The Road From Worms
The Lutheran-Catholic Ecumenical Dialogue



by William Hoffman
April 1984

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The day Martin Luther ceremonially cremated the papal bull Exurge Domine, Magellan was sailing up the coast of what is now Chile. A few hundred miles east of the German bonfire Copernicus was leading the defense of his uncle's bishopric against the Teutonic Knights. Some years later he would turn to one of Luther's printers in Wittenburg to publish the mathematical basis of his heliocentric theory, about the same time that Vesalius was publishing his revolutionary work on the human body in Basel. The world was changing and the Church wasn't keeping up.

Last December 11, 463 years and a day after Luther burned the bull of excommunication, a pope preached in a Lutheran church. In the interim, the atom was split, the biochemical secret of life was revealed, and a man walked on the moon, events that occurred in this century and evidently owed nothing or organized religion. But modern science was born in Luther's time and nurtured by the Reformation. One of the books converted to ashes outside Wittenberg's Elster Gate was the canon law, the backbone of the receding medieval order.

Time seems to be disintegrating as the third millennium of the Christian era approaches. Science has enabled us to measure time in nanoseconds, which is how long it takes to transmit a bit of information or trigger a bomb. Events outrun their context. Ideological rivals threaten to annihilate 7,000 years of civilization, which science has made it possible to do in minutes. No wonder that Christianity's age-old family quarrels pale to insignificance in the eyes of many of its adherents. "It's never made any sense to me. We all worship the same Christ," says a Catholic who was forbidden to enter a Lutheran church during his boyhood in North Dakota.

Christians number more than a billion people, nearly a fourth of the world's population and by far the largest body of believers on earth. Of course, no theologian or church leader wanting to be taken seriously would venture that the diverse and fragmented Christian churches will be substantially united as they enter the third millennium, if they enter it at all. The movement toward Christian unity is not yet a century old and there is nearly a millennium of disunity to overcome. But some would point out that even dogmatic religion has not escaped the dizzying pace of change in the 20th century. After all, a pope preached in a Lutheran church. That would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

Pope John Paul II's visit to Rome's Christuskirche made headlines in the New York Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Rome's communist daily Unita also covered the event, a reminder that nowhere was the 500th anniversary of Luther's birth been celebrated with more fanfare than in officially atheist East Germany. Luther's contribution to German nationalism and the power of the modern state has not escaped the notice of communist party boss Erich Honecker.

To skeptics of ecumenism, the visit was a symbolic gesture signifying nothing, a sop to the hope cult. To ecumenical scholars and partisans, it was a dramatic manifestation of what John Paul has called the central concern of his pontificate -- "die Einheit aller Christen," as he told the Lutheran congregation of German diplomatic and business people. A year and a half earlier he had been the first pope to set foot on British soil. He celebrated Mass in Westminister Cathedral and joined with the Archbishop of Canterbury in an ecumenical service. Before that he had gone to Istanbul to meet with the patriarch of the Orthodox Church and called for "the symphony of all holy churches of God." He has prayed amid Buddhists at Hiroshima and sent messages of peace to the leaders of Islam, including the Ayatollah Khomeini. He has given new vitality to the word that means "open to the whole world" in its earliest Greek form.

The ecumenical movement began with the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910. Missionaries were finding it difficult, not to say embarrassing, explaining to converts the various doctrinal differences among Christian denominations. Christian cooperation was badly needed in the outskirts of civilization. The idea that cooperation could serve in more civilized regions of Christian endeavor culminated in the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, bringing together more than 250 Protestant, Orthodox, and Old Catholic bodies. Membership does not imply that each church must regard others as churches "in the true and full sense of the word," though several mergers have taken place among World Council churches.

The common experience of European Christians during World War II gave fresh impetus to the movement. Nazi executioners didn't discriminate on the basis of Scriptural interpretation. But the movement remained a minority one until the Roman Catholic Church joined in 1960. That year, Pope John XXIII established the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity and named Cardinal Agostino Bea president. In fact, Vatican cooperation began the moment Pope Pius XI, who had denounced the movement in a 1928 encyclical, allowed Bea to attend a biblical conference at the University of Göttingen in 1935. Bea was rector of the Biblical Institute in Rome and leading the Catholic revivial in biblical exegesis and archaeology. From his first contacts with Protestants at Göttingen Bea understood very well that a "change of heart" was the key to genuine ecumenism. He set out with his remarkable intellectual gifts and personal charm to bring about that change within his own church. The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism, issued in 1964, bears his imprint. Dialogue with the Orthodox and Protestant churches is encouraged based on a common baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Catholic responsibility in the "sin" of division is acknowledged and reference to "the one true Church" that characterized Pius XI's encyclical is prudently avoided.

