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Hope for Prompt Catholic-Lutheran Union Justified?

BY Gabriel Meyer

June 30, 1996 Issue | Posted 6/30/96 at 1:00 PM

 

Special to the Register

“JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH”—450 years ago, those were fighting words, the battle cry of the Reformation. Emerging from the theological debates sparked by an obscure 16th century Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, and his subsequent excommunication by Pope Leo X, the Reformation—with “justification by faith” as its cornerstone—divided Western Christendom into Catholic and Protestant camps.

The doctrine of justification deals with how one is reconciled with God, experiences sanctification and attains salvation in Jesus Christ.

If contemporary Catholic and Lutheran leaders have their way, justification, as an issue of contention, may soon be a thing of the past. Also scheduled to be relegated to the dust bin of history, leaders hope, are the 16th-century condemnations issued by the two Churches against each other in the name of that doctrine.

Last year the Lutheran World Federation, representing 55 million Lutherans, and the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, asked their respective Churches to review a draft declaration asserting that the 16th-century Catholic and Lutheran condemnations on justification do not apply to what Catholics and Lutherans believe and teach today.

The draft proposes a common statement of faith that both sides would find to be an adequate, although not necessarily exhaustive, expression of the essentials of Christian teaching on justification.

The Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, responsible for analyzing the Lutheran responses, reports that a majority of Churches have affirmed the thrust of the draft.

The conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the largest U.S. Lutheran body that is not a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) nor a member of the LWF, is not a party to the proposed joint affirmation.

Last spring, the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Coordinating Committee expressed strong support for a common statement by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on justification. Echoing the sentiments of many officials in both Churches, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., expressed hopes that Catholics and Lutherans would be able to issue such a declaration by 1997, the 450th anniversary of the Council of Trent's condemnation of errors then attributed to Lutherans and the 50th anniversary of the Lutheran World Federation.

The 30-year Lutheran-Catholic dialogue has been one of the success stories of modern ecumenism. “Of all the [ecumenical] dialogues, the Lutheran-Catholic [one] has probably had the greatest theological depth—even more than the Anglican dialogue,” Father John Richard Neuhaus, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, told the Register. Father Neuhaus, himself a convert from Lutheranism, pointed to the Lutheran Church's “deep and complex theological tradition that comes out of a direct engagement with the Catholic Church from the 16th century.”

Brother Jeffrey Gros, associate director of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, agrees. Calling Lutherans “the flagship of the Reformation Churches,” Gros told the Register that in the nine years of official dialogue with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, “we've touched on all five areas [outlined in Pope John Paul's 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint] with a depth yet to be reached in any of the other dialogues.” (The Pope's five topics for ecumenical dialogue are: relations between Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition; the Eucharist; Ordination; the Magisterium entrusted to the Pope and the episcopate; and the Virgin Mary.)

Archbishop Francis Stafford of Dnver, Catholic co-chair of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Coordinating Committee in the United States, sees “this unexpected progress” in the light of Vatican II, and “from there, the renewal of biblical studies, patristics. In the light of that new understanding, we have been able to restudy the theologies of Luther and of Trent.” He also pointed to the 1983 U.S. dialogue's common statement “Justification by Faith” as a milestone in the current pursuit of a formal declaration by the Vatican and the LWF.

“I remember when the justification statement was issued [in 1983],” Archbishop Stafford commented, “I read it with great interest and critical reflection and found my own faith in Christ deepened.”

In part, that statement reads: “Our entire hope of justification and salvation rests on Christ Jesus and on the Gospel whereby the good news of God's merciful action in Christ is made known; we do not place our ultimate trust in anything other than God's promise and saving work in Christ.”

Commented Archbishop Stafford: “Some scholars have concluded that what Protestants call justification by faith is what Catholics call justification by grace. Faith, hope and love is the Catholic triadic summary of what Protestants call faith. If that's true, then their understanding of justification by faith can be sustained and substantiated by Scripture.”

Daniel Martensen, director of the Department of Ecumenical Affairs for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a 5.2 millionmember denomination, agreed that the 1983 justification document “is the underlying factor in this recent initiative,” but also points to Pope John Paul's 1982 visit to northern Germany as a catalyst.

“The Pope met with the bishops in Hamburg,” Martensen recalled. “There were tensions there and a need for an affirmation of common ground between the two traditions.” Out of the discussions a committee of Catholic and Lutheran theologians was formed. The committee concluded, Martensen said, that the condemnations published in the Lutheran Book of Concord, a compilation of classic Lutheran confessions, and the Council of Trent, in the area of justification, don't apply to the 20th century.

Martensen believes that the generally positive response so far to the draft declaration suggests that a common declaration on justification will not be long in coming.

“To have agreement on justification by faith—the heart of the dispute—well, it's certainly not full communion, but it's a major, major step,” Martensen said.

According to the veteran Lutheran ecumenist, a final text is being drafted which will then be formally presented to the Vatican and the council of the LWF. By this fall, “we should all have a common declaration , which will be given wide distribution. Each Church will be asked to respond to it by the end of the year,” he said. He anticipates that next year “official decisions about lifting condemnations will be made—ideally, [from the Lutheran side] in Hong Kong when the LWF holds its 50th anniversary assembly.”

