Robert Sungenis – The Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification 

The Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification

By Robert Sungenis 

 

About a year ago, I wrote an article for Our Sunday Visitor’s “The Catholic Answer” on the Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification. Since then, there have been a few significant developments, one being the signing of the Joint Declaration on October 31, 1999 by officials from both the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. This present article will give an update on the issues and offer a few opinions as to the significance of the signing. My goal in this article is to give a fair and honest assessment of the Joint Declaration, both its good points and its not-so-good points; what it is and what it is not. Let me say first of all that although the media has displayed continual excitement over the Joint Declaration, newspaper reports have been notorious in exaggerating and sometimes distorting the areas of agreement between Lutherans and Catholics, so much so that the Catholic side has had to issue a statement warning of the “various erroneous interpretations by the communications media” (June 22, 1999). Here’s a sample of the kind of distortion that still takes place: From the Scripps Howard News Service, on October 12, 1999, columnist Thomas Hargrove wrote:

The great 482 year dispute between Catholics and Protestants is about to end. In three weeks, representatives of Pope John Paul II and the Lutheran World Federation will meet in Augsburg, Germany, to sign a theological declaration that salvation comes only through faith in God.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hargrove’s assessment is an exaggeration verging on misrepresentation. The “great 482 year old dispute between Catholics and Protestants” is not “about to end.” First, there are thousands of “Protestant” denominations who have not even begun to talk with the Catholic Church, let alone settle the disputes stemming from the Reformation. Even within the Lutheran World Federation there remain denominations who oppose any joint declaration with the Catholic Church, such as the more conservative Missouri and Wisconsin Synods. Second, many disputes that the Lutheran World Federation has with the Catholic Church have not even been addressed, and certainly not resolved, e.g., the Mass, the priesthood, the papacy, authority, tradition, Scripture, indulgences, purgatory, confession, contraception, Mary, the saints, to name a few. To illustrate the point, Luther wrote of the Catholic Mass: “No other sin, manslaughter, theft, murder or adultery is so harmful as this abomination of the popish Mass” (Weimar edition, 15, 774). Lutherans of today, including those of the Lutheran World Federation, have given no indication that they have discarded, or intend to discard, Luther’s opinion on the Mass, nor was this, nor any of the other dogmas listed above, part of the recent dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics. The significance? The Mass, confession, indulgences and purgatory are all part and parcel with Catholic justification. According to Church dogma, those who knowingly refuse to accept them are still under anathema.

The second matter of concern is Mr. Hargrove’s conclusion that the signing of the Joint Declaration means that both sides agree “that salvation comes only through faith in God.” It is precisely for such sweeping generalizations that the Vatican issued the press release titled “Clarification to the Doctrine of Justification” on June 22, 1999, which pointed out the “various erroneous interpretations by the communications media.”

On a recent radio program of the Catholic Family Network, Jeffrey Gros, a spokesman from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, was interviewed about the meaning of the Joint Declaration. When asked if Catholics can now say that individuals are justified by faith alone, Brother Gros said:

“Yes, in fact the text says that very clearly. If one looks very closely at the Council of Trent, its understanding, its definition of faith is somewhat different than the one that emerged in the Reformation texts. But as you look at the texts closely together and look back at St. Paul’s letter to the Romans at grace and faith and what God does for us in Jesus Christ, we see that what Lutherans mean by faith alone is total reliance on the grace of God.”

Is this correct? Does the Catholic Church now teach that men are justified by faith alone? Does the phrase “faith alone” mean that one totally relies on the grace of God and that those who only use the word “faith” are in some fashion relying on themselves? Well, to begin to answer this question, let’s look at what the Council of Trent really said:

“If anyone shall say that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to understand that nothing else is required to cooperate in the attainment of the grace of justification, and that it is in no way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will: let him be anathema” (Session 6, Canon 9).

Canon 14 is just as explicit: “If anyone shall say that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he believes for certain that he is absolved and justified…and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are perfected: let him be anathema.”

Canon 19 says the same: “If anyone shall say that nothing except faith is commanded in the Gospel, that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free, or that the ten commandments in no way pertain to Christians: let him be anathema.”

