By Catholic News Service
IN A NUTSHELL
Scholars still will study the important points of faith that erected walls between Christians in the 16th century and afterward.
But, as Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, said in 2016, "what unites us is greater than what divides us."
The 1999 "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" expresses that Catholics and Lutherans agree that salvation is mediated by Christ, by faith, through God's grace, and that this necessarily leads to good works that further God's kingdom.
Christian unity: The past encounters the future
By David Gibson | Catholic News Service
Something virtually unthinkable happened during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Numerous Christians who were not Roman Catholics were invited to serve as formal observers of the council proceedings in Rome.
These observers' surprising presence at the council confirmed that a centuries-long polemical era of disputes and contention, a time when divided Christians basically turned their backs to each other, was undergoing a profound transformation.
The council offered the world's Catholic bishops and its official observers many opportunities to turn toward each other in conversation and friendship. The observers included Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, representatives of the world's Orthodox churches and others.
Simply put, the council enabled the bishops and the observers to get to know each other and sometimes, no doubt, really to understand each other's faith convictions for the first time. Did more unite divided Christians than separated them? The realization that this was the case would take deeper and deeper root in the decades to follow.
No longer, for example, would conflicts of Reformation and Counter-Reformation times be allowed easily to devour the relationships of divided Christians.
One U.S. council observer was the Rev. Albert Outler, a United Methodist theologian. In a 1986 speech he told how Vatican II opened "a new era of cordial coexistence between Roman Catholics and other Christians," and "moved us beyond grudging 'tolerance' toward truly mutual love."
George Lindbeck, then a theologian at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, was a Lutheran observer. Seven years after the council, he spoke of the "remarkable amount" of agreement being witnessed on official levels in the churches regarding the values a Christian way of life implies.
One October evening in 1963, Blessed Paul VI met in his private library with the Vatican II observers. "What could be simpler, more natural or more human," this pope asked, than "to speak to one another and to get to know one another."
But "there is more," he remarked. The council provided opportunities "to listen to each other, to pray for each other and, after such long years of separation and after such painful polemics, to begin again to love each other."
He shared his assurance that "we are turning toward a new thing to be born, a dream to be realized."
It was time, Blessed Paul proposed, for divided Christians "not to look to the past but toward the present, and above all toward the future." Remaining fixed on the past meant running the risk of "getting lost in the maze of history and undoubtedly reopening old wounds which have never completely healed."
The pope did not spell out which "old wounds" he meant. But among them, surely, were points vigorously disputed in the 16th century when dividing lines between denominations of Western Christians were drawn and so much that they shared in terms of faith began to recede from view.
One line of division involved the doctrine of justification. "Opposing interpretations and applications of the biblical message of justification were in the 16th century a principal cause of the division of the Western church," says the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" signed in 1999 by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.
At issue was Luther's insistence, central to his theology, that Christians do not earn salvation through good works but are saved through faith.
If the presence at Vatican Council II of official observers who were not Catholics had been nearly unimaginable, given the realities of past times, the degree of agreement on the doctrine of justification reached on the eve of the 21st century by Lutherans and Catholics was earthshaking!
Yet, Lutherans and Catholics confessed together in the 1999 declaration that "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 and calling us to good works."
Much later, in a 2016 statement, Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, agreed that divided Christians seeking greater unity must not get detoured by past conflicts. Instead they should look to the present moment and to the future. Their statement anticipated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation being observed in 2017.
"We emphatically reject all hatred and violence, past and present," the two leaders stressed. They prayed for the healing of "memories that cloud our view of one another."
They recommended that at this time Catholics and Lutherans should work together for "dignity, justice, peace and reconciliation" in the world, welcoming the stranger, coming to the aid of those forced to flee their homelands and defending refugees' rights.
Scholars still will study the important points of faith that erected walls between Christians in the 16th century and afterward. But, as Pope Francis and Bishop Younan said, "what unites us is greater than what divides us."
Instead of "conflicts of the past," their advice now is to allow "God's gift of unity among us" to "guide cooperation and deepen our solidarity."
Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.
Catholic-Lutheran dialogue: Progress, not perfection
By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service
As a Lutheran boy growing up in Virginia, Michael Root saw the faith-based fear and loathing that permeated the 1960 presidential election when some non-Catholics worried that the Vatican would run America should John F. Kennedy be elected.
As an ordained Lutheran pastor and professor of Lutheran history and theology, Kirsi Stjerna saw the trepidation some of her students felt when she took them to Mass at St. Peter's in Rome.
Fortunately, recent improvement in relationships between the two Christian groups, enhanced largely through ongoing ecumenical dialogue, have alleviated (if not eliminated) the challenges that have faced Catholics and Lutherans for half a millennium, since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Despite theological differences that persist now (and, in all likelihood, will continue for some time), there is much to be celebrated, according to Root and Stjerna, both of whom hold doctorates and are theology professors -- Root at The Catholic University of America and Stjerna at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California.
"All of our conversations must start with what we share in common, and not where we have conflict," said Stjerna. "Through our dialogues of recent years, we've become transformed through each encounter with the other.
"Certainly, as a mom, I'm more interested in teaching our children how to live here in peace with each other. How many more centuries can we afford to focus on our differences?"
