On Recognising Lutheran Orders

A priest friend of mine has been wondering whether, had Bishop Morris merely speculated upon the recognition of protestant orders in his pastoral letter in 2006, and not raised the possibility of the ordination of women, he might have been able to retain his position as bishop of Toowoomba.

I don’t know. But I do know that the recognition of Lutheran orders as they stand is as impossible as the recognition of the attempt to convey Catholic orders upon women. An email from Pastor Weedon on another mail list some time ago has prompted me to follow a line of investigation that he suggested in that email, referring to the dialogue statements of the American Lutheran Catholic dialogue.

In May 2004, the USCCB published The Church as Koinonia of Salvation: Its Structures and Ministries.

95. What follows for the relations between our churches from the analysis above, supported by the biblical and historical explanations that follow below? Building upon the earlier Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues, Eucharist and Ministry and Facing Unity,(156) we propose steps toward a full, mutual recognition and reconciliation of our ministries and the ultimate goal of full communion. We are aware of common challenges to overcome. Nevertheless, the mutual recognition of ministries need not be an all-or-nothing matter and should not be reduced to a simple judgment about validity or invalidity. In order to assess the degree of our koinonia in ordained ministry, a more nuanced discernment is needed reflecting the way that an ordained ministry serves the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, stands in continuity with the apostolic tradition, and serves communion among churches.

96. We recommend that our churches recognize our common understanding of the interdependent structures of church life and ministry, namely, the diocese/synod with its bishop and parish/congregation with its pastor or priest. This common understanding is reflected in a shared sense of the single sacrament of Order (sacramentum Ordinis) or the one office of ministry (Amt). The differences between us in emphasis and terminology need not be church dividing even though they challenge each church to overcome imbalances in its own tradition.

This statement was made with a certain degree of “hopefulness”, which it may not be so possible to sustain today. Yet it is notably less positive than the quotation given in the footnote (156) above from the 1970 US Catholic Lutheran dialogue report “Eucharist and Ministry”. In that dialogue report 24 years earlier, the Catholic theologians on the dialogue had positively concluded:

As Roman Catholic theologians, we acknowledge in the spirit of Vatican II that the Lutheran communities with which we have been in dialogue are truly Christian churches, possessing the elements of holiness and truth that mark them as organs of grace and salvation. Furthermore, in our study we have found serious defects in the arguments customarily used against the validity of the eucharistic Ministry of the Lutheran churches. In fact, we see no persuasive reason to deny the possibility of the Roman Catholic church recognizing the validity of this Ministry. Accordingly, we ask the authorities of the Roman Catholic church whether the ecumenical urgency flowing from Christ’s will for unity may not dictate that the Roman Catholic church recognize the validity of the Lutheran Ministry, and correspondingly, the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharistic celebrations of the Lutheran churches. (pp. 31,32)

A lot has changed since 1970. Let us not say that our Catholic doctrine has “developed” in this area (I don’t want to open that can of worms again) but it is true that the perennial teaching of the Church (even as it was in 1970) has been greatly clarified since the days in which theologians could, with a straight face, use the phrase “in the spirit of Vatican II” in a dialogue report! The chief difficulty facing both these reports, and one that the 2004 report is obviously trying to find a way around, is the 2001 statement “Dominus Iesus” which declared in no uncertain terms that

the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense…

All hope is not lost, of course. That same paragraph goes on to say:

however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.62 Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.

It is clear then that the opinions of the Catholic theologians expressed in the 1970 statement were simply mistaken. They believed there was “no persuasive reason to deny the possibility of the Roman Catholic church recognizing the validity of this Ministry” because Lutheran Churches “are truly Christian churches”. “Dominus Iesus” made it clear that the problem was the other way around, that the Lutheran Churches could not be recognised as “Churches in the proper sense” precisely because they “have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery”.

The 2004 statement “The Church as Koinonia of Salvation” grapples mightily with this problem, suggesting that “a shared sense of the single sacrament of Order (sacramentum Ordinis) or the one office of ministry (Amt)” might be the solution. They believed that “the mutual recognition of ministries need not be an all-or-nothing matter and should not be reduced to a simple judgment about validity or invalidity”. They called for “a more nuanced discernment” on the question of what pertains to “continuity with the apostolic tradition” in this matter.

Well, since then, there have been a couple of clarifications that make even this a somewhat vain hope. In 2007 the Holy See with the approval of Benedict XVI released a document called “Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the Church”. The fifth and final question in this document was:

Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of “Church” with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?

