Report on Catholic-Lutheran Relations - 2005

Author: Fr Matthias Türk

Report on Catholic-Lutheran Relations - 2005

Fr Matthias Türk
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Climbing the ecumenical mountains

The current ecumenical situation can perhaps be compared most effectively with an excursion into the mountains.

During the rapid ascent to the towering peaks of a new promising spirit of ecumenical communion acquired in the 1970s and '80s, a large number of joint ecumenical texts were published and the summit of full and visible communion of the Church with the recognition of faith and of sacramental life and the concept of Church and of ministerial service looked close.

Today, after achieving this first lofty level by normalizing and intensifying ecumenical communion, some people think we are proceeding at too slow a pace, for new theological and political or ecclesial obstacles have materialized that we do not yet know how to surmount.

Consequently, on the basis of the differentiated consensus reached thus far by the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (Augsburg 1999) between The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, it is essential above all to clarify the diversity in our idea of the Church and ministerial service.

For Catholics and Orthodox, consensus on this question constitutes the hypothetical possibility of a joint celebration of the Eucharist. In this regard, Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, stressed: "According to the Declaration on the principles of the Doctrine of Justification, it is ecclesiological issues above all that are the subject of the dialogue with the Churches deriving from the Reformation. According to both Catholics and Orthodox, they are the key to dealing with the pressing pastoral question of Eucharistic communion. This is the situation" (Situation and Zukunft der Ökumene in: "Theologische Quartalschrift", 181 [2001], 175-190, cit. 186).

On the Evangelical side, on the contrary, the ecumenical goal is not for the time being full and visible unity or ecclesial communion, but intercommunion which would make it possible to also tackle other issues if it were realized.

It should be said, however, that without ecclesial communion, no real and veritable Eucharistic Communion can exist, nor without the Eucharist can there be any full ecclesial communion.

On the other hand, in many local Lutheran Churches the question about their own confessional identity is once again in the forefront. Dialogue with the ecumenical partner leads sooner or later to questions concerning one's own identity.

The following documents obviously belong in this context: "Ecclesial communion in the Evangelical perspective", published by the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) 2001; "Ecumenism according to Evangelical Lutheran Understanding" and "Common Priesthood, Ordination and 'Calling' in the Evangelical perspective", published by the United Lutheran Evangelical Church in Germany (VELKD) 2004, which, for example, does not consider ordination through prayer and the imposition of hands as an indispensable prerequisite for the celebration of the Eucharist and of Communion.

With this idea of a functional rather than sacramental ministerial service linked to grace, these texts tend to cast doubt on the joint ecumenical texts that have so far been drafted.

Confessional self-verification should certainly be understood and accepted, because meeting and dialogue presuppose a proper identity as well as an enrichment and a challenge. This actually becomes more difficult whenever a process is grafted in place of the conviction, affirmed constantly in recent decades, that what unites us is greater than what divides us, which emphasizes the distinctive features but, on the contrary, fails to follow up its achievements.

In addition, in recent times new differences in ethical matters have emerged. They concern the family and sexuality as well as the bioethical and social-ethical challenges, and the differences are not only between Catholics and Lutherans but are also at the very core of international Lutheranism.

A further problem develops from the far-reaching contrast between ecumenism at the grass-roots level and at that of theology and ecclesial governance, the split between the so-called ecumenism "from above" and ecumenism "from below". The contemporary social context contributes only to widening it.

Due to the prevalent individualistic and pluralistic outlook, the idea of the fundamental ecumenical need to seek the visible unity of the Church of Jesus Christ is fading.

Catholic-Lutheran dialogue

On the other hand, in its current phase, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission for Unity, which consists of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and The Lutheran World Federation, has taken on the task of elaborating further presuppositions for a differentiated consensus on a concept of Church and ecclesial ministry. The topic of the document that will be completed this year is: "Apostolicity and the ordained ministry in the Church". Last year, the Commission continued its work on the theological and biblical drafts and those on Church history which had so far been drawn up on these issues.

In 2004, throughout the world, the Catholic Church and The Lutheran World Federation joyfully celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. With the signing of this Declaration on 31 October 1999 at Augsburg, communion between Lutherans and Catholics, although still incomplete, became deeper and more authentic. This is the historical and ecclesiological consequence of the Declaration.

The anniversary of the signing itself was the occasion for celebration and more intense study across the world. The main celebration, with the motto: "Justified —freed to live", was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 30 October 2004.

The Commission for Dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics for Sweden and Finland focused its activity on the Catholic and Lutheran concepts of faith and Church, based on a particular continuity in ecclesial life in the context of the nordic countries: a continuity in faith, in sacramental life, in the historical episcopate and in the idea of ministerial service, in the liturgy and in spirituality.

In the United States of America, the dialogue commission between Lutherans and Catholics published its new document in 2004: "The Church as koinonia. Her structures and her ministers", which was able to formulate a further rapprochement in matters connected with the idea of Church and ministerial service.

In 2004, the Council meeting of The Lutheran World Federation was held in
Geneva on the theme "Growing together — growing apart", a critical topic
that describes not only the life of the World Lutheran communion, but also the opportunities and problems of the ecumenical movement, just as in many other contexts of today's world.

In November, in addition to many leaders and representatives of ecumenism from every part of the world, distinguished members of The World Lutheran Federation attended the Conference for the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (21 Nov. 1964), which was held at Rocca di Papa, just outside of Rome. It was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Regularly, at least once a year, in Geneva and in Rome, those in charge of The Lutheran World Federation and those of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity meet for an exchange of consultations. Their conversations concern the current problems and projects of the International Dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics and ecumenical relations at many other levels.

The exchange of a series of visits between important ecclesial representatives and individuals and groups active in the areas of theology and pastoral care is an expression of the good relations between Lutherans and Catholics.

International Dialogue

Since the Second Vatican Council, interecclesial relations have developed between the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht and the Roman Catholic Church. In some Countries official dialogues exist at a national level.

At the meetings and discussions that took place in Rome on the occasion of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the possibility of a future International Dialogue was discussed.
In 2003, on the recommendation of a preparatory group, the International Old Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Union of Utrecht and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity set up a Commission for International Dialogue, chaired on the Old Catholic side by Bishop Fritz-René Müller of Bern, and on the Catholic side by Bishop emeritus Paul-Werner Scheele of Würzburg.

The colloquiums focused on the following questions: ascertaining the theological and ecclesial agreements reached by the Old Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church; debate on the differences that still exist and the inclusion of results of other bilateral discussions conducted by the Old Catholic Church and by the Roman Catholic Church and their effects; discussion on the current pastoral and juridical tasks.

Also in 2004, ecumenical dialogue gave special prominence to the theme of "the concept of Church and ecclesial ministry", whose clarification is the necessary condition for the pressing pastoral issue of Eucharistic Communion.

At the same time, ecumenism thrives on a specific spiritual commitment whose authentic motivation is our desire to live the common faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord, increasingly united with our partners in the ecumenical dialogue.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 March 2005, page 10

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