Some Catholic officials, however, are not so sanguine about the declaration's swift passage.

“This is not a done deal,” said Archbishop Stafford. “There is opposition among conservative elements [in the Lutheran Church] which may prove insurmountable,” he cautioned. “One of the things we Catholics have learned in the course of the dialogue is that there are profound differences among Lutherans.”

Archbishop Stafford also pointed to reservations that he and other Catholic participants have about the draft proposal.

Specifically, he indicated that the final form of the joint declaration must be expanded to show more clearly how differences are to be reconciled between Lutheran teaching on justification and three canons from the Council of Trent (canons 4, 28 and 30) dealing with preparation for justification, the faith of unrepentant sinners, and satisfaction.

“For myself,” he told the Register, “clarification on these issues is essential to warrant the general conclusion of the proposed joint declaration that none of the condemnations of the 16th century on justification still applies to either party.”

Father Neuhaus also sees obstacles in the path to the joint declaration. “The Catholic side is essentially content with the present draft,” he says. “The serious question is whether the Lutheran side has accurately represented the Lutheran position to the Pontifical Council and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Of course, it's up to the Lutherans to know if they've accurately represented their position or not.”

Another complication, Father Neuhaus said, has to do with proposed Church mergers. “The ELCA is entertaining an accord with the Episcopal Church. It's not definite that this will come before the [ELCA] general convention in 1997, but, if it does, this will further complicate relations between the Lutheran community and the Catholic Church” given the difficulties between Rome and Canterbury over women's ordination and other issues.

“But what the Catholic Church is doing is making crystal clear that our determination to seek honest unity is irreversible, not optional, no matter what happens between now and the return of Christ,” Father Neuhaus said.

Gabriel Meyer, a Register contributing editor, is based in Los Angeles.

Martin Luther's Complex Legacy

ABOUT THE most polite thing that Donald Attwater's 1931 Catholic Dictionary calls Martin Luther is “an apostate monk” who led countless souls to perdition.

What a difference a half century and a few decades of ecumenical dialogue make. Along with a growing theological rapprochement between the Church of Rome and the world's major Lutheran bodies has come a reassessment of the man who sparked the Reformation.

In 1983, Pope John Paul II noted that studies by Lutheran and Catholic researchers “have led to a more complete and more differentiated image of the personality of Luther.”

Earlier this year Catholics joined in the activities commemorating the 450th anniversary of Luther's death in Eisleben, Germany, on Feb. 18, 1546. And this month Eisleben has played host to the first joint Catholic-Protestant religious ceremonies ever held there.

Martin Luther was born Nov. 10, 1483, in Eisleben. Although he was the son of a miner in an age when few outside the noble and merchant classes were literate, he began school at the age of seven, eventually earning university degrees and studying law. In July 1505, enroute to the university, Luther was thrown to the ground by a lightning bolt. Praying to St. Anne, Luther promised to become a monk if his life were spared. Faithful to his vow, he entered an Augustinian monastery, studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1507.

Three years later, while in Rome, Luther saw the great Basilica of St. Peter's under construction—a vast project heavily funded by the selling of indulgences.

In Luther's day, “indulgence hawkers” sometimes accepted monetary payment in lieu of prayers—a practice the Catholic Church later condemned.

Returning to Germany in 1511, Luther received his doctorate in theology and taught Scripture at Wittenberg University.

He soon became known for his opposition to indulgences. Focusing on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, Luther taught that humanity's only hope of justification rests on God's mercy.

Luther posted his famous 95 theses, a list of topics on which, he believed, the Church needed reform, on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg in October 1517. This action placed the theologian afoul of a local archbishop who was getting a portion of the proceeds from the selling of indulgences. The case was referred to Rome.

By 1521, Luther had become highly critical of the Renaissance papacy. He was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and found himself the leader of a volatile movement for ecclesiastical and political reform. Attempts to reconcile Luther's views with those of Rome continued until 1530, but by then positions had hardened on both sides and separation was inevitable. By this time, Luther had married a former nun and fathered children by her.

Luther's accomplishments include his translation of the New Testament, which laid the groundwork for modern German. The dark side to his legacy includes his attacks on Judaism, the violence of his criticism of the papacy and his opposition to a German peasantry revolt in the Peasants'War of 1524-26.

Father Richard Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor now a Catholic priest, points out that Pope John Paul II has called Luther “a religious genius.”

“That's different, of course, from calling him an orthodox Christian,” Father Neuhaus told the Register. “Luther was no doubt a real genius, but he was also erratic and idiosyncratic. It's important that the [current] Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogues focus not on the personality of Luther, but on the Lutheran confessions. These are a far more reliable basis for discussion.”

For example, Father Neuhaus pointed out, the Ausburg Confession of 1530 was adamant that the Reformation did not envision a separate Lutheran body, but existed to serve the interests of the one Catholic Church.

— Gabriel Meyer