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No, I have never snuck into a Catholic mass for Holy Communion. Not the first time anyway. I politely asked, and when I communed I had the permission of the archbishop of Washington, D.C.

That was 1978 when I was one of the chaplains at a Scout summer camp in Virginia and still a Lutheran seminarian. There was a Catholic priest on staff, and I approached him for communion. He thought it would be okay but he first had to check. The archbishop didn’t blink, the priest told me, and up I went during the distribution.

I don’t remember any time restriction attached to the archbishop’s permission (probably best not to ask) so I have comfortably communed with Roman Catholics a number of times, usually on vacation visiting Catholic relatives. I’m discreet; I don’t have the archbishop’s permission in writing so I can’t exactly flaunt it.

It works the other way too. Roman Catholics have received from my hand at funerals, at weddings, at Christmas, and on ordinary Sundays.

Intercommunion for us is no big deal, though it used to be. Beginning in 1875 and for about a century thereafter, we had the Akron-Galesburg Rule: Lutheran pulpits for Lutheran pastors only; Lutheran altars for Lutheran communicants only. It was directed against Protestants who did not accept the doctrine of the Real Presence, but it probably discouraged a Catholic or two as well.

Those Lutheran church bodies that still have a “closed” altar nonetheless offer many exceptions, although on a case-by-case, congregation-by-congregation basis. Yet even Lutherans with “open” altars mostly couch their invitations in Real Presence terms. The point is: on most Sundays, in most places, Catholics may commune with Lutherans.

Yet”notwithstanding the accommodating archbishop”Roman Catholics cannot welcome anyone but Roman Catholics. Roman Catholic intransigence on eucharistic hospitality is regarded by some Lutherans as at best misguided, or worse, a scandal.

Carl Braaten, for example, a Lutheran systematics theologian, in his latest book Essential Lutheranism suggests that in light of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), nothing should impede a formal declaration of Roman Catholic-Lutheran intercommunion. A closed altar post-JDDJ “has insufficient theological warrant from Scripture.”

Regarding JDDJ as “a miracle of divine grace,” Braaten asks:

If Christians and Churches that have been divided for generations can come together and greet each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, then who among them has the authority or audacity to divide those whom Christ calls into his fellowship of grace?

In short, the Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s, and we are but poor stewards of the mystery.

The check-list of agreements between Rome and Wittenburg is near comprehensive:

Justification by grace? Check.

Apostolic, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds? Check.

Baptismal regeneration unto salvation? Check.

The true body and blood of Jesus Christ truly given in communion? Check.

The sacrament of confession and absolution? Check.

Petrine primacy? As a ministry of service, no sweat. Check.

Papal infallibility? Evangelically understood, we could live with it. Check.

Ordination for life by the laying on of hands? Check.

Ordination of women? Oops.

Braaten thinks infallibility is the real bug. But it isn’t. More than any other question, the ordination of women is the real elephant squatting in the ecumenical room with Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Braaten’s book says nothing about women’s ordination. For many Lutherans, it is simply a given.

While Lutherans tend to think pastor, not priest, we understand our ministry as a vocational calling to preach Christ’s gospel and administer the sacraments accordingly, a call through the Holy Spirit confirmed by the church through ordination. Understood in reference to the Word we will happily call it a sacrament. The Word comes and “makes” a pastor, and ordination is an indelible once-in-a-lifetime event. Catholic theologians noted all this, concluding in the “Eucharist and Ministry” dialogue:

We see no persuasive reason to deny the possibility of the Roman Catholic Church recognizing the validity of this [Lutheran] Ministry. Accordingly we ask . . . that the Roman Catholic Church recognize the validity of the Lutheran Ministry and, correspondingly, the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharistic celebrations of the Lutheran churches.

But that was 1970, before Lutherans in America ordained women. The Church of Sweden began ordaining women in the late 1950s and among world Lutherans today, women’s ordination is common.

I do not see any theological reason preventing ordination of women. Nor do I believe the practice reflects a “grave teaching error,” one that, unlike ordination of active homosexuals, is finally anti-gospel. The witness of Scripture is mixed but, I believe, leans toward permission. Yet I question its historical wisdom.

I do not wish to take anything away from the many Lutheran women clergy I know and respect as colleagues and friends who serve faithfully and well. Still I have to ask, was it worth jettisoning Christian rapprochement as a result?

Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church , an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays . His previous On the Square articles can be found here .


Essential Lutheranism

Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

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