In recent weeks, Russell Saltzman – a former dean of the North American Lutheran College – announced his decision to become a Catholic. Meanwhile, the Lutheran Church of Finland’s November recognition of homosexual relationships as marriages led to large-scale apostasy: in just the first couple days after the church’s decision, 12,000 Finns left it in protest. Such events prompt the question whether Rome should create an ordinariate for Lutheran converts, just as Pope Benedict XVI did for Anglican converts in 2009.
In recent decades, mainstream Protestant churches have become increasingly indistinguishable from the broader secular culture of the West. The recognition of homosexual unions, lax attitudes towards abortion, and the ordination of women as priests and bishops have increasingly estranged from them from Catholic and evangelical Protestant Churches in North America and Europe. As recently as the 1980s, the Vatican believed that it could reach full communion with the Church of England. Today, however, due to Anglicanism’s growing rejection of traditional morality and women-bishops, this sounds like theological fiction.
As it became increasingly clear that Anglican-Catholic reunification was fantasy, a group of traditionally minded Anglican prelates approached the Vatican in the 1990s asking for the creation of an ordinariate in which they could enter into communion with Rome but retain their liturgy and rules regarding celibacy. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI responded, creating the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. In 2011 and 2012, respectively, similar ordinariates were established for North American Episcopalians and Australian Anglicans. Since then, over 3,000 faithful, 90 communities, 5 bishops and about 140 priests, some married, from three continents have “swum the Tiber.”
A Lutheran ordinariate has been discussed in Rome. In 2013, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, explicitly formulated this desire. Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, echoed his sentiments, publicly contemplating the creation of an ordinariate for Lutherans where “the legitimate traditions they have developed” may be respected.
Lutheran converts like Saltzman are attracted to Catholicism largely due to its unwavering adherence to tradition. Previous high-profile Lutheran converts – such as Fr. Richard Neuhaus (founder of First Things), Leonard Klein (onetime editor of Lutheran Forum), and Canadian Bishop Joseph Jacobson – had similar concerns. Would the creation of a Lutheran ordinariate have success similar to that of the Anglican ones, and would the thousands of conservative Lutherans in, say, Finland leaving their Church follow in the footsteps Saltzman or Neuhaus?
Of course, the main difference between Lutheranism and Anglicanism is that the Church of England did not form because of doctrinal issues but pragmatic ones related to King Henry VIII’s divorce. As a result, for centuries Anglicanism shared many of Catholicism’s traditions while its doctrines on the Eucharist, priesthood, or confession were closer to those of Rome than those of Protestant churches. By contrast, Luther’s theological views on these matters represented a radical departure from Catholicism. Furthermore, many orthodox Lutherans continue to regard Rome and the papacy with strong suspicion.
For these reasons, one can presume that many among the traditional Lutheran apostates of recent weeks would prefer to join evangelical or charismatic Protestant churches rather than seek unification with Rome or perhaps they might start their own Lutheran church.
At least some of the growing numbers of estranged Lutherans in Europe and North America might consider Catholicism as Saltzman did. When asked about the creation of a Lutheran ordinariate at a book signing in Rome last year, Cardinal Müller acknowledged the differences between Anglicanism and Lutheranism, yet noted that in his native Germany, traditionally divided between Catholics and Lutherans since 1648’s Peace of Westphalia, many Lutherans have “retained Catholic traditions” and actually believe that many of the reforms that Luther had sought were actually implemented by the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, many Church historians today believe that had Rome been more willing to critically look at corruption within its ranks and been more open to dialogue with Luther, perhaps a schism could have been avoided.
Of course, the proposal of a Lutheran ordinariate faces opposition. Cardinal Koch’s suggestion drew the ire of the International Lutheran Federation, which is particularly concerned about celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses on the door to the cathedral at Wittenberg (today called Lutherstadt) in a spirit of camaraderie with the Vatican in 2017.
It is also unclear how Pope Francis would respond to the proposal to create a Lutheran ordinariate. During a press conference on his return to Rome from Turkey, he said that “Eastern Catholic Churches have a right to exist, but uniatism is a dated word; another solution needs to be found.” While he said this in the context of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, this raises the question of whether Francis would also oppose “uniatism” for Protestants. The Holy Father recently said that he wants Catholics and Protestants to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation together in 2017.
Although a Lutheran ordinariate may attract fewer converts than the three Anglican ones, Lutheranism’s turn away from tradition is alienating a growing number of its faithful. These people will undoubtedly look for a new spiritual home, and at least some will find one in Catholicism. Thus the Vatican should make a transition easier for them while at the same time allowing them to maintain their unique traditions unrelated to doctrine.
At the end of the day, Rome must ask itself if it is more concerned about contributing to Christian unity, to which it has established a pontifical council headed by Cardinal Koch who first discussed a Lutheran ordinariate, or about political correctness and not irking the International Lutheran Federation. The Vatican must decide which is the greater priority: bonhomie during an ephemeral event in 2017, or the creation of a permanent religious alternative for frustrated seekers of truth.