Lutheran-Roman Catholic Declaration Makes History

7/2/1998 12:00:00 AM

     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- "This does more than just open a new chapter in Lutheran-Roman Catholic relations.  It really starts writing a new book," said the Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  The council of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) approved a "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," and the Vatican affirmed that "a high degree of agreement has been reached." Both called for continued study.
     Justification or "the question of our relationship to God was at the heart of the issue in the 16th century with Martin Luther," said Anderson. Luther's dispute with the Roman Catholic Church contributed to the Reformation that split Western Christianity.
     The actions June 16 by the LWF and June 25 by the Vatican confirmed there is "a consensus on the basic truths of justification, but in both cases there is more work to do," said Anderson.
     "For the first time since the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran churches have responded at the highest international levels to a commonly developed statement," said LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko.  "The very affirmation of 'a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification' is a significant step forward in the relations between our churches."
     The Joint Declaration does not resolve all points of difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the doctrine of justification, but it concludes that those differences "do not destroy the consensus regarding basic truths."

     "We have agreed that, when God deals with human beings, God says, 'I love you,' and doesn't say, 'I'll love you if...,'" said Anderson.  "God loves us unconditionally and that creates a whole new relationship between us and God, and it is created from God's side and not from ours."  He added that remaining differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics about justification have to do with "how we respond to this message of love."
     Justification "is one more area of faith where we now can say Lutherans and Roman Catholics agree," he said.  "We have a broader basis to affirm our neighbor's church and theology."
     In his regular Sunday address on June 28, Pope John Paul II called the declaration "an important ecumenical achievement."  He said he hoped it could "encourage and reinforce the declared aim that Lutherans and Catholics pursue the achievement of visible full unity."
     Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, presented the document to reporters at a Vatican news conference.  "There will be a formal signing of the Joint Declaration and a celebration of the consensus achieved sometime in the autumn," he said.
     Statements made in the 16th century cannot be erased from history, but the consensus reached in the declaration means "the corresponding condemnations found in the Lutheran Confessions and in the Council of Trent no longer apply," said Cassidy.  "At the same time this Joint Declaration has limits."
     "In affirming that a consensus in fundamental truths on the doctrine of justification has indeed been reached, the Catholic Church is issuing an accompanying explanatory note in which certain points regarding the document are being clarified for the benefit of the members of the Catholic Church," said Cassidy.
     Noko responded, "I recognize in the Roman Catholic reply that reservations are made on essential points."  He added, "It is my hope, nevertheless, that clarification on these essential points might be reached in the time to come so that the full intention of the Joint Declaration might be accomplished."
     The declaration is an invitation to work together on issues identified as unresolved, said Anderson.  "Working with ecumenical relations is like playing a video game.  You solve one screen, and then you suddenly see new challenges put before you."
     Anderson was the Lutheran co-chair of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, when it reached consensus on the basic truths of the doctrine of justification.  "Now it has moved on," he said, "and I'm very pleased with that."
     The LWF is a global communion of Lutheran churches, including the ELCA.  Founded in 1947, the LWF now has 124 member churches in 69 countries representing more than 57 million of the world's 61 million Lutherans.  LWF central offices are in Geneva, Switzerland.

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