The many reforms of the Council indicated that the Vatican was beginning to take the idea of Christian unity seriously. As a public demonstration, Pope Paul VI met with Patriarch Athenagoras of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem in 1964. They lifted the mutual anathemas that had been in effect since the schism of 1054. A few years later Paul traveled to Geneva where he joined with the leaders of the World Council of Churches in the Lord's Prayer.

Though the people of Worms had asked Paul to rescind the condemnation of Luther, it was not until John Paul II's visit to West Germany in 1980 that the Vatican showed signs of wanting improved relations with world Lutheranism. His visit for the seventh centenary of the death of Albertus Magnus coincided with the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, the cornerstone of the Lutheran tradition. The pope seized upon the conciliatory mood conveyed by the Confession and used Luther's own words to describe the experience of Christian faith. It was a giant step. Heretics are not so freely quoted in papal addresses.

Last November, as the "year of Luther" commenced, the Vatican released a letter John Paul had written to Cardinal Johannes Willebrands of the Netherlands, Bea's successor as spokesman on ecumenism. In the letter, the pope praised the father of the Reformation and urged Catholics to distance themselves from the historical events in the pursuit of Christian unity. The "clarification of history" must go hand-in-hand with the "dialogue of faith," and he commended a group of Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians in the United States who had reached an accord on the doctrine of justification two months before.

The 19th-century Catholic convert John Henry Newman wrote that no doctrine is defined until it is violated, and for four centuries the Catholic position on Luther's belief in justification by faith alone was clear: Insofar as he was teaching that salvation is achieved by faith alone and not at all by merit, he was teaching false doctrine. The doctrine was "powerful against Rome" and "wonderfully adapted, as if prophetically, to the genius of the times which were to follow," Cardinal Newman wrote. But it was false all the same. With its accomplice, sola Scriptura, it served to undermine the role of the magisterium.

In the sharp, dry light of 20th-century exegesis and hermeneutics, improved critical methods, and a desire for reconciliation, what was seen as a matter of truth and falsehood is now rife with complexity. Getting to the heart of it is hampered by the confusion of tongues and "differences in thought structures." Though serious differences exist in the way Lutherans and Catholics interpret the doctrine, these differences "need not be church dividing." After all, Lutherans can't agree among themselves on a definition of the doctrine by which, according to Luther, "the church stands or falls."

These were some of the official and unofficial conclusions of several theologians involved in the U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue. Since 1965 some 20 theologians, appointed by the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishop's Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and Lutheran World Ministries, have been discussing issues that have traditionally divided the two churches. (There is also an ongoing international dialogue under the auspices of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican's Secretariat.) The status of baptism and the Nicene Creed in general presented no special difficulties. "Convergence" was reached on the subject of "the Eucharist as sacrifice" and progress was reported on the stickier issues of the ministry, papal primacy and papal infallibility. Current discussions are focusing on Mary and the saints.

Meanwhile, ecumenical and cooperative activities between the churches are becoming commonplace. Lutheran and Catholic bishops have been meeting once a year to further the dialogue. Study groups have taken up moral topics of mutual concern such as marriage and divorce, care for the aging, and in vitro fertilization. Joint ecumenical church services are a regular affair in the Upper Midwest, where Lutherans and Catholics make up a majority of the churchgoing population. Lutheran money helped to establish an ecumenical institute at St. John's University and Abbey in Minnesota. Lutheran ministers are enrolled in its Benedictine theology school. Recently, the insurance firm Lutheran Brotherhood, which is based in Minneapolis, announced plans to launch a 20-year project in cooperation with the monastic manuscript library at St. John's to microfilm Reformation and Counter-Reformation materials internationally. And last March, Archbishop John Roach of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese, and Bishop David Preus, head of the American Lutheran Church, joined in a Lenten service before a packed church in downtown Minneapolis. Preus said he had asked the pope in a recent meeting about the possibility of creating joint services of Scripture for parish churches. "We are not ready to go to the table together, but God is present in words, too," Preus told the congregation.

