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One of the central themes of the New Testament, if not the central theme, is the way to obtain salvation. To be on the right road is, in New Testament terminology, to be justified. The corollary is that unless we are justified we are unrighteous and are on the road to final perdition. In other words, justification, as a right relationship with God, is a matter of eternal life or death. If it is not important, nothing is.

According to Christian faith, justification is a gift of God, who grants it through His Son and the Holy Spirit. Fifteen hundred years of intense reflection have left us with a number of questions. Four seem to me to be crucial: 1) Is justification the action of God alone, or do we who receive it cooperate by our response to God’s offer of grace? 2) Does God, when He justifies us, simply impute to us the merits of Christ, or does He transform us and make us intrinsically righteous? 3) Do we receive justification by faith alone, or only by a faith enlivened by love and fruitful in good works? 4) Is the reward of heavenly life a free gift of God to believers, or do they merit it by their faithfulness and good works?

In the sixteenth century Martin Luther came up with answers to all these questions based primarily on his study of Paul. He affirmed, first, that justification, as God’s act, is independent of all human cooperation. Justification, secondly, consists in the favor of God, who freely imputes to us the merits of Christ. It is not a matter of inner renewal. Justification, in the third place, is received by faith alone, independently of any good works or obedience to God’s law. And finally, eternal life is a sheer gift; it is not merited by good behavior.

At the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, the Emperor Charles V ordered the Lutheran party to explain its position. They did so in the Augsburg Confession, composed by Philip Melanchthon at the behest of Luther. A group of theologians assembled by the Emperor studied that Confession and faulted it at several points, especially for its teaching on merit.

After several colloquies had unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile the Catholic and Lutheran positions, the Council of Trent in 1547 set forth the official Catholic doctrine in its Decree on Justification. The Council taught that although justification is an unmerited gift, it needs to be freely accepted, so that human cooperation is involved. Secondly, it taught that justification consists in an inner renewal brought about by divine grace; thirdly, that justification does not take place by faith without hope, charity, and good works; and finally, that the justified, by performing good works, merit the reward of eternal life.

For the next four hundred years the two churches went their separate ways. The divisions were hardened by polemical tracts. But in the ecumenical climate of the present century, as represented by Vatican II, both sides have striven to appreciate what is authentically Christian in the other’s positions and to achieve the greatest possible degree of consensus. Bilateral dialogues dealing with justification have been conducted on the international level and in several countries.

The United States Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue in 1983 published an important statement that highlighted twelve important points of agreement. The sixty-page statement concluded with a Common Declaration setting forth what it called “a fundamental consensus on the gospel.” According to this declaration, justification is an undeserved gift granted through Jesus Christ and received in faith, whereby we pass from sin to freedom and fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit. At the end of its statement the Dialogue asked the respective churches to study this consensus and make appropriate decisions for the purpose of confessing the faith in unison. It also stated that in view of the convergences achieved, the remaining theological differences about the doctrine of justification, though serious, need not be considered church-dividing.

The American dialogue had important repercussions. An ecumenical group of Protestant and Catholic theologians in Germany in 1985 undertook a study of the condemnations issued by each church in the sixteenth century. Concluding that none of these condemnations held against the partner church today, this study proposed that the churches make binding pronouncements to the effect that those condemnations should no longer be cited as if they still held against the other church. The canons on justification in the Council of Trent and in the Lutheran Book of Concord figured prominently in this study.

From 1986 to 1993 the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission conducted its own study of the problem of justification and in its final statement, Church and Justification, supported the conclusions of the North American dialogue and applied them to ecclesiology. Thus the road seemed clear for the churches to take some official action signifying their acceptance of the results of the dialogues.

The Joint Declaration was drafted in 1994 by a small committee of church officials and ecumenical professionals appointed by the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation. Their mandate was to summarize the results of the dialogues and pave the way for a public act of solidarity and reconciliation.

The Lutheran World Federation submitted the draft to 124 Lutheran member churches and obtained responses from eighty-nine—eighty favorable, five opposed, and four mixed. In the light of the official reactions and private theological critiques, the text was revised to produce the final version of 1997. On June 16, 1998 the governing council of the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland, unanimously approved the Joint Declaration.

The Roman authorities were not bound to conduct any consultation, but informal reactions were obtained. Because the Holy See had been heavily involved in the composition, its acceptance was taken for granted. But to the surprise of many observers the Council for Promoting Christian Unity on June 25, 1998 released an “Official Response” expressing a number of severe criticisms and apparently calling into question the consensus expressed by the Joint Declaration.