Canon 29 adds the necessity of the Sacrament of Penance: “If anyone shall say that he who has fallen after baptism cannot…but by faith alone without the sacrament of penance, contrary to what the holy Roman and universal Church taught by Christ the Lord and His apostles, has hitherto professed, observed, and taught: let him be anathema.” (See also Canons 10, 11, 12, 20).

Thus, it is very clear that the Catholic Church does not believe in justification by “faith alone.” The Council of Trent understands “faith alone” very literally, that is, it means that “nothing else” is understood to be added to faith for justification. So what would make someone like Brother Gros think that the Catholic Church does believe in “faith alone”? Well, besides any hidden agendas that may be active, unfortunately, one of the major reasons is the ambiguity in the Joint Declaration itself. For example, in paragraph 2C, the Annex to the Joint Declaration says: “Justification takes place ‘by grace alone’ (JD 15 and 16), by faith alone, the person is justified ‘apart from works’ (Rom 3:28, cf. JD 25).” But in paragraph 2 the Annex says: “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…” Likewise, in paragraph 2A it says: “‘Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God’ (Rom 5:1).” Obviously, the Annex has given us two versions of this very crucial issue: one version specifying “faith alone,” the other version specifying “faith” without any qualifier. One can only conclude that the ambiguity created in the Annex is deliberate (for surely no one is going to believe that it happened by accident).

In effect, the Annex’s equivocation between “faith” and “faith alone” reveals the very nature of the Joint Declaration: it is an effort to combine Lutheran and Catholic beliefs in such a fashion so as not to deny either side’s opposing beliefs or offend the opposing side. Each side can extract statements from the Joint Declaration with which it agrees and interpret them the way it likes. On the Catholic side, Cardinal Cassidy summed up the Joint Declaration as: “What we have tried to do in the dialogue has not been to pass judgment, neither on the Council of Trent nor Martin Luther.” Instead, Cassidy stated, the two churches wanted to “say what are Lutherans and Catholics able to say together today.” What will be said “tomorrow,” then, remains to be seen.

As noted above, the Vatican issued a “Clarification on the Doctrine of Justification” on June 22, 1999, which was intended to guide the Catholic interpretation of the Joint Declaration. Interestingly enough, the “Clarification” did not use the phrase “faith alone.” It stated in the first paragraph:

“Together we confess that the sinner is justified through faith in the salvific action of God in Christ. This salvation is given to him by the Holy Spirit in baptism which is the foundation of his whole Christian life.”

Thus, not only did the “Clarification” not use the phrase “faith alone,” but it introduced the doctrine of baptism into the formula—an area of theology which a reading of the Joint Declaration reveals to be as dualistic as its approach to faith. Yet the impact of this “Clarification” is itself ambiguous, for the “Clarification” is NOT what the Lutherans signed on October 31, no matter how much the Vatican insists that the “Clarification” represents the “correct” interpretation of the Joint Declaration. Again, this just proves that both sides can extract from the Declaration what they desire to extract.

Let’s look at another media interpretation so that we can see how deep the distortions can run. In mid-1999, David Crumm, of the Free Press staff, wrote:

“For more than 30 years, Catholic and Lutheran leaders have been discussing the thorny question…How does God dispense salvation? Does God freely give salvation to people who have faith in Jesus or must humans earn salvation by their good works? Are humans who are sinners justified before God by their faith alone—or by those works? Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation officials are agreeing that salvation is freely given to believers…”

The average reader would skip right by these words without noticing anything alarming. After all, don’t we all agree that “salvation is freely given to believers”? Yes, we can agree to that stipulation, but historical Catholic doctrine does not agree with Mr. Crumm’s implication that man is justified by “faith alone.” Mr. Crumm’s introduction to the matter makes it appear that previous to the Joint Declaration the Catholic Church believed that “humans earn salvation by their good works,” and he implies that as of October 31, 1999 the Catholic Church has now abandoned that belief. This is not the case at all. The Catholic Church has never taught that we “earn” salvation. To “earn” something means that it is yours by legal right, without any deference to grace or benevolence. It means that God owes us salvation as a matter of legal debt. But that is not at issue in this debate. Listen again to the words of the Council of Trent:

“If anyone shall say that man can be justified before God by his own works which are done either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law, and without divine grace through Christ Jesus: let him be anathema” (Canon 1).