Root, professor of systematic theology and a Catholic since 2010, has long participated in ecumenical dialogues (including Catholic-Lutheran). He noted that the Second Vatican Council encouraged "experts on faith" to come together "and find ways to live out their unity in Christ."
"Hopefully," he said, "that process leads ultimately to restoring full communion among some denominations, or at least to removing stereotypes and assumptions. Understanding another's faith helps us better understand our own, even if at the end of the day we don't resolve all of our differences."
Catholic-Lutheran dialogues have produced two significant documents: the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" (1999) and the "Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist" (2015). Together, these documents offer renewed hope for continued progress, without the rancor that plagued relations between the two groups for hundreds of years.
"It's a goal of the dialogue that there will be no condemning of one side by the other," Root says. "In measuring the success of a dialogue, we ask, 'Has there been a true dialogue, a common exploration of the truths that each faith shares?' If so, then there has been progress."
Admittedly, some differences that persist will not soon be resolved, if ever, says Root. "The key is not to let our differences overwhelm the progress we have made."
Some differences evolve from an ongoing parochialism that may be more prevalent in the U.S. than in Europe, says Stjerna, a native of Finland.
"In the U.S.," she notes, "I am amazed at how vehemently people still argue for their own identity, political or religious, without first acknowledging their shared identity as children of God."
But there is certainly cause for hope, she continues, noting that Catholics are much more open to reading the Bible themselves without requiring a pastor to interpret it for them, while Lutherans have permission "to tap into their inner Catholic, so to speak, to talk openly about Mary and the saints as part of their heritage."
"You can open your heart and mind to the other without worrying about eternal retribution. And that's progress, seeing that we are united by shared concerns about the world and our people."
On the aforementioned trip to the Vatican, in fact, her students were "amazed and overwhelmed" when several were invited to present the gifts of bread and wine during the offertory.
"Someone made the effort to step outside the boundaries, to welcome us and say, 'Look what can happen,'" she says. "That's a sign of hope."
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.
The 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification' in brief
By Samuel Wagner | Catholic News Service
On October 31, 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church signed the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification." What is this? Today, the doctrine of justification isn't a common theme on Sunday mornings in Catholic or Lutheran parishes.
Moreover, understanding the means of justification ("by faith and through grace") might seem like an exercise in mental gymnastics rather than anything of real practical value in our day-to-day lives. Yet, these were church-dividing issues for nearly five centuries.
Awareness of Martin Luther's historical context can be helpful in understanding the joint declaration. Luther, though typically remembered as the quintessential rebel, believed himself to be a faithful servant of the church until his death in 1546. As modern scholarship, both Lutheran and Catholic, has made clear, Luther never intended to divide the church.
In the spring of 1517, the stage was set for a perfect storm. Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was in Germany under papal order to raise funds for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The strategy was the sale of indulgences. For a fee, the church would intervene and shorten the length of purgatory for loved ones. It was an effective and popular scheme among the townspeople.
However, the practice troubled Luther, then an Augustinian monk and professor of theology in Wittenberg. He had a simple question: How is a sinner justified? That is, who or what forgives sins and grants salvation? Is it something we do?
Further, as the sale of indulgences implied, could the church, or the pope, mediate forgiveness and salvation?
Luther had his "aha" moment in reading Romans. He arrived at the understanding that Christ alone mediates forgiveness of sins and grants salvation; salvation is a gift of God's grace through faith. Luther's writings around this insight, in addition to his 95 Theses, didn't spark the fruitful theological exchange within the church he had intended.
Instead, it began a rupture in the church. In 1521, Luther was excommunicated. Hostility and an unwillingness to dialogue, on both sides, ensued. For the reformers, justification by faith alone became "the doctrine by which the church stands or falls," a view held in opposition to so-called "works righteousness."
Caricatures of this issue ("Catholics believe they are saved by good works," or "Lutherans don't believe good works are important") were common for several centuries. It was not until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that a genuine theological discussion between Catholics and Lutherans became possible.
To date, the great achievement of those conversations is a joint understanding that we are justified, or saved, by our faith through God's grace, and that good works are a natural result of a life lived in Christ. Christian living is not a choice between good works or faith, but an interconnectedness of the two.
The "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" is a milestone in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. The document expresses, in theological language, that Catholics and Lutherans agree that salvation is mediated by Christ, by faith, through God's grace, and that this necessarily leads to good works that further God's kingdom.
Wagner is director of Dialogue and Catholic Identity at Georgetown University.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Catholic and Lutheran bishops gathered in Chicago March 2 for a prayer service commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
In a joint statement, the bishops said, "While the past cannot be changed, we rejoice in the healing of memories we have already seen, and we ask God's guidance toward a transformed future, renewed in our relations to one another and in our witness to the world."
The bishops met during a joint meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Conference of Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations.
"We join our work, our prayers and our commitments to the efforts of Christians around the world who this year are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation," the bishops continued.
Lutherans and Catholics in the U.S., the bishops said, "have long affirmed the ecumenical principle that 'what unites us is greater than what divides us,'" and that the work of reconciliation is for "the sake of healing in the whole body of Christ, into which all of us are incorporated through baptism."
"We see ourselves already 'on the way' together, even in the complex and unfinished areas such as church, ministry and Eucharist. We continue to grow in the relationships of friendship and trust," which the bishops noted, are as essential to unity as is theological dialogue.[[In-content Ad]]