Lutherans and Catholics: Some major, major overlooked news to pursue


Pope Francis continues to confound conservative Catholics. A notable incident Nov. 15 got little attention in the mainstream press as the globe was transfixed by Islamist terrorism. This is an incident worth a second look from reporters.

During a Rome meeting with Lutherans, a wife asked the pontiff when she could receive Catholic communion alongside her Catholic husband. Francis responded:

“... You believe that the Lord is present. And what’s the difference? There are explanations, interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always refer back to your baptism – ‘one faith, one baptism, one Lord,’ this Paul tells us; and then consequences come later. I would never dare to give permission to do this because it’s not my own competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord, and then go forward. [Pause] And I wouldn’t dare, I don’t dare say anything more.”

Leaving aside the pope’s “competence,” his “go forward” is reasonably interpreted as “go ahead” if your own conscience says "go." Francis has roused similar debate over Communion for  remarried Catholics without the required annulments of first marriages.

Catholicism’s Catechism is explicit that Protestants shouldn’t receive at Mass until the whole tangle of doctrinal disagreements is resolved:

“Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church ‘have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic ministry in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders’ [quoting the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio]. It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church” (#1400).  

The Religion Guy learned about the pope’s words from Rod Dreher’s comments on his blog at Dreher in turn cited Vaticanologist Rocco Palmo’s “Whispers in the Loggia” blog. Palmo made a key interpretive point. Francis, who likes the question-and-answer format, “is customarily apprised of the questions to be put to him in advance -- given the situation here, it’d be practically impossible to believe that Francis didn’t anticipate the topic coming up.”

If so, this was no spontaneous gaffe. Thus, Dreher asks, Is this pope Catholic?

“Hard to avoid the conclusion that Pope Francis just effectively rewrote the Catechism, and destroyed a Eucharistic discipline that has existed since the Reformation. Did you ever think you would live to see this? The Pope is refuting the magisterial teaching of his own Church, and not on a small matter, either.”

By coincidence -- or was it coincidental?! -- a major Catholic-Lutheran document was released Oct. 30 just before Francis met the Lutherans, also with little media notice. The progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the U.S. Catholic bishops’ ecumenism committee issued “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist (.pdf here).” 

Negotiators from the two sides offer an 118-page overview of 50 years of Catholic-Lutheran discussions in the U.S. and internationally that finds agreements on 32 points. This text, not yet treated by the full U.S. Catholic hierarchy, is being referred to the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, which represents 72 million believers in 142 church bodies.

As Francis commented, Lutherans and Catholics agree on the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine, and the U.S. negotiators conclude historic differences on the sacrament no longer justify separation. They propose “occasional” Catholic communion with Lutherans, citing especially the plight of married couples. This raises another question: What about other bodies -- think the Episcopalians -- already in Communion with the ELCA?

Now, it’ll be a big challenge for reporters to translate into news copy the technicalities about e.g. “apostolic succession,” the “sacrifice of the Mass” or “transubstantiation.” In case you wonder, the negotiators only note briefly that there’s “no promise of imminent resolution” on the papacy, and slide past “moral issues that are often deemed to be church dividing.”

Journalists looking to develop this in depth have a huge news peg upcoming, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation set off by Lutherans. Between now and 2017 there’s ample time to absorb all the relevant documents. The first person to phone might be Willliam G. Rusch, former ecumenical officer of the ELCA and now Yale Divinity School’s Lutheran specialist, who resigned from the U.S. talks June 3.

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