I first read Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Riddle of Roman Catholicism: Its History, Its Beliefs, Its Future (1959) while doing my pastoral residency in Detroit, 1978–79. I just finished it for the second time. It is still a book with value. Pelikan says one thing in particular that struck me: Any Lutheran converting to Rome should give up any hope or expectation of having a Protestant impact on Catholicism.
As I transition from Lutheran to Rome, I rather hope the reverse. I want Catholicism to have an impact on me.
When I was growing up, what Catholics did, Lutherans didn’t. That seemed to be the extent of what Lutherans knew about Catholics and, equally, the extent of what we knew about being Lutherans. They did these things, and because we weren’t Catholic we didn’t. Simple.
The list was evident if never specific. We did not cross ourselves at the invocation or upon receiving communion. We did not pray to saints and we did not invoke Mary. We didn’t worry about obtaining “merit” through good works, because we got our merit by grace, free from Jesus, even when we didn’t ask. Our pastors did not wear funny suits, they did not dress in clericals, make hand signs over the communion elements, bow, or do any of those things that might be mistaken as Catholic and not Lutheran. Most of all, we didn’t have to stand in line at a confessional box.
It’s a wonder, then, I ever became interested in Roman Catholicism. That happened largely because, while a youth in catechism class, I actually read the Augsburg Confession. And there I found pastors referred to as priests, worship called a “mass,” private confession encouraged, and the Lutheran assertion—against Roman charges otherwise—that Holy Communion was retained, celebrated with reverence, and offered every Sunday. Except, for perhaps the previous three hundred years, Lutherans hadn’t done any of that.
I should point out I was an outlier in catechism class. I argued with the pastor, a very, very patient guy. The Augsburg Confession gave me ammunition. “If it says this,” I’d pester, “why don’t we do it?” I looked for gotchas. Strangely, though, it gave me a hunger for a Lutheran authenticity, one I sensed mostly by its absence.
Lutheran youth were once schooled in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, though it might be better to call it a “simple” catechism. It was called “small” so as not to be confused with his Large Catechism. It is more devotional than doctrinal, and I find it still affecting and even literary in its approach to Christian basics. But one must dig beyond the Small Catechism to find what I did. And what I found at that young age was this: Lutherans are more theologically Catholic than they (or Catholics) could ever admit.
How did Lutherans lose a good part of their catholic substance? It wasn’t Luther. It was later Lutherans determined to avoid doing things Catholics did even if those very practices were present in their foundational documents.
There was a period for perhaps two hundred years after the Reformation during which Lutherans largely did keep to the confessions in parish practice and congregational life: weekly communion, private confession—the whole deal. And there were periods afterward of intense Lutheran renewal that sought to restore Catholic practices Lutherans abandoned. But, nowadays, there is little real confessional substance left in parish or denominational life, certainly not enough to have kept me Lutheran. The Protestant impulse among Lutherans, the “progressive” ones, it seems to me is to find the next new big thing to replace whatever was the last new big thing (communion of the unbaptized is coming, betcha). They cannot anymore locate the universal within the catholic.
When Richard Neuhaus left Lutheranism for Rome, I suggested—in print no less—it was largely a quest for authority, and I predicted few of his Lutheran colleagues would follow. I was wrong on both counts. Of his colleagues, the list has not been insignificant.
I thought he sought ecclesial authority, to become part of a church “rightly ordered.” But I was wrong there as well. What he sought was ecclesial density, a “density” characterized by an intensity of common teaching, worship vibrancy, the confidence of a tradition extending to the very beginnings of the Church, and the welcomed contention of many voices around and within all of it as each yet seeks better to understand the core, foundational truths that God is triune and Christ is fully God and fully human.
What Neuhaus found was what Pelikan found in his own way through Orthodoxy. Reading Pelikan’s 1959 book, one finds descriptions of an array of challenges then faced by Protestants and by Roman Catholics; how to move beyond parishes defined only by race or class, in only one instance. By and large, Catholics have fared well—the Protestant mainline, not so well.
I like very much what Robert Louis Wilken (also a former Lutheran) said of Pelikan: He found truth in “those teachings that were solemnly declared in the ancient councils and are confessed in the ecumenical creeds. His historical study had convinced him that the most faithful bearer of the apostolic faith was the great tradition of thought and practice as expounded by the orthodox Church Fathers.”
So here I am with Rome, looking for the same and finding it.
Russell E. Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church, is book review editor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his previous First Things contributions are here.