Catholics, Lutherans to sign theological pact

Thomas Hargrove / Scripps Howard News Service

In three weeks, representatives of Pope John Paul II and the Lutheran World Federation will meet in Augsburg, Germany, to sign a theological declaration that salvation comes only through faith in God.

A disagreement over how to achieve salvation was the core issue that led Martin Luther to challenge the church with his 95 theses 482 years ago. Thus began the Reformation, a theological and political struggle that cost hundreds of thousands of lives in several European wars.

American theologians played a critical role in resolving the ancient quarrel during a 33-year process of spiritual deliberation and negotiation both in Europe and the United States. They pushed for creation of a single document -- the "Joint Declaration on Justification (Salvation) by Faith" -- that Catholics and the scattered Lutheran branch denominations could agree on.

"This is what Lutherans thought was the central issue of the Reformation," said Michael Root, professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. "And it is the first time since the Reformation that the worldwide Lutheran community has tried to speak with a single voice."

Root, who helped write the final draft, said the document has been accepted by church leaders representing 48 million Lutherans mostly concentrated in Germany, Scandinavia and the United States.

Several Lutheran denominations in America are not signing the agreement, the largest group is the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod with more than 2.5 million members.

Several well-known German Lutheran theologians have publicly disagreed with the document saying it glosses over too many subtleties between the two traditions' teachings. And several members of the Luther Seminary faculty in St. Paul also publicly disagreed with the document.

Roman Catholic leaders, who represent more than 1 billion Christians, have hailed the declaration. 

"This is the first authoritative declaration the Catholic Church has taken with any of the Reformation churches. And this doctrine is just so central to the gospel," said Jeffrey Gros, associate director for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs in Washington, D.C. "Both of our churches now officially accept a major theological consensus."

The declaration is scheduled to be signed on Oct. 31, the anniversary of the start of the Reformation. The great division began on that date in 1517, when Luther nailed his famous "Ninety-five Theses" onto the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, 60 miles from Berlin.

Luther -- a former monk, a professor of theology and a parish priest -- was astonished at the exorbitant claims made by documents called "indulgences" being purchased by some of his parishioners. These promissory notes, sold by some church officials, were drafts on "the treasury of the merits of the saints" that would forgive past and even future sins committed by the bearer.

Authority over souls 

Luther argued that the pope has no authority over the souls in purgatory -- a place of spiritual suffering. If he did, the pontiff would be under an obligation as a Christian to empty purgatory free of charge.

The Vatican immediately labeled Luther's manifesto as a potential heresy. Luther, who enjoyed physical protection of several Saxon princes, ultimately was summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1521 as a final attempt to reconcile the former monk with the Catholic Church.

"My conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe," Luther said. "Here I stand, I can do no other."

The effect of the breach was profound and nearly instantaneous. European nations, kings and provinces took sides in a conflict that was both spiritual and political.

Emperor Charles issued an edict that formally condemned Luther as a heretic and a subversive to the state. This edict, and the Council of Trent that followed, has remained the Catholic Church's official view of Luther and Protestantism.

Rome began a critical reassessment of the meaning of salvation and spirituality during its revolutionary Second Vatican Council during the 1960s.

"We are in a long process to knit together the fabric of our faith life," Gros said. "As a result, we discover that we have a tremendous amount of background agreement. In light of this agreement, we have to see that the condemnations in the Council of Trent don't apply to churches which sign this joint declaration."

Working to heal 

Catholics and Lutherans began discussions in 1966 seeking common ground to heal one of history's greatest religious divisions. The declaration says that Lutherans and Catholics now share an "understanding of justification."

It is in the 15th paragraph that Catholics and Lutherans make a simple statement that would have astonished Luther: "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."

However, some critics point out that at the same time the Vatican is going to sign this agreement, the Pope has issued a special call for indulgences as part of the Jubilee 2000 celebration of the church.

While Michael Rogness, a professor at Luther Seminary, said that the document is an "attempt to say that there have been changes in the way Catholics talk about justification. . . . There are still differences." Lutherans and Catholics still talk and think very differently about the doctrines of justification and salvation, and "Some of those differences are being somewhat glossed over" in the new declaration, he said.

Lutherans and Catholics are vowing to continue the dialogue, hoping for a reconciliation that will lead to "full communion" which literally would allow followers of each faith to share communion mass together.

Rogness argues that the main issue of justification hasn't been settled with this document. Root adds, "There are still significant issues that need to be resolved. . . . Most notable among them is the nature of the church and authority -- things like the papacy, the authority of tradition, the nature of the bishops, and the role of the church in mediating the salvation of God."

Gros said it is "an issue for the Holy Spirit" to know when final reconciliation will occur. "We move forward together ever so gradually," he said.

About six Luther faculty members signed a public statement which points out some of the issues in the declaration, Rogness said. He's not at all sure that this new agreement will have any affect in local parishes within our life times, he said. "In the short term, no, it won't have any affect," he said. "And I'm not even sure it will make any difference in the long term."

-- Martha Sawyer Allen contributed to this article.