"Exactly what is the difference between Lutherans and Catholics, Dad?"

Okay. This was going to come sometime. So, if you are Lutheran or Catholic, or was once either and are now the other, I need your help.

The question came from my 10 year old daughter at (Catholic) Mass last night (my wife’s graduation from her Heart of Life Spiritual Leaders course). Five minutes before mass is not the easiest time to give an answer to that question.

If you asked me that question, I could tell you, no probs. After all, I am nothing to you, and you nothing to me other than that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. You could take or leave anything I say. I’m sure you do anyway.

But Maddy (baptised and communing Lutheran, going to Catholic school, one parent Lutheran the other Catholic) tends to look to her father as an authority on these things whom she can trust, and so she should. And whatever answer I give her will have a real impact for her life as she decides how she will faithfully follow her Lord. This is no time for philosophy or splitting hairs, and probably even history will have to be put on the back burner. She asked a simple question. Now it is my duty to give her a simple, honest and fair answer.

Which is easier than it sounds.

So this is where you come in, dear Reader, in this interactive posting:

I am inviting you to write a letter to Maddy in the combox – saying what you would say in answer to the question “Exactly what is the difference between Lutherans and Catholics?” Remember to keep it simple – she’s ten years old, a cluey girl as you would expect her to be, but still only a youngster.

If your letters hit the spot, I will give them to her and tell her that this is how some of my friends, Lutheran and Catholic, have answered her question. It will be a good discussion starter for us.

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0 Responses to "Exactly what is the difference between Lutherans and Catholics, Dad?"

  1. Louise says:

    I don’t have much wisdom for you, David, but when my kids ask about what other Christians believe, I usually point out that they believe that Jesus is God and love Him, like us, but that they don’t agree with the Pope. That’s about it. I have no idea what I would tell Maddy, because I know very little about Lutherans specifically.

    Sorry, that doesn’t help much.

    Have your girls remained Lutheran, btw?

  2. Dixie says:

    Having been brought up Roman Catholic and a convert to Lutheranism after our marriage (Roman Catholic by birth, Lutheran by marriage, Orthodox by choice)…I used to say that that the only difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics was that the Lutherans excluded the Pope, Mary and the Saints.

    There is the critical theological issue of justification by faith alone but there are many nuances to JFA that it isn’t so easy for adults to fully grasp much less children.

    I think Louise’s advice is good…they love Jesus but “they don’t agree with the pope”.

  3. Christine says:

    The Pope? Well, in my eleventh year as a Catholic I think that’s just part of the story.

    This was posted on the Zenit site this morning. An excellent summation.

    ROME, NOV. 11, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

    Q: Could you succinctly state the relationship between the importance of the Eucharist versus the Word of God in the liturgy of the Mass? I was on a Eucharistic retreat with a group of Catholics, when the leader of our group said that we as Catholics believe that the Word of God is as important as the Eucharist. I have always been taught that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, but after she said this I did some research into adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Word of God, and it seemed that there was more than a little validity to her statement since the “Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” … and God speaks to us though his inspired Word, etc. Please clarify this. — N.C., Cleveland, Ohio

    A: I would like to begin this answer by recalling a conversation I had during my seminary years with an elderly Catholic layman while on vacation in upstate New York. This wise gentleman, of Lithuanian descent, rented canoes in the Adirondacks and often dealt with evangelical Christians who tried to win him over by saying they had the Good Book. He replied that as a Catholic he not only had the Book but moreover frequently met the Author.

    Although one might discuss the theological precision of the anecdote, it does reflect a fundamental truth with respect to the different forms in which Christ is present to us. God certainly speaks to us through his inspired Word, and the Church teaches that he is present when the Scriptures are read. This presence, however, as Pope Paul VI teaches in his encyclical “Mysterium Fidei” is a real but transitory presence enduring while the liturgical reading lasts. It is, therefore, not of the same class as the substantial real presence found in the Eucharist.

    From another angle we can also consider how Scripture is fulfilled in Eucharistic worship.

    “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” this is the foundation of our faith. However, the same Word who took flesh in Mary’s womb, who died, rose and ascended, is the same one who said, “This is my body … this is my blood,” and is thus present body, soul and divinity under the species of bread and wine. In every Eucharistic celebration the entire mystery of Christ from the incarnation to the ascension is truly made present anew, albeit under the veil of sign and symbol.

    From this perspective the Eucharist is thus “more important” than Scripture because Scripture’s ultimate goal is to lead us to union with Christ through full participation in the Mass. The Mass is a sharing in the worship which the Incarnate Word offers to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

    Yet, from a different perspective and precisely in the context of the Mass, the question as to the relative importance of Scripture vis-[-vis the Eucharist is relatively meaningless.

    In every Mass we are like the disciples going to Emmaus, except we already know that Christ is present among us. Like them, our hearts should burn as we listen to Moses, the prophets and the New Covenant as they speak about Christ. At the same time we are aware that in the end we will recognize him only in the breaking of bread.

