In a letter described by religious leaders as “unprecedented,” Pope John Paul II told the presiding bishop of the Lutheran Church in America that Christian unity “continues as a priority in the Catholic Church today” and praised the agreements by joint Lutheran-Catholic theological commissions over the last two decades.
The Pope’s letter came in response to a letter from Bishop James R. Crumley Jr. of New York, who wrote the pontiff May 22 asking him to encourage U.S. Roman Catholics to study the last report issued by the joint commission, a 21,000-word study on “justification by faith,” a key doctrine of the Protestant Reformation.
While the Pope fell short of doing that in his July 22 letter, the mere fact that the Pope exchanged long, cordial letters with the head of a U.S. Protestant denomination is “unprecedented” and “a new step in the process of close relationships” between the two churches, said the Rev. William G. Rusch, ecumenical director for the 3-million-member Lutheran Church in America.
Letters Released Friday
The letters were released Friday in New York City, where the Lutheran Church in America is based, and at the Vatican.
The Pope also met Friday at the Vatican with nine visiting bishops of the Lutheran Church in America. He said there is joy over “how close we are to each other in many things that are basic,” but sorrow too, because “important issues still divide us.” Lutherans and Catholics are still barred from taking Communion in each other’s churches.
Recalling his own private meetings with Pope John Paul II and other high-level Lutheran-Catholic contacts, Crumley in his letter urged the pontiff to encourage American Catholics to study the 1983 joint theological statement on “justification by faith.”
The commission rejected the medieval Catholic idea that a Christian must “merit” salvation by pious acts. At the same time, however, the report said Lutherans agree that good works are important and are the inevitable result of being a faithful Christian.
“Your endorsement of our national dialogue and your encouragement of its reception by Roman Catholics in the United States would be a most welcome pastoral word and hold the promise of a bright ecumenical future,” Crumley wrote. Despite the rapid growth of the Lutheran-Catholic relationship, it is “fragile,” he said.
John Paul said dialogues among American theologians “has produced a number of impressive statements,” including the most recent one cited by Crumley. “Surely we must commend these efforts that have been made,” the Pope wrote.
In 1983, the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther, many observances involved Catholics. At the end of that year, John Paul preached at the Lutheran congregation in Rome, praising the reformer’s piety and evangelical zeal.
Father Tom Rausch, a member of an official Lutheran-Catholic dialogue committee in Los Angeles, agreed with Rusch that the correspondence was probably unprecedented in ecumenical affairs. But Rausch noted that the theological commissions have not stirred official church actions toward unity.
“None of these marvelous bilateral agreements have been officially received by the different churches involved,” said Rausch, who teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University and directs the campus ministry.
No Quick Action Promised
In his letter to Crumley, the Pope made no promise of quick action on the agreements.
“There may not be easy solutions to the problems to be faced in order to achieve unity,” the Pope said. “Can we not aim therefore at making the dawn of the third millennium the beginning of a special time for seeking full unity in Christ? It is my prayer that this will be so.”
Rausch said the statement on justification has received intensive study and discussion by the Los Angeles committee and more is planned. The attention given elsewhere to the issue--important to Lutherans but not so much to Catholics--depends on how active ecumenical committees are in other dioceses, he said.