Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue Addresses Life Beyond Death

November 1, 2006 By Public Affairs Office

WASHINGTON (November 1, 2006)–The U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Round XI met Oct. 12-15 in Baltimore for its third session to discuss "The Hope for Eternal Life." The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) selected the topic at the end of Round X in 2004 to examine issues related to the Christian's life beyond death.

The conversation stems from principles of life-after-death developed in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church signed Oct. 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany. Dialogue members are considering such issues as purgatory, indulgences, and masses and prayers for the dead.

The Most Rev. Richard J. Sklba, auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and the Rev. Lowell G. Almen, ELCA secretary, co-chair this round of the U.S. dialogue. In addition to members of the ELCA and the Roman Catholic Church, the dialogue included two participants from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The Rev. Theodore W. Asta, associate to the bishop, ELCA New England Synod, Worcester, MA, led a session on Lutheran funeral liturgies, including liturgies in the new "Evangelical Lutheran Worship" of the ELCA and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

Dr. Susan K. Wood, S.C.L., Department of Theology, Marquette University, Milwaukee, reviewed her earlier paper on Roman Catholic funeral liturgies and presented a paper on "Communal Eschatology and the Communion of Saints."

Dr. Christian David Washburn, assistant professor, systematic theology, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, PA, presented a paper on "Prayers for the Dead."

Lutheran and Roman Catholic members of the dialogue "concurred that prayers for the dead have their basis in Scripture and tradition, and that heaven is not a place of rejoicing individually in the Lord but of our being 'together' with him and with one another in joyful communion," said the Rev. James Massa, executive director, USCCB Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

"Though Lutherans acknowledged the place of praying for deceased loved ones publicly and privately, they pressed their Catholic colleagues to explain how their own Church understands the effects of such prayer," said Father Massa.

The Rev. Jared Wicks, S.J., John Carroll University, University Heights, Ohio, presented a paper on "Christology in the Creedal Material," and the Rev. George H. Tavard, A.A., emeritus professor of theology, Brighton, MA, led a session on "Interim States in the Writings of the Mystics."

Father Tavard showed how purgatory has been understood by Catholics as both a place of punishment and a state of cleansing, perhaps even momentary, at the time of death. Among the mystics, the latter image has greater prominence inasmuch as final purgation means an encounter with the "fire" of divine love which removes the effects of sin on the human person.

Dr. Michael J. Root, professor of systematic theology and dean, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, SC, presented a paper on the Council of Trent's dealing with "satisfaction," and he offered "a Lutheran response." Dr. Root addressed the deeper theological reasons for prayers and other pious practices done on behalf of the dead.

Members of the dialogue agreed to present papers at their next meeting, March 15-18, 2007, at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. They decided future topics could include prayers for the dead in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the manner in which piety shapes belief, Christ's own interim state in his "descent to the dead" and other topics related to the hope for eternal life.