Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Religion scholar Martin Marty shares his thoughts on Lutherans, Catholics


Well-known religious philosopher and writer Martin Marty speaks at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth on Thursday.

[Marty, who lives in Chicago, is the father of ultra-liberal DFL State Senator, John Marty from Roseville, Minn.].

His talk, “Catholic-Lutheran Interactions: A Buried Hatchet, Not a Buried Handle,” is part of the college’s “Here Comes Everybody” lecture series sponsored by the Braegelman Catholic Studies Program. The News Tribune asked him a series of questions.

Q: What does the title of your talk mean?

A: In 1999 the Lutherans, officially 70 church bodies, and the Catholics, officially the Vatican, signed a document that they worked on for some years on the central issue that 16th century Lutheran and Catholic counter-reformation were about. Namely: How do we get right with God?

Lutherans accused Catholics of saying you basically earn your salvation. That seemed to violate the notion of the grace of God. Catholics thought Lutherans’ concept of the grace of God weakened all seriousness. That was a core issue.

They buried the hatchet. Leaving the handle out, both sides acknowledged this is a process, not a final product. The handle there means you could jerk it up if you are motivated to it. Now and then, a Catholic does, now and then a Lutheran does. But it’s a way of saying in history you never totally finish something. In this case, such a big battle was over, we don’t expect anything on the horizon.

Q: What are current relations between the Catholic Church and Protestantism?

A: Overall, very positive. Selectively, it’s different: Some people fight old battles all the time. Missouri and Wisconsin [conservative Lutheran synods] still have on the books that the pope is the Antichrist. Well, that’s kind of irritating if the pope is your holy father. It’s something that’s there and I would argue they basically don’t use it. They even kind of kid about it. Some years ago the Missouri Synod [made a] statement against abortion. … The president of the Missouri Synod wrote the pope and called him “dear brother in Christ.” I wrote a lighthearted column saying: “How can he be the Antichrist and dear brother in Christ?”

The things that hit people most have really changed. It doesn’t mean every day we go running to each other’s churches and praying together, and it doesn’t mean there aren’t ever any arguments.

You wouldn’t have a serious conference of theologians and philosophers and historians and ethicists on the basic issues of the day, peace and justice and environment … without having both [Catholics and Protestants] at the table. We have a lot to teach each other.

["Peace and justice and environment!" Wouldn't you think that the basic issues of the day might include "life" and "getting to heaven?"]

Q: What do you think will happen with core culture-war issues and the new Obama administration?

A: The fact that so many Catholic bishops all but forbade voting for Obama didn’t seem to have a pimple worth of effect. American Catholics make up their own mind about these teachings. The bishops unanimously oppose capital punishment, they oppose torture, entry to war in Iraq, and I don’t think any Catholics said, “I wonder what the bishops said about this before I vote.”

Abortion is the most visible, hard-line one. Lutherans would say the more you support family planning, the less abortions you will have a need for. From [age] 30 on down, gay marriage is not a very big issue in most parts of the country. It’s a symbolic issue right now, but not a winning one.

Abortion will remain. … The hardest-line evangelicals lost out in this election. Evangelicals … would vote Republican no matter who was running. But more and more evangelical groups are working on the environment. That bothers the real militant culture warriors.

No one ever wins a culture war. You’ve got to change the hearts and minds of people on that front more than you can do it by law. These next few years the economy is going to be such a demanding issue. We’re talking survival now, not the luxury of debating what most people consider side issues.

Q: What do you think is the impact of the Lutheran church in the U.S. right now?

A: It has many interest groups that work for public causes. Lutheran Services of America is the blanket organization. Except in the Upper Midwest, they don’t have a lot of visibility. Also, Garrison Keillor would probably tell you Lutherans are kind of shy. They don’t overtly participate in politics very much. It’s not visible. Lutherans are much more a mercy church than a justice church.

Catholics are better at taking some very good papal teaching and bishop’s teachings into the public realm. What [Lutherans] do through their congregations is where they are felt.

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