Ecumenical Obfuscation

We’re a year away from the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s “95 Theses on Indulgences,” whose posting generally marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  In light of that, ecumenical dialogues are hoping for irenic celebrations of dialogue and consensus.  Towards that end, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have produced Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist.

While this is an official statement of the ELCA, approved by a majority vote of delegates at the 2016 Churchwide Assembly, it has merely been approved by a committee of the USCCB, and so is not an official statement of either the USCCB or the Catholic Church.  Further, only the “32 Agreements” in this “Declaration” are the substance of the matter, so I’ll focus on them.

What are we to make of “Declaration on the Way”?  The document says this:

Together with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justication, the 32 agreements in this Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist are instances of the imperfect but real and growing unity of Catholics and Lutherans.

A modest claim.  But let’s be clear, too, that “Lutherans” is used as shorthand for the headquarters of the “Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” and, by extension, the headquarters of those Lutheran bodies that are part of the Lutheran World Federation. “Confessional” Lutherans, such as those in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, as well as some theologians and pastors within the ELCA, would have a more pessimistic assessment of the level of agreement.

Looking over the text of the “32 Agreements,” it’s hard to see why they think this such a remarkable achievement.  Historic disagreements are ignored.  Vague statements replace precise terminology.  Let’s look at the example of the Eucharist (statements 27-32).  They agree that Holy Communion is a good thing.  Through it, we participate somehow in the life of the Trinity.  Through the Spirit we have access to the glorified Body and Blood of Christ, and are united to the Father and one another.  Already here we see it worded so vaguely that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli could have agreed with Rome.   What isn’t mentioned are the disagreements that actually split the Church.  It is a curious “agreement” that simply chooses to ignore the disagreements.

Rather than go point by point through this theological cotton candy, let’s look at the section of the document that spells out remaining disagreements.

  • Is the church “congregation of the faithful,” or “sacrament of salvation”?
  • Can the church be “holy” and “sinful” at the same time?
  • Is “sola Scriptura” enough, or is the Church itself an authoritative teacher?
  • Can “infallible” teachings be questioned?
  • Which aspect of the church has its fullness, the local congregation, or the diocese, in union with its bishop?
  • Catholics do not recognize the apostolicity of the Lutheran ministry.
  • What is the relationship between the ministry of the baptized and that of the ordained? Catholics insist on an “essential” difference between the two, and without properly ordained ministers, there can be no sacraments.
  • Is ordination a sacrament?
  • Can women be ordained?
  • What is the distinction between bishops and presbyters?
  • Is the office of Bishop of Rome essential to the unity of the church?
  • Is the Eucharist a sacrifice for the living and the dead?
  • How is Christ present in the Eucharist? Is Transubstantiation a legitimate concept?
  • Do the consecrated Bread and Wine remain the Body of Christ, and are they to be reserved and worshipped?

At the end of that litany of disagreement one wonders why they even bothered.  This is no agreement.  These were the issues of the Reformation.  They still divide the church.