'Baby Step' In Direction Of Unity

Lutherans and Catholics plan to make history Oct. 31 by agreeing on one of the principal disagreements that led to the Protestant Reformation.

The Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican are scheduled to sign the Joint Declaration on Justification in Augsburg, Germany. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to Wittenberg church door 482 years ago, changing the course of a millennium of Christian history.

Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, will sign for Lutherans, and Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians, will sign for Catholics.

The Lutheran World Federation represents 124 member churches in 69 countries, including the 5.2-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Not all Lutherans, however, are represented by the federation.

“The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics,” said a common statement issued at the June meeting where the details of the agreement were finalized.

The agreement, the result of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue since the Second Vatican Council, was the focus of much theological debate in the past few years.

The dispute over justification — particularly over the place of a person's response to God's offer of salvation — was a key factor in the division of Western Christianity at the time of the Reformation.

‘ ... there is no reason to believe that the planned signing ceremony will be called off because of this criticism,’ said Udo Hahn, who represents the Lutheran World Federation.

The Vatican felt it necessary to issue a clarification about the joint declaration in 1998 that focused on its difficulties in accepting the way the document explained Lutheran teaching about the baptized being “at the same time righteous and sinner.”

According to Catholic doctrine, “in baptism everything that is really sin is taken away and so, in those who are born anew there is nothing that is hateful to God.”

The inclination to sin — or “concupiscence” in theological terms — is not the same thing as sin, the Catholic clarifications said.

Lutheran teaching, as explained in the joint declaration, holds that “believers are totally righteous in that God forgives their sins,” but when they look at themselves “they recognize that they remain also totally sinners.”

The new statement reconciles Catholic and Lutheran statements by explaining that although sins are wiped away in baptism, Christians continue to sin and continue to need forgiveness.

The new statement also clarified the place of good works in the faith life of believers.

While grace is a gift freely given and not earned, it said, “it is nevertheless the responsibility of the justified not to waste this grace but to live in it. The exhortation to do good works is the exhortation to practice the faith.”


Controversy regarding the declaration surfaced again as recently as late October when more than 240 Protestant German theologians signed a petition criticizing it. Ecumenical News Service reported that the theologians believed that the document “explains only the Catholic interpretation of this central Protestant belief” and that by signing it, the Lutheran federation “would be giving its assent to this interpretation.”

Federation representative Udo Hahn, rejected the criticism, citing Hans Christian Knuth, the Lutheran bishop responsible for relations with the Roman Catholic Church. “The LWF will remain in dialogue with the critics,” Hahn said, “but there is no reason to believe that the planned signing ceremony will be called off because of this criticism.”

Despite criticism that also has arisen in Catholic circles, Father Arthur Kennedy, ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, greeted the decision.

The declaration represents a significant step, which once was impossible due to “religious, sociological, and political reasons,” said Father Kennedy, who is also a theology professor at St. Thomas University. “The declaration affirms the unity that Lutherans and Catholics have already sensed has existed. The change now becomes part of the institution. It becomes part of our shared reality.”

Bill Cahoy, dean of the School of Theology at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., agreed. “While theologically significant, the declaration will have little impact on the daily life of both Lutherans and Catholics. ... “Time will tell if it represents the end, or simply the first step.”

Theological Baby Step?

Pat Keifert, theology professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, called the agreement a “baby step,” but said that even a baby step is significant, going further than any other document since 1531.

Keifert said the declaration represents only 40% of the gains which had been made by the U.S. Lutheran-Catholic dialogue over the past 30 years. “In the declaration, they are agreeing about how they disagree over salvation by justification,” Keifert told the Register. “This document achieves ecclesial diplomacy more than it achieves theological insight.”

Asked whether the agreement should have been made at all, Keifert responded, “A part of a loaf of bread is better than none at all, for someone who is hungry. What you hear is grief from someone who is hungry for the unity of the Church.”

American Lutherans, for the most part, are not represented by the Oct. 31 agreement. The 2.7-million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and 500,000-member Lutheran Church-Wisconsin Synod are neither Lutheran World Federation members, nor signa-tories of the accord.

They are also more critical of the document.

Missouri Synod President Dr. A.L. Barry said the declaration contains significant “remaining differences” that cannot be reconciled. “The document is a very carefully worded statement that makes it possible for the representatives of the Pope to sign it without changing, retracting, or correcting anything that has been taught by the Catholic Church since the time of the Council of Trent,” said Barry. “The claim ... that Lutherans and Roman Catholics have now reached agreement on the doctrine of salvation, thereby ending the centuries-long dispute about how sinners are saved, is unfortunately not yet true.”

Nondenominational minister Herman Otten has been the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, Mo., for 42 years and is the editor of the independent publication Christian News. He agreed with Barry, saying, “On the surface it appears as if Rome now accepts justification by faith alone, but Rome does not. There is no agreement.”

Cause for Celebration

“The Joint Declaration represents one issue on which we can agree, and that should be celebrated,” said Father Gerald Dalseth, chair of the St. Cloud Ecumenical Commission and pastor at Christ the King parish in Browerville, Minn.

Father Dalseth related a question he had received from a parishioner on the issue: “She asked, ‘Does this mean that we will now have intercommunion?’” Father Dalseth responded in the negative and said, “The declaration simply means that Lutherans and Catholics now agree that we are justified by faith, and that our good works give evidence to our faith.”

Father Dalseth cautioned that before the declaration has any impact on the parish level, people need to be educated about it. To that end, he has recommended that all priests and deacons in central Minnesota obtain a copy of the documents and study them. “This provides a good opportunity for us to teach,” said Father Dalseth. He hopes that the declaration will give the ecumenical movement a new push.

Philip Gray, director of information services at Catholics United for the Faith, of Steubenville, Ohio, agreed. “Much doctrinally legitimate common ground has been forged. We ... hope and pray for full, unequivocal agreement between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, not only on other issues related to the doctrine of justification, but on all doctrinal issues that impede full communion between Catholics and Lutherans. We affirm the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Father, ‘that they may all be one ... even as we are one.’”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.