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Bishops Committee Recommends Opportunities for Shared Communion with Lutherans

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I haven’t seen much attention given to this—presumably, the only Holy Communion issues people were writing about and discussing in October involved divorce and remarriage—but this seems to be a pretty big deal:

A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee on ecumenical and interreligious affairs plans to send the Vatican a bold suggestion for “expansion of opportunities for Catholics and Lutherans to receive Holy Communion together.” The 118-page text of “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist [PDF],” unanimously affirmed by the committee in October, will be submitted to Cardinal Kurt Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican.

Promotional materials call the declaration a “unique ecumenical text that draws on 50 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in preparation for the 500th Reformation anniversary coming in 2017.” A news release from the bishops claims it “marks a pathway toward greater visible unity between Catholics and Lutherans.”

The Most Rev. Denis J. Madden, Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, has suggested the document stands in the service of what Pope Francis has called a “culture of encounter”: “This Declaration on the Way represents in concrete form an opportunity for Lutherans and Catholics to join together now in a unifying manner on a way finally to full communion.”

The U.S.C.C.B press release: 

Drawing on 50 years of national and international dialogue, Lutherans and Catholics together have issued the “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist,” a unique ecumenical document that marks a pathway toward greater visible unity between Catholics and Lutherans. The October 30 release of the document comes on the eve of the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting the 95 Theses, which sparked the Protestant Reformation.

“Pope Francis in his recent visit to the United States emphasized again and again the need for and importance of dialogue. This Declaration on the Way represents in concrete form an opportunity for Lutherans and Catholics to join together now in a unifying manner on a way finally to full communion,” said Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Catholic co-chair of the task force creating the declaration.

“Five hundred years ago wars were fought over the very issues about which Lutherans and Roman Catholics have now achieved consensus,” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton. “Church, ministry and Eucharist have been areas of disagreement and even separation between our two churches, and we still have work to do both theologically and pastorally as we examine the questions. The declaration is so exciting because it shows us 32 important points where already we can say there are not church-dividing issues between us, and it gives us both hope and direction for the future,” she said.

At the heart of the document are 32 “Statements of Agreement” where Lutherans and Catholics already have points of convergence on topics about church, ministry and Eucharist. These agreements signal that Catholics and Lutherans are indeed ‘on the way’ to full, visible unity. As 2017 approaces, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this witness to growing unity gives a powerful message to a world where conflict and division often seem to drown out more positive messages of hope and reconciliation The document also indicates differences still remaining between Lutherans and Catholics and indicates possible ways forward.

In October both the ELCA Conference of Bishops—an advisory body of the church—and the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) received and unanimously affirmed the 32 Agreements. ELCA bishops requested that the ELCA Church Council accept them and forward the entire document to the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the denomination’s highest legislative body.

The document seeks reception of the Statement of Agreements from The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). The LWF is a global communion of 145 churches in 98 countries worldwide. The ELCA is the communion’s only member church from the United States.

The conclusion invites the PCPCU and the LWF to create a process and timetable for addressing the remaining issues. It also suggests that the expansion of opportunities for Lutherans and Catholics to receive Holy Communion together would be a sign of the agreements already reached. The Declaration also seeks a commitment to deeper connection at the local level for Catholics and Lutherans. (Emphasis added.)

In December 2011, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the PCPCU, proposed a declaration to seal in agreements in the areas of the church, ministry and the Eucharist. The ELCA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responded to the Cardinal’s proposal by identifying Catholic and Lutheran scholars and leaders to produce the declaration, drawing principally on the statements of international dialogue commissions sponsored by the LWF and the PCPCU and a range of regional dialogues, including those in the United States.

A significant outcome of the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in the United States and internationally is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), signed in 1999 in Augsburg, Germany. With the JDDJ, the LWF and the Catholic Church agreed to a common understanding of the doctrine of justification and declared that certain 16th century condemnations of each other no longer apply.

The text of the Declaration on the Way and more information are available online:http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/ecumenical/lutheran/declaration-on-the-way.cfm

Let us pray that “all may be one.”

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