Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues since 1965

By John Hannah

In 1965 The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod accepted the invitation to join other American Lutherans in initiating bilateral theological dialogues with Roman Catholics. The Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue has continued for forty years. Missouri remained a member and sent representatives through 1993 and has recently asked to rejoin the dialogue. I believe that we should give our witness in such a setting. In bilateral dialogues we can clarify our agreements as well as our remaining disagreements. The results of this work are important not only to the theologians involved but also to all Lutherans who discuss beliefs with their Roman Catholic neighbors and relatives. What follows is an abstract (a summary) of the forty years of theological discussions between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. First comes a description of the procedure of these bilateral dialogues.

The American Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue is only one of many so-called bilateral dialogues throughout the world. It is one of the most important. It is important to Lutherans because we can speak with our Christian partners who are nearest to us with our common roots going back to very birth of the Reformation. It is important to both Lutherans and Catholics because it is recognized as the most successful of all the bilateral dialogues. Such success is remarkable and would not have been predicted by anyone forty years ago. Through forty years of dialogue members produced some 3,000 pages of reports and supporting studies. The dialogues are organized around a specific topic (called a “Round”) usually comprising several sessions of three days each. Participants are appointed by their respective authorities and have tended to serve through more than one Round, with replacements appointed as necessary. (In the summary of each Round is listed the dates, number of sessions and number of respective participants, as the data was available).

Round I. The Status of the Nicene Creed as Dogma of the Church
(1965; 1 session only; 9 Roman Catholic & 10 Lutheran participants)

An “easy” topic purposely initiated the entire Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue enterprise. Both churches use the Nicene Creed regularly in their respective liturgies. In only a single session it was readily agreed that we agree on the doctrines expressed in this creed. The participants pondered the use and purpose of the Greek word homoousion (“one in Being with the Father”). The word is not directly from Scripture; yet the confessors who formulated the Nicene Creed found it necessary to invent the word in order to give a definitive answer to a burning question: “Is the Son, the Son of the Father or is he only a creature?” Participants noted that we have different understandings of dogma. They would return to this question later in Round VI (teaching authority) and Round IX (role of Scripture).

Round II. One Baptism for the Remission of Sins
(1966; 1 session only; 7 R. C. & 7 L. participants)

The dialogue members again chose a topic on which they anticipated ready agreement between the two traditions. Their choice was confirmed and they concluded, “Our respective traditions regarding baptism are in substantial agreement.” That was because the Council of Trent and the Lutheran Creeds (Confessions) agree on the subject of Baptism. By now the dialogue members felt confident to turn to a much more difficult subject—the Eucharist.

Round III. The Eucharist as Sacrifice
(1966–67; 3 sessions, #4–6; 13 R. C. & 12 L. participants)

A more complex round addressed the meaning of Eucharist as sacrifice and the meaning of the Eucharistic presence of Christ. Lutherans were afraid that when Catholics spoke of “sacrifice” they implied that Christ’s original sacrifice on the cross was not enough. The Lutheran fear was relieved. Catholics believe that Christ who made the once and for all sacrifice for our sins is present in the Eucharist again and again. Catholics were afraid that Lutherans did not believe in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Catholics were reassured as Lutheran representatives reviewed for them Eucharistic theology of 450 years. (It is worth noting that liturgical renewal was only beginning in 1967. Now as Lutherans and Catholics visit each others’ churches they can readily see the striking similarities in the respective liturgies.)

Round IV. Eucharist and Ministry
(1967–70; 4 sessions, #7–10; 15 R. C. & 9 L. participants)

Following the unexpected quick success of agreement on Eucharistic theology the participants then attempted to discuss “intercommunion” between Lutherans and Catholics but were forced to look at the “Minister of the Eucharist” (pastor or priest). The problem is that American Lutheran pastors are not ordained in episcopal succession. For Catholics that would mean that our ministry is “irregular” meaning that it is not authorized. (Normally Catholics do not judge our Eucharistic celebrations as invalid, even though they are regarded as “irregular”). The Lutherans argued that we practice what may be called “presbyteral succession” where a pastor ordains another pastor. Lutherans were forced into that in those Reformation lands where the existing bishops refused to ordain pastors. Lutherans argued that this succession derives also from the apostles and that our ministry is therefore divinely instituted. (The practice of presbyteral succession has some pre-Reformation precedence). The dialogue members reached agreement. Each called upon their respective authorities to recognize the ordination of the other. Intercommunion (altar fellowship) was suggested for the meantime. It can be noted that both sides agreed wholeheartedly on the validity of the “priesthood of all the baptized” (1 Peter 2: 4, 9).

Round V. Papal Primacy and the Universal Church
(1970–74; 4 sessions, #11–14; 15 R. C. & 14 L. participants)

The next topic proceeds logically from the previous question. Lutherans argued, just as they had in the Augsburg Confession, that church structures (apart from pastor and congregation) are a matter of human law and not divine law. In the end the Lutherans had to ask themselves, “Could not some kind of a renewed papacy be useful for Christian unity?” Catholics recognized that Lutherans might come into the jurisdiction of a renewed papacy in a structure that is different than that for Roman Catholic bishops and people. Again, intercommunion is suggested for the meantime.

