Response to Cardinal Kurt Koch Tuesday, 30 May 2017, 7:30 pm Eero Huovinen, (Lutheran Bishop emeritus of Helsinki)

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification states in Paragraph 43 that there are still questions of varying importance which need further clarification between the churches. Among other topics the Declaration mentions for example ecclesiology, ecclesial authority, church unity, ministry, and the sacraments.

Much was achieved on these topics prior to the JDDJ and during fifty years of dialogues. In the last years, some eminent ecumenists have proposed that there is a need to proceed towards a common or joint Declaration on Church, Eucharist and Ministry. I have in my mind what Harding Meyer, Walter Kasper, and last but not least our dear Cardinal Kurt Koch has said.

Declaration on the Way

In the United States, Catholics and Lutherans prepared a new ecumenical document, Declaration on the Way (DOW), which sought to express the consensus achieved on the topics of church, ministry and the Eucharist as the result of the ecumenical dialogues between the two communions since 1965.[1]

I am not competent enough to judge what kind of methodological character this document has. On the one hand it speaks about a consensus, on the other hand the consensus is “on the way” (in via), because the dialogue has not yet resolved all the differences dividing the churches on these topics. In the United States, William G. Rusch has raised important questions concerning the status of the document in the journal Ecumenical Trends.

Nevertheless, the document desires to enumerate the many points of agreements which have been achieved. The writers of the document hope that both communities, Lutherans and Catholics, could affirm the agreements they have reached together, although in which way seems to me to be a little bit unclear.

In order to look forward to a growing and deeper communion between Lutherans and Catholics, I would like to emphasize the agreements we have already reached, while taking up some questions where we still have work to carry out together. We are still “in via”, but a fundamental consensus is not far away. My intention is – with help of the DOW – to ask how we can proceed together “Towards a common understanding on Eucharist, Church and Ministry”.

Trinitarian and Christological basis for common understanding

Before speaking about the three main topics, I would like to express my satisfaction with the clear Trinitarian and Christological basis of the DOW. Already the first agreement assures us that we as members of church are God’s own people, assembled by the Triune God, who grants us our sharing in the Triune divine life. We are the body of the risen Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit (p. 16).

The Trinitarian and Christological emphasis is present also when the document speaks about the ordained ministry. This ministry is “of divine origin” and “instituted by Jesus Christ”.  At the same time the ministry is “subordinated to Christ, who in the Holy Spirit is acting in the preaching of the Word of God, in the administration of the sacraments and in pastoral service” (p. 18)

The agreements on the Eucharist are also structured in a Trinitarian and Christological way. The section begins by saying: “Lutherans and Catholics agree in esteeming highly the spiritual benefits of union with the risen Christ given to them as they receive his body and blood in Holy Communion.”  “In Eucharistic worship the church participates in a unique way in the life of the Trinity.” (p. 20)

In its strong Trinitarian and Christological emphasis, the DOW is on the same line as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. I would like to point to the central paragraph in JDDJ, number 15.

“In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

I am convinced that all ecumenical attempts to create a deeper common understanding between the churches on the topics of ecclesiology depend on a sound and solid basis in the Trinitarian and Christological character of our faith. If the foundation is firm, it is easier to build the house.

Agreements and differences on the Church

First, I have some thoughts about the agreements and differences on the Church. The DOW says many spiritually deep things about the theological character of the church. Ecumenically, perhaps the most important agreement is: “Lutherans and Catholics recognize in both their ecclesial communities the attribute of apostolicity grounded in their ongoing continuity in apostolic faith, teaching and practices.” (p. 16)

Later this recognition is broadened: “Catholics and Lutherans affirm the ecclesial character of one another’s communities. This affirmation is an essential first step toward a mutual recognition of ordained ministry, for mutual recognition of one another’s ecclesial character is intertwined with the mutual recognition of one another’s ministry.” (p. 18)

The DOW refers to the Study Document of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, The Apostolicity of the Church (2006). “The Catholic Church and the churches and ecclesial communities of the Reformation both participate in the attribute of apostolicity because they are built up and live by many of the same ‘elements and endowments’ pertaining to the one and multiple apostolic tradition.” (pp. 28-29)

If I understand correctly, the arguments of the DOW are stated in the terminology of the Second Vatican Council, which in a positive manner speaks about the shared “elements of sanctification and truth” in ecclesial communities outside the Catholic Church.

