PITTSBURGH (CNS) — Citing the words of Pope Francis, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs called for a “culture of encounter” among Catholics and Lutherans during the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s churchwide assembly in Pittsburgh.

Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore told the assembly Aug. 13 that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 offers an opportunity to “point the way toward Christian unity” rather than focusing on what keeps the two faith communities divided.

“Let the 500th anniversary of the Reformation be not a celebration of our historical and doctrinal divisions but a celebration of our dialogue even within our differences, of our unity, our mutual respect and love for each other,” Bishop Madden said. “In this way, we can say we are collaborators in the work of the Lord who is always and ever ‘making all things new.'”


Pope Francis’ words were evident throughout Bishop Madden’s address. He cited the pope’s repeated calls of building a “culture of encounter” during the first five months of his papacy.

The bishop pointed to the positive relations and greater understanding that have resulted from the ongoing dialogue between Catholic and Lutheran leaders that began in 1965. The discussions have explored the interpretations of the Nicene Creed, the Reformation, baptism, the Eucharist, eternal life, ecclesial structure and ministry, the saints and Mary, the papacy, and Scripture and tradition and led to the milestone 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”

That agreement expressed the consensus that the doctrine of justification — how people are made just in the eyes of God and saved by Jesus Christ — is not a church-dividing issue for Catholics and Lutherans.

“The half-century of dialogue has produced, perhaps in some ways even more importantly, bonds of genuine friendship, admiration, esteem and respect,” Bishop Madden said. “We have come to understand one another in ‘new ways’ and have learned not to view one another through the lens of what divides but through a far better one of what we share in common.

“This has allowed us to see more clearly that what we have in common vastly outweighs our differences,” he said.

While the differences are important to acknowledge, the bishop continued, it is through discussion and working together that Catholics and Lutherans “are able to begin that blessed journey of mutual discovery, leading to greater respect and love.”

“To come to understand the other as they understand themselves, to set aside our prejudices, to value virtue wherever it finds its home, to recognize good in all its forms, this is the work and the fruit of dialogue. Yes, and to peacefully acknowledge our differences as well,” he said.

In the process, Bishop Madden said, both parties have experienced “new bumps,” which have brought “unexpected challenges.”

“We experience as new, debates around ethics or human sexuality, which emerge on the global stage and within our own congregations. At times our interpretations of these themes, using the same scriptures, can be quite diverse,” he explained.

“But we cannot let our differences win the day,” the bishop added. “We must push forward, even when the course ahead presents itself as more rocky than we had first imagined. We owe it to one another and to our love for the Lord to go out and meet the other on the path and to continue to reinforce our commonalities, while accepting our disagreements.”

During the assembly, the ELCA elected its first woman to be presiding bishop — Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, 58. She is scheduled to be installed Oct. 5.

Women’s ordination is a practice that all three of the churches that formed the ELCA in 1988 had adopted in the 1970s. In 2009, the ELCA approved a resolution to allow gays in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships” to serve as clergy. The same year it also said pastors may preside over same-sex marriages where they are not prohibited by civil law.

The Catholic Church prohibits women’s ordination, teaching that only men can receive holy orders because Jesus chose men as his apostles and the “apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry.”

The church also opposes same-sex marriage. It upholds the sanctity of traditional marriage as being only between one man and one woman and also teaches that any sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful.