Lutheran, Catholics Move Toward
Following Agreement On Doctrine
July 7, 1998
utherans and Roman Catholics will be able to move forward and address closer unity of the two faiths now that they have addressed a major doctrinal issue, "justification by faith," said an expert in biblical studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Explaining the issue, the Rev. Joseph A. Fitzmyer said justification by faith refers to teachings on salvation through Jesus Christ in the New Testament's letters of St. Paul. "There is very little difference between what Lutherans and Catholics hold in this matter," he said. "Both agree that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation, but Catholics give greater emphasis to deeds that must flow from justification."
The churches of the World Lutheran Federation recently approved the "Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification." The vote was a significant step toward removing the mutual condemnations Catholics and Lutherans leveled against each other more than 450 years go because of disputes over how people are saved - by faith alone, or by faith and good works, said Fitzmyer. The Vatican approved the document, although it called for further discussion on several points, including the ability of the individual to cooperate in receiving God's grace, or to refuse it.
The document stresses that Lutherans and Catholics agree that salvation is the result of an initiative by God through Jesus Christ to forgive sinners. Fitzmyer emphasized the importance of the agreement. Once both faiths have approved the document, future discussions can address other topics, including "the differing ordination of pastors and priests, the sacraments, and the whole structure of the church," he said.
Since 1967, Fitzmyer has been active in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, an effort at national and international levels to discuss and reduce theological differences between the two groups.
With the new document, edited by theologians from both faiths, Fitzmyer said: "The whole process of seeking unity moves into a new stage. "
The dialogue process in the United States will continue in September, with Fitzmyer taking part in discussions conducted by the Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America and the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Council of Catholic Bishops. Participants will now focus on "building on the things we have in common, such as faith in Christ and the sacraments," he said.
"What both sides have been anxious to do is to remove the 16th century condemnations against each other," he said. During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Martin Luther, an Augustinian priest who had called for reforms in certain church practices. The Lutheran Church responded by issuing condemnations of the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholic University is a thriving center of academic life: the national university of the Catholic church, the only one established by the U.S. bishops, and located in the nation's capital. The Department of Biblical Studies is one of five departments in the School of Religious Studies, which is internationally known for its commitment to excellence in research and scholarship. The school is particularly well known for its role in training scholars for the academic community and leaders for the Church and nation. In addition to priests and members of religious communities, the school's student body includes laymen and laywomen, Roman Catholics and students of other religious backgrounds, students from North America and other continents.
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Revised: July 7, 1998
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