A Call for Better Dialogue with High Church Lutherans

This past October marked the 498th year since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. It also marked the eleventh year since I walked out of Trinity Lutheran Church in Traverse City and began the long road towards Catholicism.

Anyone who has talked to me for more than five minutes knows how deeply my soul longs for the High Church Lutherans to be blissfully reunited with the Catholic Church. I love and adore being Catholic. There is a peace within the Church that brings great comfort and joy to those within her ranks who can see her beauty beneath the clouds of misinformation and apathy seen in many of her members. Truth has a way of creating this peace, and I would not trade the theological riches of the Catholic Church for anything I had before, for nothing is of greater value to me than these Truths. And yet…

And yet in the deepest part of me there is a hunger for the traditions and liturgies of my youth. The four-part harmonies linger still in the back of my mind like the anthem of a forsaken homeland, moving me to tears when I think that it has been a decade since I last sang “Thy Strong Word.”

But my desire to see the establishment of Lutheran Ordinariates in my lifetime is more than just a personal quest to satisfy a nostalgic heart. It is because I look back into the cave and want nothing more than to see my hard-headed brothers and sisters stand blinking in the sunlight beside me. I want what the traditional Lutherans can bring with them into the Church, yes. But above all, I want them to receive once more the graces and abundant joy that they could find in returning home to Rome, things lost for so long that they are all but forgotten.

With this great purpose and my own status as an apprentice theologian in mind, I turned my attention at once to Unitatis Redintegratio, Vatican II’s decree on Ecumenism, to see what such a document could offer. At once, it was clear to me that I was not alone in my desire for unity. In fact, “everywhere large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace, and among our separated brethren also there increases from day to day the movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians” (Article 1). The document seeks to affirm this impulse, asking Catholics to “recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism,” being always careful to give primacy to the needs of the Church (Article 4).

Perhaps it is the “intelligent” that I find so often lacking in the efforts that many have made for Christian Unity over the years. This is not to say that great and profound work has not been done in this area. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s work for the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariates is a testament to ecumenism done correctly and prudently, which we will return to in a moment.

But how often have we seen well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) individuals and groups reach out in the wrong way to the wrong people, forging alliances with those who would prefer the Church to be more theologically or morally lax? These poor souls, seeking unity, find themselves met with open arms by those Ecclesial Communities who are so inclusive that they stand for nothing at all, who have traded their catechisms for empty embraces and their doctrines for a lifeless smile. Seeing the Church’s representatives thus entrenched, the doctrinally strict congregations tend to grow ever more wary, fearing that the Church and these Communities are of the same mind. Already unsure of the prudence of entering into dialogue with the Church, such traditional congregations cling tighter to their doctrines like life preservers in the tossing sea of relativism, refusing to loosen their hold as the rescue vessel seems less than seaworthy. These partial buoyancies are sufficient, they think. Better these than drowning later as the ship goes down.

I saw this in action when the Catholic Church engaged in dialogue with the Lutheran World Federation (the extremely liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was the only American Lutheran group to participate) on Justification back in 1999. While the resulting declaration is considered a groundbreaking document in ecumenism, it is a sore point for more conservative Lutherans because it hugely misrepresented traditional Lutheran doctrine in favor of other agendas. The Missouri Synod in particular, at least in my home church, considered this confirmation that Catholics did not care one lick about doctrine or about the theological differences between High and Low Church Lutherans. I remember the uproar this caused in my community. On a personal note, I feel it set my own family’s conversion back nearly seven years. And this is but one example of how a lack of attention to the nuances in the doctrines of other Churches and a careful evaluation of those nuances can lead to serious problems later on.

To be fair, the LCMS has engaged successfully in dialogue with the Church both before and since this declaration, but the mistrust of this declaration on Justification was compounded by the fact that the LCMS was not invited to the following round of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue in 2004. This was a major setback in any efforts to bring the High Church Lutherans of the United States into any agreement with the Church.

This is exactly the wrong way to handle ecumenism, according to Unitatis Redintegratio. In fact, it explicitly states that, to overcome the obstacles that separate us from other Christians, we are to proceed “prudently and patiently”—that is, not rushing in without proper theological preparation, knowledge of the doctrines of those we would dialogue with, and a clear goal in mind—and “with the attentive guidance of [our] bishops” (4)—that is, to rely on the Magisterium and its representatives to ensure that our efforts are by-the-book and doctrinally sound.

Furthermore, the document goes on to say that “we must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren. […] Catholics, who already have a proper grounding, need to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background” (9). This resonates so strongly with the need for proper catechesis within our ranks before we can dialogue, and this dialogue, of course, is vital for our ability to bring doctrinally strong churches such as my beloved LCMS back into the fold.

And we know that this can be done. After Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI established the Anglican Ordinariates, it was proven that these Personal Ordinariates can be invaluable in taking the final steps towards Church Unity. If, after successful and prudent dialogue, we can provide a home for Protestants fleeing the weakening and the corruption of their communities (the Lutheran Church in Europe, the ELCA, and many others have already fallen to the moral ambiguity of the culture, and time is running out for the LCMS), where their traditions and liturgies and way of life can be preserved while they are fortified with the solid buttress of Catholic doctrine and unity with Rome, then naturally many will choose to get on board. The response to the Anglican Ordinariates illustrated this splendidly. While being able to remain somewhat autonomous, the ordinaries work with the bishops of the dioceses located near them and stand united in the Latin Rite, having what can only be described as the best of both worlds.

I firmly believe that, if unity is truly what we are working for, then the best fulfillment we can find of Unitatis Redintegratio, which called for us to “pave the way for Christian unity” (12), is to stop messing around in the quarry and start mixing concrete. To do this, we must solidify our Church’s understanding of herself and her doctrines. Then we must truly understand the doctrines of those we wish to dialogue with. And when these titanic tasks are completed, we must reach out, not to the communities who welcome us with open arms but have no substance behind their enthusiasm, but to the stubborn, obstinate, doctrinally precise ones whose gravel will make our road forward mighty and resilient in the face of our powerful enemy. Only then, when these communities like the LCMS are back in union with the Church, will we be able to aid those who have wandered deeper into the enemy’s camp.

And as for me, I will continue to study, to pray, and to seek a way to bring this beautiful dream to fruition.

I can do no other. God help me.

Editor’s note: In the image above, Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore (left) and the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, hold copies of “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist.” The document, published October 30, 2015, highlights areas of agreement between Catholics and Lutherans. (Photo courtesy of ELCA)

E. G. Norton

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E. G. Norton is a Theology graduate student at Franciscan University of Steubenville, with a focus on the role of mythos in the theological dialogue. She is also the head writer for the blog The Trenchcoat Introspective.

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