Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 1, 1999 

Catholics, Lutherans: The twain meet in the Twin Cities

Nolan Zavoral / Star Tribune

Let theologians debate whether the document signed Sunday in Germany signaled an epochal defrosting between Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

Perhaps it was enough that in both the 8:15 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. Sunday services at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, a Catholic theologian preached at the invitation of the Lutheran pastor.

"When he [the Rev. William Heisley, pastor at Mount Olive] presented the idea of me speaking, instead of the traditional Reformation Day service, I thought 'good for you -- this is absolutely wonderful,' " said Susan Windley-Daoust, assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas. 

"I was enormously flattered," said Windley-Daoust, who from the pulpit stressed the importance of ecumenical cooperation at the local as well as international level.

The climate of ecumenism displayed in the signing of the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" pervades the Twin Cities, as well.

'Wonderful relationship' 

"We've had a wonderful relationship in the Twin Cities," said the Rev. Arthur Kennedy, director of the office of ecumenism of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, speaking of cooperation between Catholics and Lutherans.

For example, people from the two denominations meet for prayer sessions, he said. In addition, "We've put together a Lutheran-Catholic booklet in preparation for marriage, and it's used in both traditions," he said. 

For 24 years, Kennedy said, Lutheran and Catholic bishops have held retreats together. This year's retreat was earlier this month at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., where Lois Malcolm, an associate professor of theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, spoke to the bishops on the justification agreement.

More than 30 years in the making, the document was signed Sunday by representatives of Pope John Paul and the Lutheran World Federation in Augsburg, Germany. It was no accident that the signing took place on Oct. 31 -- the anniversary of the Reformation. On Oct. 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther publicly took issue with Rome for the selling of indulgences, by which Catholics could pay the church to have sins forgiven.

Luther believed that salvation came by the grace of God through faith in Jesus, a divine gift that humans couldn't earn. His doctrine of justification, a state of being right with God, was among the factors that set into motion forces that, combined with economic and political conditions, ignited wars and split the Western Christian world.

Still differences 

Sunday's signing in Augsburg didn't resolve all major differences between Catholics and Lutherans, but in the minds of many it brought the two sides in closer alignment on the question of grace. The document reads, in part:

"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."

Sean Hughes, a theology professor at St. Thomas, has studied the relationship between Roman Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"What is interesting about this document is that the Catholic Church is accepting that we have a common core of doctrine [with Lutherans], which we hold on justification," he said. 

"But the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation accept that they have different ways of expressing these issues. We can agree to disagree, in other words, but the common core we share," Hughes said.

Views of justification 

Malcolm said that many of her colleagues at Luther Seminary didn't endorse the agreement. "For Lutherans, the role of justification is the test of doctrine. Sinners stand before God, hearing at one in the same time God's words of judgment and forgiveness in law and gospel.

"Catholics, by contrast, use transformationist language to describe the process by which human beings create good but are now sinful, and [are] brought to a new life by God's infusion of saving grace.

"But I don't want to mention differences without emphasizing that there was agreement in that it was God's work that brings about justification and union with God," Malcolm said.

And although the issue of indulgences remains unresolved in the document, Hughes and Malcolm seemed heartened that the Roman Catholic Church, representing more than 1 billion people, and the Lutheran World Federation, with more than 48 million members, worked in a collaborative environment.

"We have differences, but they no longer are church-dividing," Hughes said. "At the end of the document, on the basis of work done together to reach consensus, the condemnations of the Lutheran Confessions and the condemnations of the Catholic Council of Trent . . . no longer applied."

Local celebration 

Next Sunday during a celebration and prayer service at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, three bishops will ceremonially sign a copy of the document: Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis; David Olson, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod, and Mark Hanson, St. Paul Area Synod bishop.

About 200 people attended each service Sunday under Mount Olive's vaulted ceiling. Windley-Daoust, whose mother was Catholic and father was Methodist, talked easily of the ecumenical dialogue in her family. She said that "Christ created us for unity," and added, "Behind all the abstractions, that's what ecumenism is about."

After the second service, Candy Hickenbotham of Minneapolis stepped into the warm sun of a late fall day.

"I thought it was wonderful," she said of the idea to have a Catholic speak to Lutherans on Reformation Day. "It's one of the reasons I like Mount Olive -- the church isn't afraid to take chances. It's time to put factions behind us. Life is too short."

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