Are Lutherans Catholic? Depending on what you mean by “catholic” the answer might vary. Many, maybe most, people in the United States and around the world hear “catholic” and automatically think of the Roman Catholic Church. And that means that the Roman Church has done an excellent job of defining themselves theologically. The word itself comes from two Greek words meaning “according to the whole.” We might say “universal.” When the Roman Church calls itself the “Catholic” church, it is confessing that it is the universal Church, visible in the structure under the pope. They are making a claim which we must answer, primarily because the majority of Christians around the world align themselves with the papacy. The claim is this: we (the Roman Church) are the Catholic Church of Christ on earth, and if you do not join us, you may still be saved, but you are outside the Church. Your “church” (Lutheran or otherwise) is not really Church, but a breakaway sect.
This is a serious charge for Christians who want to claim a connection with the whole Church throughout the world going back to the Apostles, and so to Jesus. Shall we concede the name and the theological claim of catholic to the Roman Church? I suggest that if we do, we are bound either to join them or admit that we are a sect (which means that we have left the true Church of Christ and have formed our own little enclave—a dangerous position if Christ has promised to be with His Church.) We have only those two options: accept the Roman claim, and join that church; or make the claim that we are the true catholic Church. This is the claim that our Lutheran fathers made in the Augsburg Confession and in the other documents in the Book of Concord. They essentially made the case that it was Rome who had departed from the catholic Faith, and that the “Evangelicals” (Lutherans) had kept it. True, our ancestors in the Faith removed the things in the liturgy and the calendar which had obscured the free Gospel of Jesus (such as prayers to saints and, especially, the Mass as the priest offering Jesus back to the Father for the sins of the people), but we claimed (and still claim) to be the heirs of all that the catholic Church had and was. The only condition was that it could not be opposed to the Scriptures and the Gospel; in other words, whatever ritual or symbol was used, if it was not commanded or forbidden in the Scriptures, it could not be made into a law for salvati0n.
Which brings us to things to which Lutherans claim the right, but which “look” Roman. I will let our first president, C.F.W. Walther (whose 200th birthday we just celebrated!) speak to that:
“It is true that of all the church bodies which have left the papacy, it is precisely the Lutheran Church which is accused of retaining many papal abuses and of having been the least successful in cleansing itself. It is pointed out, for example, that in our church priestly clothing, church ornamentation, pictures, altar, crucifixes, candles, confession, the sign of the cross, and the like are still apparent. But, my friends, whoever regards these innocent things as vestiges of the papacy knows neither what the papacy is, nor what the Bible teaches. The very fact that the Lutheran Reformation was not aimed at indifferent adiaphora, but retained those things which were in harmony with God’s Word, shows that it was not a disorderly revolution, but a Biblical reformation; for whatever did not agree with God’s Word was unrelentingly cleansed from the church by the Lutheran Reformation even though it seemed to glow with angelic holiness.”
In other words, there are differences between Rome and the Evangelical Catholic Church, but the above “indifferent” things are not the differences. Our theological claim is and has always been that we are indeed the catholic Church, teaching and confessing the truth that the Church has always confessed. That is why we keep the traditions which have been handed down to us through the centuries: not because we are Roman, but because we are catholic, just as those earlier Christians were. As we observe All Saints’ Day (November 1) on November 6, rejoice in the fact that you are joined to all the saints of all times and places by the one Christ, whose one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church we are.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”