Response: According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery[19] cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.[20]

The footnotes to this answer are references (19 & 20 respectively) to the Second Vatican Council Decree “Unitatis redintegratio,” 22.3 (so much for the “spirit of Vatican II) and “Dominus Iesus,” 17.2.

In other words, it will take more than just some “nuancing” to get around the difficulty that from the point of view of what is neccessary for full validity of Catholic orders, Lutheran orders are deficient. There is, of course, a simple solution to the problem, and it is one that many Anglican priests and bishops are currently availing themselves of in order to have their ministry fully recognised as valid by the Church: entering into communion with the Roman Pontiff and accepting ordination at the hands of validly ordained Catholic bishops in that communion. It is a gift that the Church is more than happy to offer to our separated brethren, but a gift which, I expect, Lutherans are not inclined to either desire or accept. In the end, Lutherans, like Anglicans, will need to accept that there is simply no amount of “nuanced” reflection and interpretation that can get around a simple historical fact: that the continuity of apostolic orders within their communions was interupted at the at time of the Reformation.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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18 Responses to On Recognising Lutheran Orders

  1. Jim Ryland says:


    At the risk of sounding like a “stuck phonograph stylus”, the Lutheran dilemma is much like the Anglican one. There are synods that are avowedly Protestant and those that are very Catholic in their theology. In both cases the temptation to tar them with a single brush simply doesn’t work. There are sub-denominations in both organizations that may actually have retained valid orders by succession. Sorting out this bowl of spaghetti is a nearly impossible task. As with the Church of England, the real separation and antipathy came with the influence of others who slipped in their particular doctrinal spin.

    The problem for Rome as it concerns “communion” lies in sorting out who falls under the umbrella and who does not. The modern world, including parishioners of the three denominations above, would not see the nuances. Our penchant for lumping things together in a one-size-fits-all mode of thinking would simply see Lutherans and Anglicans as the whole assemblage of communities bearing those words in their titles.

    Where ordinariates are concerned, Rome has perhaps made a political gaffe. I would have made “ordinations” of formerly ordained clergy conditional rather than absolute. It’s a small point but one that carries a bit of implied impact. In the end the administration of the rites result in the same thing.

    • Schütz says:

      A small point, perhaps, but I do not think any “gaffe” has occured. The requirement for absolute rather than conditional ordination is a reitteration of the conviction that the ordinations of protestant ministers are not valid Catholic ordinations. There is much more to validity than simply (to put it crassly) “pedigree”. There is also the issue of intention – ie. to do what the Church intends to do – and communion – ie. unity with the Bishop of Rome and the bishops in communion with him.

      • Joshua says:

        A lot of confusion is caused by the word “conditional” having a more restricted compass than one might think. Basically, if there is a probability that an ordination was valid, but some uncertainty, then the candidate ought be re-ordained conditionally – note that therefore there must be a strong presumption of validity, with some minor uncertainty about this only. If there is a probability, however, that the ordination was invalid, then the candidate must be re-ordained absolutely, not merely conditionally – and this is the case with Anglicans, and a fortiori with Lutherans.

    • Conchúr says:

      As Joshua has said, ordination sub conditione is only an option where there is an element of doubt over what in normal circumstances would be unambiguously valid. Where there is a doubt as to invalidity, ordination must always be absolute on the basis of the requirement for moral certainty.

  2. John Nolan says:

    The terms Catholic and Anglican have a different resonance in the New World, where they are essentially imported Christian denominations. From an English perspective things aren’t quite the same. Most of the cathedrals and parish churches were built for Catholic worship and with Catholic money; they are, however, in the hands of a schismatic and heretical ecclesial community which styles itself the Church of England ‘by law established’. And there’s the rub – no amount of ARCIC documents can alter the fact that the schism and subsequent heresy are the result of Acts of Parliament.

    The so-called Reformation was imposed by a Tudor despotism on a population which was arguably the most devoutly Catholic in Europe, using all the coercive powers of the early modern state. The 19th century Oxford Movement restored a lot of the trappings of Catholicism, but the CofE remains Protestant at heart. I’ve been to some impressively choreographed ‘Masses’ and I’m quite sure that the clergy believe in what they’re doing, but a cursory glance round the pews shows that this is lost on most of the congregation.

