As a Lutheran pastor, for years I considered myself a Catholic Christian. Roman Catholic liturgists are aware that the liturgies of the Lutheran Book of Worship are Catholic in structure and content. I sought to lead parishioners toward a Catholic piety, including private confession according to Luther's own order. I had opportunities to advocate for a corporate reunion with the Catholic Church (see part VII in this series). This article gives an account of how Catholic hope and optimism among Lutherans proved illusory (at least to me), and how the question of entering the Catholic Church became yet more urgent to me personally.
Faith and Morals: The Moral Dignity of the Person
Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, like most ecumenical discourse, has focused on explicitly doctrinal and theological issues: the sacraments, the nature of the Church, the ordained ministry, apostolic succession, the saving work of Christ, devotion to saints, etc. Concentration was on matters of faith. Twentieth Century ecumenists did not, in general, discuss matters of the moral life, because in the early days of the ecumenical movement, there was an assumed consensus on fundamental moral questions. Protestants, like Catholics, abhorred abortion and divorce, assumed sexual intimacy belonged solely to marriage, and understood that openness to the gift of children was inherent to the very definition of marriage (although no Protestants save the Anglicans called marriage a “sacrament”). Large cracks in the consensus began to show as early as the 1930's, when the Anglican Church approved the use of contraception. In the decades that followed, Protestant Churches in general did not so much consciously break with the Catholic moral tradition as simply lose their moral memory and will. Divorce became so common (also among clergy) that any moral censure seemed hopeless and cruel. When the largest Lutheran communion in North America approved the funding of abortion by its health care insurance program any continuity with the Christian moral tradition seemed to have been lost. And so it was hardly a surprise when, a little later, this same Lutheran body began first to tolerate, then to formally approve, the “blessing of same-sex unions.” It seemed clear to me that the integral link between theological faith and moral life has been severed. The “and” in the phrase “Faith and Morals” had vanished.
From three perspectives, this aggressive moral revisionism seemed disastrous and wrong. (1) These sweeping revisions took place without any formal conversation whatsoever with our Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or conservative protestant dialogue partners; in fact this unilateralism deepened the fissures of division. (2) In one way or another, all the revisions struck at the Catholic Tradition's understanding of marriage. Therefore, these were not “just moral judgments” as opposed to “real issues” of faith. After all, most Christians round the globe belong either to the Roman Catholic or the Eastern Orthodox Church; they hold by faith that marriage is a sacrament of the Church. (3) These redefinitions of the moral life would wreak chaos and suffering in the lives of millions, especially in the lives of children and the poor.
This last point requires elaboration. My years as a Lutheran pastor were spent almost entirely in poor, inner-city parishes. In this context it was forced upon me that a large part of the sorrow, suffering, and despair I encountered had directly to do with the collapse of the moral life, especially in relation to sex, marriage, and family. The questions of “social justice” among the city's “underclass” were hardly unrelated to the “merely personal matters” of sexual love and sustained loving relationships. I no longer bought the contemporary division of “social ethics” and “personal morality.” At the center of both was the moral and spiritual dignity of the human person, who thrives in the structures and atmosphere of covenant relationships. For pastoral reasons, I unexpectedly found myself deeply preoccupied with moral theology. I needed to look, not simply at the issues of the day, but through those issues at the Christian understanding of human person. During this time I wrote for the American Lutheran Publicity Board a series on the meaning and morals of sexual love with titles like What Does Your Marriage Mean? and What Kind of Love Can Be Promised?
Maybe some reader of this series will notice that, in turning to this question, my long Catholic search came full circle. It had begun with the discovery of the crucial place of the body in prayer (see part VI). Now I was seeking to understand the nature of the body in the human capacity for covenant love. And, of course, amidst all the moral contention, the question of authority in the Church once again proved central (see part VII). It was at this point that I first began to read the writings of Pope John Paul II and of the unofficial circle of “personalist” theologians that were important to his many approaches to a “theology of the body.”