Faiths Heal Ancient Rift Over Faith
By Charles Trueheart
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 1, 1999; Page A01
AUGSBURG, Germany, Oct. 31—Four hundred and eighty-two years
ago today, the blunt-speaking monk Martin Luther nailed his legendary
attack on Catholic Church practices to a church door in Germany, an act
of conscience that triggered the Protestant Reformation--the wrenching
division of Western Christianity--and more than a century of religious wars
that killed hundreds of thousands.
Today, the heirs of that acrimony and fracture, the leaders of the modern
Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, signed a document that officially
settles the central argument about the nature of faith that Luther provoked.
The agreement declares, in effect, that it was all a misunderstanding.
"In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Let us then pursue
all that makes for peace and builds up our common life," proclaimed
Catholic Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, Pope John Paul II's emissary, as
he signed the Augsburg accord on behalf of more than a billion Roman
Catholics worldwide. All but 3 million of the world's 61.5 million Lutherans
were represented by Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran
World Federation, and by the Rev. Ishmael Noko, the federation's general
Hundreds of clerics and theologians, many in flowing robes of purple,
white or black, trod quietly through the sunny streets of this old Bavarian
city where Luther had two momentous confrontations--in 1518 and
1530--with the Catholic hierarchy.
The church leaders moved from Mass at the Catholic Basilica of St. Ulrich
and Afra to the blessing and signing of the accord at the Lutheran Church
of St. Anna. Cross-faith services around the world today echoed the
The agreement is significant beyond the dispute over doctrine that it
resolves. It has deep implications for future relations among Catholics and
Protestants, said theologians and church leaders. Many said the accord
gives added promise to the ideal their denominations champion--of full
communion, or merger, between the churches.
"This is a critical breakthrough; it's the first major step toward
reconciliation between the two churches since the Reformation," said the
Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America and one of the negotiators and signers of today's
"Now we understand we have creeds in common, and that removes the
taint of heresy from both sides," Anderson said. "It's the difference
between handling each other as if we were prickly sea urchins and being
able to shake hands."
The broader movement toward Christian reunification, called ecumenism,
has inspired extraordinary dialogues and built bridges across ancient
ecclesiastical and theological canyons--especially as the calendar has
moved toward the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus. They have
gone hand in hand with a loosening and even reinvention of church
traditions--of worship, of language, of music, of ministry--from the
dropping of Latin in the Catholic Mass to the ordination of women in most
Now, as the Augsburg accord suggests, the value of separate
denominations is under question. The Lutheran-Catholic concord "is one of
the most important ecumenical moments of the century," said the Rev.
Joseph Komonchak, professor of theology at Washington's Catholic
University. "This document appears to be saying that the doctrine that
Luther thought was central to the Reformation, and which led him to
undertake it, is not one on which there are serious enough differences
between Catholics and Lutherans to justify the division of the church. And
that is a pretty big statement," he said.
"If in Luther's time you had had a comparable willingness to listen and
what the other side was saying, it's quite possible the break would not have
been so severe," Komonchak added.
The impact of the accord will be gentle if not imperceptible to American
Lutheran and Catholic churchgoers, although clergy in Augsburg said the
two flocks are likely to see much more of one another in joint occasions,
exchanges and fellowship. Strains on Catholic-Lutheran marriages, too,
may be eased.
There are 61 million Catholics in the United States and 5.2 million
American Lutherans whose churches belong to the worldwide federation;
2.6 million other Lutherans belong to the Missouri Synod, a branch that
rejected the accord.
The argument that has preoccupied Lutheran and Catholic negotiators for
more than 30 years involves what is called the doctrine of justification.
Lutherans have believed that faith alone, an acceptance of God renewed
every day, ensures eternal salvation. The Catholic Church has long taught
that salvation comes from the sum total of faith and good works--that a life
of devotion and service on Earth earns the faithful the key to heaven.
The key language of today's Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of
Justification appears to give decisive weight to the Lutheran position on
salvation through faith, while embracing an ethic of earthly service
championed by Catholics.
"There are no winners and losers," said Augsburg Bishop Viktor Josef
Dammertz. "We are Christians of different backgrounds, but we are all on
the same path--seeking the truth of God."
Anderson, the American Lutheran leader, said of the protracted
negotiations in which he participated, "We realized we were not as far
apart as we thought, that we were just using different vocabularies."
Luther's teachings on "justification by faith" drew him a succession of
ecclesiastical confrontations, denunciations and bans. Ever since the
1545-1563 Council of Trent, the Catholic Church's official condemnations
of Luther's teachings have stood on the books, as have Lutheran
condemnations of Catholicism's "justification by works."
Wars over the churches' influence and the murder and persecution of
Protestants and Catholics raged in Europe until the mid-17th century.
Among many Christians around the world who inherited the divisions,
bitterness and mutual suspicion still linger. With this accord, the official
condemnations have been lifted--deemed not to apply to the two churches'
new understanding of justification.
Does the doctrine have any contemporary relevance?
"Far too many Christians today, I believe, are tempted to think that they
are justified not so much by faith as by material success, or by political
correctness, or by charismatic experience, or by pious acts, or by good
deeds of a humanitarian nature," said the Rev. J. Robert Wright, a church
historian at General Theological Seminary in New York and an ecumenical
leader in the Episcopal Church. "These are cheap and inadequate
substitutes," he said, for "the basic truth of the gospel--that it is by faith
alone, by grace through faith, that we are set right with God."
Conspicuous among the mostly conservative Lutherans not subscribing to
the accord are those who belong to the Missouri Synod. According to the
Rev. A. L. Barry, its president, the Catholic Church has "not budged" since
the Council of Trent's insistence on justification by works.
John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, a magazine of ideas that
circulates among evangelical Christians, said, "Many people see this as a
desperate gesture that confirms that all established historic church bodies
have lost their distinctive faith commitments."
But, Wilson said, "Others have a more hopeful perspective--that we have
finally left behind the flabby ecumenism of the '60s, which was more about
social issues, and that Protestants and Catholics are having serious talks
about doctrine and healing their divisions."
Staff writer Hanna Rosin in Washington contributed to this report.
1483: Martin Luther born in Eisleben, Saxony.
1505: Abandons legal studies and enters an Augustinian monestary in
1507: Ordained a priest.
1512: Becomes a lecturer of biblical theology at Wittenberg University.
1517, Oct. 31: Posts his "95 Theses" on the chapel door of Wittenberg
castle. His grievances are centered on the sale of indulgences -- the
purchase of an indulgence ensures for the buyer a remission of sins.
1518: Luther is summoned to an imperial Diet in Augsburg; the election
a new emperor, Charles V, slows any punishment for Luther.
1520: Luther publishes three controversial works that attack the
supremacy of the papacy and many traditional practices. The Scripture had
become for Luther the sole authority for religious truth.
1521: At the imperial Diet in Worms Luther is urged to recant, but he
refuses. He is declared a heretic. Luther and his supporters burn the papal
banning orders in Wittenberg.
1522: Luther returns to Wittenberg, where he continues to lecture as his
reforms take root.
1525: Marries Katharina von Bora. Luther publishes another work in
which he tries to prove that people cannot do anything to contribute to
their salvation; they must receive it from God as a gift -- justification by
1530: Luther issues the Augsburg Confession, a summary of Lutheran
1546: Until his death in 1546, Luther devotes himself to building a new
SOURCES: World Book Encyclopedia, City of Wittenberg, Carthage
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company