Yearning for unity as the Reformation hits 500

Oct. 31 marks 500 years since Martin Luther issued his 95 Theses, sparking a split in western Christianity that remains to this day. But national directors for ecumenical and interreligious matters for both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) say this Reformation anniversary is different.

“I think the last 50 years have changed everything,” ELCA’s Kathryn Johnson told Our Sunday Visitor. She said previous centenaries were marked by triumphalism on the Lutheran side and reserve, if not a harsher posture, for Catholics. She cited a line in “From Conflict to Communion,” a joint document issued by Catholics and Lutherans ahead of the anniversary year, noting that the 500th “is the first commemoration to take place during the ecumenical age.” That is, this anniversary is shaped by the relationships that grew out of the Second Vatican Council’s call for dialogue and unity among Christians.

Council’s sea change

“Since Vatican II, it is no little miracle that so much has been achieved in Catholic-Protestant dialogues and in particular with the Lutheran Community,” USCCB’s Father Al Baca, a priest of the Diocese of Orange, California, told OSV. Father Baca highlighted the council’s paradigm shift of looking for gifts of the Holy Spirit — such as Scripture, the witness of martyrdom and the virtues of faith, hope and love — outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church. “This has led Catholics to a new understanding of the significant role of our separated Christian brothers and sisters in the economy of salvation.”

A Long Road for Christian Unity
Oct. 31, 1517 — Martin Luther publishes his 95 Theses

The term “separated brothers and sisters” was used by Pope St. John XXIII in describing his hopes for the council’s ecumenical outreach. It was a pivot from describing other Christians as heretics and schismatics. As the Reformation anniversary approached, Lutherans also drew on the power of words, planning a centenary that was, as the Lutheran World Federation said, “ecumenically engaged and accountable.” Paraphrasing “From Conflict to Communion,” Johnson said, “Lutherans do not want to come to this anniversary without their Catholic fellow Christians.”

So the Lutherans committed to language of commemoration, not celebration. In another key wording, Pope Francis “co-hosted” a prayer service in the cathedral of Lund, Sweden, in October 2016, not merely attended.

Pope Francis has been “huge” for Lutherans, Johnson noted. “This is someone who, as the world’s most visible Christian, ... bears witness to the joy of the Gospel.” She added, “He lifts up issues on which we are so fully united,” including refugee ministry, in which Lutherans are very active, as well as care for creation. But Johnson added, “We also want to have growth in communion with Catholics on issues of life in the Church.”

Conflict transformed

A defining moment in Catholic-Lutheran unity has been the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in which the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation agreed that the questions of how one is justified before God — by faith or by works, a central conflict of the Reformation — was no longer an issue dividing them. (They agreed God’s grace is behind all salvation and that faith and works flow from there.)

The document “created a new bridge of understanding between Lutherans and Catholics,” said Father Baca. But it isn’t limited to them. In 2006, the World Methodist Council endorsed the Joint Declaration. This move reflected “the centrality of the doctrine for the Methodist experience,” Rev. Kyle R. Tau, an ecumenical staff officer for the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, told OSV.

The Methodist endorsement helped create momentum. In July, the World Communion of Reformed Churches signed on. “There is a growing interest and enthusiasm among Presbyterian and Reformed Churches that this theological agreement can be truly helpful in making … our churches — Protestant and Catholic — move from a primary focus on our differences to the convictions that truly unite us,” Cliff Kirkpatrick, a professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, told OSV. The Anglican Communion has also embraced the document’s substance and will honor it in Westminster Abbey on Oct. 31.

“The Joint Declaration is having a great anniversary year,” said Johnson. “The Methodists set a good example there.”

The cries of people

But it isn’t just theological dialogue spurring Catholic-Lutheran reconciliation. Johnson and other Lutheran leaders have been surprised at how strongly people express desire for greater visible unity with Catholics, a desire often voiced through tearful stories of not taking Communion at a funeral or some other sign of division.

“We didn’t realize how deep that was in our community,” she said, “until this anniversary lifted it up. So how are we going to respond to that?”

“We are aware of the obstacles, but we remain convinced that God will bring us back to each other,” said Father Baca. “How many times people have asked me if I really believe that Christians can someday come back together again. They’re surprised by my optimism. Anything is possible with God, and my job is to do my part to restore and heal the divisions of the past that have led us to where we are today.”

Today many Lutherans have Catholic friends, coworkers and family members. Johnson cites the joint statement signed by Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Younan, then-president of the Lutheran World Federation, in Lund in 2016. It states: “Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table, as the concrete expression of full unity. We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ.”

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

Johnson said Lutherans “are not people who dismiss theological rigor,” but that pastorally the desire for unity pushes Catholics and Lutherans past words, into action, past building a bridge, to finding ways to walk out onto it together.

“They want the Church to get on with helping make it more possible for them not to feel the pain of that disunion. So when Cardinal [Kurt] Koch [head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity] makes a distinction between full communion, which is a long way ahead of us, and Eucharistic hospitality — which is a matter of local pastoral discernment — we hope that that call is heard at local levels.”

Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @clemmer_osv.