New York Times, October 30, 1999

Catholics and Lutherans Explore Common Ground


On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a 34-year-old priest, theology professor and popular preacher, posted a Latin document on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany. Within weeks, copies of the document, containing 95 theses about church teachings on indulgences, were being passed from hand to hand throughout Germany, and a movement was under way that would radically alter the world. 

The yearly anniversary of that event, celebrated in many Protestant churches as Reformation Sunday, will be different this Sunday. In Augsburg, Germany, Lutheran representatives from around the world and a Roman Catholic cardinal with the blessing of the pope will sign a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. 

The issue of justification triggered the Reformation when some people began to believe that people were justified -- that is, saved and brought into a right relationship with God -- strictly by God's free gift of grace and of faith in Christ and not by anything that humans might do or earn on their own. 

And for Luther and other reformers, the peddling of indulgences was only one of many ways that the church fostered the illusion that people could be saved by their own works or merits. The reformers' passion on this point led to other deep disagreements with Rome, and eventually with one another, about the use of Scripture, the nature of church authority, the meaning of priesthood and ministry, the understanding of sacraments and the place of good works in pursuing holiness. 

But this Sunday, Lutheran and Catholic officials will declare that, after four and a half centuries, they can affirm a consensus on the basic truths about justification, and that the solemn condemnations of one another's positions issued in the 16th century no longer apply to the teachings of the churches as currently understood. 

The joint declaration announces a "common understanding" of justification: "By grace alone, in faith in Christ's 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 words." 

But the declaration also recognizes that Lutherans and Catholics explicate this common understanding in different ways, regarding, for example, whether people can be said to "cooperate" with God's justifying grace, or in what sense the justified person should still be thought of as a sinner, as in the famous Lutheran formula "simul justus et peccator" ("at once justified and sinner"), or whether God will judge and reward people on the basis of their good works. 

In each case, the declaration presents the common ground and then examines the different Lutheran and Catholic formulations, spelling out exactly what they are intended to emphasize and what they are not trying to deny. By carefully paring away the more polarized interpretations that may have arisen from past theological polemics, the declaration proposes that, in some cases, the differences are largely a matter of language and emphasis, while in other cases, although real differences remain, they can coexist within the framework of the common belief and do not merit the 16th-century condemnations. 

Not all Lutherans cheer

This is subtle stuff, and not everyone agrees with it. The 2.6 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the largest American Lutheran body outside the 5.1 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the 58.1 million-member Lutheran World Federation, has called the joint declaration "woefully inadequate and misleading" and "a betrayal of the Gospel." 

Some prominent Lutheran theologians in Germany seem to agree, and in June 1998, when the Vatican announced that it would sign the declaration, the announcement was accompanied by an "Official Response" that appeared to challenge some of the agreement's central claims and even cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Lutheran World Federation as a partner that could represent Lutherans in signing the agreement. 

This came as a considerable shock because the Vatican had been intimately involved in the years of dialogue and drafting that produced the joint declaration. Indeed, it took a burst of ecumenical diplomacy to keep the whole process from shipwreck. 

What will it mean, then, when Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Coucil for Promoting Christian Unity, and the Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, along with Bishop Christian Krause, the Federation's president, and five vice presidents from the United States, Slovakia, Nigeria, Brazil and India, walk in procession from the Cathedral of Augsburg to the Church of St. Anne and there sign the declaration? 

If the declaration achieves greater unity between Lutherans and Catholics, it will be spiritual and not yet structural. Although the declaration finds that the remaining differences about justification are not "church-dividing," it recognizes other basic questions that remain unresolved. The declaration simply clears the path so that those topics can be addressed. 

It also provides "a vehicle and a procedure" for addressing those topics, said Margaret O'Gara, a Catholic theologian from the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto, a way for thinking that has been developed in theological circles to get official affirmation and wider reception. 

One immediate effect, said the Rev. Michael Root, a professor of systematic theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and a scholar who helped draft the declaration when he was director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, should be to destroy stereotypes that many Catholics and Lutherans still entertain about one another's beliefs.

Not a few Lutherans still think that the Catholic Church teaches that people are saved by their own power and good works rather than by unmerited grace, Root pointed out, and Catholics often suppose that the Lutheran insistence on salvation by grace and faith make Lutherans unconcerned about how they live out the Christian life in deeds. Noko said the declaration could produce "a further reduction of 'enemy images."' 

Finally, by drawing attention to what Catholics and Lutherans hold in common, the declaration not only forces both groups back to Christian basics, but may encourage believers in each tradition to explore more deeply the spiritual riches of their own theological heritage. 

"Stated in simple terms," Noko said, "the doctrine of justification refers to the faith that we are accepted by God as persons, not because we are good, but because God is good. 

"If we claim to be self-made," he added, "we deceive ourselves and will easily lack the love and generosity to other which are characteristic of the Christian life." 

This is a doctrine, in other words, that raises profound questions about an American culture exalting independence and self-reliance. But for Ms. O'Gara, "In an achievement-based culture, this teaching is good news -- it says God does it for us; God empowers us to transform the world, and we don't have to rely on our own paltry resources."