    Therefore it is not a question of the superiority of one over the other but of an inseparable interrelationship and ordering of one toward the other. Precisely because Scripture is ordered toward Eucharistic worship, the celebration’s external form necessarily follows the road to Emmaus. All the historical evidence available shows us that the celebration of the Word and the Eucharist have always formed a single act of worship. Likewise, Scripture is so intimately intertwined within the fabric of every single prayer that we can say that without Scripture there could be no Catholic liturgy.

    Conversely, and from a historical perspective it is also partially true that without liturgy there would be no Scripture, for one of the major criteria for determining which books eventually made it into the biblical canon was whether the book was read in the liturgical assembly.

    Therefore the contraposition of Word and Eucharist does not correspond to an authentically Catholic vision of their intimate relationship.

    It is true that, historically, Catholics have not been assiduous Bible readers. During the greatest part of the Church’s existence books were a luxury few could read and fewer could afford. The lack of direct Bible reading did not mean that there was total biblical illiteracy. Most Christians were imbued with biblical salvation history through church decorations in painting, sculpture and stained glass. The huge reredos enshrining the high altars of many cathedrals harmoniously wove in the stories of Genesis, kings, prophets, Jesus’ ancestry and the principal events of the New Testament, while centering everything on the sacrifice of the altar. In this way they provided a visible scriptural background to Catholic worship.

    In today’s changed circumstances the Church actively encourages all Catholics to possess, read and meditate on the Good Book, while not forgetting to make frequent visits to the Author.

    * * *

    The centrality of the Eucharist is the source of Catholic worship and the devotions that flow from it.

    For some Lutherans the frequency of Holy Communion is still a matter of adiaphora, based on the Lutheran reading of the Bible. Not all Lutherans observe every-Sunday communion. The historic episcopacy is also not observed uniformly, another matter of adiaphora. The “solas” of the Reformation are still a point of division between Lutherans and Catholics as are our views on the veneration of the saints, especially the Mother of God. i.e., the place of Tradition and tradition in the life of the Church.

  4. Christine says:

    And I might add, I certainly don’t expect David to pass on this extensive tome to his daughter! That would be a bit much for a youngster.

    David, since you know your daughter better than those of us posting here, perhaps you can compile a more simplified summary of everyone’s comments for her in a way that would make sense.

  5. Dixie says:

    Christine has a point regarding the centrality of the Eucharist. For Lutherans it seems the sermon (Word) and the Eucharist (Sacrament) stand on equal ground in the worship service. In fact for Lutherans everything comes down to word…for even the Sacraments are what they are because of “words”. This can be visually seen in the architecture of older Lutheran churches where the pulpit is actually positioned above the altar. (Kanzelaltar) For Catholics the climax of the Mass is the Eucharist and the homily plays a lesser role in comparison.

    I think that is a comparison an 11 year old might understand–although it may be too simplistic to be accurate. Also…I know some Lutherans do see the climax of the mass being the Eucharist…so I don’t know that such a difference would be universally accepted among the Lutherans. But…good point nonetheless.

  6. Christine says:

    Also…I know some Lutherans do see the climax of the mass being the Eucharist…so I don’t know that such a difference would be universally accepted among the Lutherans. But…good point nonetheless.

    Good analysis, Dixie. All Lutherans accept the authority of Scripture but that doesn’t play out in the same way everywhere.

    Consider the WELS — for all practical purposes the office of the holy ministry has become a lay entity and the same is happening in some LCMS congregations that are hiring “ministers” before ordination.

    Some Lutherans accept the continuing Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, some don’t. Some Lutherans ordain women, some don’t (acknowledging that those that do are considered more or less apostate by those that don’t).

    Some Lutheran congregations are deliberately beginning to downplay their “Lutheran” identity with a view to attracting more people to a less denominationally-specific Christianity.

    I recognize that all these things are viewed as part of “Christian freedom” in the Gospel but to me they are a decided break with Apostolic Christianity.

  7. Schütz says:

    You’re not making it easier, guys! Thanks for the tips – the Eucharist one is an especially important consideration, a lot flows from that, including the idea of communion as a church…

    However, the difficulty is to be fair and honest. I can really only talk to her about her own experience of Lutheranism at her own parish (yes, all other members of my family are “still” Lutheran). WELS don’t really come into it! Nor, for the same reason, does women’s ordination.

    I am afraid it might just come down to Louise’s point of “they don’t agree with the Pope.”

    That doesn’t describe all the differences between Lutherans and Catholics, but on a practical level that is the paradox which is the Papacy. It keeps us Catholics united among ourselves and Lutherans (inter alios christianos) divided from us.

    On top of that, if you had to pick one aspect which alone distinguishes Catholics from all other persons in the world it is that we are in communion with the Pope. That is, bottom line, what it means to be Catholic, as distinct from Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran etc. That is why, bottom line, I became a Catholic (in PE’s words, “I realised I wasn’t one”).

    Now, the reasons why we are in communion with the Pope and why we think this is important (and why Lutherans aren’t and don’t) is probably where the discussion has to go next.