Yet, the DOW prefers to use the wording “ecclesial communities” about the churches of the Reformation. The text of the DOW is diplomatic or a little bit vague. Sometimes it speaks about both churches as “ecclesial communities”, sometimes it speaks about “The Catholic Church”, sometimes about “the churches and ecclesial communities of the Reformation”.

We all are aware that behind this terminological flexibility is what is for Catholics a difficult question, whether the churches of the Reformation can be honored with the word “church”. We surely remember the complicated and highly sophisticated discussions on what it means that the Church of Christ “subsistit” in the Roman Catholic Church and that the churches of Reformation are not churches “in the proper sense”.

I have a certain understanding for the Catholic opinion about the possible theological defects in the Lutheran ecclesiology and for the desire for a deeper awareness of the theological character of ecclesiology in the churches of the Reformation. But at the same time, I ask whether the Catholic wording of church “in the proper sense” may be unfruitful, and also an obstacle in the relations between the churches.

I can imagine that my Catholic colleagues would not be very happy if I were to say that the Catholic Church is not a church “in the proper sense”, namely in the Lutheran sense. If Catholics say that we Lutherans have too few elements of the church in our churches, we Lutherans can ask whether the Catholic Church has too many elements of the church.

I can also imagine that behind the Catholic terminology there is a long tradition and many important arguments, and I really do not want to undermine them. But instead of using the word church only in two opposite meanings, only in on- or off-positions, it perhaps might be more fruitful to ask whether we could approach the question from a more nuanced aspect. Perhaps we could ask to what degree those things which belong to the essence of the church are present in our churches.

So, I do hope that you allow me the question of whether we with a slight terminological change could create a more open and positive atmosphere between the churches. If we follow the agreements of the DOW and if we take seriously the “mutual recognition of one another’s ecclesial character”, could it not be implemented also in the way in which we speak about our sisters and brothers?

Agreements and differences on the Eucharist

Secondly, I want to bring in some thoughts about the agreements and differences on the Eucharist. On the character of the Eucharist, Lutherans and Catholics have found much in common within the last decades. Particularly, we have reached a fundamental consensus on two old controversial topics, namely: on the understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and on the sacrificial character of the Eucharist.

The DOW describes the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as follows: “Lutherans and Catholics agree that in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Christ himself is present: He is present truly, substantially, as a person, and he is present in his entirety, as Son of God and a human being.” (p. 20)

These words describing the presence of Christ are close to those of the Encyclical of John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, where the Holy Father says that the presence “is a presence in the fullest sense: a substantial presence whereby Christ, the God-Man, is wholly and entirely present.”

The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is in the DOW also described in a good spirit of mutual understanding: “Catholics and Lutherans agree that Eucharistic worship is the memorial (anamnesis) of Jesus Christ, present as the one crucified for us and risen, that is, in his sacrificial self-giving for us in his death and in his resurrection (Romans 4:25), to which the church responds with its sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” (p. 20)

In a well-balanced manner, the DOW looks at the old controversial issue of whether the Eucharist can be in some way seen as a sacrifice nor not. “The traditional contrast is between the Catholic emphasis on the movement ad Patrem (to the Father) and the Lutheran emphasis on the movement ad populum (to the people).” (p. 63)

The sacrificial interpretation of the Eucharist offended Martin Luther and it was to him “the most ungodly abuse” (Smalcald Articles). For him the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was a once-and-for-all event which cannot be repeated.

In the late Middle Ages, Luther was faced with interpretations where the Eucharist was not only a memory and representation of Christ’s unique sacrifice but where the priest was seen as the primary subject of the sacrifice; the priest was sacrificing Christ to the Father also for the benefit of the absent. The most difficult obstacle for Luther was the teaching where the fruits of the sacrifice of the Eucharist were to benefit also absent parishioners und those in purgatory.