Chapter 8 of the Council is even more specific: “…because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace itself of justification.” It couldn’t be clearer that the Catholic Church is against the idea of “earning” salvation.

Is this just an old and outdated teaching of the Catholic Church? Not according to the 1994 Catholic Catechism. Paragraphs 604, 1996 and 2010 state:

“…God manifests that his plan for us is one of benevolent love, prior to any merit on our part…Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call…Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.”

Hence, both the Council and the Catechism are clear that God initiates the whole process by His grace alone. The Catholic Church believes that through faith, which is prompted by God’s grace, we accept the atoning work that Christ underwent for us. The Council of Trent said: “…we are therefore said to be justified by faith because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God” (Session 6, Chapter 8). The 1994 Catholic Catechism says that faith is “a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him…” (Para. 153). There’s a lot of grace in these statements but nothing about “earning salvation” or “faith alone.”

So, contrary to Mr. Crumm’s creative writing, the issue between Lutherans and Catholics is not that Lutherans came to the discussion table believing that a man is justified by faith alone and can’t earn his salvation, while Catholics formerly believed, but now reject, that a man is justified by works and earns his salvation. In fact, in the phrase “whether faith or works,” the Council of Trent warned in Chapter 8 that even faith itself could become a matter of “earning” salvation, since if one says to God: “I have faith therefore You owe me salvation” it is just as wrong as saying “I have works therefore You owe me salvation.” Unfortunately, this is precisely how some Protestants understand faith—as a one-time volitional act that now obligates God to save them, no matter what they do in the future, which is popularized in the adage “once saved, always saved.”

But, you may ask, if the Catholic Church believes you cannot earn your salvation, why would they, namely, the Council of Trent and the 1994 Catechism, be opposed to using the words “faith alone” in a justification formula? There are several reasons:

(1) The Bible, (which Lutherans claim as their only source of truth), never says an individual is justified by “faith alone.” In fact, the only time the Bible uses the phrase, it is preceded emphatically by the words “not by,” to read: “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). If the phrase “justified by faith alone” were so important to the discussion, one would think the Bible would at least mention it once. Rather, as we see in James, it not only avoids such phrasing, it specifies the converse. But what did the Joint Declaration do? Well, as Luther did in his German translation of Romans 3:28, the Joint Declaration slipped in the word “alone” into St. Paul’s meaning. As noted above, in paragraph 2C, the Joint Declaration stated in reference to Romans 3:28: “Justification takes place ‘by grace alone,’ by faith alone, the person is justified ‘apart from works’ (Rom 3:28…).” Obviously, the word “alone” was added to satisfy the Lutheran contingent of the Joint Declaration.

(2) There is a great difference in saying (a) “a man is justified by faith alone,” as opposed to saying (b), as Romans 3:28 actually says, “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” The first sentence, if taken as literally as the Council of Trent understood the term “alone,” means that nothing can be added to faith for justification, not even love. But, of course, that would contradict St. Paul’s teaching in Galatians 5:4-6 that a man is “justified by….faith working through love,” and his teaching in 1 Corinthians 13:2 that faith without love “is nothing.” The second sentence (“faith apart from works of law”) merely means that “works of law,” whatever they mean to St. Paul, is the only thing that cannot be added to faith for justification, which leaves open the possibility of adding love and hope.

Of course, this just begs the question, for now we must discover what St. Paul means by “works of law.” That answer is revealed just a few verses later in Romans 4:4: “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as a debt.” In other words, the works St. Paul intends not to be coupled with faith for justification are “works of debt,” that is, works whereby we try to earn, by legal right, our justification from God, as when an employee does work and then demands payment from his employer. St. Paul says “no, no!” You can’t come to God by putting him in debt to you, because God owes no man anything (Romans 11:35). You must come seeking what cannot be earned, that is, God’s grace. God wants you to believe in Him for who He is, not for what you can get out of Him. Thus, St. Paul is excluding only one kind of works — works of debt, wherein one tries to obligate God to pay him salvation. Why did Luther, then, exclude love and hope? Because, he said, St. Paul considered them as “works of law,” which has certainly never been a Catholic belief.

