National Catholic Reporter

Ratzinger credited with saving Lutheran pact

NCR Staff


More than 500 years ago, Martin Luther triggered the Protestant Reformation because he believed the Catholic church was fatally wrong about how salvation works. This fall, in Augsburg, Germany, Catholics and Lutherans will officially declare that argument resolved. 

The two churches will abandon the anathemas they hurled at one another in the 1500s, in what is believed to be the first time the Vatican has ever nullified such a doctrinal excoriation. The signing will take place on Oct. 31, the anniversary of the day Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.

It is a blockbuster agreement, a crowning achievement of the ecumenical dialogue spawned by Vatican II -- and it almost didn’t happen. Despite his public image as an ecumenical roadblock, the man credited by sources on both sides with saving it is none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“It was Ratzinger who untied the knots,” said Bishop George Anderson, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, who spoke to NCR by telephone. “Without him we might not have an agreement.” 

News of Ratzinger’s role is especially revealing since press reports identified him in June 1998, when the deal seemed in danger of unraveling, as the source of its problems.

Lutherans have traditionally held that salvation comes through faith alone, while Catholics emphasize good works. The heart of the new agreement, which combines both ideas, is this key sentence: “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 us and calling us to good works.” 

The agreement is expected to be especially welcome in Latin America and Eastern Europe, where competition for converts often strains the relationship between Lutherans and Catholics. Experts also hope it will pave the way for further agreements toward “full communion” -- including the sharing of sacraments, worship and ministers.

Yet just a year ago, the deal seemed dead on arrival. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, stunned ecumenical enthusiasts in June 1998 by presenting an unexpected Catholic “response” to the Joint Declaration. This response was sharply critical, wondering aloud if the agreement really warranted reversing any anathemas.

Many Lutherans were furious; one claimed that the Holy See had “betrayed” both the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic theologians who had worked on the agreement, and that it would take decades to reestablish the trust that had been shattered. 

Most Vatican observers believed the response flowed from Ratzinger’s pen.

Rumors of a rift between Cassidy and Ratzinger ensued, especially because that same summer Ratzinger had set back the dialogue with the Anglicans by suggesting the church’s teaching on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations was infallible. 

German Lutherans were wary of Ratzinger, in part because in 1996 the German newsmagazine Focus reported that Ratzinger had vetoed a papal proposal to reverse the excommunication of Martin Luther. Vatican sources denied the report.

Those who know Ratzinger, however, say few figures have exercised greater influence on him than Luther. In a 1966 commentary on Vatican II’s “The Church in the Modern World,” Ratzinger said that the document leaned too heavily on Teilhard de Chardin and not enough on Luther - a remarkable comment in an era with no offical Lutheran-Catholic contact, when manyCatholics still branded Luther a heretic.

“Ratzinger has been involved in dialogue with Lutherans from way back,” said Br. Jeffrey Gros, ecumenical affairs specialist for the U.S. bishops. “In the 1980s he was even interested in declaring the Augsburg Confession [the first Lutheran declaration of faith] a Catholic document. To think that he wanted to torpedo this [agreement] is a total misread.”

On July 14, 1998, Ratzinger fired off a letter to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine calling such reports a “smooth lie.” Protesting that he had sought closer relations with Lutherans since his days as a seminarian, he said that to scuttle the dialogue would be to “deny myself.” 

On Nov. 3, 1998, a special ad hoc working group met at the home of Ratzinger’s brother Georg in Regensburg, Bavaria, to get the agreement back on track. Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselmann convened the group, which consisted of him, Ratzinger, Catholic theologian Heinz Schuette and Lutheran theologian Joachim Track. 

By all accounts, Ratzinger played the key role. “He was very positive, very helpful,” Track said when he spoke to NCR by telephone. Track said Ratzinger made three concessions that salvaged the agreement.

First, he agreed that the goal of the ecumenical process is unity in diversity, not structural reintegration. “This was important to many Lutherans in Germany, who worried that the final aim of all this was coming back to Rome,” Track said. Second, Ratzinger fully acknowledged the authority of the Lutheran World Federation to reach agreement with the Vatican. Finally, Ratzinger agreed that while Christians are obliged to do good works, justification and final judgment remain God’s gracious acts. 

Anderson said Lutherans are grateful for Ratzinger’s help. The two churches still have much ground to cover, however, before reaching full communion. 

“Since the Reformation, we’ve had separate histories. The declaration of papal infallibility on the Catholic side, and the ordination of women on ours, are two obvious examples,” Anderson said.

Still, observers say the event in Augsburg will mark a true breakthrough. “This is the first time the Catholic church has ever entered into a joint declaration with any of the churches of the West,” Gros said. “We’ve never tackled a theological issue like this that was so church-dividing. In that sense, we’re looking at a major achievement.”

Track said Ratzinger deserves much of the credit. “We had our doubts, but our experience was that he really did want to bring this to a good end,” Track said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999