The DOW attempts – by quoting the Swedish-Finnish Lutheran-Catholic dialogue statement from 2010 – to explain what was at stake during the Reformation. When Luther and the reformers criticized the medieval teaching about the Sacrifice of the Eucharist, “they were afraid… that the view of the sacrament as God’s free gift would be dissolved and the Mass would be perceived as a human work, performed in order to satisfy God”. (p. 65) To say that in a simple way, Luther was afraid that the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass would distort the doctrine of justification.

During the last 50–60 years, in the dialogues between the churches it has become possible to overcome the old controversy and break the deadlock between the churches. The term sacrifice has now been interpreted in a more diverse and versatile way. Today, both churches agree on two aspects.

We Lutherans can rejoice over the convergence when we read: “According to the Catholic doctrine the sacrifice of the Mass is the making present of the sacrifice of the cross. It is not a repetition of this sacrifice and adds nothing to its saving significance. When thus understood, the sacrifice of the mass is an affirmation and not a questioning of the uniqueness and full value of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross” (p. 107)

Catholics can rejoice over the common agreement with Lutherans: “Our two traditions agree in understanding the Eucharist as a sacrifice of praise. This is neither simple verbal praise of God, nor is it a supplement or a complement which the people from their own power add to the offering of praise and thanksgiving which Christ has made to the Father. The Eucharistic sacrifice of praise has only become possible through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross: therefore this remains the main content of the church’s sacrifice of praise.” (pp. 64-65)


Although there is this joyful agreement on the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, the DOW points to some different emphases between the churches. The first question on the remaining differences is “the Eucharist as sacrifice”. On this topic the DOW mentions hesitations on the Lutheran side. “Some Lutherans continue to regard the language of ‘sacrifice’ found in Catholic theology and the Catholic Eucharistic rite to be a potential stumbling block to unity.” (p. 106)

The DOW is aware that lex credendi is always related to lex orandi. What we theologians can agree on, that should also be reality in the liturgical life. I know well that when speaking about worship life I am treading upon holy ground. I will try to be careful and tentative.

The DOW mentions one example from the Roman Missal, where the priest says: “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” The people respond: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice of your hands for the praise and glory of his name for our good and the good of his holy church.” (p. 106)

The DOW also refers to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, where it is stated that the people of God may both “give thanks to God” and “offer the unblemished sacrificial Victim not only by means of the hands of the Priest but also together with him and so that they may learn to offer their very selves. (p. 106)


Six weeks ago, during Easter Night, I had the possibility to participate in the Paschal Mass in St. Peter’s in Rome, celebrated by the Bishop of Rome. It was really an impressive and positive experience. The joy of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus was present.

In the beginning of the offertory prayer, the Holy Father said the classical words of the Roman Missal, the same words mentioned also in the DOW: “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father” (Orate, fratres, ut meum ac vestrum sacrificium acceptabile fiat apud Deum Patrem omnipotentem).


On the one hand it seems that the Missal speaks about the sacrifice of praise and love; on the other hand the offering by the parish touches also the unblemished sacrificial Victim.

Naturally, I am well aware that the Roman Canon Prayer or canon missae is a traditional and important part of the Roman Catholic rite. Today the Roman Missal also includes at least three other Eucharistic Prayers. Thus, I would like to raise these questions: What does the canon missae mean when it refers to the “sacrifice” in different parts and with different words in the text, also after the words of Institution? Who is offering, what is offered, to whom is it offered and whom does it benefit? Can we read the text of the canon missae – or other Eucharistic Prayers – in such a manner that does not call into question the uniqueness of the sacrifice of the Christ on the cross?

These questions are not easy, because the prayers of the liturgy are always open to different interpretations, and the Roman Canon use different expressions, such as hostia, sacrificium and oblatum.

If the text means that in the Eucharist the priest is sacrificing Christ to the Father for the benefit of the dead, then that is problematic, not only for Lutherans but also for the other ecumenical partners of the Catholic Church.

If, however, the text means that we are celebrating the Eucharist, in which we, together as priest and congregation, remember Christ’s unique sacrifice with joy (memoria), worship the real presence of this sacrifice in the consecrated bread and wine (repraesentatio) with adoration, and distribute the fruits of this sacrifice to the people (applicatio), then the canon missae is not an ecumenical obstacle.