After a flurry of conferences the parties drew up an “Official Common Statement,” an “Annex,” and a “Note on the Annex” that addressed some of the Roman questions and got the process back on track. The official signing ceremony was held in Augsburg on Sunday, October 31, 1999, the date that Lutherans annually observe as Reformation Day. Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians, signed for the Catholic Church and a number of officials signed for the Lutheran World Federation. The event was an historic one because the disagreements on the doctrine of justification are generally regarded as the principal cause of the division between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century.

The heart of the Joint Declaration is surely paragraph 15, and more particularly the sentence: “Together we confess: 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.” This consensus does not go beyond the clear conclusions of the dialogues. While it is in perfect accord both with the Augsburg Confession and with the Decree on Justification of the Council of Trent, it dispels some false stereotypes inherited from the past. Lutherans have often accused Catholics of holding that justification is a human achievement rather than a divine gift received in faith, while Catholics have accused Lutherans of holding that justification by faith does not involve inner renewal or good works. By mentioning both faith and works, both acceptance by God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, this sentence strikes an even-handed balance calculated to satisfy both sides.

If the Joint Declaration had stopped at this point, it would have been a breakthrough of sorts because the two churches have never in the past jointly expressed their shared convictions about justification. But the Declaration goes further. In the following paragraphs it addresses an assortment of subordinate questions that have proved divisive. First of all comes a general question of method: Does the doctrine of justification hold a privileged position as the criterion by which all other Christian doctrines are to be judged, or is it to be viewed as one doctrine among many? Then the Joint Declaration takes up seven more specific issues. To simplify somewhat the language of the Declaration, one could list these issues as questions:

1) Do the justified cooperate in the preparation for, and reception of, justification? 2) Is justification a divine decree of forgiveness or interior renewal?
3) Is justification received by faith alone or by faith together with hope and charity, which bring one into communion with God?
4) Does concupiscence, that is to say, our innate tendency to be self-indulgent, make us sinners, even when we do not give in to it?
5) Is God’s law given only in order to accuse sinners of their failures, bringing them to repentance, or also to provide them with a rule of life that they can and must observe?
6) Does faith include an assurance that one will in fact attain final salvation?
7) Are the heavenly rewards for which we hope things that we also merit, or are they to be understood exclusively as undeserved gifts from God?

Each of these seven points, like the preliminary question about criteria, is treated in three phases: a brief formulation of the consensus, a Lutheran perspective, and a Catholic perspective. Lutherans and Catholics are not expected to accept each other’s perspectives, but only to acknowledge that these perspectives are tolerable, in the sense that they escape the condemnations pronounced by each church in the sixteenth century. But even this, as we shall see, is a bold statement, difficult to defend.

The delicacy of the matter is illustrated by the Official Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration issued in June 1998. It is divided into two parts. The first is an acceptance of the remarkable convergence already achieved. The second part calls for theological clarification of some unresolved issues.

In this second section the Official Response is rather blunt, but the seriousness of the matter calls for more than diplomacy. For example, it asks about the doctrinal authority of the Lutheran World Federation and the synods or ecclesial bodies it consulted. Can they speak decisively for the Lutheran community? The Response also calls attention to some lacunae in the Joint Declaration, such as its lack of attention to the sacrament of penance, in which justification is restored to those who have lost it. In addition, it contests the Lutheran view that the doctrine of justification is the supreme touchstone of right doctrine. It asserts, on the contrary, that the doctrine of justification must be integrated into the “rule of faith,” which is centered on the triune God, the Incarnation, the Church, and the sacraments. Most importantly for our present purposes, the Catholic Response raises the question whether the Lutheran positions as explained in the Joint Declaration really escape the anathemas of the Council of Trent. Without repeating the exact words of the Official Response, I can indicate some of the objections it poses regarding the first, second, fourth, and seventh of the issues I have mentioned in my summary of the Joint Declaration.

Regarding the first issue, human cooperation in the preparation for and reception of justification, the Council of Trent taught under anathema that the recipients of justification cooperate freely in their own justification and do not receive it purely passively as if they were puppets (can. 4, DS 1554). The Joint Declaration contends, on the contrary, that human beings possess “no freedom in relation of salvation” (para. 19) and that “God’s gift of grace in justification remains independent of human cooperation” (para. 24). It reports Lutherans as holding that we are merely passive in receiving grace and make no contribution to our own justification, even while conceding that we are “fully involved personally in [our] faith” (para. 21). These statements are intelligible only if one understands justification as a divine decree, prior to any human act of faith or love. The Catholic response quite understandably asks whether the Joint Declaration on this point can be harmonized with Trent, which, as we shall see, teaches a very different doctrine of justification.

