Saint Volodymyr le Grand b
Ukrainian Orthodoxy
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Orthodoxie ukrainienne

Lutherans and Catholics

Question:

My boyfriend is Lutheran and I am Ukrainian Catholic.  Marriage has been on our minds for some time; however, we’ve been stuck on our differing religions.  We feel that primarily, regardless of which religion we finally choose, we will both be committed to that church and that community for ourselves and our future family.  That is something we both believe wholeheartedly in.

The following are some of the differences between our Churches:

  • Lutherans believe in consubstantiation; Ukrainian Catholics – transubstantiation;

  • Ukrainian Catholics pray to Mary and the Saints; Lutherans do not;

  • Ukrainian Catholics believe in 7 sacraments; Lutherans accept only 2.

We have both attended Mass at each other’s church, so we’ve had a chance to experience both.  I’m leaning towards Lutheran as I feel that I understand the teachings better and I feel more comfortable in his church.  As sad as that is to admit, it’s true.  As I mentioned before, our decisions are not final, but we need some help.

What would be the implications for us to ‘convert’ to one or the other’s churches and how would we go about this?

Thank you for your time.

Response:

Dr. Alexander Roman alex.roman@unicorne.org

Dear Friend,

Thank you for your inquiry!

It is obvious that you and your boyfriend are approaching this matter in the sober spirit it most certainly deserves as you make plans to live life together as husband and wife. In addition, I agree with you that it is best for a couple’s future harmonious family relationship to be committed to one church community and tradition.

You mentioned a number of doctrinal differences between the Ukrainian Catholic and Lutheran traditions that we can review.

There is greater flexibility with respect to these matters in the Lutheran tradition which means that one may actually believe in almost all that the Catholic or Orthodox Churches teach and still maintain a quite legitimate commitment to the Lutheran faith tradition.

In fact, one would be hard pressed to see much difference in faith and practice between the Lutheran Churches of Sweden and Finland and the otherwise “High Church” Lutherans and Catholics of any stripe.

The Lutheran doctrinal books do accept “consubstantiation” or the belief that Christ is truly present in the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion but along with the actual substance of bread and wine. The Lutheran teachers appeared to affirm this in reaction to certain Roman Catholic scholastic understandings surrounding “transubstantiation” or that at the time of Consecration in the Mass, the bread and wine are transmuted and become the true Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ – with only the “accidents” or appearances of the bread and wine remaining.

In any event, the Lutheran tradition does accept transubstantiation as well (minus the more scholastic/philosophical understandings the Lutherans did not like as they seemed to take away from the mystical/faith experience with respect to the Holy Eucharist) and to believe in transubstantiation would not put one outside Lutheranism.

As for the veneration of the Most Holy Mother of God and the Saints, the early Lutheran teachers, including Martin Luther, all went about with their rosaries hanging from their belts or else carried them in their hands – they prayed the rosary daily and honoured images of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. The early Lutherans often portrayed Martin Luther with either a halo above his head or else the Dove of the Holy Spirit.

The early Lutherans venerated Martin Luther as a saint and would actually kiss “holy cards” depicting Luther in this way! A Lutheran bishop has today developed a uniquely Lutheran rosary with forty beads which is an old medieval form that I have in my possession.

(Even John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, prayed on beads and Methodist prayer books will today recommend that Christians tie 12 knots on a piece of rope (in the shape of a medieval “tenner” string of beads) to use in prayer and meditation.)

High Church Lutherans will indeed pray the rosary to the Most Holy Virgin Mary and will invoke the Saints. There is a High Church Lutheran parish in New York City that has a statue of “Saint Martin Luther” and of “Saint John Hus” as they are referred to on its website. High Church Lutherans also practice adoration of the Most Holy Eucharist outside of the Mass (in Sweden, there are Lutherans who will vigorously put up an argument should you call them “Protestants”).

The early Lutherans never questioned the seven sacraments and their historic doctrinal books. There are large numbers of High Church Lutherans who today accept the seven sacraments and their historic Catholic/Orthodox understanding.

Groups like the “Anglo-Lutherans” and the Evangelical Catholic Church are as Catholic as can be with the former accepting papal primacy but without actually being in formal union with the pope. There is also a mainstream Lutheran Benedictine monastery in the U.S. and more in Europe.

So the differences between your two Churches need not be great at all, given the Lutherans’ historic flexibility on these matters. It all depends on the particular tradition that a given Lutheran jurisdiction/parish follows and the practices and beliefs of one Lutheran parish are not universal for all Lutherans. IF your boyfriend decided (and that is entirely up to him, of course!) he wanted to join the Ukrainian Catholic Church, he may be leaving his parish’s faith tradition in so doing, but he would still be very close to the beliefs of the High Church Lutherans.

An important issue here is also the cultural factor. Would your boyfriend feel comfortable in a Ukrainian Catholic parish where there is an emphasis on Ukrainian culture? Perhaps your parish has English Liturgies and makes non-Ukrainians feel at home (which is always a good ideal for any Ukrainian parish, Catholic or Orthodox). Conversely, the Lutherans can also be organized along cultural lines e.g. Icelandic Lutheran, Danish Lutheran, Swedish Lutheran and the like. Is his Lutheran Synod a mainstream one? Also, how important is your Ukrainian identity to you? Leaving the Ukrainian Church will, in all likelihood, mean a “stepping out” from the Ukrainian community as well. Does your boyfriend identify with a particular culture which may or may not be connected to his Lutheran faith? These are questions which only you and he can answer.

There are other factors that will underpin your decision on which church to join in together with some being, perhaps, even unconscious. There have been Lutherans who have become Eastern Orthodox such as the great scholar Jaroslav Pelikan and others. They became Eastern Orthodox as a result of their comprehensive studies into the early Church and the teaching of the Church Fathers. Martin Luther himself had high regard for the Eastern Church which he called the “Better Half” of Christendom during his debates with Roman Catholics in his day.

There is also the question of your respective families and the impact of a church move this way or that on them. In the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” a Greek woman falls in love with a non-Greek man. She knows her family would “kill her” if she got married outside the Greek Orthodox Church. Her boyfriend, however, decides that since his family did not have a defined religious/cultural tradition, he would be willing to “take on” his girlfriend’s Greek tradition. Is any of this relevant to your situation?

And remember that ultimately the Lutheran tradition was never meant to be separate from the Catholic Church. In fact, it was the pope of the day who excommunicated Luther (scholars now say that had Luther lived today he would never have left the Catholic Church and there are Roman Catholics who are actually pushing for Luther’s formal rehabilitation by the Catholic Church – and also for his canonization as a saint and teacher!).

And feel free to read the Catholic Catechism that is available in most bookstores. It is straightforward and written with an “Evangelical impulse” that refers constantly to the Scriptures (as well as Tradition). Some say that the two largest religious groups in North America today are the Catholics and the . . . former Catholics.

The Catholic Church has one great weakness and that is how it formally imparts knowledge of its faith to its members. But do have a read through the Catechism and then let your boyfriend go through it too. Do that before you do anything else and then pray to ask God to enlighten your hearts and do what is His Will for you! Keep praying until the answer comes. God will answer us when we persist in praying to Him!

When you have both made up your minds, simply visit with the priest of the parish you have chosen and take it from there.

May God richly bless you both on your journey together! May the Most Holy Virgin Mary protect you!

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