The other kind of work that St. Paul accepts and also commands us to perform to attain our justification is work performed under God’s grace. For example, in Romans 2:7 he says: “To those who persist in doing good…He will give eternal life.” There’s nothing here about “earning” eternal life, but plenty concerning God “giving,” especially since Romans 2:4 refers to God’s “kindness, tolerance and patience,” which are God’s virtues we receive by grace. In Romans 2:13 St. Paul says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are just with God, but the doers of the law will be justified.” It is the grace-oriented and grace-blessed works that can be added to faith for justification because these works don’t put God in debt to us. God rewards us with eternal life for our good works not because He owes us anything, but because He enjoys giving freely to those who please Him out of a sincere heart. That is what salvation is all about.

Now here is where we need to make a grand distinction — a distinction the Joint Declaration deliberately avoids but the one that is probably the most important in the whole discussion. Again, the 15th paragraph of the Annex to the Declaration states: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and…not because of any merit on our part…” Following Luther, most Lutherans think of “merit” in one dimension, that is, as something that is earned by legal right without grace. This explains their opposition to that kind of “merit,” and rightly so. The Catholic Church, however, thinks of merit in two dimensions: (a) that which is earned by legal right, and (b) that which is merited by grace (or what St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished as (a) “strict merit” and (b) “condign merit,” the latter being the merit we receive by grace. See Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 114, a. 1, ad 3). It is the strict, legal merit that the Catholic Church maintains cannot justify a man, which is how she interprets the word “merit” in paragraph 15 of the Annex, and which is the same merit to which the Lutherans are opposed. But the Catholic Church has always believed, and still does believe, that a man attains justification through the merit God gives from His grace, not because we have legally “earned” justification. It was this very concept of “gracious merit” (or what Thomas Aquinas called “condign merit”) that Luther utterly rejected. Here is what the Council of Trent said about such grace-oriented works in Canon 24:

“If anyone shall say that justice received is not preserved and also not increase in the sight of God through good works but that those same works are only the fruits and signs of justification received, but not a cause of its increase: let him be anathema.”

Notice that, in opposition to Luther, the Catholic dogma assumes that justification “increases” and is not a one-time, static event. It also says that good works are not merely the fruits of justification (as Luther believed) but are “a cause” of justification’s increase. Whether today’s Lutherans accept or deny condign merit is not stated in the Joint Declaration, and thus the matter remains intentionally ambiguous.

Canon 32 is even clearer regarding the merits of good works for justification:

“If anyone shall say that the good works of the man justified are in such a way the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him who is justified, or that the one justified by the good works, which are done by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ (whose living member he is), does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life (if he should die in grace), and also increase of glory: let him be anathema.”

Notice that the Council of Trent says that good works are not merely a by-product of faith but are truly the “good merits” of the justified individual, which “truly merit…eternal life” and its “attainment.” How much clearer could it be? Thus, anyone who says that good works are merely the fruits of justification but in no way “merits” justification (that is, graciously merited), he is anathematized.

(3) Faith is not alone in justification since the Council of Trent said the following regarding the infusion of grace: “…he is ingrafted, receives in the said justification, together with the remission of sins, all these are infused at the same time: faith, hope and love” (Session 6, Chapter 7). Here we see that the three theological virtues are given to an individual, actually infused, at the moment of justification, which is at baptism. In Catholic teaching, these divinely infused virtues are the basis upon which an individual is justified. Without one of them the individual would not be justified. This is precisely the reason why the Council of Trent taught that faith is never alone in justification, rather, it is accompanied by hope and love from the very beginning of justification.

To it’s credit, the Joint Declaration points out that what today’s Lutherans understand by “faith” the Catholic Church understands as “faith, hope and love.” Well, okay, but if that’s the case, let’s point out two crucial facts:

1. Luther believed, in opposition to Thomas Aquinas, that the faith which justified was “unformed” by love, that is, love was excluded from any connection with faith at the moment of justification (which apparently, the Lutheran World Federation no longer believes).

2. If “faith,” according to today’s Lutherans, includes hope and love, then they should be willing to admit that their faith is not alone — unless, of course, they desire to engage us in word games. This is precisely what many Evangelicals do today — they propagate the common but confusing adage: “a man is justified by faith alone but a faith that is not alone.” Thus, they can claim to believe in “faith alone” and give the impression they are maintaining the heritage of Luther, but they don’t mean the same thing as Luther. One thing we can say of Luther: at least he was honest with his own definition of “faith alone.”

There is an even more crucial reason why it is important to understand (as the Catholic Church does) that love must be added to faith for justification rather than saying (as modern Lutherans do) that faith incorporates love. That reason is found in Canon 28 of the Council of Trent:

“If anyone shall say that together with the loss of grace by sin faith also is always lost, or that the faith that remains is not a true faith, though it be not a living one, or that he, who has faith without charity, is not a Christian: let him be anathema.”

Most Protestants believe that a person who claims to be a Christian but does not produce good works (what Luther called “the fruit of faith”) is therefore not a Christian because he does not have “justifying faith.” Hence, in Protestant thought, if the love is absent then faith is automatically absent. This belief is integral to the Protestant concept that justifying faith already incorporates love and hope. But the Catholic Church says no. A person can have genuine faith, and yet for an indefinite period of time, not produce good works. According to Canon 28, the lack of good works does not cancel his faith, nor make it a false faith, nor deny him his Christian status.

So, if all these beliefs of Luther are still unresolved, how can the Catholic Church come to any agreement with Lutherans? There are several reasons:
The Lutheran World Federation, although it has some conservative theologians in its ranks, is largely from the more liberal strain of Lutheranism, which, by and large, is not as concerned with the more technical points of doctrinal issues as their more conservative branches, such as the Missouri Synod or the Wisconsin Synod. Thus, they have much more “liberal” definitions of theological terms than their more conservative brethren. This Lutheran battleground is demonstrated in that the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods refused to have any of its members participate in the Joint Declaration. Their feeling is that the Lutheran World Federation capitulated to the Catholic Church and dissolved many of the distinctives of Luther’s protest. Last year, the Missouri Synod issued a tersely worded critique against the ideas of justification stemming from the Lutheran World Federation. It got so bad that at one point Cardinal Cassidy and Cardinal Ratzinger had even questioned whether the LWF even spoke for most of the world’s Lutherans.

As for the Catholic Church, well, they have had their tussles about the Joint Declaration. The fact that they were forced to issue the “Clarification on the Doctrine of Justification” shortly after the Annex to the Joint Declaration was released (the Annex which contained both “justified by faith alone” and “justified by faith”), shows that they recognize the volatility in the agreement. Why, in the first place, they would agree to the equivocal and ambiguous language of the Joint Declaration is a question that present and future generations of Catholics will be interested to probe and access. We can say this, however: The Joint Declaration is not an infallible dogma of the Catholic Church. Only the Pope can make something binding and infallible, which in this case he has not done. All he did was give his approval to the effort of the Joint Declaration to form “basic truths of the doctrine of justification.” Although the Joint Declaration removes the respective condemnations of the Lutheran and Catholic churches, they are only removed insofar as the condemnable doctrines are addressed specifically in the Joint Declaration, which as we have seen in its inordinate amount of ambiguity, has about as good a chance of bringing a conviction of heresy against a Lutheran or a Catholic as I have of ending this article in twenty-five words or less.

Moreover, there are many things about the doctrine of justification that the Joint Declaration does not cover, as it itself admits. This is not only true of the intrinsic elements of justification proper, but also of the peripheral issues related to justification like the Mass, Confession, Indulgences, Purgatory, Mortal and Venial Sin, etc. On such issues the Joint Declaration says that for now there can only be “unity in diversity.” Yet as we have noted earlier, even the issues the Joint Declaration covers are very vague and ambiguous, such as whether justification comes “by faith alone” or “by faith.” Just the fact that the Joint Declaration included both phrases shows that it has not resolved the issue but has merely restated both sides of the question. An individual who reads the Joint Declaration and its Annex will certainly be confused as to what the Declaration is really saying, or, as is often the case, he will escape the confusion by putting his own spin on what he thinks the document is saying. But then, of course, we’re back to square one.

Other issues on which the Declaration is equivocal and ambiguous are in:

Paragraph 2B: “concupiscence is used in difference senses”: does this mean that concupiscence is sin or not? The Declaration does not say. (See Canons 7, 25, 31 of the Council of Trent).

Paragraph 2D: “falling from their call”: does this mean one can lose his salvation or not? The Declaration does not say. (See Canons 16, 27).

