March 20, 2015

That All May Be One / Fr. Rick Ginther

Justification is fruit of dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans

The nature of ecumenical dialogue was the topic for last month’s column. We now begin to explore some of the fruit of dialogue for the past 50 years.

We begin with the dialogue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans. The focus of the dialogue: justification.

From 1995-97, members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and of the Lutheran World Federation worked to produce the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ).

These folks studied together the nature of the doctrine of justification. According to the late Margaret O’Gara, author of No Turning Back: The Future of Ecumenism, Martin Luther “condemn[ed] what he took to be the Roman position, argued with some passion that faith alone, not works, is what justifies.” The Council of Trent “responded that faith without good works is dead, condemning what it took to be Luther’s position” (No Turning Back, p. 103-104).

Was there a way to bridge the seeming differences? St. John Paul II had spoken in his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” of seeing “in a new light” what another church or ecclesial community had written or taught (#2). Using this principle, the members of the dialogue recognized that “… past positions once thought to be contradictory can now be seen as complementary” (No Turning Back, p. 45).

They recognized that, while we depend completely on God for our justification and salvation (which Lutherans emphasize), this does not deny that believers, involved in their faith and moved by grace, give their consent (which Catholics emphasize).

Thus, the principle paved the way for the members of the dialogue to see that the complementary understandings of faith and works no longer divided them.

The JDDJ was approved by the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. It states that the condemnations set forth by the Council of Trent do not apply to the teachings of the Lutheran churches laid out in the document’s text. Likewise, the condemnations set forth in Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the Catholic teachings set forth in the document’s text.

Thus, the reality of the 16th century was not denied. Rather, the players in the historical drama, the joint condemnations and understandings limited by the heat of the moment were honored—and learned from. Nearly 500 years later, with the common understandings now at hand, the condemnations do not apply in this time.

It would be wonderful to say that all was settled on this matter.

However, a minority of the Lutheran World Federation voted against the JDDJ.

Likewise, the document has not been received universally by all Roman Catholics (none of these dissenters were members of the Pontifical Commission). Their concerns center upon: 1) whether the Lutheran signers of JDDJ have the required authority to represent their communities (since, from the Roman Catholic perspective they are not authentic churches), and no Lutheran can make the agreement binding on the members of the Lutheran World Federation; and 2) that the document is not in line with the Council of Trent.

To the former, the Pontifical Council responded with an “Annex to the Official Common Statement,” and to the latter the document is clear—it is not negating or contradicting any statements from Trent.

There is still dialogue among Lutherans and Roman Catholics to take place regarding ordination through the succession of bishops, and the role of the pope in the Church. With the joint understanding of justification in hand, there is hope!

(Father Rick Ginther is director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenism. He is also dean of the Terre Haute deanery and pastor of St. Patrick and St. Margaret Mary parishes, both in Terre Haute. E-mail him at

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