Lutherans—namely, confessional Lutherans.
In the United States of America, for example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod have recently become allies over the subject of religious liberty in the face of the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate. And in Canada, very tentative discussions between the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Church–Canada have also begun. These churches are members of the International Lutheran Council, an international association of Lutheran churches known for their more traditional interpretation of the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions—hence the term “confessional” Lutherans.
To be sure, this is not the first time Roman Catholics and Lutherans have held dialogues. In 1999, the Vatican and the mainline Lutheran World Federation (LWF) agreed to a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” But notably absent from the discussion were confessional Lutherans. Yet many confessional Lutherans nevertheless recognized that a substantial step forward had been taken, even if they were reluctant to sign on themselves.
Now Roman Catholics and confessional Lutherans have embarked on their own tentative discussions. Two early meetings took place in 2007 between the German confessional Lutherans and the Vatican, followed by six formal discussions from 2008 to 2010 between the Johann Adam Möhler Institute for Ecumenics (a Roman Catholic institution in Paderborn, Germany) and the confessional Lutheran Theological Seminary Oberursel. In order to ensure global representation, a representative of the International Lutheran Council was among the Lutheran party.
At the end of these meetings, the committee issued a report recommending “the leaders of both churches to install on the international level an official ecumenical dialogue between the [confessional] International Lutheran Council and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.” The International Lutheran Council agreed to discuss the recommendations at its next international conference.
That conference took place this past September in Niagara Falls, Canada. From September 16 to 21, the head bishops and presidents of confessional Lutheran church bodies around the world met for a week of dialogue and discussion. And, in what is perhaps a sign of the times, Bishop Gerard Paul Bergie of St. Catharines, Ontario, brought formal greetings to the ILC on behalf of the Roman Catholic Bishops of Canada—the first time a Roman Catholic has addressed an ILC convention since its founding. In his remarks, Bishop Bergie noted Vatican II’s emphasis on ecumenical dialogue, stressing the value to be found in working together.
Immediately following the bishop’s remarks, Dr. Werner Klän (a professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary Oberursel and a participant in the recent discussions between confessional Lutherans and Roman Catholics) reported on the successes achieved in the German discussions. In noting it was Roman Catholics who initiated conversation with confessional Lutherans, Dr. Klän suggested there was “a deep rooted disappointment [among] Roman Catholics—in Germany at least— with the Lutheran World Federation or some of its member churches.”
While dialogue between Roman Catholics and mainline Lutherans continues, a desire has arisen among Roman Catholics to begin looking to confessional Lutherans for more fruitful dialogue. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, while still under the presidency of Cardinal Walter Kasper, contacted the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK), Dr. Klän reported, to “fathom the chances of having something like a dialogue established between the two church bodies, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany and [SELK].” Dr. Klän and SELK’s Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt were subsequently invited to visit the Unity Secretariat in Rome to meet with Cardinal Kasper and Msgr. Dr. Matthias Türk (responsible for the PCPCU’s Lutheran relations). This consultation led to the six-part discussions in Germany.
“One cannot deny that the church is influenced and affected by worldly societal trends,” said Dr. Klän in his report to the ILC. “The challenges that Christianity is facing today are not restricted to one church body. And that is why it makes sense to look for alliances with Christians and churches we might find agreement with on certain issues.”
He continued: “In many a way it may be hoped that confessional Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue on the world level could contribute to pursuing the goal of communicating foundational principles of Christian faith and defending them against being watered down, being contradicted, being challenged, and neglected not only from outside Christianity, but also within the realm of established church bodies. That is why it makes sense to me for the ILC and its member churches to enter into a theological dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.”
The Roman Catholic Church seems to agree. When the German discussions ended, the participants issued a report encouraging both churches to enter into formal dialogue. Responding to that report, the new president of the PCPCU, Cardinal Kurt Koch, wrote in 2011 to Bishop Voigt of the SELK, informing him that the Roman Catholic Church is highly interested in starting an official dialogue with the ILC.
The Executive Council of the ILC, for its part, crafted a resolution to be voted on at the ILC’s next international conference, calling on the ILC “to aspire to open up an official dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.” It also encouraged the development of theological discussions between confessional Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the regional and national level.
On September 20, 2012, that resolution came before the assembly of the International Lutheran Council in Niagara Falls, Canada. It passed without opposition. That vote—and the unanimity by which it passed—may well determine what shape Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue takes in the future. Chances are that “shape” that may have a decidedly “confessional” bent.
Mathew Block is editor of the Canadian Lutheran magazine. Follow him on Twitter @captainthin.
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