The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has recognized that “there are no longer church-dividing issues” with regard to eventual union with the Catholic Church. Approved last week in New Orleans by a church-wide assembly of ELCA, a “Declaration on the Way” was approved by a nearly unanimous vote. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton of the Lutheran denomination hailed it in a statement as “historic.”
“Though we have not yet arrived, we have claimed that we are, in fact, on the way to unity,” she said. The bishop’s husband is Rev. T. Conrad Selnick, who is a minister of the Episcopal Church of the USA. “This ‘Declaration on the Way’ helps us to realize more fully our unity in Christ with our Catholic partners, but it also serves to embolden our commitment to unity with all Christians,” Eaton said. ELCA is one of the 10 largest Protestant churches in the United States. It has more than 3.7 million members across the 50 states and the Caribbean region.
95 Theses to discuss
In October will come the kick-off of the commemoration of the day when Martin Luther – who was a Catholic monk of the Augustinian order – nailed his famous 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. Luther’s theses offered 95 questions and propositions he wanted to wished to debate within the Catholic Church of the time.
The “Declaration on the Way” includes 32 “Statements of Agreement” in which Catholics and Lutherans have agreed they no longer have disagreements on issues such as church, ministry, and the Eucharist. These have been affirmed previously by the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. However, it does include a number of differences still distinguishing the two churches while it addresses the manner in which they can be addressed.
Bishop recalled several past agreements reach by ELCA and the Catholic Church, which include the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” of 1999. The Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation released a joint document entitled “From Conflict to Communion” in 2013 that cited advances that had been made in inter-ecclesial dialogue over the last half-century rather than the centuries of discord.
Joint commemoration of Reformation
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Sweden on October 31 to preside at a joint worship service with Lutherans. Experts point out that Scandinavian Lutherans have more affinity for the Catholic Church than Lutherans in Germany or the Americas. Because Scandinavian Lutherans retained a traditional church structure and style, and there is no history of warfare in Sweden with Catholics, relations are easier. Currently, there are very few Catholics living in Sweden.
The liturgy will be held at a cathedral in Lund, Sweden. The Lutheran World Federation is the global umbrella for 72 million Lutherans in 98 countries. Both Pope Francis and the president and the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation will preside.
The ecumenical drive has been part of the check-list of popes before the current pontiff. The joint worship service has been described by both the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation as a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration” in order to avoid further controversy. Some Catholics, especially traditionalists, have criticized the prospect of a pope celebrating a schism. Another issue that has traditionalist Catholics and some clerics baleful is the issue of the differing theologies held by the Catholic Church and Lutherans regard the nature and the confection of the Eucharist.
Lutherans receive Catholic communion
Pope Francis made waves last year when he appeared to suggest that Lutherans may receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. He said at the time that “life is greater than explanations and interpretations.” Last year, he spoke to the issue of divisions between Christians while leading an ecumenical vesper liturgy at a basilica in Rome to close the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. He asked for forgiveness for “the sin of our divisions, an open wound in the Body of Christ.” The pope said that “when together the Christians of different churches listen to the word of God and try to put it in practice, they achieve important steps toward unity.”
Catholics and Lutherans remain barred by their respective hierarchies from receiving communion in each other’s churches. Francis again caused debate in 2015 when he told a Lutheran woman, who is married to a Catholic, that if her conscience permitted, she might receive communion in her husband’s church. “I wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence,” Francis told the woman, according to news reports, then added: “One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.”
General Secretary Rev. Martin Junge of the Lutheran World Federation said last year, “By working towards reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics, we are working towards justice, peace and reconciliation in a world torn apart by conflict and violence.” To this end, the two churches released a liturgical guide entitled, “Common Prayer,” which is to be used in commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. A website for Catholic traditionalists, Rorate Caeli, pronounced some of the prayers “scandalous,” while claiming they extolled Martin Luther.
More controversy ensued in January this year, when a group of Lutherans from Finland were offered the Eucharist at a mass celebrated at St. Peter's Basilica following a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Lutheran bishop Samuel Salmi met privately with the pope, having headed a delegation that included a youth choir. Bishop Salmi said that at the time of the distribution of the Holy Eucharist, non-Catholics at the mass approached the altar placed their right hands on their left shoulders as a way of indicating that they were not eligible to receive communion in the Catholic Church. However, the Catholic priests present insisted on allowing them to receive.
Salmi told Kotimaa 24 news he accepted Holy Communion and noted that it was not a coincidence having noted the pope’s earlier remarks to the Lutheran wife of a Catholic man about receiving communion in the Catholic Church. The Lutheran bishop said this reflected “the ecumenical attitude of a new Vatican.” Salmi said, “The pope was not here at the mass, but his strategic intention is to carry out a mission of love and unity. There are also theological adversaries in the Vatican, for which reason it is difficult to assess how much he can say, but he can permit practical gestures.”
Just three days later, an annual ecumenical delegation of Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran Finns arrived in Rome to celebrate Henry of Uppsala, the saint evangelized Finland in the 12th century. Pope Francis told that delegation on January 18 of this year “Your dialogue is making promising progress towards a shared understanding, on the sacramental level, of Church, Eucharist and Ministry. These steps forward, made together, lay a solid basis for a growing communion of life in faith and spirituality, as your relations develop in a spirit of serene discussion and fraternal sharing.” This was taken as a hint that intercommunion is coming.
Differences of Holy Communion
According to Canon 844 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law normally only permits the Eucharist to be given to Catholics in the state of grace (that is, not in a state of grave sin), except in cases of members of Churches which have been approved by the Holy See. If death is imminent or in cases of "grave necessity" the Eucharist may be given to other non-Catholic Christians who share the same faith as Catholics regarding Holy Communion or Holy Eucharist. Differences remain between the Catholic Church and Lutherans despite some agreement regarding Eucharistic doctrine. Lutherans profess, as does the Catholic faith, a doctrine of "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist. However, while Lutheranism does profess a belief in the "real presence" in relation to Holy Communion, whether that term is used in the same way by both churches remains a matter of debate.
Some Catholics see the trend towards intercommunion with Lutherans as a signal that Pope Francis may be contemplating the possibility of allowing the Eucharist to Catholics who are divorced and remained civilly without the benefit of an annulment of their previous sacramental marriage. He has spoken warmly of theologians such as Cardinal Walter Kasper of Austria who advocate communion for such Catholics.
Skeptical Catholic traditionalists
Even so, conservatives in the hierarchy are skeptical. Cardinal Robert Sarah, who serves the pope as Prefect of Divine Worship, has deep concerns about giving communion to persons whose beliefs and/or behavior are not consistent with the Catholic faith and practice. Speaking in an interview with Aleteia last year, Sarah said, “It’s not that I have to talk to the Lord in order to know if I should go to Communion.”
“No, I have to know if I’m in accord with the rule of the Church.”
“It’s not a personal desire or a personal dialogue with Jesus that determines if I can receive Communion in the Catholic Church,” he added. “How can I know that the Lord has really said: ‘Come and receive My Body.’ No. A person cannot decide if he is able to receive Communion. He has to have the rule of the Church: i.e., being a Catholic, being in a state of grace, properly married [if married].”