When my wife, a lifelong Catholic, and I, a lifelong Lutheran, were first considering marriage we frequently heard the admonishment that “Lutherans and Catholics are so alike that there really is very little difference between the two.”
Well-meaning family and friends were trying to emphasize our similarities and make light of our differences to provide some comfort in the decision we had made to spend the rest of our lives together. Yet, I wondered, if the two are so similar then why are they still divided?
It didn’t take long into our marriage for those differences to become apparent. It would be six years before I would fully understand the context and full extent of those differences.
Certainly, there are similarities. Both are liturgical. A visitor to each would find similar readings on most Sundays. Both share similar prayers as well as the sacraments of baptism, marriage, and Holy Communion. Both follow a Catechism.
However, to ignore the differences is to ignore the actions of Martin Luther nearly 500 years ago, and the more than 20,000 Protestant denominations that have resulted since his original divorce with the Church. To ignore this fact is to suggest that Catholicism and Lutheranism are more similar than they really are. This is a disservice to both.
We see small steps of ecumenism at work, trying to repair the break. At the heart of such efforts lay the unity which Christ himself so desires. The Joint Declaration on Justification, issued by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church in the fall of 1999, is one such example. The agreement states that the condemnations that each side pronounced against each other in the sixteenth century no longer apply.
While it represents a significant step, it is at best a baby step on the road to unity. However, striking differences remain – differences in how Lutherans understand the priesthood, the historic Episcopate, the sacraments, and the Eucharist itself – the Source and Summit of the Catholic faith.
Such differences are illustrated, for example, by the controversy surrounding the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (E.L.C.A.) “Call to Common Mission” – an agreement to enter full communion with the Episcopal Church. Such agreements have been reached between the E.L.C.A. and other Protestant denominations. In response, a counter-movement within the E.L.C.A., known as the Word Alone group, has erupted over differences in how the Lutheran and Episcopal denominations view the historic Episcopate – the unbroken line of Church leadership, as evidenced by the bishops, reaching back to the days of the apostles. The Episcopal church accepts the historic Episcopate; the Lutheran church does not.
We are witnesses to events not very different from Luther’s actions, or the actions of so many Protestant denominations that split after Luther. Each denomination, in turn, accepts or rejects Church teaching based upon its own interpretation of Scripture. The Word Alone group is merely the latest in a long line of successive splits that include denominations such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren of America, and the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations among others.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent declaration, Dominus Iesus states that “the Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection — divided, yet in some way one — of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach. In fact, the elements of this already-given Church exist, joined together in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other communities”(64-65).
To de-emphasize the differences is to ignore the truth. It is this truth which attracts more than 200,000 adults annually to the Catholic Church. Highlighting such differences is not meant to divide, but rather to unite – so that all the faithful may seek the truth and be reconciled with the Church that Christ himself established.