The Deacon's Bench

At a time when some Protestants are not all that thrilled with the letter from Pope Benedict asserting Catholic primacy, some Catholics and Lutherans are trying to find some common ground:

Milwaukee’s Catholic auxiliary bishop is about to find himself in what some might assume would be an uncomfortable position – addressing more than 1,000 Lutherans.

“I know I want to begin with the recognition of our unity in Christ through baptism,” said Bishop Richard J. Sklba, who will offer a brief greeting on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when he speaks Friday in Chicago to delegates at the national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Sklba, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, longtime co-chairman of the National Evangelical Lutheran/Catholic Dialogue and part of the Orthodox/Catholic Bishops’ Dialogue, says he wants to “make some allusion to the experience of the dialogue.”

“I certainly have to address the issues we struggle with. I don’t want it to be bland. I don’t want it to be just fluff. I want it to be a contribution. It has to at least recognize the (Vatican’s) recent statement. I have to allude to that, to offer some assurance that this is not any rejection of dialogue partners or a lessening of commitment.”

That can be hard for some people in the pews to accept.

“I think when people read Pope Benedict’s statement, there was a sense of discouragement,” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson. “There was a hope that we had proceeded further in our conversations.

“I think with people in the pew, there’s an impatience with the seeming inability of we who are leaders to find a way through our significant differences so that we can experience greater unity.”

He said division is deeply felt when family and friends cannot receive Eucharist in each other’s churches. “Because I know that and feel that, it drives me to continue to come back at Pope Benedict and say, ‘I will not back away from my commitment to continue to address the questions that divide us.’ “

Sklba said the document was aimed at Catholic theologians and their interpretations of Vatican II documents and papal encyclicals. It was drafted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by the pope, but he did not craft every word, Sklba said.

“This wasn’t a grenade aimed at Protestants,” said Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. Benedict favors ecumenical dialogue but worries that it “is making Catholics think that as long as we all love Jesus and do good, it doesn’t matter what church we belong to. Something like 56 percent of (American) Catholics under the age of 40 say they could be just as happy in another church.”

Where will any of this lead? Stay tuned.

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