Reformation Day 2001

Article excerpt

Byline: Julia Duin

Today is Reformation Day - a bench mark for Lutherans and the 484th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of his famous "95 Theses" to the wooden doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

That defiant act of airing public disagreements against the all-powerful Catholic Church kicked off the Protestant Reformation on Oct. 31, 1517, and propelled the 34-year-old monk into becoming the founder of a Christian denomination named after him.

Since then, some 64 million Lutherans have settled in 73 countries around the world. There are more than 8 million Lutherans in the United States alone, among them the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

Relations between Lutherans and Catholics have remained strained at best, easing as recently as 1998, when the World Lutheran Federation and the Vatican signed a consensus agreement on justification. Justification by faith is a doctrine of salvation that was key to Luther's split from the Catholic Church nearly five centuries earlier.

But some Lutherans desire more unity. A recent book by Tim Drake of St. Cloud, Minn., tells the stories of 12 Lutherans who have become Catholics. Mr. Drake's book, "There We Stood, Here We Stand," is based on a famous statement made by Luther in 1521 at a church trial known as the Diet of Worms. "Here I stand," the monk said grandly. "I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen."

Jim Anderson of Coming Home Network, a Zanesville, Ohio, ministry that supports Protestant pastors wishing to become Catholic, says people are seeking a church tradition that goes back millenniums instead of centuries.

"Usually it boils down to the question of authority; where is your authority for your doctrinal basis?" says Mr. Anderson, himself a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism in 1981. "And which authority can be traced back to Christ?

"Then it subdivides: What church has scriptural authority? And a lot of people are coming to the Catholic Church over the confusion over moral authority. And over the sexual issues that Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches are struggling with: contraception, homosexuality and female clergy. I've been e-mailing back and forth with a Lutheran in Finland who wants to become a Jesuit."

Of the 613 ministers who have contacted his network, the largest group has been Episcopalian (127), then Baptist (69), followed by Lutheran (66). The Official Catholic Directory says 187,000 adults entered the Catholic Church in 2000. Half had been baptized before, which means about 90,000 would have come from Protestant denominations.

Perhaps the most famous Lutheran minister to cross over is Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine in New York. While Lutherans going Catholic is not a pronounced trend, the quality of those who convert is high, he says.

"The Lutherans who are becoming Catholic tend to be notable theological and intellectual figures," he says. "We're talking about theologically informed intellectuals. For most of them, the issue is: Where do you find the church? It's a question of ecclesiology - finding out which church is in continuity with the apostolic community of the New Testament."

One such convert, Patricia Ireland of Westfield, N.J., is a former Lutheran minister. Raised Catholic, she joined the Lutheran Church during graduate studies because its rich confessional and theological heritage stimulated her intellect. Her becoming a clergywoman, she writes in the book, was part of her embrace of the feminist movement.

It wasn't until 1993, while she was studying theology at Drew University in Madison, N. …