Featured Stories, National Lutheran News

Back to the Vatican

Early Lutherans fought to be free of Rome. Now, some return. Why?

Five centuries ago, stubborn faithful, reading the Bible and thinking for themselves, struggled to escape Rome’s grip. Now, some are going back.

Puzzling? Yes. Yet Lutherans in the pews may find points of agreement.

Some returnees think Lutherans are too fond of cheap grace. What about works? And what about Lutheran contemporary worship? Does it not mangle centuries of liturgy? And what about Mary? Isn’t she a perpetual virgin, bearing no other children after Jesus?

The Rev. Frank Senn

Between Lutherans and Catholics, a kind of semipermeable membrane persists.

And what about Jesus himself? He died for our sins, right? Not merely to be Christus Victor, conqueror over death.

Anything familiar there? Between Lutherans and Catholics, a kind of semipermeable membrane persists. We’re so far apart — and yet so close.

Do you observe the feast of St. Patrick? As St. Patrick was doing his great work in Ireland, far away, in what now is Turkey, a heated Council of Chalcedon in C.E. 451 decided that Jesus was both God and human — a doctrine Lutherans and Catholics still accept.

Later, the bishop of Rome rose to prominence as a church leader — as Pope — though Catholics date the papacy much earlier, to St. Peter himself.

Meanwhile, St. Augustine argued that we just can’t change our sinful ways without God’s grace. Augustine inspired a monastic order. Centuries later it admitted a German miner’s son — Martin Luther.

So things have been fluid.

Serving in Iraq

Father Lawrence Blake, an Air Force Reserve captain serving as a chaplain in Iraq, grew up in the Lutheran Church in America, one of the founding bodies of the ELCA. He converted to Catholicism with his family in 1993 and became a priest in 1999. He is pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Waconia, Minnesota.

Deployed until April, he explains his spiritual journey on e-mail, asking these questions:

“What is the church? Where is the teaching authority of the church? Is it greater than each individual Christian interpreting the scriptures and tradition by himself or herself?”

Most importantly for him, he asks: “What is the eucharist?”

To Catholics, the eucharist is Christ’s real body and blood, transformed by a priest. Lutherans, for their part, believe that once the pastor has consecrated the bread and wine, the eucharist is Christ’s real presence — Christ in, with, and under the bread and wine. (Ask your pastor to explain the difference.)

Lutherans and Catholics also dispute grace vs. works in salvation — but not by much. In the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” Rome and the Lutheran World Federation concur on salvation via “God’s grace through faith alone rather than by our own efforts.” Lutherans add that “the question arises” about the spiritual significance of works.

Risky numbers

Irl Gladfelter is another Lutheran seeking to become Catholic. His story is complex. He leads the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church in Kansas City, which claims up to 13,000 members worldwide — many in Sudan, he says, where church membership is risky and reported numbers unreliable.

Gladfelter himself is a former Episcopalian turned Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Lutheran, ordained in 2004 by “independent Catholic bishops,” he says. Gladfelter volunteers that one of his consecrating bishops later was excommunicated by Rome for ordaining women. Gladfelter opposes ordaining women and insists that his own ordination stands. In 2009 his group petitioned the Vatican for full communion.

Representatives at four Roman Catholic archdioceses — St. Paul; Kansas City, Kansas; St. Joseph, Missouri; and Washington, D.C. — all say they know nothing about the ALCC. Yet Gladfelter, who identifies himself as the ALCC archbishop, claims the group is on a “glide path” to becoming Roman Catholic, working with Cardinal Donald Wuerl in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

Although a spokeswoman at the Washington archdiocese declines to confirm knowing anything about the ALCC, the Vatican has indeed designated Archbishop Wuerl “to guide the incorporation of Anglican groups into the Catholic Church in the United States,” according to a September 2010 news release.

The Rev. Frank Senn of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, Illinois, knows Lutherans who have gone back to Rome. Prominent converts include Leonard Klein, former pastor of historic Christ Lutheran Church in York, Pennsylvania, and editor of a provocative journal called Lutheran Forum; and Richard John Neuhaus, one-time Lutheran pastor who became a Catholic priest and unofficial adviser to President George W. Bush. Neuhaus died in 2009.

Meanwhile, Pastor Senn notes that Catholics sit with their Lutheran spouses in Lutheran pews. This leads us to ask: Is what Lutherans and Catholics share as great as what divides us?

Even so, Lutheran fragmentation complicates efforts at unity. Says Senn, “Who would Rome talk to?”

Still, he argues, we have no choice but to try to unite the church. In John 17, Jesus prays for his followers “that they all may be one.”

So, do Lutherans in the pews even count? Maybe not. If Jesus wants unity, says Pastor Senn, “it doesn’t matter what people in the pews think.”

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