Where Do We Go From Here?

The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification is at once an ecumenical breakthrough of historic significance and an ecumenical dead end.

For Lutherans who came of age before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the signing of the declaration on October 31—Reformation Day—was a remarkable moment. We were formed in a theology that emphasized precisely those doctrines on justification that distinguished us from Rome, and our piety, while not entirely defined by anti-Catholicism, was thoroughly suffused with it. Reformation Day services in my childhood were exercises in unrestrained Protestant triumphalism in which we earnestly thanked God for restoring to us, by way of Luther, the pure Gospel that centuries of Roman error had obscured.

It was not until college that I first encountered the idea—quite shocking to me—that Lutherans might have more in common with Catholics than with other Protestants. That began the process, too complicated to detail here, by which I gradually came to define myself as a Lutheran of catholic inclinations. I am still a member of the Lutheran communion and expect always to be so, but I am now part of that large Lutheran contingent that cannot imagine any credible definition of the Christian reality—of the body of Christ that is the Church—that does not include Catholicism and orthodoxy. We are gratified that the declaration can announce that, despite remaining differences, “a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics” and that the mutual condemnations of the 16th century no longer apply. Indeed, we are more than gratified: Remembering the intense Lutheran-Catholic conflicts of not so long ago, we are nothing short of astonished.

Given all this good news, why the seemingly perverse depiction of the declaration as an ecumenical dead end?

While this is not the heart of the matter, it should be noted at the outset that the consensus announced by the document is a little less solid than it at first appears. In June 1998 the Vatican released an “Official Response” to what negotiators on both sides had assumed was a finished document that was so strong in objection to certain Lutheran positions as to seem to bring the assumed agreement into question. After sharp reactions from Lutherans (and not a few Catholics), Rome softened its position and reaffirmed its intention to go ahead with the process.

On July 30, Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, wrote to his opposite number on the Lutheran side, Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. In the letter, a masterpiece of diplomatic nicety, Cassidy repeats in muted tones Catholic reservations about certain Lutheran positions—even to the point of suggesting that the Lutheran formulation simul justus et peccator (the justified person remains at once righteous and a sinner) might still possibly fall under the anathema of the Council of Trent. He hastens to add, however, that it might not—further clarification is necessary—and that in the meantime “in accord with common procedure in such cases, frequent particularly in respect of solemn agreements in the international sphere, I believe that the agreement reached and the nature of the clarifications allow the Catholic Church to sign the joint declaration without delay and in its integrity?’ The letter as a whole can be parsed in a number of ways, though its bottom line—let’s go ahead with the declaration and worry about our remaining differences later—is clear enough.

Those of us who support the Joint Declaration should recognize the integrity of those—both Lutheran and Catholic—who argue that its consensus rests on a studied theological ambiguity. The doctrinal issues at stake are too complex to go into here, but my own experience as a Lutheran who spends a lot of time with Catholics suggests that on simul and other matters there remain significant differences in the lived piety of the two churches. Simul is critical to Lutherans, and it seems to me quite alien to Catholic understanding. This is not to say that it is wrong for the two churches to conclude that the differences between them on the doctrine of justification should not be regarded as “church-dividing.” But the will so to conclude transcends theological considerations alone.

In any case, my designation of the Joint Declaration as an ecumenical dead end does not significantly depend on the document’s ambiguities. The question is where, if anywhere, the two churches can go together from here. There is a forbidding range of issues—the papal office, the Marian dogmas, women’s ordination, the very meaning of “church”—on which nothing like a consensus exists and no amount of ecumenical goodwill can generate a convergence. The hopes of many in both churches that the Joint Declaration marks but a step on the road to full communion, to a genuine healing of the breach of the 16th century, seem to me illusory.

Indeed, judging from the behavior of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest Lutheran body in the United States, the ecumenical energies of Lutheranism are directed not toward reunion with Rome, but toward ever fuller identification with mainstream Protestantism. The ELCA has already established full communion with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America and, at its most recent convention this summer, voted to create similar ties to the Episcopal Church and the Moravians. When challenged by Lutherans of catholic inclination, the ELCA can legitimately claim that, ecumenically speaking, engagement with other Protestants is the only game in town. One can wish things were otherwise, but at this point, Lutheran-Catholic unity appears to be an eschatological project.

I suspect the main ecumenical result of the signing of the declaration will be an increase in the movement to Rome on the part of individual Lutherans, some of them quite prominent, that has already been under way for a long time. For many Lutherans of catholic sensibilities, the announcement of a consensus on justification between the churches may remove the last obstacle to conversion. For those of us who unite catholic sensibilities with deep Lutheran piety, it will mean a further hunkering down in those local congregations where that fugitive combination still maintains some purchase. It’s not a happy prospect, but right now, it is all that is open to us.


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