Five centuries after the Reformation, how do the Lutheran and Catholic churches get along today? What has been achieved by working together since inter-church dialogue between the two began in Australia in the mid–1970s? We asked the dialogue team’s Lutheran and Catholic co-chairs – Rev Dr Stephen Hultgren, from Australian Lutheran College, and Rev Dr Gerard Kelly, of the Catholic Institute of Sydney – for their thoughts.
What has changed in the relationship between the two churches in Australia?
Rev Dr Gerard Kelly: The major change has been that we have moved from a situation of suspicion and hostility to one of friendliness. Rather than focus on what divides us, we are now more aware of what unites us. This becomes the starting point for engagement with each other.
There is much more contact than previously between members of our churches at all levels. There is a greater sense of trust of each other and a willingness to work together in addressing significant social issues. Our two churches have also grown in mutual understanding.
What have been the major achievements since dialogue began?
Rev Dr Stephen Hultgren: The dialogue has covered a number of important topics, including baptism, Eucharist (the Lord’s supper), the ministry, the church, justification, the ministry of oversight (bishops), Scripture and tradition, and the papacy (Petrine ministry).
Undoubtedly the most noteworthy milestone in the dialogue has been on the topic of justification. The Common Statement on Justification in 1999 stated: ‘Lutherans and Roman Catholics together see justification as God’s free and saving action in Christ whereby our sin is forgiven and we are both declared and made righteous. Together we confess that it is solely by grace and through faith that we are justified and not through our own merits. Together we say that justification cannot be separated from regeneration, sanctification, and the renewal of our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Together we affirm that justification, or salvation in Christ, is central and normative to our Christian faith’. This statement barely preceded the 1999 signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.
Ecumenical dialogue takes hard work, patience, and a spirit of goodwill towards the dialogue partner. The dialogue in Australia has borne good fruit, and we pray for God’s continued blessing on this endeavour, so that, as Jesus prayed, his followers might be one (John 17:21).
GK: The body of work produced by the dialogue is a remarkable achievement. Matters that were at the heart of the division of the 16th century are now seen in a different light. Sometimes we have cleared up misunderstandings. But more importantly, we recognise that both our churches have continued the process of reform and renewal, and this means that we address those divisive questions in a new way.
A further achievement is that the dialogue has not simply remained the preserve of a small group of theologians. The results have been slowly filtering down into church life more broadly. For example, I as a Catholic have a much deeper appreciation of the doctrine of justification and have become more aware of the place it has in my own church.
At another level, the results of the dialogue have also been able to play a role in helping our respective churches make decisions about the internal life of the church. This is what people today call ‘receptive ecumenism’ – we learn from each other.
There is one other achievement I should mention: we are now able to be frank with each when the relationship between our churches runs into difficulties. This is possible because there are genuine friendships among us.
What are the sticking points that remain?
SH: One problematic area is differences in the understanding of the church, for example as the ‘congregation of the faithful’ (Lutheran) versus the church as a ‘sacrament of salvation’ (Catholic), as well as the question of the presence of sin and error in the church.
In the area of ministry, differences continue over mutual recognition of ministries, the sacramentality of ordination, and the understanding of orders (the relationship between the offices of bishop, priest, and deacon). A concrete result from dialogue on oversight was the LCA’s decision in 2013 to change the title of its office of oversight from president to bishop. Roman Catholics have expressed the hope that this would not be merely a change in language, but that a ‘more significant change would be part of that on-going reform, embracing in ever deeper ways the ancient common tradition of the church, in which the bishop was seen as sign and agent of communion in a local church’.
In the most recently completed dialogue, Lutherans and Romans Catholics in Australia tackled the topic of the papacy, taking up Pope John Paul II’s request that church leaders and theologians engage as to how the Bishop of Rome could better serve the universal church and its unity. Here, Lutherans express the hope for a papacy that ‘whole-heartedly embraces and promotes the gospel of Jesus Christ, serving the church and the world with its truth and freedom’. In such a case, it might be possible to foresee a situation in which Lutherans could acknowledge the role of the bishop of Rome as a centre of communion for the whole church.
How significant are such collaborations as the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Roman Catholic Church and the Joint Statement signed by the Pope and the LWF President on the occasion of last year’s joint Commemoration of the Reformation in Lund?
GK: These are highly significant for a number of reasons. The first is that they are actions of the two churches as such, and not simply the work of groups within the church. For Catholics this means that they have an official status that affects the life of the whole church. The Catholic Church has no similar declaration with any other Reformation church.
A second reason for this being significant is that the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification deals with a matter that was at the heart of the Reformation and is central to Christian faith.
Because the mutual condemnations of the 16th century no longer apply, our churches are now in a different relationship. In our own dialogue, this had flow–on consequences when we took up other topics, such as the thorny questions of Scripture and Tradition, the ministry of bishops, or the Petrine ministry.
The more recent signing in Lund last year also signals that we are now engaged with each other in living the gospel before the world. Pope Francis had a lovely turn of phrase at Lund: ‘We Christians are called today to be active players in the revolution of tenderness’. Catholics and Lutherans can now do this together.
SH: The Lutheran reformers regarded justification as the ‘first and chief article’ of Christian faith. Given that fact, the (international and Australian) agreements that have been reached on justification are of historic importance, as they help to heal a major point of division in the 16th century and pave the way for the further development of harmonious relations.