sklbaGenuine ecumenical dialogue can never be fruitful merely through contrasting newspaper articles without personal conversation on a face to face level. The written word alone, without the opportunity to explain in person what is said and why in a back and forth discussion, can result of cementing opposition rather than advancing mutual understanding of God’s truth. Nevertheless, I think it may be helpful for our Catholic community to offer an initial personal reflection on some recent issues.

On July 20, 2011, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an op-ed article by the Rev. Mark Schroeder, president of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, in which he denied any anti-Catholic prejudice in their conviction that the Catholic Church remained the “anti-Christ” as 16th century Reformation polemics had asserted. He submitted that article to explain and to defend the teachings of his church.

While I respect him for his position of leadership, I know that his statements do not reflect actual Catholic teaching, and that they are not shared by most Lutherans in our country. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Synod is not a member of the Lutheran World Federation.

To the article’s principal charge that papal teaching was believed by Catholics to be equal or superior to the Word of God itself, and is therefore an expression of an “anti-Christ,” Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation insisted that “the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit” (§10).  

Consistent authentic Catholic belief is that the teaching of popes and bishops always stands under the Word of God and is judged by it. This is repeated in several of the major documents of the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, the formal prayer at a bishop’s consecration is recited while the candidate symbolically kneels beneath an open Book of the Gospels.

For 12 years, I was privileged to serve as the Catholic co-chair for the national Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue. Delegates from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as well as from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod were at the table with us. Those years represented but a small portion of the four plus decades of formal dialogue between the Catholic Church and a series of Lutheran Church bodies in our country since the early 1960s. Officially appointed delegates from both sides met to study several fundamental Christian topics in order to determine whether any differences in our respective beliefs and practices were truly church dividing.  

In a series of 11 rounds, each sometimes extending over several years, the delegates meticulously explored topics such as the Nicene Creed (1965), baptism for the remission of sins (1966), the Eucharist as sacrifice (1967), Eucharist and ministry (1970), papal primacy and the universal church (1974), teaching authority and infallibility in the church (1980), Justification by faith (1985), one Mediator, the saints and Mary (1992), Scripture and tradition (1995), the structures and ministries of the church (2005) and hope of eternal life (2011).

Again and again, thoughtful conversation resulted in an exclamation from one side or the other, “Well, if that’s what you mean by those words, we believe that too!” Five centuries of bitter polemic, together with an abundance of stereotypes from pulpits on all sides, however, had hardened the lines of disagreement to such an extent that neither church could recognize itself in the rhetoric of the other’s negative judgments.

A first positive step, therefore, had to be the effort on the part of all parties, as articulated by Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, “to eliminate words, judgments and actions which do not respond to the condition of separated brethren with truth and fairness” (§4). We learned never to tell other churches what they believed because such summaries were proven repeatedly to be inaccurate if not downright erroneous.

In 1985 (published in English in 1990) a special Commission of Lutheran and Catholic scholars in Germany concluded that the mutual condemnations of the 16th century regarding the doctrine of justification, for example, no longer held for their current respective ecumenical partners. Whatever the historical circumstances which produced such condemnations, those factors no longer defined each other’s fundamental statements of belief.

To the op-ed article’s assertion that Catholics believe that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church stated, “Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (§846). This is complemented by the teaching of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church to the effect that “the unique Church of Christ …subsists in the Catholic Church” (§8), a statement which has occasioned extensive discussion among Catholic theologians and necessitated helpful clarifications for all parties concerned.

The Catholic Church’s admitted constant need for reformation and renewal, and its pilgrim status through history, has made it obvious to all of us that the Church of Christ cannot be simply equated with the boundaries of Catholic membership. Catholics are quick also to acknowledge that elements of truth and salvation are found in all Christian churches and communities. Ecumenism requires the common search for God’s truth, not mere politeness. Part of that effort is the acknowledgement of our need to stand humbly before God and to see the truth of Christ’s Gospel in each other. In every generation we struggle anew under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for fidelity to the teachings of the apostles.

Fortunately and felicitously, the issue of justification by faith through grace was formally addressed in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification when officials from the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation solemnly asserted, “We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation” (§19), and “We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation which lays the basis for the whole Christian life” (§25).

Genuine ecumenical dialogue requires an interest in the search for mutual understanding of Christ’s will for the church as well as a patient commitment of time and energy to respectful cooperation wherever possible. In the process the stereotypes born of ancient arguments have usually been proven false. I offer these comments to my fellow Catholics by way of sharing my own personal experiences in the Lutheran Catholic Dialogue over the years.