    The Anglican ecclesial community is officially Calvinist in doctrine. I don’t know much about Lutheranism although in Germany there seems to have been a lot less iconoclasm than was the case in England, where most late medieval art was wantonly destroyed. The German bible is splendid – I’m not sure how much of this was Luther’s work, since there were many pre-Reformation versions – and I am intrigued as to why the last trump is given to the trombone ‘die letzte Posaune’. In Mozart’s Requiem ‘tuba mirum spargens sonum’ is announced by three trombones; perhaps they were left over from the Magic Flute…

    • Schütz says:

      Luther’s German bible was a very original work – a landmark in biblical translation. It was quite different to the earlier versions, and at least as influential on the German language as the KKV on English.

  3. William Weedon says:

    What I found interesting and still find interesting in the Roman Catholic response in the US Dialog back in 1970 was this line (quoted above):

    the Lutheran communities with which we have been in dialogue are truly Christian churches, possessing the elements of holiness and truth that mark them as organs of grace and salvation.

    Maybe I’m mistaken, but what I heard in that assessment was an honest struggle to come to terms with the evident grace of God at work in Lutheran communities. I just buried a man who was a living icon of this – gentle, kind, loving, forgiving – and all in a way beyond the capacity of fallen man. He was a man who literally lived from the Gospel preached and from the Holy Eucharist received. That WAS his life. What does a Roman Catholic do with such Christians? Damn them to hell as heretics? Make them be closet Roman Catholics (Ray would shudder at the thought!)? Or realize that maybe, just maybe there is not a Roman corner on grace? That the Holy Spirit has continued to operate in the separated Churches gathering sinners into the Church via Baptism, filling them with hope through the Sacred Scriptures, imparting to them a share in the divine life through the Holy Eucharist, shaping them with divine love and using them for His purposes in this age, and finally bringing them home to the Age to come, just as we sing:

    To God the Holy Spirit let us pray,
    Most of all for faith upon life’s way,
    That He may defend us when life is ending
    And from exile home we are wending.
    Lord, have mercy!

    • William Weedon says:

      Or maybe I should have cited the hymn that the congregation BELTED out as we carried him to burial:

      Death, you cannot end my gladness;
      I am baptized into Christ.
      When I die, I leave all sadness
      To inherit paradise.
      Though I lie in dust and ashes,
      Faith’s assurance brightly flashes:
      Baptism has the strength divine
      To make life immortal mine.

      There is nothing worth comparing
      To this life-long comfort sure.
      Open eyed my grave is staring,
      Even there I’ll sleep secure.
      Though my flesh awaits its raising
      Still my soul continues praising:
      I am baptized into Christ,
      I’m a child of paradise!

    • Schütz says:

      Dear Pastor Weedon,

      We need to be very clear about what is and isn’t meant by the inability of the Catholic Church to recognise the validity of Lutheran orders.

      (1) First of all, we need to make a distinction between the recognition of a given body as a “true particular Church” and the recognition of that body as a truly Christian body with authentic ecclesial characteristics. One example is the fact that Catholic parishes, in and of themselves, are not “true particular Churches” either – because the term is used to speak of what we usually refer to a “diocese”, that is, the whole Christian community in a particular place gathered in communion with a validly ordained bishop. On top of that, as the Second Vatican Council said (and this is probably what the 1970 US Catholic Lutheran statement was alluding to):

      Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ. (UR §3)

      This is recognition of the fact that, as you say,

      “the Holy Spirit has continued to operate in the separated Churches gathering sinners into the Church via Baptism, filling them with hope through the Sacred Scriptures, imparting to them a share in the divine life through the Holy Eucharist [and yes, even this remains true even if Lutherans “have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery”], shaping them with divine love and using them for His purposes in this age, and finally bringing them home to the Age to come”

      As a small example, when I was being prepared for reception into the Catholic Church, I asked my catechist whether there was any value at all in the many Lutheran Eucharists in which I had participated. I found the answer he gave deeply satisfying: they were moments of grace for me because of the value they had as “spiritual” communions. In Catholic parlance, a Christian makes a “spiritual” communion when for some reason the actual reception of communion is not possible (this is most usually because they are not in a state of grace). That communion has great value, because in their heart they join themselves to the act of eucharistic communion by their desire and intent to receive Christ in the Eucharist when they are able. This desire and intent is itself a moment of grace. Lutheran Eucharists are not valid, and therefore the real presence of Christ’s body and blood cannot be absolutely affirmed, but those who take part in such celebrations in good faith and with true intent to unite themselves in communion with Christ nevertheless receive salvific grace.

