The Ecumenical proposal receiving the least debate and attention leading up to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 1997 is the lifting of the 16th century condemnations exchanged by Lutherans and Catholics on the article of Justification.
There are several reasons for this:
- The implications of this proposal will not involve any significant changes in either our internal structure and life as the ELCA or in our relationships to other church bodies.
- The action called for is endorsement of conclusions reached by studies begun in 1980 by the Joint Ecumenical Commission in Germany and in 1985 by the US dialogue team on the article of Justification.
- The proposal is a small step in practical unity. We simply agree to not condemn each other today for church teachings and practices that are no longer definitive of our ecclesial realities. The Church can change in 450 years.
Nevertheless, this proposal carries ramifications for our self identity as Lutherans that may well outstrip any other actions we take on ecumenical fellowship in 1997. The Lutheran Church owes its existence to the historic division made with the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. That division still forms a central part of our understanding of what it means to be Lutheran.
It is incorrectly assumed by many that to be Lutheran is not to be catholic. Things many Lutherans don’t do because they are considered too Catholic include making the sign of the cross, calling the worship service a Mass, going to confession before Holy Communion, giving up meat on Friday or observing fasts of any sort, honoring the Virgin Mary, remembering the saints. When these are opposed merely because they seem too Catholic it is not unlike the parable of the Pharisee and publican: “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like that sinner.”
Never mind that Martin Luther instructed making the sign of the cross in the Small Catechism as a remembrance of Baptism, that he referred to the liturgy as the Mass, advocated penance as the third (now forgotten) sacrament, wrote of the veneration of the Virgin and the importance of saints as examples for our lives.
Our positive identity as Lutherans has often been buried in this opposition to Catholicism. We forget the Lutheran recovery of the gospel of Christ as the experience of a gracious God and our existence as a reform movement within the Church catholic.
Such a positive identity is strongly present in the Augsburg Confession. The first three articles of the Augsburg Confession articulate common Christian ground: the Trinity, the doctrine of original sin, Jesus Christ as the Son of God. It is the fourth article that is the unique Lutheran proposal: that we are all justified by faith as an act of God’s grace and not by merit or works. This article is our principle of existence and our gift to the whole Church–given not to divide the Church, but to define how the gospel must be rightly proclaimed.
In the Metropolitan Chicago Synod we have tried to contribute to an atmosphere where we can all build a positive relationship with Catholics from a basis of a strong positive Lutheran identity. Such a positive relationship has been established and is now in its seventh year. Following the dialogue agreements on the article of Justification, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and the MCS entered into a covenant relationship on the eve of Pentecost in 1989 (the first of its kind in the ELCA). The covenant relationship called for positive growth in areas of church and witness where no division now exists: prayer, scriptural study, work together for peace and justice in the Chicagoland community, pastoral work in common matters of pastoral care, joint programs at all levels of the Synod and Archdiocese and the development of individual congregational covenants of ministry and fellowship.
Last identified, there are over 60 Catholic and Lutheran congregations in active shared programs of prayer, study, social ministry and parish projects. The Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women and the Metropolitan Chicago Synodical Women’s Organization have established a close working covenant that has included annual joint retreats and service projects over the past seven years. Two elementary schools, Lutheran and Catholic, have entered into a covenant relationship. A program for marriage preparation to be offered by the Archdiocese and Synod is being developed for Lutheran/Catholic couples. In this covenant relationship Lutherans and Catholics in Metropolitan Chicago have experienced a different way to be Lutheran and Catholic–a reassessment of their historic identity.
To now take the step of acknowledging that the chief article of Justification no longer divides us from the Catholic Church–that the Catholic Church has incorporated this principle into its gospel proclamation over the last 450 years–and to hear that the Catholics no longer see themselves separated from us by this article of Lutheran identity, will have tremendous implications for the future life and identity of the ELCA.
We are not anti-Catholics. We are members of the Church catholic, reformers who can now celebrate an achievement made for the sake of the gospel of Christ. We can be Lutheran, not in opposition to Rome, but by an understanding of what we bring as gift to the witness of the One Church of Jesus Christ.
And if we are no longer divided by our chief reason for our separate existence from the Catholic Church, where will this small step of lifting mutual condemnations lead us? A study made in 1985 by the Roman Catholic/Lutheran Joint Commission entitled “Facing Unity” proposes models and stages in a future fellowship between our churches that could include full eucharistic sharing, mutual recognition of clergy and reconciliation in the gospel. This may well lead us to a new reformation cry: “Together we stand.”