Acting as it does as a summary and analysis of five decades of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, 2015’s Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist will undoubtedly be a helpful touchstone in future ecumenical discussions between the two traditions. For that reason, the representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Bishop's Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) who authored the work are to be commended. The document is worthy of careful reading.
Of course, it is also important to note that the synthesis presented here represents an understanding of Lutheranism not necessarily shared by all churches who claim the name. The Lutheran side of these dialogues has been primarily represented by churches of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Other Lutheran churches, like those represented by the International Lutheran Council (ILC), may not agree in every respect with the Lutheran position as presented in these past dialogues, even as they praise other elements of the discussions.
Compared to the LWF, the ILC is relatively small: including affiliate member churches, its official membership is somewhere around 3.25 million members. That said, the number of church bodies interested in joining the ILC is growing. At its 2015 world conference, three new church bodies (in Russia, Norway, and Nicaragua) were welcomed into membership, and there are a number of others at in the process of applying. Still others sympathize with the positions of the ILC and attend their conferences, but are not currently looking to become full members. Even a number of theologically-conservative LWF churches are increasingly friendly with the ILC and its member churches (the most recent world conference, for example, welcomed representatives from the 7.2 million member Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus and the 6.5 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, among other guests).
The difference between the ILC and the LWF is not merely an issue of size, of course. There are substantial theological disagreements between the two, but perhaps the fundamental difference could be described as one of hermeneutics: how do we understand the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions? In general, members of the ILC see themselves as more traditional than the LWF in their understanding of Scriptural authority and confessional Lutheran theology.
This differing approach to hermeneutics means that the ILC does not always see its own understanding of Lutheranism fully or clearly represented in the dialogues between the LWF and Roman Catholics. Members of the International Lutheran Council are therefore pleased to see the beginnings of dialogue between the ILC and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) on an international stage, building on fruitful discussions on the national level between a number of ILC churches and their Roman Catholic counterparts.
Following consultations in 2013, the ILC and the PCPCU committed to a three-year informal international dialogue in order to “define more unity between the churches represented by the ILC and the Roman Catholic Church and to offer a deeper understanding of the work already accomplished by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue on the international and regional level.” In other words, there is a recognition that the previous dialogues do not necessarily provide a complete picture of the Lutheran tradition as understood by the ILC. The two partners will therefore explore in depth earlier documents of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, seeing where the teachings of the ILC converge and diverge with LWF positions and in what way the stances of the ILC might foster greater unity with Roman Catholics.
That work began in earnest October 7-8, 2015, when the ILC and Roman Catholic Church's representatives met together for their first official meeting. Discussions in October focused especially on three documents previously published by the LWF and the Roman Catholic Church: The Eucharist (1978), The Ministry in the Church (1981), and Church and Justification (1993). International Lutheran Council participants also presented a statement, adopted by the ILC at its most recent World Conference, regarding From Conflict to Communion, a document produced by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Unity Commission in 2014.In addition to providing Roman Catholics greater insight into the ILC's confessional Lutheran theology vis-à-vis the LWF, it is also hoped the document will foster fruitful discussion between the ILC and the LWF themselves.
No doubt the recently released Declaration on the Way document will similarly become a matter for discussion between ILC churches and their Roman Catholic counterparts, both on the national and international level. I am not a member of these discussions myself and so can only guess at what they may decide, but it seems likely that the process identified above will similarly come to play in this matter: the ILC will note convergences and divergences with the LWF positions as presented in the paper.
Some of these divergences may call us to consider whether the Declaration's proposed 32 Statements of Agreement do not yet reflect the fullness of the Lutheran tradition as understood by the ILC. For example, many churches of the ILC feel the doctrine of justification needs additional discussion beyond the work accomplished in the landmark LWF-Catholic document Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
Other divergences between the ILC and LWF may actually foster greater unity with Catholics. For example, the Declaration identifies the issue of female ordination as a long-standing disagreement between the LWF and Roman Catholics. A similar issue of tension does not exist with the ILC since, like the Roman Catholic Church, the churches of the International Lutheran Council do not ordain women.
Moreover, while not addressed in this particular paper, the innovative actions of some LWF churches regarding the ordained ministry in recent years have sown disunity both internally and externally. In particular, the movement of some LWF churches to break with the Church's historic understanding of Scripture and natural law by blessing same-sex marriages and ordaining homosexual ministers has led to division within the Lutheran World Federation and strained relations with ecumenical partners. Likewise, recent moves by some LWF churches to approve laity—that is, those who have not been ordained—to administer the sacraments on their own has increased division on the subject of the ordained ministry rather than fostered unity. On these matters and others, Roman Catholics may find themselves in closer agreement with the ILC than with the LWF.
It is certainly true, as the Declaration on the Way says, that the goal of complete visible Lutheran-Catholic unity has not yet been met. But we can, along with the authors of this document, thank God that “we have come a long distance from the disunity, suspicions and even hostilities that characterized our relationships for generations.” That Lutherans and Catholics have made progress in our mutual understanding of the faith is a gift from God, and we do well to thank him for it. May he continue to bless us all, Catholics and Lutherans of all varieties, with ever deeper love for each other and for God. As Christ prayed for us, we pray: “Sanctify us in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). And through that sanctification, Heavenly Father, grant us the unity only you can give, that we may at last become “perfectly one” (John 17:23).
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada. He also serves as editor for the International Lutheran Council. He tweets @captainthin.