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The Lutheran-Catholic agreement.

Some called it "a milestone," others "a significant step"; others again said "it marked a new era." All of this may be true. But what is not true is that the "agreement" means unity between Catholics and Lutherans today.

Celebrations in Winnipeg and Guelph

Certainly, the signing of the agreement between Lutherans and Catholics on the theological question of justification was celebrated with joy.

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, the city's three Catholic Archbishops, Antoine Hacault for the French diocese of St. Boniface, Leonard Wall for the English diocese of Winnipeg, Metropolitan Michael Bzdel for the Ukranian Catholic rite, met with Bishop Telmor Sartison of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) in a Lutheran church. "Lutherans and Catholics celebrate grace and unity," the billboard outside read.

During the service, the bishops led the participants in begging forgiveness of each other for all past offences. They mutually affirmed the common understanding "that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation...and that good works...follow justification and are its fruits."

They further affirmed that mutual condemnations of the Council of Trent and the Lutheran confession no longer apply. And they said: "Lutheran churches and the Catholic Church will continue to strive together to deepen this common understanding of justification and to make it bear fruit."

A similar happy ceremony took place in the beautiful Our Lady Immaculate Catholic Church in Guelph, Ontario. Once again Bishop Sartison of the ELCIC was present, this time in the company of Bishop Anthony Tonnos of the Catholic diocese of Hamilton. The proceedings were the same: mutual requests for forgiveness, a penitential rite including 1 John 1:10, "if we say we have not sinned we make Him (God) a liar, and His Word is not in us", readings from the Gospel. That the Lutherans were using the same three-year cycle of Scripture readings introduced into the Catholic Church after Vatican II was a sign of an earlier growing together. All present were able to join in reciting the age-old Apostles' Creed and the Our Father. This was followed by a joyful exchange of peace and strong applause.

Canada's celebrations coincided with the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in Augsburg, Germany, on October 31--known to Protestants as Reformation Day. This was attended by the "official" delegates, Edward Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council of Christian Unity, and Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran World Federation. In Rome meanwhile, John Paul II expressed "satisfaction" over the signing, not least because it fulfilled his desire, expressed in the 1994 letter The coming of the Third Millennium, that this might take place before the Great Jubilee, as an encouragement in overcoming the divisions of the second millennium.

What is the agreement about?

The Joint Declaration (JD)--preceded by other documents over a 30-year period--covers all essential points pertaining to how an individual is justified in faith. The doctrine of justification was of central importance for the Lutherans of the sixteenth century, not least because they swept away so many related doctrines. Nevertheless, its importance, even as a touchstone for other doctrines, remains today.

The JD declares that there is now a consensus on the basic truths of this doctrine while allowing for some differences. But the biblical and theological foundations of justification by faith are accepted by both parties.

Today's negotiators decided to bypass the historical disputes and ask instead: what do today's Catholics and Lutherans believe? The conclusion: they believe essentially the same. We are saved by God's gracious intervention and not by anything we do. Once we are committed to Christ, good works will manifest themselves as consequences, but even these are gifts from God.

When the JD says that mutual condemnations no longer apply, it does not mean to say that the Council of Trent's rejection of Luther's ideas is null and void; no, it indicates that these condemnations don't apply to the Lutherans of today. We are, the JD states, not disavowing our past; this can still serve as a warning.

The JD faces each problem frankly. For example, the standard Lutheran view that Original Sin has totally corrupted the individual human being who, therefore, has lost the freedom to 'cooperate' with God, is softened to acknowledging that "the enslaving power of sin is broken on the basis of the merit of Christ" (#29).

What will be the future?

As indicated, the agreement concerns one central point of theology. Other issues still divide Catholics from Lutherans, such as the nature of the Church, sacraments, priesthood, the Eucharist.

A second problem is disunity in the Lutheran camp. In North America, the large "conservative" group called the Missouri Synod did not sign.

A third dilemma concerns justification by faith in practice. The "conservative" Lutherans who did not sign are at one with Catholics in rejecting abortion and the current permissive immorality, while the "liberal" Evangelicals, who did sign, embrace it as part of an acceptable culture.

ELCIC's inter-communion with even less structured churches is another obstacle. Nevertheless one may hope that in the search for unity between Catholics and "reformation" Christians a first important step has been taken. With the grace of God, may it prove to be a catalyst for unity.
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Title Annotation:Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Previous Article:An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching.
Next Article:Letters to the Editor.

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