US Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue, the Joint Declaration, and Purgatory

CNA reports that the US Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue is starting a new round of discussions, this time on “The Hope of Eternal Life”. If that sounds a bit wishy washy as a topic for dialogue, think again. They intend to discuss “differences between Catholics and Lutherans over the Christian’s life beyond death, especially as regards purgatory, indulgences, and masses and prayers for the dead.” Ie. All the hot issues are on the agenda except Mary and the Saints (which was already dealt with in a previous round).

What can we hope will the outcome be? Better information, at least. Many Lutherans suspect that although Catholics say they believe in justification by faith in Christ through grace, their practices and beliefs do not bear this out (see “The Indulgence Controversy, Again” by Michael Root). According to CNA, Bishop Richard Sklba, Catholic auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee says that he “is interested in making sure Catholic practices reflect the Joint Declaration”.

While Bishop Richard may be right (ie. that we Catholics have a responsibility as Catholics to make sure that our practices accord with the JDDJ), I rather suspect that the task of dialogue in this regard will be to make quite plain to non-Catholics that what they perceive as a contradiction between our stated belief and our practice is in fact perfectly congruent. In other words, it is not the practices themselves that need to be altered, but our understanding and explanation of the practices.

One small example: if we talk about Purgatory in terms of “satisfaction” (as has been traditional), our dialogue partners will see “works righteousness” in flashing neon signs all around it. On the other hand, if we emphasise that purgatory is a “purification” in preparation for the beatific vision (and make it clear that it is God who purifies us, not we ourselves), then “justification by faith” is not so apparently excluded by the teaching of purgatory.

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