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Francis and the Lutherans: A Deep Gesture


Russell E. Saltzman - published on 11/01/16

A Catholic convert and former Lutheran pastor reports on the pope's historic commemoration of the Reformation

It is hard to decide exactly what Pope Francis expected from the ceremonies marking the 499th anniversary of the Reformation (the kickoff event for the 500th next year), held at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, this week.

Sponsored jointly with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the Lutheran/Roman Catholic commemoration’s title was suggestive: From Conflict to Communion – Together in Hope. It was something, hearing Lutherans and Catholics confess to each other the frequent incivility both have exhibited over five centuries, the one to the other.

It softened at least one heart, I suspect. A Catholic lay blogger, a friend to me but no friend of Luther, offered a flattering quote from Luther on her Facebook page. I take that as some measure of progress.

Perhaps Pope Francis expects nothing, and this is only one of many ecumenical gestures he and his immediate predecessors have undertaken over the last half century. But even if he sees it as a step on the way to eventual reunion, I cannot help thinking of the number of twists and turns Lutherans themselves would have to take to again become Roman Catholics. The question of women’s ordination, to mention but one, comes to mind. The Lutheran Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, is foremost a woman.

In 500 years a lot of water has flowed through both the Tiber and the Rhine.

Francis’ detractors among Roman Catholics fear he will make some signal toward intercommunion and Eucharistic hospitality. That exactly is what some Lutherans excitedly seek, and if not in Lund, well, surely someday soon, perhaps on the actual 500th anniversary in 2017.

LWF executive secretary, The Rev. Dr. Martin Junge, in his remarks said he was looking for “tables – yes, tables – where we can share bread and wine, the presence of Christ, who has never left us and who calls us to abide in him so that the world may believe.”

Francis did not reciprocate. He emphasized that Lutherans and Catholics cannot “claim to realize an impracticable correction of what took place” during the Reformation and following. But [we can] tell that history differently,” meaning, I take it, with more charity. At the same time, we cannot be “resigned to the division and distance that our separation has created between us. We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.”

That is true and it is welcomed. But can it be achieved? While no one should ever foreclose the work of the Holy Spirit, it might come down to the work of the Lutherans. Consider the matter when Catholics ask Lutherans to reconsider the ordination of women, or suggest that maybe the largest Lutheran body in the United States could consider dropping its practice of treating an elective abortion as a reimbursable medical expense for pastors and church workers under its insurance plan.

Lutherans and Catholics can talk — and they should — about their nearly indistinguishable views on priesthood and the Eucharistic presence of Christ in the sacrament, and on the doctrine of justification by faith, and perhaps a dozen other crucial areas in theology. Such conversations usually reveal a startling coincident catholicity of thought shared by both Wittenberg and Rome. And however encouraging that is – 500 years along — it won’t amount to much in the end.

Those Roman Catholics whose hair gets set afire every time a pope makes a friendly comment on Martin Luther are safe — now and for the foreseeable future. It isn’t that Rome would not welcome Lutherans; only that given the state of world Lutheranism few Lutherans would be able to match the rigors of being Catholic Lutherans.

For Lutherans and Catholics, theological conversation is a snap. Those other matters, though, those will be the tough conversations.

If you’d like to know more of Lutheran theology, and there is more of it than just Luther, look up three documents he had no hand in writing (they’re on the web, easy): The Augsburg Confession, the premier statement of Lutheran faith and doctrine; The Confutation of the Augsburg Confession, a response issued by Catholic theologians; and a response to them, The Defense (or Apology) of the Augsburg Confession.

Meanwhile, Francis made a deep gesture. He wasn’t “celebrating” the Reformation. He did commemorate it, more as lament for all the trouble both sides had in understanding what the other was saying. So, my summation: Francis did what a good pastor would do. The chief pastor of the Church paid an encouraging call on some of his, shall we call them, inactive members and said a prayer with them.

Pope Francis
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