MILWAUKEE -- The nation's third-largest Lutheran denomination moved to clarify its views on the Catholic Church earlier this month, after being drawn into the national political debate by presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.
The Wauwatosa, Wis.-based Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the most theologically conservative of the nation's three main Lutheran denominations, issued a statement on its website explaining its long-held tenet that the Catholic papacy is the anti-Christ. But it said that position is born of doctrinal differences rather than anti-Catholic bigotry.
"We respect the right of people to hold beliefs different from ours even as we point out the error," WELS' president, the Rev. Mark Schroeder, said in the statement.
"Testifying to the errors that still exist in Catholic doctrine is itself an expression of love," he said.
Questions surrounding the church's anti-Christ doctrine have circulated since June, mostly in the blogosphere, when Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, withdrew their membership from a WELS congregation in Stillwater, Minn., where they had belonged for more than a decade.
She announced her candidacy for president a week later. WELS spokesman Joel Hochmuth said the Bachmanns had not attended the church in two years and that the timing of the withdrawal was more coincidental than strategic. A message left with her campaign headquarters was not returned.
Spokesmen for the local Archdiocese of Milwaukee and Washington-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered no immediate comments on the website posting or the recent controversy surrounding the anti-Christ rhetoric.
But a Catholic theologian and Luther scholar long active in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue suggested the WELS position is outside the mainstream of contemporary Lutheran thought.
"The Lutheran World Federation and its 140 churches have formally distanced themselves from that epithet ... which plays no role in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue today," said the Rev. Jared Wicks, who is theologian in residence at John Carroll University near Cleveland.
WELS, which represents 390,000 members in the United States and Canada, does not belong to the federation.
The anti-Christ doctrine dates to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, when Martin Luther and others attempted to reform the Catholic Church, whose hierarchy they viewed as corrupt.
The WELS statement said the papacy fulfills the biblical definition of anti-Christ as one who is "in place of" Christ, by asserting an authority to speak for God on Earth -- at times infallibly -- and holding that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.
Wicks, the Catholic theologian, said WELS is misinterpreting both the doctrine of infallibility -- which he says has been asserted only once in 140 years, in reference to the assumption of Mary into heaven -- and the church's teachings on salvation.
"Popes since the 1850s have said that salvation goes far beyond the Catholic Church," he said.