When Martin Luther wrote his “Ninety-five Theses” against the Catholic Church, it created centuries of division.
But 500 years after Reformation, the split of Protestantism from Catholicism, local faith leaders are bridging that divide, following a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America working document called “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and the Eucharist.”
About a dozen leaders within the Diocese of Little Rock, the ELCA Lutheran denomination and other leaders from United Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches have met since June to discuss their understanding of the Eucharist and the Church as an authority and salvation. Father Erik Pohlmeier, diocesan director of faith formation, and Father Taryn Whittington, prefect of the House of Formation, were the Catholic representatives assigned by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor for the discussions.
“Certainly all ecumenical efforts in the Catholic Church are aimed at one church and the basis of it is Jesus’ prayer in John’s Gospel ‘that they may all be one.’ So our goal is one, one church,” Father Pohlmeier said, referring to John 17:21. “… Sometimes I think people imagine kind of a renouncing of ‘This is what we were, that is all behind us, now we’re Roman Catholic.’ And so when we say one church it doesn’t automatically mean a renouncing of everything. It does mean agreeing on what is our shared belief and agreeing on shared belief can mean, ‘OK there are things we believe differently than we did before.’”
“The reformation itself was a terrible event because of the conflict that came out of it,” said Peter Kumpe of Little Rock, vice president of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. “The longer-term results, the counter-reformation that the Catholic Church engaged in, did massive reform with the Church.”
Kumpe said, “The effort to resolve differences has been going on for a long time,” pointing to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It was created and agreed upon by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation, stemming from ecumenical dialogue.
More recently in 2015, the Catholic-Lutheran joint “Declaration on the Way,” which emphasizes 32 agreements shared between Catholics and Protestants, was accepted by the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the USCCB and the ELCA. It was given to Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican’s PCPCU, “for further reflection and action,” according to USCCB.org.
Kumpe attended the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans last October where the document was presented. He said he was “pumped” by the enthusiasm for unity and reached out to Bishop Taylor about starting local dialogue. The ELCA is the largest Lutheran denomination and has 22 churches in Arkansas.
“I’ve read Pope Francis’ views on ecumenical (relations) — don’t get bogged down in the doctrine, share in the common love of Christ, typical Pope Francis. You can be unified in the common commitment to bringing the kingdom of God,” to others, Kumpe said.
In four sessions, faith leaders met and discussed core similarities such as the belief in one baptism and also areas where there is not agreement. Father Pohlmeier said the group scaled back initial goals to discuss the meanings of certain words as a starting point. For example, the term “Church” for Catholics, refers to the universal Church. Understanding what authority a person trusts — whether it be the Church for Catholics, a personal trust in their own beliefs, strictly the Bible or trust in certain ministers — can shape a person’s belief system and what they believe stems from it. The question of authority was a recurring theme, Father Pohlmeier said.
“We’ve had to look back a little bit in a sense of what we really mean by words like Church, Eucharist, ministry, Gospel, salvation, all kinds of things,” Father Pohlmeier said. “It’s not a losing ground rather than gaining ground, but it’s rather building a foundation if there is any desire to move forward at all.”
The leaders discussed the Eucharist and how Catholics believe in the transubstantiation, the embodiment of Christ in Communion. Lutherans do not believe communion is the body and blood of Christ.
“We found a lot of commonality including the presence of Christ … Christ is present somehow” in communion, Kumpe said of the Lutheran belief.
While for many Protestants, sharing “communion” together is a first step toward unity, which does not involve joining a church, Father Pohlmeier pointed out for Catholics, the Eucharist is the last step to being one unified church.
“For Catholics that’s the crowning moment of unity. That’s the last piece. That’s a big difference for Catholics … To share Communion means we’re ‘in communion’ with each other,” he said.
But understanding what one unified Christian church would look like is unclear and how those divides would be bridged is uncertain. Changes would ultimately take place on a global scale rather than locally. There is no official plan to continue dialogue, but Father Pohlmeier said the discussions have been powerful, which may lead to more in the future.
“We believe it’s Jesus’ desire. God exists as unity, and so division is never what God wants. Plurality can be what God wants, but that doesn’t automatically mean division,” Father Pohlmeier said. “… The command of Jesus, the prayer of Jesus, is that they may be one. So the Catholic Church’s approach to that has always been to take that command.”
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