Some Reflections on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

Author: LOR


L’Osservatore Romano

The essential contents of the Joint Declaration

31 October 1999 can be considered an auspicious day in the history of the ecumenical movement. On a date and in a place of weighty historical significance, high-ranking representatives of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed an "Official Common Statement" in Augsburg, Germany. They confirmed the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" of the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, a "decisive step forward on the way to overcoming the division of the Church" (JDJ, n. 44).

The essential result was "a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification" (JDJ, n. 40). Both sides agreed not to present their own teaching on justification as contradictory of the other's interpretation. A convergence thus emerges on common faith in the justification of the sinner by means of God's grace in Christ. On this issue, the condemnations of the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Catholic Church as presented in the Declaration, and similarly the teaching of the Lutheran communities as presented does not fall under the condemnations of the Council of Trent (cf. JDJ, n. 41). After all the suffering which the division of Western Christianity has brought to the Church, to Christian families and to millions of believers, the day of the signing at Augsburg can be welcomed only with the recognition that it represents an irrevocable turning point in relations between Catholic and Evangelical-Lutheran Christianity.

Returning to this event a little more than a year later is meant above all as an occasion to grasp ever more deeply the fundamental elements of the document and, at the same time, to guard against inaccurate interpretations which might lessen its beneficial effect. It is not possible, however, to include in these reflections an account of the promising reception of the Joint Declaration that has already taken place throughout the world, as witnessed by articles, symposia and conferences, as this would require its own specific presentation, and in any case has already been outlined in the expert analyses published in this newspaper during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The symbolism of the day and the place of the signing

The date of 31 October 1517 is considered the start of the Reformation movement, begun with Martin Luther's publication of 95 theses on indulgences, penance and justification. Unfortunately, however, and contrary to the will of everyone involved, what ensued was the dramatic fracturing of Christianity, rather than the renewal of the Church.

The Diet of Augsburg in 1530 was an attempt to save the confessional unity of the Church, which in the common Creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople was confessed by all the parties to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. From the point of view of the law of the Empire, the religious peace of Augsburg of 1555 succeeded in achieving a temporary peace. In practice, however, it was only the humiliating official recognition of the failure of every attempt to preserve unity.

In search of the foundation of unity

Ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the communities born of the Reformation finds solid foundation, however, when the communities in question have formulated binding confessions of faith, as exemplified above all in the Confessio Augustana (1530), a clearly recognizable criterion of their ecclesial character. The famous definition of the Church as a community of justified believers, which is recognized by the proclamation of the word in conformity with the Gospel, and the celebration of the sacraments in fidelity to the will of Christ, finds its completion in the adherence of regional Churches to the common written confession of faith.

If it can be argued that the debate over the more precise interpretation of the sinner's justification was at the origin of the formation—albeit unintentional—of the new ecclesial communities, then the consensus on fundamental questions of the teaching on justification has to lead us together on the path willed by all toward the full unity of Catholic and Evangelical-Lutheran Christians in a confession of faith and in the life of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Indeed, all Christians are bound to unity in faith through Jesus Christ. He himself is the founder of his Church's unity and the author of her faith, of her ministry of sanctification through the liturgy and the sacraments, and of her apostolic constitution.

Of course, this solemn act of signing, which can be said to have officially ratified results obtained by the various dialogues of the theological commissions, can only be the starting point of an irreversible process, which, according to the will of Christ, must lead to the full re-establishment of unity through deepening one's own self-understanding. In this process, the willingness to identify with the situation of one's partner in dialogue plays a significant part. Only with such a willingness can fundamental issues of unity be faced: for example, "the relationship between the word of God and Church doctrine, as well as ecclesiology, authority in the Church and its unity, ministry and the sacraments" (JDJ, n. 43). It is not a question of minor points, but rather of statements central to the Church's confession of faith, on which there has to be agreement in order that the unity of Christians may not depend on arbitrary human interpretations or pragmatic ends. The Church exists only in faithfulness to God's revelation. Inseparable from revelation are the means by which the Church makes herself present in every moment of history, through the confession of faith, the sacraments and the apostolic authority of the ministry of proclamation and pastoral guidance of the Church.

New proposals for Eucharistic communion between Catholics and Lutherans

In this situation of fragmented Christianity there are not a few who would like to see gestures of unity based on what already unites Catholic and Lutheran Christians. Notwithstanding the remaining disagreements, even on essential questions of the faith, there are some who think nevertheless that, once in a while, witness could be given to the unity in faith attained thus far, and encouragement given to the quest for full visible unity, by means of pulpit exchange and forms of Eucharistic intercommunion, such as reciprocal Eucharistic hospitality, free access to communion, or even concelebration of the same Eucharistic liturgy.

In some circles, it is even suggested that these proposals would be the logical consequence of the signing at Augsburg. In this view, since Augsburg recognizes the existence of elements in common with the reformers on the doctrine of justification, the Council of Trent's Decree on Justification would be relativized. If, on the Catholic side, the Lutheran understanding of justification is no longer condemned, so it is said, then all the doctrinal differences which Luther drew from this teaching and which were rejected by Trent have also been overcome. This clearly cannot be maintained.

The common task of putting into practice the message on justification

In actual fact, the Joint Declaration presents the question very differently. With an attitude of respect for the consciousness of the truth possessed by one's partner in dialogue, it seeks, beginning from the common and fundamental starting point of Holy Scripture, to arrive at a common interpretation. Of course, this cannot be accomplished solely through an historical perspective. Modern man, addressed by the proclamation of the Christian message today, has different questions and concerns from those of the 16th century. Modern man wonders whether he is not just a pawn in a disinterested cosmic process or, on the other hand, whether there really is a creator whose ears hear his prayers and who knows his anguish, whose heart bears love for him and whose mouth speaks a word to him. Our common faith is this: by ourselves we are not able to do anything to comprehend the meaning of existence and to overcome our limitedness and our mortality, if God by his own initiative does not come in search of us in his Son, who became man so that we, through the Spirit of God, might become sons of God in faith, hope and love.

Within a basic interpretation of Christianity, hoped for by all in the face of a world that is increasingly secularized and alienated from God, fundamental elements of the Lutheran and Catholic conception of justification can thus be safeguarded and superseded to arrive at a common formulation.

Eucharist and communion in faith

On the other hand, the signature given by the Catholic Church at Augsburg implies no renunciation of its understanding of the Church, the Magisterium, and the Ecumenical Councils, nor does the consensus on justification contain such logic. The approval of the Joint Declaration by the Church's authorities does not undo the binding teaching of the Council of Trent and the First and Second Vatican Councils. The Catholic principles of the interpretation of revelation and the differentiated internal articulation of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium (Council and Pope) remain normative for its ecumenical texts and actions.

One can understand therefore why the above-mentioned forms of Eucharistic communion, in this phase of the ecumenical process, would amount to a renunciation of truths, which belong to the Catholic confession of faith. Indeed, according to Catholic doctrine, the reception of Holy Communion presupposes full communion with the Church.

Certainly it is Christ who invites to the supper, to the extent that it is he who administers the sacraments in the person of the ordained priest. However, Christ acts in the sacraments when the apostles and, in legitimate succession with them, Bishops and priests obey his command ("Do this in memory of me") to make present his sacrifice on the Cross and participation in the reality of his resurrection. In this way, he unites himself to his Church, his body and his bride. Thus Christ is "one" in the head and members of his body. The essential prerequisite for participation is therefore confession of the Church's faith, in which she appears, even visibly, as the body of Christ and is built up in her unity by Christ. The preconditions for participation are therefore baptism and full unity with the faith of the Church.

If divisions arise among Christians on essential matters of faith, they must reconcile themselves to one another in faith as soon as possible. Only after this will they be able to celebrate the Eucharist in truth as an expression of unity with Christ and unity among themselves. Doctrinal disagreement on the most important contents of the confession of faith, on liturgy and on the apostolic constitution of the Church, does not permit common celebration of the Eucharist.

Only unity in the confession of faith accomplishes the full communion of disciples among themselves and with Christ, head of the body that is the Church. If, in essential contents of the confession of faith, unity is lacking, common celebration of the Eucharist would be an untruth; indeed, it would be a statement that the fragmentation of Christianity is insuperable. It would be a counter-witness to the visible unity of the Church as willed by Christ.

On this matter it would not be theologically justified to appeal to personal inspiration or alleged obedience to the free action of the Holy Spirit, which would override obedience to the Bishops. The Holy Spirit does not annul the command which Christ has given to the Church. The Holy Spirit does not relativize the authority of the Church's Magisterium, but sustains it.

Obviously, the path to unity among Christians cannot create new divisions or be furthered by contradicting the Pope and the Bishops.

Cases of grave and urgent pastoral necessity, however, as contemplated by the Ecumenical Directory, are quite different from what is set out above; in exceptional circumstances under carefully predetermined conditions, Lutheran Christians may be admitted to the Eucharist (cf. Ecumenical Directory, nn. 129-131).

In conclusion, it must be remembered that the laudable desire for unity must not lead to impatience or to failure to recognize the complexity of the problems. Unity is not something that can be manufactured. It is rather something which can only be received in faith and maintained in love for the Church and its greatest truth. Unity in faith calls in particular for great attention to the correct dynamic of the Church's sacraments. It can grow only out of the depths of faith, in profound common listening to the word of God and in obedience to the instructions of Christ. The essentially sceptical attitude of secularized society toward the truth of revelation and toward man's capacity for truth regarding the transcendence of God is a very untrustworthy guide for the ecumenical movement in its search for the unity of Christians, in faith. The statements of the Church's faith are not only human interpretations, but also have a binding character which enlightens and orients the path toward authentic unity.

The Joint Declaration of Augsburg follows the right path: the unity of Christians must be sought on the level of unity in the confession of faith, so that it might find full expression in the common celebration of the sacraments.

The Joint Declaration does not ignore the important differences which exist. Christianity is in need of reconciliation in the depths of the mystery of Christ's truth. The road toward this reconciliation can only be that of open dialogue, in order to discover—in conformity with the will of God—a unity in faith which may serve as the basis for the full communion of all Christians.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 April 2001, page 10

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