Catholic Conversations with Lutheranism

Bishop Emeritus Richard J. Sklba

Richard J. Sklba
Bishop Emeritus
Archdiocese of Milwaukee


Genuine ecumenical dialogue can never be fruitful merely through contrasting newspaper articles without personal conversation on a face to face level. The written word alone, without the opportunity to explain in person what is said and why in a back and forth discussion, can result of cementing opposition rather than advancing mutual understanding of God’s truth. Nevertheless, I think it may be helpful for our Catholic community to offer an initial personal reflection on some recent issues.

On July 20, 2011, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an op-ed article by the Rev. Mark Schroeder, president of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, in which he denied any anti-Catholic prejudice in their conviction that the Catholic Church remained the “anti-Christ” as 16th century Reformation polemics had asserted. He submitted that article to explain and to defend the teachings of his church.

While I respect him for his position of leadership, I know that his statements do not reflect actual Catholic teaching, and that they are not shared by most Lutherans in our country. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Synod is not a member of the Lutheran World Federation.

To the article’s principal charge that papal teaching was believed by Catholics to be equal or superior to the Word of God itself, and is therefore an expression of an “anti-Christ,” Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation insisted that “the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit” (§10).

Consistent authentic Catholic belief is that the teaching of popes and bishops always stands under the Word of God and is judged by it. This is repeated in several of the major documents of the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, the formal prayer at a bishop’s consecration is recited while the candidate symbolically kneels beneath an open Book of the Gospels.

For 12 years, I was privileged to serve as the Catholic co-chair for the national Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue. Delegates from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as well as from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod were at the table with us. Those years represented but a small portion of the four plus decades of formal dialogue between the Catholic Church and a series of Lutheran Church bodies in our country since the early 1960s. Officially appointed delegates from both sides met to study several fundamental Christian topics in order to determine whether any differences in our respective beliefs and practices were truly church dividing.

In a series of 11 rounds, each sometimes extending over several years, the delegates meticulously explored topics such as the Nicene Creed (1965), baptism for the remission of sins (1966), the Eucharist as sacrifice (1967), Eucharist and ministry (1970), papal primacy and the universal church (1974), teaching authority and infallibility in the church (1980), Justification by faith (1985), one Mediator, the saints and Mary (1992), Scripture and tradition (1995), the structures and ministries of the church (2005) and hope of eternal life (2011).

Again and again, thoughtful conversation resulted in an exclamation from one side or the other, “Well, if that’s what you mean by those words, we believe that too!” Five centuries of bitter polemic, together with an abundance of stereotypes from pulpits on all sides, however, had hardened the lines of disagreement to such an extent that neither church could recognize itself in the rhetoric of the other’s negative judgments.

A first positive step, therefore, had to be the effort on the part of all parties, as articulated by Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, “to eliminate words, judgments and actions which do not respond to the condition of separated brethren with truth and fairness” (§4). We learned never to tell other churches what they believed because such summaries were proven repeatedly to be inaccurate if not downright erroneous.

In 1985 (published in English in 1990) a special Commission of Lutheran and Catholic scholars in Germany concluded that the mutual condemnations of the 16th century regarding the doctrine of justification, for example, no longer held for their current respective ecumenical partners. Whatever the historical circumstances which produced such condemnations, those factors no longer defined each other’s fundamental statements of belief.

To the op-ed article’s assertion that Catholics believe that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church stated, “Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (§846). This is complemented by the teaching of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church to the effect that “the unique Church of Christ …subsists in the Catholic Church” (§8), a statement which has occasioned extensive discussion among Catholic theologians and necessitated helpful clarifications for all parties concerned.

The Catholic Church’s admitted constant need for reformation and renewal, and its pilgrim status through history, has made it obvious to all of us that the Church of Christ cannot be simply equated with the boundaries of Catholic membership. Catholics are quick also to acknowledge that elements of truth and salvation are found in all Christian churches and communities. Ecumenism requires the common search for God’s truth, not mere politeness. Part of that effort is the acknowledgement of our need to stand humbly before God and to see the truth of Christ’s Gospel in each other. In every generation we struggle anew under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for fidelity to the teachings of the apostles.

Fortunately and felicitously, the issue of justification by faith through grace was formally addressed in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification when officials from the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation solemnly asserted, “We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation” (§19), and “We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation which lays the basis for the whole Christian life” (§25).

Genuine ecumenical dialogue requires an interest in the search for mutual understanding of Christ’s will for the church as well as a patient commitment of time and energy to respectful cooperation wherever possible. In the process the stereotypes born of ancient arguments have usually been proven false. I offer these comments to my fellow Catholics by way of sharing my own personal experiences in the Lutheran Catholic Dialogue over the years.



Feedback on this blog

At Table
Deacon James Banach

Our son fell in love with a wonderful girl, but she is Lutheran. We share table at holidays, birthdays, and just because we find time together a blessing. Our families pray together. Our God isn't much for labels but he knows love when he sees it.

Provide your own feedback

The following required items were not provided or are in the wrong format. Please provide the required responses and submit again:

Blog Disclaimer

The opinions expressed by bloggers and those providing comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied in any of the blogs on The webmaster reserves the right to exclude comments deemed to be inappropriate.

  Please enter your name
  Please enter a valid email
Comment Title:
Comment: 250 characters left
  Please enter a comment

Contact Information

Office of Communication
Main Office:414-769-3408
Fax: 414-769-3388

Nisa Dalmas
Assistant Communication Director
Office: 414-769-3494

Amy E. Taylor
Communication Coordinator
Office: 414-769-3435

Please wait while we gather your results.

Archived Archmil Blogs

The Elderly Are a Blessing, Not a Burden

Sr. Constance Carolyn Veit, ISP, discusses how the elderly should be seen as a blessing, not a burden.

Abortion and Mental Health: Opening Our Eyes

Vicki Thorn explains how a new study on abortion's effects on a woman's mental health confirms what so many in post abortion counseling already knew.

Destination Marriage … on the Road to Happily Ever After

Lydia LoCoco, director of the Nazareth Project for Marriage and Family Formation, describes her experiences with the adult speaker series, Destination Marriage.

Become the Handmaid of the Lord

Anne Bender discusses the annunciation moments in all of our lives.

Forty Years and Counting

Vicki Thorn describes the blessings of marriage, and the benefits of being friends with family members

Natural Family Planning Awareness Week

Fr. Nathan Reeseman discusses Natural Family Planning Awareness Week and the 43rd anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Enjoy Your Faith at Theology-on-Tap

Nicole Fastabend discusses how Theology-on-Tap increases both her faith life and her social life.

“Milwaukee Archdiocesan Catholic Schools: A National Perspective”

Dr. Cepelka gives thanks for Catholic education within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

A New Year’s Resolution for 2012

Joe Nettesheim discusses how Catholics, rather than strive for perfection, should pursue the art of forgiveness instead.

Daughter, Your Faith Has Made You Well

Anne Spoerl describes how, even in sorrow, we can all receive the healing touch of Christ.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee

3501 South Lake Drive
PO Box 070912
Milwaukee, WI 53207-0912
PDF map | Google map

Phone:  (414) 769-3300
Toll-Free: (800) 769-9373
Fax:  (414)  769-3408

Copyright © 2015

In an effort to achieve our goals of transparency and accountability, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has partnered with EthicsPoint, a third-party company, to administer an online service to report financial misconduct. Read more...

Problems with this page? Contact the webmaster

Use the Contact Us page for access to the central offices.

This site is powered by the Northwoods Titan Content Management System