Luther retained the sacramental character of the Eucharist, but he rejected the traditional concept of transubstantiation, in which the substances of bread and wine are miraculously converted to the body and blood of Christ. Instead, he taught that Christ is present in the unchanged substances. Luther also did not recognize the traditional view of the Eucharist as a sacrificial reenactment of the atonement. When the Lutheran and Catholic theologians completed their study of the Eucharist in 1968 they proceeded to examine how intercommunion could be theologically justified, hoping for a breakthrough. The major Lutheran synods, hearing of the initiative, were quick to quash it. They viewed it as a submission to Rome. Luther rejected the Catholic claims that bishops, who confer Holy Orders and thus the power to celebrate the Mass, are the direct successors of the apostles. In any event, the fact is that intercommunion does not currently exist among all Lutherans themselves.

The United States is home for nine million of the some 70 million Lutherans worldwide. About 95 percent of the U.S. Lutherans belong to three large synods: The Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the Missouri Synod, and the American Lutheran Church (ALC). The LCA, ALC and a third, small synod recently agreed to form a new church to be in operation by 1988. The church would have five and a half million members in 11,000 congregations, an annual budget of $100 million, and an outreach program to minority groups. Currently, only about one percent of LCA-ALC members are minorities.

The Missouri Synod has been something of a spoiler in the effort to unite American Lutheranism. Unlike the LCA or ALC, it has stressed a literal interpretation of Scripture and is appalled that the other bodies have ordained women. The Missouri Synod is far and away the largest Lutheran body in the world that is not a member of the World Council of Churches. It has purged its seminaries of theological progressives and it keeps a tight grip on its elementary school system, which some fellow Lutherans charge is a system of indoctrination. There is no intercommunion between the Missouri Synod and the LCA-ALC, but there is plenty of bad blood. Those familiar with the division admit that relations between LCA-ALC and the Roman Catholic Church are considerably friendlier.

Lutherans were not at the forefront of the protest last December opposing Administration efforts to establish full diplomatic relations with the Vatican, which many leading Catholics also oppose. This was a state affair, a problem of the created order that Luther had little confidence in. It was opposition to the magisterium, the papal teaching authority, that represented the heart of 16th-century protest, and the average Lutheran carries it in his genes. "Lutherans just don't cotton to the idea of papal infallibility," says a Lutheran theologian who has participated in the Lutheran-Catholic discussions. But then, neither do most Catholics, if surveys are correct. The credibility of papal authority took a dive with the country's 50 million Roman Catholics after Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae which renewed the church's prohibition against "artificial" birth control. According to a National Opinion Research Center survey, three-fourths believe they should be allowed to use these banned contraceptive methods. It requires no stretch of the imagination to think that many Catholic couples in the United States are already participating in what John Paul II has called the contraceptive mentality of the West.

The Catholic Church is enjoying an upsurge in attendance in the United States after a drastic decline following the reforms of Vatican II and Humanae Vitae, though declines in the numbers of religious vocations and seminaries pose serious problems. Catholics are easily the largest religious group in the country (Baptists are next at around 30 million) and the number is growing. Most of the growth can be traced to a comparatively higher birth rate and the influx of Hispanics and other immigrant and refugee groups. No American religious group is more culturally diverse, taking its cue in this respect from the mother church. And as the number of Catholics grows, so do the liberal tendencies among them. Gallup polls show that 58 percent think priests should be allowed to marry and 69 percent think that divorced Catholics should be allowed to remarry in the church. The ordination of women is becoming more acceptable. As many Catholics support the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 abortion decision as oppose it, and according to Gallup support has been increasing. The majority of Catholics polled by Gallup in 1983 favor legalized abortion in certain circumstances, presumably in cases of rape, a threat to the mother's health, or in the likelihood of a defective child being born.

