Bishop Hanson and Cardinal Kasper in 2004 As part of a two week, “2010 Ecumenical Journey”, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson and his delegation recently met with Cardinal Walter Kasper at the Vatican.  Cardinal Kasper is the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity–the Vatican’s point man for ecumenical relations with other church bodies.

Prior to this Vatican meeting on Feb 12th, Bishop Hanson’s delegation had met with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on Feb 4th for discussion of Lutheran-Anglican relations, and with Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I and Orthodox ecumenists in Istanbul on Feb 8th and 9th.

What is the status of Lutheran – Catholic dialogue?  A little over a decade ago in 1999, ecumenical discussions led to the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”.  Wikipedia provides a succinct explanation of this agreement:

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a document created by and agreed to by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, as a result of extensive ecumenical dialogue, ostensibly resolving the conflict over the nature of justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation.

The Churches acknowledged that the excommunications relating to the doctrine of justification set forth by the Council of Trent do not apply to the teachings of the Lutheran churches set forth in the text; likewise, the churches acknowledged that the condemnations set forth in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the Catholic teachings on justification set forth in the document. Confessional Lutherans, such as the International Lutheran Council and the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference, reject the Declaration.

On July 18, 2006, members of the World Methodist Council, meeting in Seoul, South Korea, voted unanimously to adopt this document as well.

That was then; what’s happening these days? 

In an honest appraisal of Lutheran-Catholic relations, former ELCA Presiding Bishop Herb Chilstrom last year acknowledged that ordaining women “was the first nail in the coffin of further ecumenical progress,” and he asked “how long are we going to live with the illusion that Vatican II is alive and well in Roman Catholicism?”  Chilstrom’s comments were in the context of CWA09 and the probable dampening effect of ELCA pro-LGBT ministry policies on ecumenical relations with the Vatican.

Cardinal Walter Kasper What did Cardinal Kasper have to say about the consequences of CWA09?  Seemingly, his greatest concern was not with the ministry policies themselves but with the schismatic actions of dissenters.

“We are concerned, but the dialogue goes on,” Kasper told the Lutherans.  “We want to continue … so we do not interrupt any dialogue. But what we see are new ‘fragmentations’ in the Protestant world in the churches.  This has bothered us a lot.”

ELCA Bishop Robert Hofstad of the Southwestern Washington synod, a delegation member, responded:

If our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters can say to us, “do not go away from each other too fast,” then how can we in the ELCA be running away from each other with such speed, at least in some anecdotal instances?  How can we be running away from each other so fast when we have a commitment from people like yourselves, and a hope to say “please let us not run away from each other too quickly?”

“That’s a very encouraging word, and that’s a word that I’m going to take back to my colleagues,” Hofstad said.

The report of the meeting from the perspective of the Catholic News Service included both hopeful and troubling aspects of the discussion.

Cardinal Kasper said it is essential “to keep alive the memory of our achievements” in dialogue, educate the faithful about how much has been accomplished and prepare a new generation to carry on the work.

On the other hand, the Cardinal said, “the Vatican needs to better explain to its dialogue partners the Catholic conviction that ‘the Catholic Church is the church of Christ and that the Catholic Church is the true church … [including] the primacy of the bishop of Rome, the pope.’”