Delegates Encouraged by Growing Catholic-Lutheran Relations

Ecumenical relations between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran faith traditions have improved in the last century but differences and obstacles still remain, Pope Benedict XVI told a high-level delegation of Lutherans on Monday.

"Our ecumenical path together will continue to encounter difficulties and will demand patient dialogue,” the pope said. “I draw much encouragement, however, from the solid tradition of serious study and exchange which has characterized Catholic-Lutheran relations over the years.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s comments were made during his first meeting with representatives of the Lutheran World Federation – a fellowship of Lutheran churches across 78 countries.

In a prepared statement, LWF’s president, Bishop Mark S. Hanson, thanked the pope for his efforts to advance the ecumenical agenda.

"Since your election you have emphasized that service to the unity of the whole Christian church will be a high priority for you,” Hanson wrote. “We wish to express our sincere appreciation for your strongly expressed commitment in this area.”

Hanson also mentioned the advances made through and since the Second Vatican Council convened 40 years ago. The Second Vatican Council, of which the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took a large part, marked the first time that “heretic Protestants” were invited as observers to an official Roman Catholic gathering. The Council also paved the way for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic Study Commission.

The Lutheran-Catholic Commission just last month completed its fourth phase of dialogue and is expected to release a report on the topic of “The Apostolicity of the Church” in 2006.

During their meeting, both Hanson and Pope Benedict took note of yet another milestone: the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification six years ago. The declaration officially buried a centuries-old dispute over the meaning of salvation – a clash that had arguably led Lutheranism’s founder, Martin Luther, to call for a widespread reformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

One of the fruitful result of the Lutheran-Catholic dialogues has been “the Joint Declaration on Justification, which constitutes a significant milestone on our common path to full visible unity," the pope said, cautiously adding that more must be done.

"In order to build on this accomplishment, we must accept that differences remain regarding the central question of justification; these need to be addressed, together with the ways in which God's grace is communicated in and through the Church," he said.

Hanson agreed that struggles remain, but said the world communions should be led by Christ toward “the visible unity of his Church.”

“Since true faith in the Triune God forbids enmity in God's name, Christian world communions have a special responsibility to promote mutual respect and understanding across the barriers of religious difference," Hanson said. "United with the living Christ, both in the waters of Baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we know ourselves impelled by Christ himself toward the visible unity of his Church.”

The high-level meeting was a prelude to regular annual meetings between staff of the LWF and the Vatican’s PCPCU.

In addition to Hanson, other Lutherans at the meeting were: the Rev. Ishmael Noko, LWF general Secretary; Karin Achtelstetter, LWF deputy general secretary; Frank Imhoff, associate director of ELCA News Service in Chicago; and the Rev. Sven Oppegaard, LWF assistant general secretary for ecumenical affairs. Other Catholics at the meeting were: Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), and the Rev. Matthias Türk, PCPCU staff relating directly to Lutheran matters.