Shared Communion Breakthrough?

By John Paul Shimek

A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee on ecumenical and interreligious affairs plans to send the Vatican a bold suggestion for “expansion of opportunities for Catholics and Lutherans to receive Holy Communion together.” The 118-page text of “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist [PDF],” unanimously affirmed by the committee in October, will be submitted to Cardinal Kurt Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican.

Promotional materials call the declaration a “unique ecumenical text that draws on 50 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in preparation for the 500th Reformation anniversary coming in 2017.” A news release from the bishops claims it “marks a pathway toward greater visible unity between Catholics and Lutherans.”

The Most Rev. Denis J. Madden, Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, has suggested the document stands in the service of what Pope Francis has called a “culture of encounter”: “This Declaration on the Way represents in concrete form an opportunity for Lutherans and Catholics to join together now in a unifying manner on a way finally to full communion.”

The statement is a response to Cardinal Koch’s December 2011 proposal of a “declaration to seal in agreements in the areas of the church, ministry, and the Eucharist.” It is the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

According to an executive summary of the declaration, the structure of the text is important since “reception and affirmation [of 32 agreements] naturally lead to practices that advance the growing communion between Lutherans and Catholics.”

Signatories of the declaration conclude the text by inviting both the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation “to create a process and timetable for addressing the remaining issues” existing between Catholics and Lutherans. They also suggest practices to be observed in the interest of ecumenical communion.

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