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Francis & the Lutherans: Intercommunion Confusion

It was no more than a minor blip on the ecclesiastical screen. So minor, in fact, that many Catholic news agencies didn’t even pick it up. This past October, to very little fanfare, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in conjunction with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), announced the publication of a joint document titled “Declaration of the Way: Church, Ministry, and the Eucharist.” Released in preparation for the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017, the 118-page declaration was the result of a dialogue between members of ELCA and the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

As with most modern ecumenical efforts, the declaration is a font overflowing with positivity. Its core is made up of thirty-two “Statements of Agreement” that delineate the shared beliefs of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran communion on three central themes: Church, ministry, and Eucharist. The declaration states that Catholics and Lutherans agree, for example, that the Church is “apostolic” and “indefectible,” that the ordained ministry is “of divine origin” and “an essential element,” and that through the Eucharist “the church participates in a unique way in the life of the Trinity” and that participation in the Eucharist “is a pledge that our life in Christ will be eternal.” Needless to say, these are rather broad and general statements.

Where Catholics and Lutherans disagree is in the details. And there are disagreements — after all, that’s why there was a Reformation, and why Lutherans aren’t Catholics and Catholics aren’t Lutherans. (It’s ludicrous to have to point out such obvious facts, but in ecumenical affairs, obvious facts often get in the way of the good feelings everyone is so anxious to promote.)

According to the declaration, Catholics and Lutherans are united in more than twice as many ways as we are divided: The declaration lists a mere fifteen “Remaining Differences” between Catholics and Lutherans in the three areas discussed. Lutherans disagree with Catholics, for example, on how the Church “enunciates doctrine” — Lutherans have a serious problem with the teaching office of the episcopate and especially the authority of the pope. Rather, they favor what the declaration calls “a many-layered process, aiming for consensus through the participation of various responsibility-bearers.” Moreover, Lutherans have different ideas than Catholics about the “binding character” of Church teaching. For them, it’s not so binding.

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