      (2) Secondly, we need to be clear that the assessment of the deficiency of protestant ecclesial communions as “true particular Churches” is in no way a judgement upon the authentic Christianity of the members of those communions and the authentic graces which they receive for their salvation in those communions. The man you recently buried was just as you described him, a true Christian – at least to the extent that anyone can judge without seeing into his heart – and should be recognised as such by any Catholic. Thus again, as the Second Vatican Council itself declared

      The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptised are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect….

      The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community. These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation. It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.

      But it went on to say:

      Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as Communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life-that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is “the all-embracing means of salvation,” that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. (UR §3

      Thus we are not denying either salvific grace or authentic Christianity to those Christians not in communion with the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council made it clear that we do not condemn those born and raised in separated communities as either heretics or even schismatics (they “cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation”).

      (3) Thirdly, we need to understand that a judgement that Lutheran (or other protestant) orders cannot be recognised as valid Catholic orders is not a judgement upon the efficacy of their ministry in terms of grace received by those ministers. This was a question that plagued my Lutheran brethren when I entered the Church. They wanted to know whether I was making a judgement upon their ministry, ie. that their ministry was invalid and without any authenticity. Not at all. It is simply that the Lutheran ministry is not the Catholic priesthood. A simple test can be applied. The single most important function of the Catholic priesthood is to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass (understanding that Sacrifice as the Catholic Church understands it). I have never met a Lutheran pastor who would describe their ministry in these terms (although indeed there are many Anglican priests who would). The fact is that the Lutheran ministry and the Catholic priesthood are not the same thing, and this is recognised by both Lutherans and Catholics. Until we are able to agree on the nature of the “orders” we are discussing, it makes little sense to affirm that they are equal manifestations of the same “office”. And so there is no slight intended in pointing out reality: Lutheran pastors are not Catholic priests.

      • William Weedon says:

        If you mean, Roman priests – but of course. However, if you mean catholic presbyters, then (naturally) I disagree.

    • John Nolan says:

      Pastor Weedon

      Thanks for the pictures – inspiring! I have seen altarpieces by Tilman Riemenschneider in Lutheran churches in Bavaria and couldn’t but reflect that the English reformers of Edward VI’s reign would have burned them. In Speyer there is a well-proportioned neo-Gothic church with a sumptuous interior, dating from the first decade of the 20th century. What gives it away as being a Lutheran church is a correctly oriented high altar with a large crucifix prominently placed thereon.

      I have a CD of a reconstruction by Paul McCreesh of a Lutheran Christmas Mass of the 17th century with music by Michael Praetorius (crumhorns, rackets, the lot) which blew my socks off when I first played it. And a liturgical tradition which nourished the likes of JS Bach must have a lot going for it.

      As far as iconoclasm is concerned, I have to shamefully acknowledge that the post-Conciliar RC Church is guilty of no small amount of it.

      • William Weedon says:

        Mr. Nolan,

        Isn’t that Praetorius Christmas Mass simply unbelievable? Yes, such WAS the heritage of the Lutheran Church. I try never to let a Christmas pass without the joy of it – and that In Dulci Jubilo at the end – wow – to walk out of Christmas Mass with that ringing in the ears and heart!!! Pax!

    • William Weedon says:

      One more piece, if our dear Schütz doesn’t object: here is the consecration of the Sacrament at our Church last Christmas. Not quite Praetorius, of course, but note the similarity with that Mass! Clearly a piece of that living heritage.

  4. William Weedon says:

    Here it is:

    • John Nolan says:

      Very interesting. I didn’t know Lutheran ministers wore Eucharistic vestments and crossed themselves right-to-left, Byzantine-style. Would the Host and Chalice have been elevated in the 16th century, or did you have your own version of the Oxford Movement? Forgive my ignorance, but Lutheranism doesn’t figure much in England.

      • William Weedon says:

        The elevation was kept in many places and lost in many others. Lutherans did not regard it as a “must” but they also did not regard it as “must not.” Luther was actually in favor of keeping it, but his pastor dropped it when he was out of town. It was retained quite a long time in certain Lutheran provinces, as also were the sacring bells. Same with vestments – Lutherans didn’t insist on them, but they were quite common. The more Lutherans did battle with Calvinism, the more they clung to the these external trappings that the Calvinists couldn’t abide.

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