From JERRY FILTEAU in Washington In an historic statement on papal primacy, Lutheran and Catholic theologians have agreed that a "renewed papacy" might well become a focus of unity for all Christians.
The statement, the first major agreement on the papacy by a Catholic-Protestant dialogue group, was issued here on Monday by the U.S. National Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, a group sponsored by the U.S. Catholic bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the United States National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation.
The statement carries only the authority of the theologians who signed it; it does not represent the official position of either church.
However, the theologians did call on their churches to take specific steps to end the 450year-old division between Catholics and Lutherans. And as an officially sponsored group, the dialogue group's con clusionN carry an implied mandate for official consideration that is not attached to the work of individual theologians or private groups.
The statement did not, however, tackle the thorny issue of papal infallibility — a problem the group has just begun to discuss — and even within the limited area of papal primacy the participating theologians found serious disagreements as well as substantial agreements.
The key question facing the theologians was: In what senses can the Pope be said to exercise a "Petrine function"? The term "Petrine function." which refers to a theological understanding of the role of the Apostle Peter in the early Church, is used to describe "a particular form of Ministry exercised by a person, office-holder, or local church
with reference to the Church as a whole," the theologians said.
While Catholics in the dialogue agreed that the papacy as it exists today is not required by the New Testament or essential Church teaching, they emphasised the Catholic belief that "papal primacy is an institution in accordance with God's will."
"The acceptance of the papal office is for us imperative," the Catholic theologians said, "because we believe that it is willed by God for His Church. The mission entrusted to the Church by Christ is served by the papacy.
"In it God has given us a sign of unity and an instrument for Christian life and mission. Therefore we affirm the traditional Roman Catholic position that the papacy is, in a t rue sense, ,`divinely. in stituted'."
Lutheran dialogue members agreed that "a special responsibility" for the unity of all Christians "may be entrusted to one individual Minister under the Gospel," but they did not find the papal office as it is exercised today capable of serving that function for all Christians.
They emphasised that the early reformers wanted the papacy renewed for the sake of unity under the Pope and called on Lutherans to proclaim publicly that "recognition of papal primacy is possible to the degree that a renewed papacy would in fact foster faithfulness to the Gospel and truly exercises a Petrine function within the Church."
But at the same time they stressed the Lutheran conviction "that the Church lives by
the Gospel" and said: 'Any form of papal primacy that does not fully safeguard the freedom of the Gospel is unacceptable to Lutherans."
Despite such remaining problems, the 5,000-word common statement of the group, along with about 7,000 words of explanation, notes and separate reflections by Lutheran and Catholic participants, exhibited a remarkable degree of accord. The dialogue group listed as its "most significant" agreements:
"Christ wills for His Church a unity which is not only spiritual but must be manifest in the world.
"Promotion of this unity is incumbent on all believers, especially those who are engaged in the Ministry of word and sacrament.
"The greater the responsibility of a ministerial office, the greater the responsibility to
seek the unity of all Christians.
"A special responsibility for this may be entrusted to one individual Minister, under the Gospel.
"Such a responsibility for the universal Church cannot be ruled out on the basis of the biblical evidence.
"The Bishop of Rome, whom Roman Catholics regard as entrusted by the will of Christ with this responsibility, and who has exercised his Ministry in forms that have changed Significantly over the centuries, can in the future function in ways which are better adapted to meet both the universal and regional needs of the Church in the complex environment of modern times."
Underlying this brief summary of conclusions were three years of intensive dialogue by the group on scriptural. historical, dogmatic and theological issues.