The second issue goes right to the heart of the matter and is considered by the Official Response the most serious obstacle to agreement. Does justification consist in an imputation of Christ’s righteousness, as Lutherans generally hold, or in an interior renewal and sanctification, as the Council of Trent taught? Lutherans distinguish between justification and sanctification, making the first prior to the second, whereas for Trent justification and sanctification are two sides of the same coin. The Joint Declaration seeks to achieve consensus by treating justification and sanctification as two distinct but inseparable aspects of God’s saving action. The process involves both the forgiveness of sin and the divine self-gift. Lutherans, who emphasize the element of forgiveness, do not deny renewal, but they insist that God’s justifying action is not dependent on the transformative effects of His grace. Catholics, who emphasize interior renewal through the reception of God’s gift, do not wish to deny that God’s saving initiative precedes our response and is independent of it.

Does this explanation succeed in bridging the gap between the two positions? The answer depends on what kind of renewal is understood to be involved in justification. Are we really made righteous through being interiorly renewed, as the Council of Trent insisted (can. 10, DS 1560), or is our righteousness a non-imputation of sin or an imputation of the “alien righteousness” of Christ, as Lutherans have commonly said? So far as I can see, the Lutheran position in the Joint Declaration favors the theory of alien righteousness that was rejected at Trent.

This reading of the Lutheran position is confirmed by the handling of the fourth issue, that of concupiscence—a technical term signifying the disorderly desires and spiritual weakness that afflict our fallen human nature. Lutherans hold that the justified person remains a sinner because “concupiscence” is not removed by baptism. In their view the justified person is, as the phrase goes, simul justus et peccator—at once righteous and a sinner. Catholics, by contrast, hold that concupiscence is not sin, and that justification removes all that can properly be called sin. The Council of Trent taught that justification effectively makes us righteous and condemned the view that our justification is only an imputation of Christ’s righteousness (DS 156061). It also condemned under anathema the view that concupiscence is sin (DS 1515). When Lutherans say that concupiscence makes people sinners, they seem to imply that it makes us guilty before God and needs to be forgiven or at least covered over by the merits of Christ. This was and is contrary to Catholic teaching.

Still another issue flagged by the Official Catholic Response was that of merit, the seventh on my list. The Joint Declaration states quite correctly the position of both churches, namely, that nothing preceding justification merits justification. In that sense justification is a totally free gift of God. But Lutherans and Catholics have disagreed about whether one can, after justification, merit the increase of grace and the reward of eternal life. Trent clearly says yes. Lutherans have denied this. The Joint Declaration attempts the following compromise:

When Catholics affirm the “meritorious” character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace. (para. 38)

This statement seems to fall short of what Catholics believe and what Trent teaches under anathema. The fact that a reward is promised does not make it merited, since one can promise to bestow gifts that are completely undeserved. In the Catholic view, justification makes us capable of meriting in a true sense. Yet eternal life is also a gift because our capacity to merit is God’s gift, which is itself unmerited.

Many other objections could be raised against the claim of the Joint Declaration that the condemnations of the sixteenth century no longer apply to the partner churches, even on the particular issues it took up. On the third issue in my list, whether we are justified by faith alone, it is very difficult to make out a consensus since the Lutheran position is based on the assumption that faith is the means whereby we are clothed with the merits of Christ, in whom we believe. Lutherans reject justification as interior renewal because in their view such renewal is always imperfect and presupposes justification. Here again, no agreement has been reached.

Because of the serious criticisms made in the Official Response, many assumed that the Joint Declaration was as good as dead. But the Holy See, almost unaccountably, continued to insist on its readiness to sign. How could the Vatican agree to sign a document that it found so defective?

The Annex appended to the Official Common Statement of 1999 purports to give further clarifications, but I personally do not find it helpful. It simply piles up more quotations from Scripture and from the sixteenth-century documents that were presumably familiar to the authors of the Catholic response.

To explain the attitude of the Holy See it seems important to say something about ecumenical method as currently understood in the Catholic Church. Vatican II, which is normative, lays down the basic principles. It states that the separated churches can acknowledge each other as truly Christian and as being in a state of real though imperfect communion (Unitatis Redintegratio 3). Dialogues between experts from different churches and ecclesial communities should be undertaken with a view to restoring full communion (UR 4). The deposit of faith has been handed down in different ways in different places and cultures (UR 14). The deposit of faith is one thing, and theological formulation quite another (Gaudium et Spes 62). Varying theological formulations must often be considered complementary rather than conflicting. “It is hardly surprising, then, if sometimes one tradition has come nearer than the other to an apt appreciation of certain aspects of a revealed mystery, and has expressed them more lucidly” (UR 17).

