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On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a Catholic-Lutheran conference looks toward reconciliation

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It was only a declaration against the selling of indulgences. Yet a few years after Augustinian priest Martin Luther wrote the 95 Theses, Christianity was divided between more than Lutherans and Catholics. Anabaptists, Zwinglists, Calvinists and others groups took root all across Europe, and the religious turmoil quickly turned political. Peasant uprisings, religious persecution and, most notably, the 30 Years War turned the continent into a sea of blood.

Five hundred years later, the church has been fragmented into countless Christian sects. While time has brought dissolution, the recent past also has brought a fresh commitment from the original players in the Reformation to reconcile their differences. A conference at Catholic University in Washington, “Luther and the Shaping of the Catholic Tradition,” gathered the theologians who have dedicated much of their lives to putting the church back together again.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, spoke May 30 about the often acrimonious relationship between Lutherans and Catholics. Unsurprisingly, Luther was vilified by Catholics in the centuries that followed the Reformation. As one theologian put it, “Luther invented the doctrine of justification through faith and not works solely for the purpose of being able to feel all the more carefree while living his dissolute life,” said Cardinal Koch.

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Cardinal Kurt Koch (left), president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, retired Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden (center) and Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Eero Huovinen (right) talk after the May 30 evening session of “Luther and the Shaping of the Catholic Tradition” at Catholic University in Washington. Zoey Maraist  |  Catholic Herald

Yet slowly, a more historically accurate, positive and nuanced view of Luther began to form. St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI admitted that Luther was a faithful man who sincerely sought the truth. As Cardinal Koch said, “If Martin Luther’s call to repentance and reform had found open ears among the bishops of the time and of the pope in Rome, the reform intended and enunciated by him would not have become the Reformation. The Catholic Church at the time must bear its share of the blame.”

This re-examination of the past has laid the groundwork for the fruitful ecumenical dialogue of the past 50 years. Perhaps the greatest achievement has been the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification, which declared that “the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.” Yet many more doctrinal disputes remain, said Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Eero Huovinen.

As with Cardinal Koch, Bishop Huovinen has spent much of his career trying to bridge the gap between the two denominations. He was a member of the drafting group for the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and later served as co-chair of the Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue group for Sweden and Finland. In his speech to the conference, the bishop often referenced the most recent ecumenical document, “Declaration on the Way,” as a sign of progress in identifying common ground and areas for future discussion.

Importantly, Lutherans and Catholic agree that Jesus is present physically in His entirety in the Eucharist. They believe in a priesthood of believers and in a priesthood of the ordained. “Ministry is not simply a delegation ‘from below,’ but is instituted by Jesus Christ. Catholics and Lutherans agree that this (is an) apostolic and God-given ministry,” according to the declaration.  

Still, Lutherans famously do not accept the authority of councils or the pope. “Lutherans maintain that no church office or decision is so immune from error and sin as to be exempt from critical examination in view of reform,” the document states. Differences such as these compound because the three primary obstacles to union — the understanding of holy orders, the Eucharist and the church — all go hand in hand.

“Eucharistic communion depends upon the mutual recognition of ministry, which is in turn dependent upon the recognition of each ecclesial community as truly apostolic,” notes the declaration.  

Productive dialogue depends not only on ongoing discussion but also on mutual respect, said Bishop Huovinen. For example, when Lutheran churches are referred to not as churches but as ecclesial communities, it denotes an air of illegitimacy.

“My Catholic colleagues would not be happy if I said the Catholic Church is not a church in the proper sense, mainly in the Lutheran sense,” he said. “Behind the Catholic terminology is a long tradition and many important arguments, and I really do not want to undermine them. (But I wonder if with) a slight terminology change we could create a more open and positive atmosphere between the churches.”

There are years, if not decades, of herculean work ahead to reconcile Lutherans and Catholics. Yet as Cardinal Koch, quoting Pope Francis, said, “We cannot erase what is past, nor do we wish to allow the weight of past transgressions to continue to pollute our relationships. The mercy of God will renew our relationships.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017