    I guess one of my difficulties (Lutherans please jump in here) is that I am not so sure that I can tell my daughters what it means to be a Lutheran, ie. what it is that makes her (in her current point in her journey of faith, a “Lutheran”). Ie. what distinguishes ALL Lutherans from ALL other Christians of ANY other type? Any ideas?

  8. Louise says:

    I am afraid it might just come down to Louise’s point of “they don’t agree with the Pope.”


    I do think the Eucharist is an important point, but didn’t think of it because I really don’t know much about Lutheranism as opposed to Protestantism in general. Can you work the Eucharist into your answer at all?

    At this point I run out of usefulness to you.

  9. Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. says:

    The book “Catholic, Lutheran, Protestant: A Doctrinal Comparison of Three Christian Confessions” by Gregory L. Jackson, PhD of (http://ichabodthegloryhasdeparted.blogspot.com/) might be of use when she grows up a bit more. It is available as a free PDF download from Lulu ( http://www.lulu.com/content/795931 )

  10. Carol says:

    “Now, the reasons why we are in communion with the Pope and why we think this is important (and why Lutherans aren’t and don’t) is probably where the discussion has to go next.”

    Hi, David!
    Perhaps you could point out to Maddy that Catholics (at least real Catholics)believe the pope, stand with the pope on all Church teachings, and believe that Jesus set up the Church in such a way that there will always be a father/leader/shepherd/teacher over us.
    Luther, and many other leaders after him, thought that this was unnecessary and believed that individuals could figure out true teaching by themselves by studying the Bible.
    The real difference between Catholics and Lutherans is our beliefs regarding revelation. How does God reveal truth to humanity? Lutherans and Catholics would agree that his primary revelation is the Incarnation, Jesus Christ, Word made flesh, here on earth. However, after that agreement we disagree. Lutherans then turn to the authority of Scripture, believing that this will guide them into all truth. Catholics believe that God reveals truth through Scripture, Tradition (what the Church has always taught), and the Magisterium (the pope and his brother bishops). Without this triune arrangement it is very easy to come up with varying, individual beliefs – which then lead to splits rather than to unity.

    “I am not so sure that I can tell my daughters what it means to be a Lutheran, ie. what it is that makes her (in her current point in her journey of faith, a “Lutheran”). Ie. what distinguishes ALL Lutherans from ALL other Christians of ANY other type? Any ideas?”

    This is actually related to our views on revelation. Because individual Lutherans studying Scripture can, and do, come up with differing interpretations, there is no agreement on what is truly Lutheran. Without a pope or teaching office, no one has the authority to say, “This is what Lutherans believe.” You could, of course, emphasize our unified beliefs as stated in the creeds, but you have no doubt already done that.

    While our nuclear family members have all been received into the RCC, most of our extended family members are Lutheran, so, we are dealing with many of the same discussions.

    Sorry that this got so long. Give our love to Kathy and the girls.

  11. orrologion says:

    I think I would say something like:

    “Lutherans believe that only the Bible is the word of God. That we should only believe and do things that are found in the Bible. They don’t find prayer to the saints, the traditions around the Mother of God, the Pope and his teaching authority, the liturgical traditions of the Mass, and other things in the Bible, so they don’t believe them.

    Martin Luther and the other early Lutherans wrote the Book of Concord (peace) that explains what they believe the Bible teaches: they are saved by faith alone whether we do good works or not, though they believe any real faith will, of course, overflow with good works. This faith is given by grace, not deserved on our part in any way, not prepared for in any way, just given for free. They believe that this is the teaching of the Bible.

    Roman Catholics believe that God didn’t just stop guiding the Church once the last book of the Bible was written. In fact, we believe that the Holy Spirit can inspire Christians in the same way that the authors of the Bible were inspired. This is especially true of our bishops, and most especially of the Pope who is the Bishop of Rome. Since it is sometimes hard to tell who has been inspired by the Holy Spirit and who is making things up – even if they had the best of intentions – we believe that Jesus promised that St. Peter and his heirs in Rome would be preserved without error when they officially announce something about the Christian faith. He and the Church as a whole has recognized all sorts of traditions that were passed down by the Apostles apart from the books that ended up in the Bible, and that the Holy Spirit guided other Christians as they developed and wrote different services and prayers over the centuries.

    The Pope and the Church also realized that the saints didn’t just die and ‘stop’, but that they were alive in heaven like how Jesus rose from the dead and is alive in heaven. Because they are so close to God, now, He sometimes lets them hear us when we ask them for help; they pray to God, and God answers our prayers on the saints’ behalf, because He loves them and they love Him and we love them all.

    These Christians also had to come up with new answers, new ways of speaking about Christianity when new ‘wrong’ teachings (heresies) started long after the Apostles had died and gone to heaven. So, the Church developed new answers based on some of the old teachings that had been set down before these ‘new teachings’ came about.

    Catholics don’t believe that you can just divide faith from what faith does. It’s no good saying you trust me to catch you if you never fall back into my arms. So, we believe we are saved by faith showing itself in love. The Church therefore cheers us on in doing good things, in trying hard to do more, to be better, to pray for people more, etc.”

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