In few issues confronting the modern church are U.S. Catholics more united than in the desire for better relations with fellow Christians. A Gallup Poll taken in the late 1970s showed that 87 percent expressed favorable sentiments toward their "separated brethren" and 84 percent responded that the church should become more ecumenical. The feeling was by and large mutual: 73 percent of Protestants polled said they held the Catholic Church in high regard. Only Southern Protestants were noticeably cooler, which isn't terribly surprising. Jimmy Swaggert's appeal is partly his anti-Catholicism, pandering to old suspicions and hatreds. The same survey indicated that Catholics feel slightly more positive about Protestants and Protestants do about one another. There are more than 250 Protestant church bodies in the United States, the legacy of the Reformation. Christian pluralism is seen as an adjunct to democratic pluralism in America. Many of the large churches are active in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church and with each other. But churches are jealous in protecting their doctrinal, cultural, and proprietary heritage, despite their willingness to talk. One of the biggest concerns in the proposed Lutheran merger was who would hold title to the church property of local congregations.

Of all Christians in the United States, none is more rock solid in his religious tradition than the average Lutheran. Ninety-seven percent of Lutherans surveyed by Gallup give a highly positive response to a question about the strength of their religious affiliation, compared to 91 percent of Catholics. Lutherans possess a powerful self-identity rooted in ethnic pride. No major Christian body in the U.S. is more ethnically homogeneous than Lutheranism, being made up overwhelmingly by people of Northern European stock. No religious culture is richer in the musical expression of its liturgy or in congregational song. The religious training of worshipers, especially of children, has always been stressed. Today's nascent Lutheran still receives his religious instruction through the small catechism, which the master wrote in 1529. Lutherans are politically and socially conservative and uphold traditional family values. They are known for their generous support of Lutheran schools, colleges, and seminaries. They are activists in their parish life. With Catholics, they are the most frequent churchgoers in the country. At a time when polls show that organized religion has been of declining importance and when most Americans think they can get to heaven without public worship, Lutherans remain loyal to the tradition of the reformer.

The papal visit to Christuskirche could not have occurred without the facelift Luther has undergone at the hands of Catholic scholars. For more than 400 years Luther was portrayed by Catholics as the son of iniquity. The Catholic humanist Johannes Cochlaeus launched the assault shortly after Luther left Worms, but he was scarcely a match for Luther, the first mass communicator and father of the modern German language. As recently as 1928 the esteemed Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who influenced the developing thought of John Paul II, concluded that concupiscence was the root of Luther's self-doubt.

The turnabout came 10 years later with the publication of the first volume of a history of the Reformation by the European historian Joseph Lortz. John Paul's description of Luther in his letter as "a man of profound religiousness" had its origin in Lortz. Justification by faith alone was actually an old Catholic doctrine rediscovered by Luther and expressed "onesidedly." Luther was more Catholic than anyone had realized. Years later Lortz could even pose the question "Was Luther a saint?", a notion that must be calculated to bring forth the reformer from his grave.

Lutheran sensitivity toward Vatican actions concerns not only Luther and things Lutheran but also, understandably, things German. The pope's involvement in the removal of Hans Kung from his position on the Catholic faculty of the University of Tübingen and from his directorship of the Ecumenical Institute shocked Lutherans. To them and others it smacked of papal tyranny. Kung had been teaching that papal infallibility was "a certain indefectibility of the Church," a construction echoed privately by a Lutheran theologian involved in the U.S. dialogue as perhaps being acceptable to Lutherans. Since his ouster Kung has taken to the lecture circuit in Europe and the United States pushing for ecumenical action and the ordination of women. The "pussyfooting" he finds in the Catholic and Lutheran leadership has some merit, but not much, at least not in the U.S. Lutheran and Catholic bishops have a genuine interest in furthering ecumenical progress. Bishop Preus of the ALC and Bishop James Crumley Jr., head of the LCA, welcome new initiatives. In an interview, Preus said that the ALC "responds with gratitude to the convergences that are taking place," adding that the discussions "have made it clear that we have more in common than what separates us."

