Saturday, 16 January 2016

Catholicism and Lutheranism: can we learn from Fr Bouyer?

Whilst those of a traditionalist inclination lighted upon Fr Bouyer's comments about the way in which changes were made to the Liturgy in the years following the Second Vatican Council, the part of the good Father's Memoirs that most interested me were those describing his life as a Lutheran pastor and his journey into the Catholic Church. Fr Bouyer summarises this experience on pp.59-60 of the Memoirs, where he speaks of his experience of the early ecumenical movement, an experience that he had as a Lutheran and not as a Catholic. He has also described the beginning of his encounter with both Newman and the Orthodox.
All of this confirmed a sentiment that has never left me since and which I was to explain and develop in my Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. It was completed and published after my conversion, but conceived and outlined long before it. There was no question of jettisoning what I saw as the unquestionable strong points of Protestantism: a direct relationship with God through Christ involving the whole person, whence, as a universal principle, Christianity nourished, for all its faithful, by the meditation of the divine Word, and, from that point, a religion whose essence could only consist in a total acceptance in faith of grace alone, which God gives us in His Son.
Yet, as a consequence, it seemed to go without saying that the whole ecumenical question was about restoring these certainties to their vital environment: the one Church willed by Christ, founded on the Apostles, and cutting across the centuries in an uninterrupted tradition.
I think Fr Bouyer's observation provides a useful background to the idea that the Catholic Church can share in celebrating an anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Indeed, n.9 of the document From Conflict to Communion of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has a distinct echo of Fr Bouyer's thought:
The historical remembrance has had material consequences for the relationship of the confessions to each other. For this reason, a common ecumenical remembrance of the Lutheran Reformation is both so important and at the same time so difficult. Even today, many Catholics associate the word »Reformation« first of all with the division of the church, while many Lutheran Christians associate the word »Reformation « chiefly with the rediscovery of the gospel, certainty of faith and freedom. It will be necessary to take both points of departure seriously in order to relate the two perspectives to each other and bring them into dialogue.
I think it is a useful background for understanding the response of Pope Francis with regard to the sharing of Holy Communion between Catholic and Lutherans during his visit to the Evangelical Church in Rome in November 2015, in which he emphasised the shared basis of Baptism for a walking together of believers of both communities (and note that Pope Francis explicitly declined permission to go ahead with inter-communion). In this, Pope Francis followed a similar point made by Pope Benedict during his visit to Cologne in 2005, suggesting that the significance of Baptism for our experience of ecumenical closeness is underestimated, with an implicit reference in Pope Francis' case to the orientation of Baptism towards the Eucharist. This, indeed, appears to be something of Fr Bouyer's lived experience during his time as a Lutheran pastor. When I read Fr Bouyer's experience as a Lutheran pastor I sensed that there was a pertinence of the question of inter-communion to Lutheran-Catholic dialogue that is not there, for example, in Anglican-Catholic dialogue.

Fr Bouyer's observation is also a useful background from which to appreciate the five commitments of the shared service prepared for the 2017 commemoration of the Reformation, and reported here, commitments taken from a study undertaken by the World Lutheran Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity:
The service includes five commitments for Catholics and Lutherans together. “Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.” They “must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith” and should “commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal”. And they “should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time” and “witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world”.

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