Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the USA have been in conversation for more than 50 years. It has been a fruitful conversation. Lutherans have learned something of themselves and perhaps the same could be said of Roman Catholics. Certainly we have learned things of each other that are part of the fruitful conversation we have had for these many years. That conversation has been interrupted by and shaped by Lutheran divisions (from its sanction in LCUSA to its de-evolution to a two sided conversation with one side of Lutheranism). Actions by some Lutherans have further complicated this conversation (particularly the decisions to ordain women and to adopt the GLBTQ agenda with respect to marriage and qualifications for ordination). Just as these have reshaped the relationships between Lutherans and distanced those churches from each other, so have these had an impact upon the conversation with Rome.
That there is value in these conversations is without dispute. That these conversations will result in some form of official fellowship or even unity is a hope among some but hardly a reality. We are as nice as we can be when we sit down and talk but the conversations have suffered from language that was not as precise as it could be and with agreement in peripheral areas while the substantive issues that separate us remain the elephants in the room. We have not made as much progress there as we might and it does not appear that we will soon resolve the mountain of divisions that keep us distant from the hope and dream of one ministry and one communion.
By demonstrating how far Lutherans and Catholics have come together on three crucial topics, the Declaration indicates much ground that need not be retraced again, and it offers these Agreements to the churches to be received into their common life. In this way it helps inspire continuing work toward the visible Christian unity, which is Christ’s prayer.Unofficially, there is ground that will of necessity need to be retraced. The church bodies are not the same as the ones who initially agreed to these dialogs. They have taken positions at odds with what they said they believed when those dialogs were first published. The world has changed. We can build on the conversations but some of those conversations will need to be had again and again, if we take seriously a positive unity of full doctrinal agreement and common confession.
But therein lies the rub. In viewing the picture of the presiding bishop of the ELCA, a woman, and the Roman Catholic bishop, a man, you get the visual image of the great disconnect between the forgers of this declaration. When conversations began this picture would not have been possible. Rome is nowhere close to affirming a female diaconate much less priesthood and episcopacy. The ELCA has long since settled this in its own mind and moved on to the full legitimization of all gender identities within the clergy family of that body. And this is the tip of the iceberg.
It is a good thing to talk but a better thing to talk substantively and to hold yourselves accountable to what you say. When that happens, these may move from being conversations into real steps on the way to something more. For now, I am afraid, it is more photo op for a big anniversary with each party going back to do business as usual. That will not lead us very far on the way to anything.