John Paul II in his encyclical on ecumenism reaffirms these principles and insists that theological dialogue must take account of the ways of thinking and historical experiences of the other party (Ut Unum Sint 36). Assertions that reflect different ways of looking at the same reality, he says, should not be treated as though they were mutually contradictory (UUS 38).

According to an older theological model, ecumenism would aspire to take the statements of the Lutheran Book of Concord and those of the Catholic councils one by one, and examine them atomistically and fit them into a single internally coherent system. What seems to be surfacing is a willingness to acknowledge that we have here two systems that have to be taken holistically. Both take their departure from the Scriptures, the creeds, and early tradition. But they filter the data through different thought-forms, or languages.

The Catholic thought-form, as expressed at Trent, is Scholastic, and heavily indebted to Greek metaphysics. The Lutheran thought-form is more existential, personalistic, or, as some prefer to say, relational. The Scholastics adopt a contemplative point of view, seeking explanation. Luther and his followers, adopting a confessional posture, seek to address God and give an account of themselves before God. In that framework all the terms take on a different hue. For a Lutheran to say that we are merely passive in receiving justification, that we are justified by faith alone, that justification is an imputation of the righteousness of Christ, that the justified continue to be sinners, that concupiscence is sin, that God’s law accuses us of our guilt, and that eternal life is never merited—all these statements are possible and necessary in the Lutheran system. These statements find strong resonances in the Catholic literature of proclamation and spirituality.

In the dialogues of the past fifty years, Catholics and Lutherans have come to respect one another as Christian believers. We find that in spite of our different thought-forms, our different languages, we can say many things—the most important things—in common. And precisely because of our different perspectives we can learn from one another. Lutherans can teach Catholics that we must be in some sense passive in submitting to God’s word, that we must always acknowledge ourselves as sinners, that God’s law never ceases to accuse us, that we must throw ourselves on God’s mercy, and that we depend on the perfect righteousness of Christ, without being able to make it completely our own. For all these reasons it now seems appropriate to measure the Lutheran theses against some standard other than the decrees of Trent, valid though those decrees are in Catholic dogmatic teaching.

The Official Catholic Response, in its concluding section, calls for deeper reflection on the biblical foundation in light of a joint effort on the part of Lutherans and Catholics to forge a language that can make the doctrine of justification more meaningful to men and women of our day. In face of a world that is so alien to the gospel, our churches are called to unite their forces in restoring missionary and evangelistic power to the gospel message of God’s powerful mercy.

These considerations, I think, are behind the eagerness of the Catholic Church, at the very highest level, to sign the Joint Declaration, even while recognizing that theologians have not yet been able to establish how, or to what extent, certain Lutheran positions can be reconciled with official Catholic teaching. It is not enough to say that we have different frameworks of discourse. It is necessary to establish that Lutheran proclamation and Catholic speculation are both legitimate derivatives of the same gospel, and therefore compatible. Performative language cannot be unrelated to informative; the law of prayer must harmonize with the law of belief. The Joint Declaration, helpful though it is, has not overcome all difficulties. More theological work is needed.

The Declaration differs from documents of the Catholic Magisterium that are drafted and promulgated by persons in full communion with the Church of Rome. The Roman Response indicates that theological misgivings can legitimately be expressed from the Catholic side, and the same will presumably be true among Lutherans. But notwithstanding all the theological reservations on both sides, the signing of the Declaration with the “blessing” of John Paul II can be a powerful symbolic event. It says clearly to a world that hovers on the brink of unbelief that the two churches that split Western Christendom on the issue of justification nearly five centuries ago are still united on truths of the highest import. They can confess together that we are sinful members of a sinful race, that God offers us the gift of justification, that this offer comes through Christ, our only Savior, that it is received in faith, that the Holy Spirit is conferred upon those who believe, and that, having been inwardly renewed, they are called and equipped to excel in deeds of love. In view of this shared heritage of faith, we are confident that our doctrinal formulations, currently expressed in different idioms, can in the end be reconciled. Our readiness to declare the nonapplicability of the sixteenth-century condemnations on justification is based on this conviction.

Avery Dulles, S.J. , holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University. This essay is adapted from the McGinley Lecture, given at Fordham in October.

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