Yesterday saw the canonisation in Rome of Australia's "first saint", Mary MacKillop. The TV and print news was saturated with coverage of the event. The local newspaper in the city I live in supplied a poster of Mary in its weekend edition. Even the Australian Broadcasting Commission (the Australian equivalent of the BBC), usually no friend to Christianity, broadcast the canonisation mass live - and a very dreary liturgy it was, too, but that's beside my point at present (But while on the subject, just why is it that Catholics can't sing? Does their religion give them no joy?).
What has been for me the most remarkable aspect of the occasion is the relative silence of the Protestant church bodies in this country. Does their silence reveal their doctrinal confusion(most have long ago succumbed to theological liberalism,and no longer know what they beieve)? Or, with all the emphasis on ecumenical rapprochement in recent decades, does the obligatory ecumenical niceness prevent them from speaking up? Are they afraid of being seen to be re-igniting the sectarian divisions of an old and fast disappearing Australia where confessional commitments mattered? Or could they simply not get the media interested in what they have to say, even if they wanted to?
Whatever the reasons may be, I've been particularly perplexed by the silence of our own Lutheran Church of Australia. Perhaps, I wonder aloud, the silence of the LCA is the result of acute embarrasment that this could happen 11 years after a claimed "substantial agreement" was reached on the doctrine of justification? Not only was the LWF-Vatican sponsored Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification well received by the LCA, but we also forged our own agreement with local Catholics, an agreement which some in the LCA touted as being actually better than the international one. I was at seminary at the time; we were told that this was the beginning of the re-integration of "the Lutheran movement" with Rome and that one day the JDDJ would be appended to the Book of Concord (sic!). Everyone seemed eager to go along for the ride, with a few dissenting exceptions (Quite a different few apparently took what the LCA said about JDDJ quite seriously and rode all the way to Rome. After all, wasn't that what the Reformation was about - justification? If substantial agreement on it had been reached, why remain separated?).
But the wheels have now fallen off that particular bandwagon, haven't they? At least, so it seems to me. The whole notion of Mary MacKillop being canonised because she exhibited "heroic virtue", which even the theologically illiterate secular press here have picked up on, reveals that the Thomistic-Aristotelian synthetic notion of justification as consisting of the infused grace of God which must then be "perfected" by the human subject through the habitual and extraordinary practice of the various virtues, thus meriting final justification and immediate entry into heaven, is still very much in play in Roman Catholicism. As Dr Sasse remarked apropos the Roman cult devoted to another, more widely-known Mary, behind these apparently harmless expressions of devotion to supposedly holy human beings is the teaching of synergism - that we co-operate with God in our salvation, a teaching which the Lutheran confessions unequivocably reject.
The canonisation of Mary MacKillop has brought out all this out in sharp relief, and revealed that Rome still takes its stand with the Council of Trent, JDDJ notwithstanding (how could it not? Trent was, in Rome's eyes, an authoritative ecumenical council). For example, one can find the Thomistic-Trentine teaching in outline in the relevant passages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is no place for the "justification of the ungodly" in this system, and no immediate place in heaven after death for the ordinary believer who remains simul iustus et peccator to the end of their days on this earth. He or she can only look forward to time in purgatory, where the necessary purification required for them to enter heaven is undergone.
Just where, I ask, is the "good news for sinners" in this teaching?
As I have said before on this subject on this blog, I have no problem with lauding Mary MacKillop's achievements, which were done in admirable service to the poor, but if we are still confessionally Lutheran we can not buy into the whole theology which supports her canonisation as "Australia's first saint" (as if there weren't millions of such saints before and since her time). In fact, I think that we need to have a good look at the teaching behind the canonisation and ask whether it is not a perversion of the Biblical Gospel, and therefore ultimately "another Gospel"? We may yet be grateful that the canonisation of Mary has brought all of this out into sharp relief - it may compel us to ask ourselves the question: "What does it mean to be Lutheran today?"
Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly, it is the Sydney Anglicans who have struck the most evangelical, "Lutheran" note in the lead-up to Mary's canonisation. They used the interest sparked by the event to run a series of talks in a Sydney pub called "Laugh with the Sinners". A free beer was offered to all participants! The talks were given by an ex-Catholic, who said by way of introduction that “The Catholic church, by putting Mary MacKillop forward as a saint, adds to the guilt felt by many of the 1.2 million Roman Catholics in Sydney. It also obscures the clarity of the Gospel that Jesus is our only mediator. They also obscure peoples' understanding of the biblical concept of sainthood by using this biblical word to mean something entirely different [from what it actually means].”
Perhaps Sydney Anglicans can say such things publicly because they have the freedom of not being hampered by a "substantial agreement" with Rome on justification?