St. Paul Pioneer-Press 

Saturday, October 30, 1999 

Lutherans, Catholics bridge centuries-old divide


After more than four centuries of mutual condemnations, Catholics and Lutherans say they are ready to forgive each other. For many, it is an uneasy truce, either the historic healing of the wounds of the Reformation or the selling out of Protestant tradition.

The churches say the primary cause of their 16th-century split is no longer a dividing issue. The crucial doctrine is justification: how Christians are forgiven of their sins. Lutherans emphasized it was through faith alone in Jesus Christ, that it couldn't be earned. Catholics emphasized it was through faith and works that reward in heaven was gained.

Two representatives of the Vatican and eight Lutheran world leaders Sunday will sign the ``Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification'' at Augsburg, Germany. It is the first ecumenical agreement ever accepted, or ``received,'' by the Vatican.

``This is an enormously significant event,'' said Susan Wood, associate professor of theology at St. John's University in Collegeville. ``We still are not in full communion, because we still have dividing issues between us, but this was a major issue.''

The joint declaration acknowledges Lutherans and Catholics have held different views on sin, forgiveness, grace, law and salvation, but states there is ``consensus in basic truths'' found in Scripture.

``You could say there are differences of language, differences of theological elaboration, differing emphases of understanding,'' said the Rev. James Perkl of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Jordan, Minn. ``But in this document, I believe the Lutheran emphasis is given and the Catholic emphasis is given.

``The truths don't exclude one another, but they do stand separate. They don't condemn one another, and that's good news.''

The joint declaration tests some Lutherans' sense of identity. Lutherans traditionally have said their church stands or falls on faith alone. Justification is important for Catholics but is not as central as church authority, for example.

``There is considerable disagreement among Lutherans in North America whether the agreement accurately represents the views of the two sides, or whether it has so many weasel words in it that it can mean anything you want it to mean,'' said James Kittelson, professor of church history at Luther Seminary.

To detractors, it is a bitter irony that the signing comes 482 years to the day after Martin Luther posted his 95 propositions -- or Theses -- for debate on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, Germany. Many consider that day to be the birth of the Reformation.

``The spin on this will be that Lutherans and Catholics now have the same doctrines, the same way of thinking about justification,'' said Gracia Grindal, professor of rhetoric at Luther Seminary. ``That's just not the case. You have kind of a Christian mush here.''

Another tough sell for Lutherans is that, as the agreement was reached, Pope John Paul II announced late last year that indulgences would be available for the Jubilee year of 2000.

Indulgences were the practical application of ``works'' against which Luther protested. Catholics taught that Christ and the saints had stored more merits than needed for their own salvation. The extra credits were at the disposal of the popes, who by the early 1500s dispensed them to raise money for the Church. 

Those who purchased them were promised remission of their sins, or the release of their friends from purgatory.

``Most of this stuff is rather abstract and airy for the average lay person, but when you say the word `indulgence,' nine out of 10 Lutherans will have a knee-jerk reaction,'' Kittelson said. ``That's everything, both symbol and substance, that Martin Luther rejected almost 500 years ago.''

Modern Catholics say indulgences are misunderstood. Pope John Paul II wrote that indulgences make sinners free from the ``temporal punishment of sin'' on earth and allow a bond to other living Christians. Indulgences for the year 2000 will be offered for such acts as making pilgrimages to Rome or the Holy Land, helping the sick, giving to the poor or giving up smoking.

``I thoroughly understand this language becomes disconcerting to Lutherans,'' said the Rev. Arthur Kennedy, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas. ``We (Catholics) have the burden of then saying, `What is this about?'

``There are wounds that have to be healed in all of this. It's not about running about and creating more wounds. It's part of the ongoing dialogue.''

Lutherans have had plenty of dialogue with other denominations. This summer, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to accept full communion with the Episcopal Church and the Moravian Church in America. Two years ago, the ELCA entered into full communion with three other Protestant denominations.

The Missouri and Wisconsin Evangelical synods of the Lutheran Church were not part of the earlier votes for full communion, nor do they endorse the joint declaration with the Catholic Church. 

``Every major ecumenical step forward tests the consensus and cohesion within a church body,'' said the Rev. William Rusch of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. ``If you form your identity by describing who you are not -- `I am not a Roman Catholic' or `I am not a Lutheran' -- then this kind of agreement, rather than a gift for the future, seems to be a threat to your identity.''

As Susan Wood of St. John's said, ``If you have your identity in a protest movement, and the cause of that protest is removed, then you have to ask, where do you stand as a church?''

Unlike in most states, Lutherans and Catholics stand side by side in nearly equal numbers in Minnesota. Each denomination has roughly 1.2 million members in the state. (Catholics outnumber Lutherans more than 7 to 1 nationally.)

The churches share ministries, such as helping farmers in rural Minnesota, conducting joint prayer services, and forming Bible studies and children's programs together.

``We share life as neighbors, share life as friends, and share understanding,'' said Perkl, who gets together with Lutheran and Methodist pastors in Jordan for lunch each Tuesday to discuss the Sunday readings.

``No matter what the international agreements say, we are living here together as friends. The Lutheran-Catholic explanations of justification do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths. Those truths are discovered in our friendships and in our neighborliness.''

For Perkl, there still may be a fence separating Catholics and Lutherans, ``but you discover gates in the fence, so to speak.''

``The church perhaps has reformed,'' he said. ``It is new. It was new in Year 1, it is new today. It is forever new.''