Associated Press, October 30, 1999

2 Churches Settle Salvation Debate

Filed at 12:08 p.m. EDT

By The Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) -- Ending an almost 500-year debate that started when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door, the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches plan to sign a joint declaration on Sunday putting aside their differences over the way humanity achieves salvation. 

The historic ceremony is to take place in Augsburg, where the document that outlines the foundations of the Lutheran church was drawn up in 1530 in what was a failed attempt to reconcile the differences that split Christianity during the Protestant Reformation. 

The dispute centers on the question of how to get to heaven. Catholics believe that people's actions can make a difference, while Lutherans believe salvation is based on faith alone. 

While it seems arcane in today's world, the dispute set the stage for the division of Germany in the 17th century that sparked the Thirty Years War. Protestant princes and foreign powers battled the Roman Catholic empire of the Hapsburgs. 

At the heart of the agreement to be signed Sunday is a statement that faith is essential in salvation: ``Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.'' 

After 30 years of consultation among theologians, the two sides announced in June that they would sign the agreement on the day 482 years after Luther posted his theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. 

Luther was protesting the granting of indulgences, which are pardons for sin granted by the Catholic church. Sales of indulgences were widely abused until their sale was banned in 1562 by the Council of Trent, which also laid the ground for modern Catholicism in response to the Protestant Reformation. 

Church leaders stressed that in no way were they trying to say that the historical disagreements on salvation were wrong, or that Luther's views were incorrect. 

``What we have tried to do in the dialogue has not been to pass judgment, neither on the Council of Trent nor Martin Luther,'' Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said at a Friday news conference in Augsburg. 

Instead, the two churches wanted to ``say what are Lutherans and Catholics able to say together today,'' he said. 

The two churches have been coming together more and more in recent decades, said Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus in history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago. 

``Church bodies are always subtly changing -- they change more the way glaciers change than the way earthquakes change,'' he said. 

But the agreement marks a fundamental step forward because it has been endorsed by the highest authorities in both churches. ``It's one thing to be told that's the mood, and another to be told this is what we formally set forth as our teaching,'' Marty said. 

Church leaders said the agreement could pave the way for more cooperation at the parish level between the churches. Catholics and Lutherans could also work more closely on educational programs, particularly in developing countries. 

``Wherever Lutherans and Roman Catholics live together, let the world know that they are not enemies but sisters and brothers,'' the Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, said Friday in Augsburg. 

The agreement won't mean any significant difference in the two churches' institutions, leaders say. 

And although the agreement marks a pivotal bridge between the fundamental beliefs of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics and 61.5 million Lutherans, they still disagree in other fundamental areas, especially the papacy. 

There are also differences on the Eucharist. Catholics believe in what is called transubstantiation, the doctrine that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are changed into the blood and body of Christ. Protestants hold the doctrine of consubstantiation, that Christ is really present in the elements but they remain only bread and wine. 

Those are future topics of discussion in bringing the two churches together on issues beyond justification, leaders said. 

``We have overcome that problem -- that gives us hope and courage to go forward and overcome the questions which still remain before us,'' Cassidy said.