It saddened me this morning to read on the blog of my one time Seminary neighbour Pastor Matt Harrison (currently serving as President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) a letter concerning a case in Newtown in the US where the recent mass shooting of young children took place. As I gather from the letter, one Pastor Rob Morris participated in a civic gathering of religious leaders (both Christian and non-Christian) to mourn the death of so many innocents. In doing so, he unwittingly violate the current norms of the LCMS with regard to “joint worship”, and has since, under direction of the Pastor President, issued a full apology.
I know that in today’s context, fidelity to the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (as the Vatican’s Dominus Iesus put it in 2000) can come into conflict with the prevailing post-modern, syncretistc approach to religion. This is especially so in situations which require us to show sensitivity to the pastoral needs of others. This is an issue which the Catholic Church struggles with just as much as the LCMS.
While both the Catholic Church and the LCMS are concerned to give witness to Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Saviour of all mankind, we tend to have a different approach in particular circumstances. Readers might find it instructive to consult the LCMS statement on the involvement of their pastors in civic “services” and compare it to the guidelines of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne “Promoting Interfaith Relations”.
What one will notice is a difference of prudential judgement. We both recognise the dangers of syncretism and relativism, but the Catholic Church takes a rather more positive view of the human yearnings toward the divine than does the LCMS. Essentially, this is because the Catholic Church does not teach that non-Christian religions are entirely evil or wrong. There are, to quote Dominus Iesus “elements of truth and grace” in these religions as well.
Another part of the difficulty stems from the way in which the LCMS defines a worship service. Any event in which scriptures are read and prayers are said constitutes such an event in their definition. You will recall that one of the difficulties Protestants have with Catholics “praying” to the saints is that in their book “prayer” = “worship”.
Of course, the LCMS doesn’t just have a difficulty being in a religious setting with non-Christians, they have a difficulty even praying with their Christian brothers and sisters. This is a little bit sadder. Short of joint celebration of the eucharist, the Catholic Church positively encourages us to practice “spiritual ecumenism” in the form of prayer with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The LCMS has two main concerns: the first is fidelity to the scriptural injunctions about fellowship with idolators and false teachers and the second is their desire to give an unadulterated witness to Jesus Christ.
In relation to the current case in Newtown, I think one should ask what witness to Jesus Christ would be given if Pastor Morris had refused to be involved in an event giving voice to the grief of the people of Newtown. Jesus did not hesitate to go into places and have fellowship with people who were thought to be religiously unclean (the case of Zaccheus is the prime example) even if this gave offence to the religious leaders of his day. Nor did he ask the Syrophoenecian woman to give up her non-Jewish religious practice before he healed her daughter. In both cases they were seeking God, and in both cases he brought God to them. I wonder if in their intention to be faithful to the scriptures, the LCMS may not be applying the wrong scriptural passages to the case in hand. the scriptural injunctions against false worship The scriptural injunctions about mercy rather than sacrifice might well apply here.
To illustrate the difference in our approaches, here are a few passages that I read in Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” only this morning. They come in the context of his reflections upon the visit of the Magi:
The ambivalence of the concept of Magi that we find [in the Scriptures] illustrates the ambivalence of religion in general. It can become a path to true knowledge, the path to Jesus Christ. But when it fails, in his presence, to open up to him and actually opposes the one God and Saviour, it becomes demonic and destructive… (p93)
[The “wise” men] represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendenc, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence “philosophy” in the original sense of the word… We might well say that they represent the religions moving toward Christ, as well as the self-transcendence of science toward him… (p95)
The key point is this: the wise men from the east are a new beginning. They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ. They initiate a procession that continues throughout history. Not only do they represent the people who have found the way to Christ: they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him. (p97)
Pope Benedict is no syncretist, and certainly no relativist. You will recall, of course, how Pope Benedict, at the 2011 Assisi Gathering of world religious leaders, changed the format significantly to make it clear that this gathering was not a joint worship event. But what he does give voice to in these passages from his latest book, is the very distinct difference in judgment between the Catholic Church and the LCMS about what is going on in the hearts of human beings when they turn to the “transcendent”. The LCMS follows the traditional confessional Lutheran judgment that any kind of seeking after God apart from a full and orthodox confession of Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity must necessarily be a step away from God rather than toward him. The Catholic Church takes a rather more positive view, and at least allows that if they are not against Christ, then they may well be moving toward Christ and the fullness of Truth. In the long run, this difference of judgment is based on a difference of opinion on the state of unredeemed human nature: for Lutherans, it is traditionally viewed that all outside of Christ is darkness; for Catholics, even the light of Christ shines in that darkness.
As we say in our “Promoting Interfaith Guidelines” section “Praying Together?”,
If we cannot say the same prayer formulas together, let us at least gather together in the profound and evocative silence which is attentive to the One who transcends all.
As a footnote to all this, you may be interested in this First Things article: Roman Catholics and Confessional Lutherans explore deeper ties.