Round VI. Teaching Authority & Infallibility in the Church
(1973–78; 11 sessions, #15–25; 10 R. C. & 12 L. participants)

The Catholic doctrine of infallibility was only 100 years old. It had come in the First Vatican Council of 1870. For the first time dialogue members faced a question where the Lutherans had no common roots with their Catholic partners. Infallibility is outside the Lutheran tradition. After considerable explaining and listening, no agreement was reached but suggestions for future consideration for both were called for. Lutherans were asked if they must regard infallibility as “anti-Christian.” Lutherans agree that Christ’s church is indefectible. Catholics were asked if they could understand and present infallibility to meet the concerns of those Christian opposed (all Orthodox and Protestant). Lutherans admittedly lack a universal magisterium but objected that the doctrine of infallibility is not sufficiently protected against abuse. Suggestions were made such as “magisterial mutuality” or “sacramental sharing.” All in all there was “a considerable lowering of voices.” This round concluded with some convergence but no full agreement.

Round VII. Justification by Faith
(1978–83; 11 sessions, #26–36; 10 R. C. & 14 L. participants)

The topic of Round VII accedes to the major concern of the Lutheran tradition: justification. Rounds V and VI required separate statements from each party in conclusion. In the case of “Justification by Faith a single statement (60 pages long!) with agreement resulted. This long arduous work contributed to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (signed by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation on Reformation Day 1999). However much some Lutherans may search long and hard in order to nit pick at this agreement (and the Joint Declaration), they should rejoice in knowing that Catholics do believe that only Christ has obtained justification for his people.

Round VIII. The One Mediator, the Saints and Mary
(1983–90; 14 session, #37–50; 14 R. C. & 13 L. participants)

A great deal of time was spent on this topic, considered inflammatory by Lutherans. After much discussion, it was agreed that we hold in common a number of cherished beliefs. Both Lutheran and Catholics agree that there is only One Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. In addition, Lutherans express gratitude for the saints, who serve us as models for the Christian life. Lutheran do confess that Mary is the “Mother of God.” The Lutheran calendar does include a number of days where Mary is prominent in the Gospel of that day (February 2, Presentation; March 25, Annunciation; May 31, Visitation; August 15, Mary, Mother of our Lord; also some Advent Sundays). Divergences that remain unsettled are (1) definition of “saint,” (2) the intercession of saints, (3) invocation of the saints and (4) the two Marian dogmas (The Immaculate Conception of 1854, The Assumption of 1950). The dialogue members concluded with searching questions addressed by each side to the other. “Could Lutherans be in communion and not regard the invoking of saints as idolatry?” “Could Catholics be in communion and not require Lutherans to assent to Marian dogmas?”

Round IX. Scripture and Tradition
(1990–93; 10 R. C. & 14 L. participants)

The commonplace statement of the problem has been “Scripture alone” vs. Scripture and tradition (two sources). The members of both sides viewed that as an overly simplistic division. There is agreement on the following assertions: Scripture is preeminent; Scripture was tradition before written; Scripture prompts oral proclamation; honoring the Scripture does not preclude the need for a teaching office to protect the gospel; apostolic traditions are attested by Scripture; doctrine may be deduced by Scripture; and doctrine must serve the Word of God and conform to it. Briefly stated, broad agreement exists. Lutherans do not take Scripture alone. Catholics do not take tradition as separate from Scripture. Nonetheless, differences remain. Lutherans still see “Scripture alone” while Catholics understand “Scripture with living apostolic tradition.” Infallibility and the idea of the development of doctrine remain as different responses to the Bible.

Round X. The Church as Koinonia of Salvation: Its Structures and Ministries
(1995–2004; report not yet published; available online)

Round X picked up subjects from Rounds IV, V and VI. Its report will likely strike readers as the most practical of the dialogues. The report regularly compares the realities of our respective ministries and structures. (All by itself, apart from its ecumenical import, this document is replete with scriptural and historical data on the church’s ministry. Anyone seeking information on questions of ministry should consult it.) Emphasis is placed upon the “face to face” congregation with its minister and the ministry of oversight by bishops (the LCMS equivalent would be district presidents). A worldwide ministry like the papacy is also considered. All of this is done against the backdrop of the church as “communion,” underscoring the urgency of resolving differences in ministry that are obstacles to full communion. Members agreed that there is a shared sense of the one office of ministry. Differences in emphasis or terminology need not be church dividing. Each church should recognize that the other realizes (perhaps imperfectly) the one church and shares in the apostolic tradition. Likewise, each effectively carries on (perhaps imperfectly) the apostolic ministry instituted by God in the church. Our ordained ministries are wounded because the absence of full communion makes it impossible to represent and foster the unity and catholicity of the church. Therefore, our communities are wounded by lack of full catholicity and inability to provide a common witness to the gospel. Both communities need repentance and conversion for healing our wounds. Catholic representatives called upon their authorities to reassess Lutheran ministries and to explore how the universal ministry of the bishop of Rome can be reformed. Lutherans called upon their authorities to explore whether the worldwide communion of the church does not call for a worldwide minister of unity. Until full communion is realized, the churches are urged to continue and deepen collaboration in ministry by the numerous forms that already exist.

Proposed for Round XI. Hope for Eternal Life

Let us pray that the LCMS will be able to participate in this most important topic for dialogue. In the meantime we can all hope and pray that the next forty years of Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue will be as productive as the first forty. Those first ten Rounds have given us much to rejoice about with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers.

Pastor John Hannah is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Bronx, New York

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