By JOH N L. ALLEN JR.
A leading Lutheran theologian charged today that there’s an “internal tension, incoherence or contradiction” in official Catholic teaching on ordained ministry, on the one hand, and Catholicism's “imperfect communion” with other Christian bodies on the other.
Michael Root of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, observed that post-Vatican II Catholicism teaches that the one church of Christ is “present and at work” in other Christian bodies such as the Anglican Communion and Lutheranism, that these “ecclesial communities” are instruments of salvation for their members, and that they have preserved the “basic truths” of the gospel. At the same time, Root observed, Catholicism also holds that these bodies lack valid ordained ministries, meaning, in effect, that they don’t have bishops.
Root said that logically speaking, the conclusion would follow that bishops are therefore not essential to ecclesial communion, to the presence of the church, to the means of grace that lead to salvation, or to the teaching office. Otherwise, he suggested, it would be impossible to explain the presence of those qualities in communities that don’t have bishops.
Ironically, Root argued, if one takes Catholic teaching at face value, it “would imply that ordained ministry and episcopacy are less significant for Catholics than they even are for Lutherans.”
Root’s comments came in an address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, the main gathering of Catholic theologians in the United States, in Los Angeles.
To resolve the paradox, Root argued, Catholicism needs to move away from the concept of “validity” in evaluating ordained ministry, which he said is an “all or nothing” concept, and towards a “more or less” model, meaning one that allows for varying degrees. He suggested that the concept of “ecclesial communities” offers such a tool, because it allows for the real but imperfect presence of the church in varying Christian bodies. Similarly, Root suggested, Catholicism needs a way of acknowledging the real but imperfect presence of ordained ministry in these bodies.
“It may seem presumptuous for a ‘separated brother’ to suggest how Catholic theology might move forward in this area,” he acknowledged. “But if I’m in imperfect communion with you, then I’m a semi-Catholic theologian. I’m not external to your church, and you’re not external to mine.”
Root also noted that Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism stated that there is a defectus of the sacrament of order in some other Christian bodies. Since the council, he said, there has been a debate as to how defectus should be translated. Some argue for “defective,” while others render it “absence” or “lack.” The latter, more absolutist translation, he observed, is the one favored in official Vatican documents.
Though some ecumenists recoil at the use of terms such as “defective,” Root said that it actually allows for more nuanced judgments.
Root noted that it’s not just official Catholic teaching on the episcopacy that is difficult to reconcile, but also papal practice. He noted that since 1991, the Lutheran archbishops of Uppsala and Turku, who are the primates of the Swedish and Finnish churches, have celebrated ecumenical vespers with the pope in Rome on the feast of St. Bridget of Sweden.
“On such occasions they have been vested as bishops,” Root said. “They are not treated as laymen. Is this just an act of civility, masking a strictly negative dogmatic judgment? Or is it a recognition that some sort of genuine ministry of oversight is represented by these bishops, even if not such that it could bear the weight of full hierarchical communion?”
Root jokingly referred to a story from England in the 1940s, when a Catholic bishop was allegedly asked for Rome’s official view of the status of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In droll English fashion, the Catholic responded that he was “a dubiously baptized layman.”
That outlook, Root suggested, seems to be contradicted by the actual pattern of how non-Catholic bishops are today received in ecumenical settings.
“The use of a more flexible category would be a spur to greater ecumenical efforts,” Root said. “If the episcopacy of at least some of the ecclesial communities is a real, but defective or imperfect realization of episcopal ministry … then joint teaching statements,” for example, “would seem to be desirable.”
Root also suggested that recent trends in Lutheranism have helped prepare the ground for such a reconsideration. One hundred years ago, he said, only a minority of Lutherans were in a church led by a bishop, while today the vast majority of Lutherans recognize the episcopal office in some form. At the same time, he acknowledged that the inclusion of women among bishops in some non-Catholic denominations also poses new ecumenical challenges.
In a response to Root, Elaine MacMillan of the University of San Diego argued that to resolve questions about ordained ministry and the episcopacy, it will first be necessary to come to agreement about the nature of the church.
MacMillan said that she also brought a “feminist lens” to Root’s paper, and worried that his call for a return to a “presbyter-centric” understanding of church might reinforce “a separation between clergy and laity which has been problematic.”
From a feminist point of view, she said, she also wondered if the deeper challenge isn’t rethinking “patriarchal structures in our churches.” For example, she asked if the inclusion of six women about 65 Lutheran bishops in the United States has changed the church’s self-understanding, or “have they simply been absorbed into the hierarchical structure of the church?”
MacMillan noted that the phrase “ecclesial communities” has sometimes offended non-Catholics, because it’s taken to mean that they do not belong to fully legitimate churches. She praised Root’s technique of taking this Catholic term, reinterpreting it to give it positive significance, and then offering it back to Catholics.
“It’s the ecumenical equivalent of re-gifting,” she joked.
Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told NCR that he agrees with the need for further “theological development” on the question of ministry in other Christian denominations. Skylstad has chaired the Catholic/Methodist dialogue in the United States, and said that when he meets a bishop from another Christian body, he doesn’t regard him as a mere layman.
“I see that person as ordained in that church, as a bishop of that polity, and that has great importance for me,” Skylstad said. “Even if we don’t officially see their ordinations as valid, I have great respect and appreciation for their ministry. We’ll continue to work on the theology.”