Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 31, 2000
Agreement fulfills Vatican II
Lutheran, RC scholars offer insights on historic ecumenical agreement
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
The landmark Catholic-Lutheran Agreement on Justification is the result of some of the insights of the Second Vatican Council, says an Edmonton scholar.
The declaration is a fruit of the council's resolve to engage the Catholic Church in a friendly, respectful dialogue with other Christian bodies and to its insistence that it is legitimate to have theological differences, said Robert Sheard, a professor of theology at St. Joseph's University College.
The council said unity doesn't mean everybody has to say the same thing. "And this declaration reflects that. It shows respect for the different emphasis that each side has," Sheard said.
"The whole tone of the declaration smacks of the desire of the participants to bend over backwards to see the other side in as positive a light as possible.
"(As a result), both sides came to see that the other was affirming basically that salvation comes through God in Christ Jesus and not because of human goodness and works."
Sheard made his comments at a Catholic-Lutheran colloquium on the joint declaration at St. Joseph's University College Jan. 24. Speaking for the Lutheran side was the Rev. Gordon Jensen, a pastor and a lecturer at Camrose's Augustana College. Both spoke on the meaning of the declaration and on what's next.
About 40 people took part in the colloquium, including Archbishop Thomas Collins, Lutheran Bishop Stephen Kristenson and Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Lawrence Huculak.
The agreement was signed was signed by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation in Germany Oct. 31 - exactly 482 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a German church.
The Catholic-Lutheran agreement states that justification comes through faith alone, but that good works are an essential sign of true faith.
A key dispute during the Protestant Reformation was whether believers were justified and saved through grace alone or whether salvation required a combination of grace and good works.
"The genius of the joint declaration is that it declared that faith and works must be together," said Jensen. "These two have to be together for a correct and full understanding of justification. When we focus on one or the other, there are problems that arise."
Jensen said action at all levels is necessary to have the agreement implemented. "All the agreements in the world at the top levels do not mean much if it doesn't affect the way in which we interact as churches and within congregations," he said.
"If this is only a theological document with no relevance for the parish then I am not sure that the agreement will be of much use."
Will it change anything?
"I think clearly the jury is still out and it will depend to a large degree on what our churches want to make of the agreement," Jensen said. "And I also think it suggests that unless there is dialogue amongst our congregations, amongst the laity, the work of the official dialogue will largely go to waste."
Common misunderstandings or stumbling blocks which Roman Catholics and Lutherans still need to address in order to keep the spirit of the conversation alive include the relationship between the word of God and Church doctrine, ecclesiology, authority in the Church, ministry, sacraments, and the relation between justification and social ethics.
"In other words, I think what the dialogue was saying is that there is a lot of work to do," Jensen said.
He also highlighted as potential stumbling blocks in future dialogue the Catholic teaching on indulgences and purgatory.
Lutherans see the granting of indulgences, a release from purgatorial punishment gained by performing pious acts, as undermining the absolute supremacy of Christ's redemptive grace.
"If we are indeed declared as being righteous by God's grace alone, through faith alone, isn't purgatory redundant?" asked Jensen. "Does God's declaration to us accomplish anything? So we have to wrestle with that."
Sheard addressed that question later during the question period by saying: "In what we Catholics call hierarchy of truth, purgatory is down a bit."
For future prospects, Jensen suspects that the success or lack of success of the acceptance of the joint declaration will depend on three factors: involvement of the laity; the willingness of the churches to implement practical applications of the joint declaration and the continued use of the type of process which was started with the joint declaration.
Sheard said the declaration reflects the Catholic Church's realization that "it is not depository of all truth" and that there is an "ecclesial reality" outside it.
"Participants in the dialogue seem ready to recognize the legitimacy of the other side," which reflects a new understanding of Church unity, he said.
The Church has finally realized that "unity is not achieved by the errant children returning to the bosom of the mother Church" but by accepting them as sister churches.
The model of unity now emerging is a "fellowship of Christian churches," Sheard said.
The scholar predicts the dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans will continue as before and that it will lead to profound change in both traditions. At the least, he said, it will lead the parties to a better understanding of their own views and the other's views.
"The fact that Catholic and Lutherans produced this joint declaration on such a divisive central point of contention between the two parties bodes well for the future," Sheard said. "The task now is a task that requires ongoing work, reflection and prayer."