Last fall, in an address before the synod of bishops in Rome, Archbishop Roach spoke of a renewed commitment to the ecumenical dialogue calling it "urgent." Roach was head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and had presided over the drafting of the bishop's pastoral letter on the nuclear freeze. Sounding a apocalyptic note, Roach said that the leaders of the Christian churches ought to be "brokers for peace" and avoid "infighting" as the second millennium of the Christian era draws to a close. He reminded the bishops of the words of Ammianus Marcellinus, the Roman historian who observed during the Arian quarrel that "no wild beats are such enemies to human beings as are most Christians to another." In an interview, Roach stressed that importance of addressing "with a united voice the imminent problems of achieving peace, of relieving oppression and of addressing the rapidly evolving questions that modern technology puts to Christianity." He noted that surveys show most bishops share these concerns "even more so than many priests."

At first glance, the times seem auspicious for further ecumenical developments. A Pole sits on the throne of Peter, the first non-Italian since Luther's time. He is a philosopher, a polyglot, and a pilgrim, and he is a survivor. He is popular with Americans. In each of the past six years they have ranked him in the top two "most admired men." No other pope ever ranked higher than fifth in the Gallup survey. John Paul II knows the evils of totalitarianism far better than Western presidents and prime ministers because he has experienced them directly, first as a member of the underground seminary in Nazi-occupied Poland, then as a priest, bishop, and cardinal in a communist homeland. As one scholar puts it, this man from the land of Copernicus seeks to restore hot heliocentricity but the centrality of human dignity. He believes in spiritual transcendence of the sort that Luther made the heart of his teaching. They have much in common.

The pope is also a fundamentalist and a mystic. He longs for Christian unity but is unwilling to accommodate the changes many ecumenically minded Christians think are needed to bring it about. Liberal views on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, liberation theology, and the ordination of women about at the World Council of Churches headquarters in Geneva, but they are scarce in the Vatican. As for the power of his office, John Paul sides with Cardinal Newman: "If Christianity is intended for all ages, it must have an infallible expounder."

For their part, Protestant church leaders express respect and admiration for the Polish pontiff, but they are exceedingly war of his Marian piety. Devotion to Mary went into a decline following Vatican II. John Paul has restored it with a flourish. After all, Mary is the sovereign of Poland. In visiting the shrine of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, where a handful of Polish soldiers defended the monastic relic against an army of Swedish Lutherans in 1655, the pope called Mary the "mother of unity." He had already dedicated his life to her and last March dedicated the world to her. Since 1964 when he was named Archbishop of Cracow he has worn the letter M on his robes. To most Protestants, this is less a matter of intercession than outright worship. They reject it, just as they reject the Immaculate Conception declared by Pius IX in 1854 and the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven enunciated by Pius XII in 1950. These Catholic dogmas have no basis in Scripture, they say, and it is through adhering to Scripture that we are saved.

Ecumenical reconciliation is quite understandably a matter requiring divine intervention. To many observers, it appears that full communion between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches is a distinct possibility before the end of the century. John Paul understands the Eastern "sister" church much better than those arising from the Reformation, and he continues to direct ecumenical overtures eastward. The Orthodox churches are in the line of the apostolic succession and have a male (though not celibate) priesthood and the canon law. The chief obstacle may reside in their being captive to communist states and to Islam.

Intercommunion between the Catholic Church and some Anglican and Lutheran churches before the end of the century is also possible, but less likely. Despite the goodwill of church leaders and the toil of theologians, the schism wrought by Luther will require more time to repair regardless of whether Armageddon is at hand. Reconciliation between the Catholic Church and churches in the Calvinist tradition is even more remote.

Yet the legacy of the Reformation is also one of religious liberty. When Archbishop Wojtyla stood before the conciliar fathers in St. Peter's Basilica in 1965 and spoke passionately in support of the Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty, he affirmed that such liberty should be based on the inherent right of conscience. The future pope declared that religion is a matter of a person's relationship to God, which transcends all things secular. He could have found the same theme in Luther's treatises on Christian liberty and civil government.

One of the Catholic theologians involved in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue remarked that "a lot of people are going to have to die" before the churches are fully reconciled. But the average worshiper is in no particular hurry, if the surveys are right. Most Christians want ecumenical cooperation to continue in the practical order, which gave the movement birth. They are more patient than many of their church leaders, perhaps because they understand implicitly that what was done over centuries cannot be completely undone in a few generations. As the work goes forward to resolve or clarify differences of faith, they have in common the other two theological virtues--hope and love--that Paul extolled 1,927 years ago in his first letter to the Christian poor of Corinth.