Lutherans, Catholics 'on the way' to greater unity

10/30/2015 1:00:00 PM

            CHICAGO (ELCA) – Drawing on 50 years of national and international dialogue, Lutherans and Catholics have made available Oct. 30 Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist – a unique ecumenical document that marks a pathway toward greater unity between Catholics and Lutherans.

            "Five hundred years ago wars were fought over the very issues about which Lutherans and Roman Catholics have now achieved consensus," said the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). "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.
            "Pope Francis in his recent visit to the United States emphasized again and again the need for and importance of dialogue," said Bishop Denis J. Madden of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Catholic co-chair of the task force creating the document. "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."
            At its heart are 32 "Statements of Agreement" where Lutherans and Catholics already have points of convergence on topics about church, ministry and Eucharist. The document also indicates differences that remain.
            The declaration 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 of the declaration 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. In addition, the declaration urges Catholics and Lutherans at local levels to connect in "a deeper commitment to Christ and greater engagement and collaboration with one another," according to the declaration's executive summary.
            Earlier this month the ELCA Conference of Bishops – an advisory body of the church –received and unanimously affirmed the Statements of 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 statements were also unanimously affirmed by the Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A growing unity
            In December 2011, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the PCPCU, proposed a declaration "on the way" to seal 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.
            "I learned of Cardinal Kurt Koch's hope that there could be a Declaration In Via," said the Rev. Donald J. McCoid, former executive for ELCA Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations. "After consulting with (former ELCA) Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, I wrote a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with a hope and a prayer that the ELCA and the (conference) might respond to Cardinal Koch's hope for a declaration."
            "With great joy we have embraced this assignment together. The Spirit worked and has continued to guide the scholars, co-chairs (of the task force) and staff as we have addressed agreements that we have with ministry, the church, and the Eucharist. In light of 2017 (which marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation), God has given us this moment to be on the way together as Lutherans and Catholics," said McCoid.

Trying a new thing: The road from dialogue to declaration
            The Rev. Jared Wicks, SJ, Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, described the significance of this work: "With the Declaration on the Way, our churches can focus attention on 32 remarkable results of our dialogues of the past half-century. It's a moment to move from study to declaration, to expand in Catholic and Lutheran believers a shared awareness of their real agreements on significant and well-defined essentials of our faith and life."
            Wicks, a Catholic member of the task force, said the document "puts into the hands of theology teachers and students a concise and well documented account of results of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues of nearly five decades. I hope and pray that the (declaration) can help to form a new generation of well informed and dedicated ecumenical thinkers and dialogue members."
            "We carefully studied the reports from international, regional and national dialogues," said the Rev. Joy Schroeder, professor of Church History at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and professor of religion at Capital University, both in Columbus, Ohio.
            "While acknowledging that there are matters on which we have not achieved full consensus, we identified numerous places in the dialogue documents where Lutherans and Catholic ecumenists affirmed strong points of agreement regarding the church, ministry and the Lord's Supper," said Schroeder, a Lutheran member of the task force. "As we studied the official reports of Catholic-Lutheran dialogues for the past 50 years, we were impressed by the amount of consensus we have already achieved."
            "The Declaration on the Way is a unique document in the history of ecumenical documents," said Dr. Susan K. Wood, SCL, professor and director, Department of Theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee. Wood is a Catholic member of the task force.
            "It is not yet a consensus document of the stature of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It does not claim that the resolution of all the differences between Catholics and Lutherans on the topics of church, Eucharist, and ministry have been resolved," said Wood.
            "Nevertheless, at the same time, it is not just another dialogue statement on these issues. It gathers the agreements on these topics as presented in international and regional dialogue statements, identifying 32 statements of agreement and presenting the documentation that supports those agreements. These agreements signal that Catholics and Lutherans are indeed 'on the way' to full, visible unity," she said.
            "As we approach 2017, 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. Declaration on the Way shows that Lutherans and Catholics are living within the 'already, but not yet' relationship of real but imperfect communion. Too often, we have stressed the imperfect nature of our unity. The declaration invites us to celebrate the real communion achieved through 50 years of dialogue that we can recognize and affirm with the reception of this text," said Wood.
            Hope for the declaration's impact was expressed by the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, a former ELCA presiding bishop who serves as the Lutheran co-chair of the task force: "Thanks be to God that we can now offer this declaration. Trusting in the Holy Spirit and with renewed resolve, we can say confidently that Catholics and Lutherans are on the way to full communion."
            The text of the Declaration on the Way and more information are available at up​
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.7 million members in more than 9,300 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

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