“You are heretics, but it might not be your fault.” In decades and centuries past, that posture of exculpatory condescension often represented the most we could achieve in ecumenical reconciliation. We may not be able to agree on anything else, but we might concede that Christians today are not fully responsible for the divisions of the sixteenth century.
The 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” issued by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church—both later joined by the Methodist World Council—took us a step beyond that minimal exculpation. The Declaration describes itself as achieving “a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification” and a demonstration “that the remaining differences . . . are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.” Note the two principal achievements: a consensus, and the obviation of the Reformation-era condemnations.
I emphasize these two because the Catholic Church immediately in 1999 saw fit to qualify the Declaration’s self-understanding: The Church, represented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, explained consensus as “a high degree of agreement,” but not the elimination of all divergences. The Church also reduced the obviation of the condemnations to a virtual tautology, saying that the condemnations no longer apply to matters of agreement, but they may yet “touch” points of divergence, especially the Lutheran formula simul iustus et peccator. If some Lutherans felt betrayed by the Church’s response to the Declaration, they may be forgiven.
But I do not want to engage in the treacherous ecumenism of those who denounce their own communions for the sake of dialogical agreement. The Church’s partial retraction is on its face true: We are not in full agreement, and disagreements over even tertiary elements of the doctrine of justification are at least potentially divisive.
It is said that no matter how many ecumenical documents we produce, if we lay them end to end, still they will never reach a conclusion, and the Catholic Church might seem to have confirmed this claim, but I’m optimistic: I think there is a way through the impasse—a way that does not require either communion to reject the virtues of its tradition. What we have here may be “a failure to communicate,” but it’s a failure that can be remedied.
The Declaration, perhaps succumbing to ecumenical dialogue’s characteristic vice of self-congratulation, credits its success to “our common way of listening to the word of God in Scripture,” and claims that such common listening led to new insights and developments that made the Declaration possible.
Maybe, but the reverse is equally plausible: that new insights and developments in our communions and among global cultures have led to a common appreciation for the meaning and import of Scripture, and therefore led also to the Declaration. Recent advances in hermeneutics, especially new insights into the way history and community shape our cognitive frameworks, helped both Lutherans and Catholics to approach their creedal and confessional trajectories with greater circumspection.
To put it crudely: The advent of postmodernism made this Declaration possible. Like a predator that consumes its own young, modernism—with its endless criticism upon criticism—has been cannibalizing the sophomoric rationalism of its own adherents.
In the English translation of his book on Christology, Cardinal Walter Kasper described historical-criticism, left to itself, as “an endless screw”—I imagine he was unaware of the double entendre in English—a endless screw that keeps threading deeper without changing anything, until the drillers recognize their futility. In just this way have many rationalists despaired of the Enlightenment. The decline of the modernist hegemony in academic and popular culture reduced the degree to which modernism threatened the Catholic Church, still somewhat shy about its pre-modern roots, and facilitated the Second Vatican Council’s new esteem for other expressions of the Christian faith.
At the same time, postmodern awareness of the limitations of reason have quieted the more virulent expressions of Lutheranism, born in a facile eagerness to overturn developed authority and discipline, and reaching pubescent frenzy in the wildly rationalistic biblical criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Christians of many communions manifest new interest in the pre-modern origins of the Christian faith, and we find new common ground in the tempered rationalism of the postmodern era. Postmodernism has sparked a new romance between estranged partners.
I’ve been painting with a very broad brush, so permit me to give two specific examples. One: In its response, the Catholic Church complained that the Declaration too easily conceded to the doctrine of justification a special status as the criterion of orthodoxy, whereas a genuinely Catholic approach requires integration of the doctrine of justification with the entire regula fidei—with Christology, Trinitarian theology, ecclesiology, and sacramental practice, among others.
While such a response served a purpose—it precluded certain misunderstandings within the Catholic communion—it missed the theological potential of the Declaration, which clearly sees all the truths of the faith as internally related to each other. All the divine mysteries implicitly embed each other—in fact, some representatives of the Eastern Churches rather frequently insist that all the faults of the Latin Church are easily attributable to the snowball effect of some small but ancient error in, say, Trinitarian theology.
If we Catholics recognize the circumincession of all the truths of faith, so that each one contains all the rest, we should warmly welcome those Lutherans who insist on the doctrine of justification as a synecdoche of the Gospel—for so it is, and to the extent we can reach agreement in matters of justification, we will also have reached agreement on the remainder of Christian doctrine. Thus an advance in epistemology—a recognition of the circumincession of divine truths—renders unnecessary any serious dispute about the doctrine of justification as the criterion for Christian teaching and practice.
Two: The Declaration takes up the question of human powerlessness, passivity, and cooperation in relation to justification, and observes that Catholics typically speak of graced co-operation with God’s grace, while Lutherans insist on human passivity and inability to merit justification. The Declaration invites speculation as to how Catholic and Lutheran anthropologies need not strictly contradict each other.
What Lutherans call “full personal involvement” in faith may perhaps embed what Catholics identify as active co-operation with grace—co-operation which is itself constituted by grace. When Catholics acknowledge that apart from grace, humans cannot move even ad iustitiam, which may be translated “toward justification,” they may concede that man, considered as an independent agent, is necessarily passive with respect to justification. These are not decisively reconciled teachings, but they may yet be reconcilable if we allow ourselves to think in terms of multiple layers of causality and effect. Once again, an allowance for nonparallel linguistic and philosophical frameworks may open up possibilities foreclosed by syllogistic, univocal readings of our theological formulae.
Those were my two examples, in evidence that the Declaration really did achieve a creditable degree of mutual recognition and agreement, aided by postmodern advances in epistemology. And therein lies the threat: If a new awareness of differentiated epistemologies makes it possible for us to accommodate serious differences between communions, that same awareness seems to invite all manner of dissent and relativism, in the name of postmodernism.
Because divisions internal to our communions are now as threatening as divisions between our communions, we dare not too glibly admit the legitimacy of other theological approaches. Such admissions may easily be exploited by relativists in a way that would further fragment our communions. I suspect that just such a fear lies behind many of the cautionary notes of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which does not want an accommodation of Lutheran doctrine to be invoked to justify a tidal wave of dissent within the Catholic Church. Yet, I think the skeleton of a genuine reconciliation has been assembled.
It remains to put flesh on that skeleton—to elaborate the implications of our “consensus” on the doctrine of justification for other elements of Christian faith and practice. I propose to you that the next logical step from justification is toward the atonement, a logical link between justification and the remaining elements of soteriology.
We share a common plight as Christians in a carelessly Pelagian world, where religion is routinely reduced to morality. Those of a secular mindset speak of the evolutionary utility of religion in taming man’s bestial appetites; those of a moralist bent telescope the Christian faith into the orthopraxis of social justice or sex. We desperately need to be reminded of the priority of grace offered through the Lord’s death and resurrection, and I hope that to cast ancient Christian doctrine of the atonement into contemporary and especially phenomenological terms may yet fuel just such a new evangelization.
Phenomenological considerations have shown potential to translate elements of pre-modern Christianity—such as metaphysical or natural law theory—into effective terms. In the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul’s Wednesday catecheses, from which what is now called the “Theology of the Body” emerged, achieved just such a translation. Our people and even our clergy might have much to gain from exploring our human experience of the proclamation of the Lord’s atoning death.
From my own stance as a Roman Catholic, I hope that ecumenical consensus on justification may lead to articulate agreement concerning the atonement, and hence also the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ, and thus at last to what for Catholics is the Holy Grail of ecumenism—literally, the Holy Grail, the Eucharist—the fullest and most visible expression of the life and unity of the Church. Cardinal Walter Kasper, speaking on Christian unity, recently remarked that “our goal must be full communion within the communion of communions that is the Church.”
This requires shared Eucharist. May God bring to speedy fruition the good work he has begun in the Joint Declaration.
Rev. David Poecking is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. “The Skeleton of Genuine Reconciliation” was given as one of three papers delivered at a retrospective observance of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification sponsored by Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Lutheran Synod of Southwestern Pennsylvania and Bishop Lawrence Brandt of the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, held yesterday (Reformation Sunday). The Joint Declaration can be found here.