Nine years of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue a search for understanding


After nearly 500 years of separation, what hope exists for Catholics and Lutherans to find a path to the restoration of full, visible communion? None, unless both sides talk to each other, and that is just what is happening at a little college in North Carolina.

Lenoir-Rhyne College, nestled in the hills of Hickory, N.C., is a small liberal arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and in 1991 on the 100th anniversary of its founding, the college inaugurated a new Center for Theology, the founding director of which was Michael C.D. McDaniel, Ph.D., then the bishop of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA. The mission of the Center for Theology is simple: to foster clarity in understanding and passion in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In November 1993 the center held a conference entitled “Aquinas and Luther: Friends or Foes?” And every fall since that first meeting, the center has sponsored another dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, a series known simply as the Aquinas/Luther conferences. Distinguished pastors and theologians from both traditions have come to these conferences. The Catholic speakers have included Cardinal Avery Dulles, Archbishop John Donoghue of Atlanta, Bishop William Curlin of Charlotte, Dominican Father Romanus Cessario, Dominican Father Augustine DiNoia, Russell Hittinger, Father Francis Martin, Ralph McInerny, and Father Richard John Neuhaus. And the Lutheran side has been represented by lecturers such as Carl Braaten, James Crumley, Karl Donfried, Robert Jenson, Phillip Max Johnson, Leonard Klein, George Lindbeck, Frank Senn, and David Yeago.

Each year a general topic is addressed from several points of view, and the general themes have included “The Church in the Light of the Doctrine of Justification,” “Morality,” “Spirituality,” “The Authority of the Bible,” “Worship,” “The Holy Trinity,” “Justification,” and “Proclamation: Preaching and Teaching.”

These annual conferences are co-sponsored by four parishes in Hickory that are bound together in prayer and dialogue by the Hickory Roman Catholic/Lutheran Covenant, an agreement recognized by the Catholic bishop of Charlotte and the Lutheran bishop of the North Carolina Synod. This agreement commits the one Catholic parish in town and three Lutheran congregations to a common search for the restoration of full, visible communion among those who confess that Jesus is Lord, and members of all four churches give support to the annual Aquinas/Luther conferences.

The search for full, visible communion among all Christians is at the heart of the church’s mission and is not merely an interesting pastime for those who are curious about ecumenism. Pope John Paul II, following the lead of the Second Vatican Council, has clearly and consistently taught that all Catholics have an evangelical duty to pray and work for the healing of the wounds in the Body of Christ and to seek a path toward the full unity among all Christians for which the Lord Jesus prayed in the night before he died (John 17:20-21).

But ecumenism, properly understood, is not a zero sum game, a negotiation where each side must be prepared to surrender something. Ecumenism is the common search for fuller knowledge of the truth of the Gospel; only in our common adherence to the truth can Christians find the genuine unity of faith and life that will make possible the end of the divisions in the church.

What would full communion in the church look like after 1,000 years of separation between Catholics and Orthodox and 500 years of disunity between Catholics and Protestants? We cannot know what new forms and structures of ecclesial life might be the result of the restoration of full communion, but we do know what the essential features of such communion would be: the acceptance and proclamation of the whole Gospel, the worthy and valid celebration of all seven sacraments, and the acceptance of the authority of the church’s pastors: the bishop of Rome and all the bishops in communion with him.

The basic pattern of full communion was already present at the beginning of the church’s life and is described by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. Speaking of those who were converted to Christ on the Day of Pentecost by the preaching of St. Peter, Luke writes: “… those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:41-42). Notice, first Peter preaches. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter proclaims the plan of salvation, the paschal mystery, the Gospel of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Next, those who hear the Word of God preached receive that word and are baptized. Next, the newly baptized continue to receive the apostolic teaching with devotion. And finally, they share in the Eucharist and the whole life of prayer in the fellowship or communion of the whole church — then contained only in Jerusalem but already universal or Catholic in scope. Word leads to sacrament, and together — under the authority and teaching of the apostles — word and sacrament bring about the fullness of communion that constitutes integral Christian faith and life.

Many serious obstacles stand between Catholics and Lutherans in the search for full communion: the role of the office of bishop in the transmission of the Gospel, the relationship of sacred Scripture and sacred tradition, the papacy, the nature and number of the sacraments, the role of women in the church, abortion and life issues, sexual ethics and marriage. By bringing together Catholics and Lutherans in an honest search for mutual understanding, however, the Aquinas/Luther conferences at Lenoir-Rhyne College are contributing to the effort to restore full, visible communion among all who follow Christ Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.

Father Jay Scott Newman, who was baptized in the Episcopal Church and was received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1982, is pastor of St. Mary Church in Greenville. He participated in the Oct. 25-27 Aquinas/Luther conference at Lenoir-Rhyne College.