For whatever reason, when I was installed into my first parish on August 24, 1980, my bishop, District President Ronald F. Fink, walked out into the woods surrounding the church building and came back with a piece of pine. It is rough and stained and not too pretty but he thrust that staff into my hands when he bade me to watch faithfully over the flock to which the Holy Spirit had made me bishop (overseer for those who don't like the catholic terminology). I still carry it in the procession on Good Shepherd Sunday and a few other times during the year. Once, a visiting Lutheran cleric chided me for acting Catholic and, in particular, for presuming to be a bishop. He had a grand smile on his face like a parent who had caught a child play acting some adult role. Gotcha!!!
But that is precisely the point. Lutherans are not play acting at being Catholic; we are deadly serious in our insistence that we are catholic! “The churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith,” so Melanchthon declares in the Augsburg Confession presented to define the position of the Reformers. “There is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman Church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.” This was and remains our affirmation in spite of those more comfortable with a Protestant face to their Lutheran identity.
Writing in the last century, Herman Sasse, hardly a friend of medieval Roman Catholicism, insisted that this was and remains not only the claim but the essential identity of the Church of the Augsburg Confession: “It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages...” and “The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Ireneaus once belonged.”
I love how Matthew Block put it: I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic. That might sound flippant or even nonsensical. It isn’t intended to be. “But what does it even mean?” you ask. I’ll explain, but before I do, let me explain what I do not mean: I do not mean to say that I think Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism are similar enough that I can simply “act” Catholic while remaining Lutheran.
The first Lutherans saw no disagreement between their faith and the faith of the Catholic Church down through the ages. They write, “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers” (AC 21:5). They believed themselves to be faithful to the historic Church’s teachings even as they rejected theologically errant innovation that had arisen in their own time. “Our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic,” they write, “but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons” (AC 21:10).
“Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation” (LW 52:39-40).
This is the Catholic Church. This is the Universal Church—the company of believers. I will not abide any visible church drawing the broad boundaries of the invisible Church more tightly than does God. The dogmata of the Roman Church do just that, and so I reject them; I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic.
Lutherans being Lutheran may appear to be acting Catholic but they are really being catholic -- the catholics we insist we are in our Confessions. That is exactly the problem. The people most unnerved by Lutherans being authentically Lutheran are those who are afraid of the catholic identity that Lutherans claim. To see a Pastor in Eucharistic vestments, to hear the sound of chanting, to smell the sweet smoke of incense, to witness genuflection, kneeling, and bowing, to hear the sound of the sanctus bell, to adore the Sacrament in the Agnus Dei before we are bidden to eat and drink, to see through the light of candles than are not there for ambiance, to worship according to the ancient form of the mass, etc... -- the shock of these things is not that someone has found a Lutheran Pastor who likes to act Roman Catholic but that this is exactly the evangelical and catholic face of Lutheranism that the Confessions insist is the only authentic identity for the Church of the Augsburg Confession. This is what we fear admitting -- not that somebody likes to play act what he is not but that he just maybe correct in identifying who Lutherans really are! Evangelical and catholic!!