Paragraph 2E: “the justified will be judged by their works”: does this mean the justified can lose his justification because of bad works or not? The Declaration does not say. (See Canons 18, 26, 30).

Paragraph 2E: “by justification we are unconditionally brought into communion with God”: does this mean that the condition cannot be broken or not? The Declaration does not say. (See Canons 20, 23).

Paragraph 2E: “we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection”: does this mean that once one believes he is absolutely assured of the resurrection or not? The Declaration does not say. (See Canon 15).

Paragraph 2C: “The working of God’s grace does not exclude human action”: does this mean that man can cooperate with grace prior to justification or not? The Declaration does not say. (See Canons 4, 5, 17).

Paragraph 2A: “We are truly and inwardly renewed by the action of the Holy Spirit”: does this mean that Lutherans now believe in transformational justification and are repudiating the forensic justification taught by Philip Melanchthon or not? The Declaration does not say. (See Canons 11, 12).

Neither the Joint Declaration, nor its Annex, directly answer any of these questions; rather, they merely state, in somewhat meandering and circuitous language, the respective positions of the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.

(2) As noted in (1), the Lutheran Church, by and large, has changed significantly since the time of Martin Luther 475 years ago. The change had started soon after Luther died. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s protégé, had already made a 180 degree turn regarding Luther’s denial of free will, as did the Dutch Reformer Jacob Arminius. This was significant since Melanchthon had a large hand in formulating the Augsburg Confession, its Apology, and the Formula of Concord, three of Lutheranism’s major doctrinal statements. Andreas Osiander believed in transformational justification, opposing both Luther’s and Calvin’s idea of imputated justification. The Swiss Reformers such Martin Bucer, Huldreich Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadius, and Heinrich Bullinger all believed in the concept of transformational justification in opposition to Luther and Calvin.

After the first Lutheran/Catholic dialogue in the mid 1960’s, John Paul II had noticed such sweeping changes in the Lutheran church that in 1980 he suggested the Catholic Church might remove some of the anathemas issued at the Council of Trent. In the Lutheran/Catholic dialogues of Geneva in 1995, Lutheran theologians had acceded to the Catholic concept of “transformational” justification, that is, that because of infused grace a man was justified from the inside, not merely the outside.

(3) As we have noted throughout this article, one of the reasons two differing sides can come to some kind of agreement without denying their core beliefs is due to the ambiguity of language. Documents can be crafted in such a way where both sides can agree to general concepts, whereas if more specific stipulations were added the two sides would remain at odds. My previous analysis of the double-meaning of “merit” is a case in point. The Protestant conception of “faith alone” as being a faith which is “not alone” is another case in point. Indeed, many times in the course of the dialogue it was stated that Catholics and Lutherans could agree on the “general” concepts of salvation, not on its specifics. A general consensus could be reached on the more salient points, i.e., that man is justified by grace alone. But this is not a breakthrough of doctrine as much as it is a breakthrough of men’s minds and hearts, for now each side can see that the other is not denying the basic tenet of salvation — grace.

(4) After 475 years of fighting each other, we now live, at least to a certain degree, in an age of ecumenism. Some have concluded that its better to agree on general points rather than beat each other over the head with specific points. Perhaps, to some degree, we should beat our theological swords into plowshares and put our respective energies into fighting this increasingly immoral world in which we live. Of course, this is what all couples should do after they have been separated for a while and desire to return to each other’s graces. They begin to live with the differences of their respective partner and try to build a relationship in the areas upon which they agree. The Reformation was a divorce. As it takes separated couples a long time after licking their wounds to see their own faults, so Catholics and Lutherans are at the stage where they can look more honestly at themselves. Whether we will ever be “married” again only the future knows. We do know this, however: all of us should be praying for that eventuality. My only warning to all involved in this ecumenical effort is: don’t ever, ever, compromise the truth. If we can only have unity in diversity, then so be it. Perhaps that is the best we can do for now in this battered and bruised humanity in which we find ourselves living in this soon to be 21st century. May God’s grace be with us all, and may no one ever think that he “earns” his salvation from God, be it Catholic, Lutheran or any other religion.

Robert Sungenis, M.A. Author of Not By Faith Alone: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification October 31, 1999 Excerpts of this article will appear in a future issue of The Catholic Answer.