Monday, we considered the June 17, 2013 document, jointly published by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, called “From Conflict to Communion.” I have decided to make this last post in the series, and in it I want to make some comments about how we discuss matters like this.
An Admission of Disappointment
I have to say this: I was disappointed in much of the discussion on Monday. Most of the critical comments were either cynical dismissals of the idea of ecumenical dialogue or statements based on Ad hominem arguments. Very few of the comments gave evidence that the commenter had actually read the documents being presented. They were mostly opinions (many very well considered, by the way) that people already held and brought to the table but they failed to seriously engage the actual language of the statement produced by the Catholic church and the Lutheran World Federation.
A large number of the comments reflected this kind of reasoning:
- The Catholics and Lutherans have issued a joint statement about a unified commemoration of the Reformation.
- We know who the Catholics are and what they really believe from their history and past statements.
- Therefore, no matter what they say in this document, we don’t believe them.
- Besides, look at all these other practices [not brought up in the post], which prove our suspicions.
Now, I don’t expect our readers to download a 100-page document and read it thoroughly in order to participate in a single blog discussion. However, I do expect us to read what is actually included in the post, and if anyone has a question, to either ask it or look at the fuller document for more information.
For example, a lot of statements were thrown around about how the Catholics really don’t believe in justification by faith and use slippery language that sounds good but doesn’t mean what Protestants mean. Some said point blank that Catholics don’t believe the gospel. However, in the post itself was this statement:
Together Catholics and Lutherans confess: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works” (JDDJ 15). The phrase “by grace alone” is further explained in this way: “the message of justification…tells us that as sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way” (JDDJ 17).
It would have been nice if someone had responded to words like these from the post, rather than talking about the Council of Trent, or communion, or marriage/divorce/annulment, or some other such topic. These are all legitimate topics in a broader discussion of Protestant/Catholic relations, they just weren’t pertinent to the subject of our posts.
I would have loved to have heard from more Roman Catholics, because they know best what has changed and what hasn’t on the ground level in their churches.
As for those of us who are Protestants, I continue to suspect that most of us remain largely ignorant of the dramatic changes in the Roman Catholic Church brought about by Vatican II. We are 50 years out from Vatican II — a very short time in historical perspective — and what we see today are merely fragile green shoots emerging from the soil of that church council. We Protestants may dismiss the provisional discussions or changes we see along the way, but it is also possible to take a position of good faith, trusting that God may indeed may be doing something new among his people.
If you don’t buy into the idea of ecumenical dialogue, you may have very good reasons for that and perhaps we will explore them in a post devoted to that subject. But I urge you to take the long view and to realize that lasting results from current ecumenical dialogue will probably only be seen long after our lifetimes. It seems short-sighted to me to simply dismiss the process.
As for our own discussions, I encourage us to exercise patience and grace, as well as the willingness to be engaged in fruitful interactions with the actual material in the posts rather than conducting arguments based on Ad hominem thinking.
Though he excoriated the Roman church’s leadership, false doctrine and practices in his day (especially late in his life), Martin Luther nevertheless conducted his reforms and wrote with an understanding that the Catholic church is a true Christian church. He acknowledged his debt to her. Pretty gracious thing to do for someone who had been given a death sentence by the leaders of that institution.
We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source.
For instance we confess that in the papal church there are the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed.
Similarly the pope admits that we too, though condemned by him as heretics, and likewise all heretics, have the holy Scriptures, baptism, the keys, the catechism, etc. […]
I contend that in the papacy there is true Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints.
– On Rebaptism
Michael Spencer was also a good example for us in speaking about our Roman Catholic brethren. Though he ultimately decided to remain in the Protestant world, he studied Catholicism seriously and interacted with Catholics often, gaining a great appreciation for the tradition and recognizing that we are all part of the one true holy and apostolic church. As he once wrote:
I have decided to wish the Roman Catholic Church well. I have decided to accept the kindnesses shown to me and to enjoy the status given me in the new Catholic Catechism — separated brother. As much as I can, I won’t be separated. I am part of the church Catholic, and I pray that the new Pope will be a shepherd and teacher of all Christians.
I believe one can be wrong about much doctrine, yet still trust Christ, know Christ, show Christ and belong to Christ. Chesterton. St. Francis. Augustine. Merton. John Paul II. Many of my Catholic friends. I expect to see them all in the Kingdom, and in the meantime, I count them as my friends here on the pilgrim way.