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Catholic-Lutheran dialogue is progress, not perfection

As a Lutheran boy growing up in Virginia, Michael Root saw the faith-based fear and loathing that permeated the 1960 presidential election when some non-Catholics worried that the Vatican would run America should John F. Kennedy be elected.

As an ordained Lutheran pastor and professor of Lutheran history and theology, Kirsi Stjerna saw the trepidation some of her students felt when she took them to Mass at St. Peter's in Rome.

Fortunately, recent improvement in relationships between the two Christian groups, enhanced largely through ongoing ecumenical dialogue, have alleviated (if not eliminated) the challenges that have faced Catholics and Lutherans for half a millennium, since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Scholars still will study the important points of faith that erected walls between Christians in the 16th century and afterward.

But, as Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, said in 2016, "what unites us is greater than what divides us."

The 1999 "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" expresses that Catholics and Lutherans agree that salvation is mediated by Christ, by faith, through God's grace, and that this necessarily leads to good works that further God's kingdom.

Despite theological differences that persist now (and, in all likelihood, will continue for some time), there is much to be celebrated, according to Root and Stjerna, both of whom hold doctorates and are theology professors — Root at The Catholic University of America and Stjerna at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California.

"All of our conversations must start with what we share in common, and not where we have conflict," said Stjerna. "Through our dialogues of recent years, we've become transformed through each encounter with the other.

"Certainly, as a mom, I'm more interested in teaching our children how to live here in peace with each other. How many more centuries can we afford to focus on our differences?"

Root, professor of systematic theology and a Catholic since 2010, has long participated in ecumenical dialogues (including Catholic-Lutheran). He noted that the Second Vatican Council encouraged "experts on faith" to come together "and find ways to live out their unity in Christ."

"Hopefully," he said, "that process leads ultimately to restoring full communion among some denominations, or at least to removing stereotypes and assumptions. Understanding another's faith helps us better understand our own, even if at the end of the day we don't resolve all of our differences."

Catholic-Lutheran dialogues have produced two significant documents: the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" (1999) and the "Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist" (2015). Together, these documents offer renewed hope for continued progress, without the rancor that plagued relations between the two groups for hundreds of years.

"It's a goal of the dialogue that there will be no condemning of one side by the other," Root says. "In measuring the success of a dialogue, we ask, 'Has there been a true dialogue, a common exploration of the truths that each faith shares?' If so, then there has been progress."

Admittedly, some differences that persist will not soon be resolved, if ever, says Root. "The key is not to let our differences overwhelm the progress we have made."

Some differences evolve from an ongoing parochialism that may be more prevalent in the U.S. than in Europe, says Stjerna, a native of Finland.

"In the U.S.," she notes, "I am amazed at how vehemently people still argue for their own identity, political or religious, without first acknowledging their shared identity as children of God."

But there is certainly cause for hope, she continues, noting that Catholics are much more open to reading the Bible themselves without requiring a pastor to interpret it for them, while Lutherans have permission "to tap into their inner Catholic, so to speak, to talk openly about Mary and the saints as part of their heritage."

"You can open your heart and mind to the other without worrying about eternal retribution. And that's progress, seeing that we are united by shared concerns about the world and our people."

On the aforementioned trip to the Vatican, in fact, her students were "amazed and overwhelmed" when several were invited to present the gifts of bread and wine during the offertory.

"Someone made the effort to step outside the boundaries, to welcome us and say, 'Look what can happen,'" she says. "That's a sign of hope." 

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