Today many Lutheran Churches, for example the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of America and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland, have restored and rehabilitated the classical Eucharistic Prayers in their rites. However, the pattern of the modern prayers follows more closely the Eastern or Byzantine rites (than the pattern of the canon missae): The Prayers place emphasis on the salvific actions of the Triune God by telling the same story as the Nicene Creed. From the Father to the Son in the Holy Spirit. This pattern is also used also in the fourth Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Missal. The “theocentric” emphasis of the Eastern rites seems to fit better with the Lutheran understanding of the doctrine of justification.


I hope the DOW is aware of these difficulties when it states: “Thus we encourage increased attention to the instruction and formation of clergy, as well increased catechesis of the laity, regarding the teachings of their own traditions, and greater knowledge and sympathetic understanding of one another’s traditions.” (pp. 107-108)

Such instruction is needed at least on the Lutheran side. I have a lot of sympathetic understanding for my Catholic sisters and brothers when they ask me whether we Lutherans really take seriously in our worship life the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of the Lord´s Supper.

Agreements and differences on the Ministry

Thirdly, let me introduce some thoughts about the agreements and differences on the Ministry. It has often been said that the topic of the Ministry is the greatest hindrance to the visible unity between the churches. That is why we can rejoice when the DOW so clearly says: “Lutherans and Catholics affirm together that ordained ministry is of divine origin and that it is necessary for the being of the church.” (p. 18)

The DOW seems to address especially Lutherans when its states: “Ministry is not simply a delegation ‘from below’, but is instituted by Jesus Christ.” (p. 18) “Catholics and Lutherans agree that entry into this apostolic and God-given ministry is not by baptism but by ordination. They agree that ministers cannot ordain themselves or claim this office as a matter of right but are called by God and designated in and through the churches.” (p. 19)


In our Lutheran tradition there has been much discussion and many different interpretations about the character of the ministry, about the Predigtamt, about ministerium ecclesiasticum. I am not going into the details of these disputes. I only want to point to a newly published profound and highly qualified book about Martin Luther’s understanding of the ministry (Mumme, Jonathan, Die Präsenz Christi im Amt. Am Beispiel ausgewählter Predigten Martin Luthers, 1535–1546, Göttingen, 2015, 403pp)[2]

Mumme, who is a professor of theology in United States, analyzes carefully and critically the different theories about the origin of ministry, especially in the twentieth century. The debate surrounding Luther’s understanding of ministry has gone in two different directions.

On the one hand, a protestant interpretation of the Christian faith, where an immediacy to God exists as an a priori fact, leads to a functionalist and pragmatic view of the ministry. Influenced by Schleiermacher and some other theologians from the nineteenth century (Höfling, Rietschel, later also Harald Goertz), this line sees the ministry only as a matter of good order or in the spirit of a theory of the delegation of functions by the believers (Übertragungstheorie).

On the other hand – and this is what Jonathan Mumme is saying in a convincing way – the ministry is, according to Martin Luther, something more. On the basis of his research on the sermons of the mature Luther, after 1529, Mumme states:

“If Christ is understood as one who continually comes to people, speaking to and dealing with them through external, physical, and institutional entities that are in accord with his own incarnation, this results in a different understanding of the ecclesial office. In this case it is appropriate to speak of the presence of Christ in the office of the ministry and in those who bear this office – to speak of their theophoric instrumentality, and of ordination as something carried out by Christ himself.”

In a very interesting way Mumme reminds us in his book that this interpretation of Luther has similarities with the results of recent ecumenical dialogues. He hopes that this view of Luther could “be of some use in ecumenical discussion between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran churches”. Mumme points to the Liturgical Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, where the presence of Christ in the spiritual life of the church has a central and strong role.

According to the Council “Christ is always present in His Church”. Important for the topic on ministry is that Christ is present also “in the person of His minister” (in ministri persona). Mumme argues that “perhaps this facet of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which coincides with the central motif of the later Luther’s homiletically communicated understanding of the ministry, might in some small way contribute to the healing of schism under which the church still labours.”

Allow me to share in the intention of Jonathan Mumme.



[2] Jonathan Mumme, The Presence of Jesus Christ in the Office of the Ministry: Rethinking Luther from his Pulpit out. Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, 29 May 2013.