The Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration is the beginning of healing

Posted on November 1, 2012


In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

Our tormented father, Martin

God’s Sovereign Reign: the Trinitarian Principle

Christians worship the God who is One in Trinity. Our creeds are solemnly ratified ut unum Deum in Trinitate, et Trinitatem in unitate veneremur (“that one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity may be worshipped”).[1] This most joyful and divinely fecund truth is also summarized by St. John’s famous dictum: Deus Caritas est (“God is love”).[2] These two ways of speaking about God, moreover, explain each other. Since God is love, He is the all-Holy Trinity; since He is the all-Holy Trinity, He is love. Our unfortunate brothers and sisters who follow Muhammad, though they name God with ninety-nine names, they do not know His true nature—love. This is because they know not that God is the most Sublime Trinity.[3] This knowledge of God is what distinguishes the faith of the Christians from every other faith which, though they contain “a ray of truth,”[4] are neverthless “gravely dificient”[5] because though they know God, they do not know His Name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—love.

When Christians speak of the “Kingdom of God,” they refer to the reign of God the Holy Trinity in vitam venturi saeculi (“the life of the world to come”).[6] This reign, however, is not strictly limited to the vitam venturi saeculi, but has also been broken through into this age in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Body, part of which is entering (or has entered) the vitam venturi saeculi, and part of which is still in this flesh (sometimes distinguished as the “Church triumphant/expectant” and the “Church militant”). Those who are in the flesh are striving with the power that God gives them[7] to unite themselves to their fathers and mothers in vitam venturi saeculi and thus cooperate with God in establishing His reign on earth. Christ’s Body, then, insofar as its members cooperate with the Head (Christ, who is in heaven), manifests in their lives the Life of the Divine Trinity—the life of Trinitarian love in divine unity.

Thus, this principle must illuminate the heart, soul, and mind of every Christian: unum Deum in Trinitate, et Trinitatem in unitate veneremur. This life and reign of God manifests itself on every level of human existence (excepting sin, nota bene, since sin itself is non-being, since it is a refusal submit to submit to God’s sovereignty).[8] We will call this manifestation of the reign of God, “The Trinitarian Principle.” It is Trinitarian because it is the very Life of God, and it is a principle because it is the principium (“source, foundation, chief”). Let us draw two applications of this principle for the life of the Church militant, and then we will speak about its application to our topic.

The Trinitarian Principle manifests the divine Life first in the general reality of mystery. Chesterton lucidates this reality beautifully:

It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic…She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly…To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.[9]

The mystery of Christian truth (emanating always from the Trinitarian God) is in its “equilibrium” which is “reeling but erect,” held fast between two opposing truths which must be professed together and never separated. This is a paradox, but it is the mystery of Truth. Indeed—is there anything that is which does not manifest this reality of paradox? For all things are both form and matter, substance and accident. But we will not explore this further for our purposes.[10] The first manifestation is the reality of mystery and the enduring beauty of paradox. To sacrifice this mystery and imbalance this equilibrium is to “choose” and to commit heresy, as we shall see.

The second manifestation of God’s divine reign, which is simply a particular manifestation of the first, is the cultural principle of unity in diversity. This is summed up in the famous dictum attributed to St. Augustine: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (“In necessary things—unity; in doubtful matters—liberty; in all things—love”).[11] This means that in the Church militant, the cult of divine worship and the proclamation of the Holy Gospel, since it is in different regions of the catholic church toto orbe terrarum,[12] being catholic and thus possessing the integrity of the orthodox faith, will nonetheless express itself in diverse ways. Walter Cardinal Kasper affirms this reality when he comments on the Joint Declaration by saying that

Complementary oppositions belong to life and are therefore signs of a living church which is on the way. To demand a full consensus would mean to make unity an eschatological affair. In this world only a differentiated consensus is posible, and this means that the one, holy catholic, and apostolic Church is an organic whole composed of complementary opposites. Or let me put it like this: The Church is an image of the triune God who is oneness in diversity.[13]

Here we have the Catholic Cardinal Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian unity, affirming this basic reality of God’s reign of unity in diversity. Anyone who denies this reality wishes to do away with the Day of Pentecost and impose a man-made unity upon a Spirit-imbued vitality—an endeavor which, as history shows, always spells disaster for Christian unity.

Heresy and Orthodoxy

Having brought forth these realities and manifestations of God’s reign and of the Trinitarian principle, let us now approach the way the Church must deal with heresy with these precarious principles in the balance. First, it must be made clear that heresy is rarely outright falsehood. It usually means taking the various sacred mysteries of our faith (the dogmatic paradoxes already mentioned) and choosing one side of the paradox or the other, and reducing the mystery to a rational proposition. (Greek for heresy, αἱρέσις, means “choice.”[14])

For example, Arianism asserts that our Lord Jesus Christ is a man. This is true. It also asserts that our Lord Jesus Christ was created. Not true. Arianism chooses one or the other, not both. The mystery is sacrificed for a rational explanation. But you cannot worship a rational explanation, only a mystery can be personal. On the other hand, Monophysitism teaches that our Lord Jesus Christ is God. True! It also teaches that our Lord Jesus Christ is not human. Not true. Monophysitism chooses one and not both, sacrificing the mystery. Both of these heresies are true in some ways but false in other ways—the crucial aspect of its falsity being the denial of the mystery.

The counterpoint to heresy is orthodoxy. As Chesterton states above, it represents the balance of the mystery. When the Church answered heresy, she came together and formulated a certain manner of speaking about doctrine in such a way that everyone could agree on it. This was a difficult process because even within the same language, terms are used in different ways. This is seen in the controversy surrounding the usage of ὁμοούσιος (homoousios) in the Nicene Creed and the later controversy regarding the term φύσις. Nevertheless, through council and argument, the Church leaders eventually came to an agreement on terms so that everything was clear.

However, the Ecumenical Struggle is discovering the fact that it is not always this simple. The facts of history indicate that each heresy began as a reaction to another perceived heresy—an overemphasis on one part of the mystery. This lead to each side emphasizing one part of the mystery in an attempt to correct the problem they perceived. When they discovered that the other side was emphasizing the opposite part of the mystery, they eyed the other with suspicion. Moreover, the councils did not always solve the problem. Sometimes whole groups of Christians refused to attend because of the wickedness of the council members. Sometimes other Christians set up rival councils which condemned each other. To many, orthodox doctrine was far from clear, and the divisions of the Church deepened.

In the example of the Protestant Revolt/Reformation,[15] we have various emphases being brought out by the leaders of various Reform movements, which are then contrasted with Catholic emphases—priesthood of all believers vs. clericalism; communion of all saints vs. communion with the departed; lay participation vs. hierarchical oversight. Of course each of these need to be held in tension and balance one another. The problem of the division occurred when both sides hardened in their emphasis and did not allow the other view point to balance it. This situation is described by the civil Reformer Erasmus with these words:

The one side go so far as to profess that the commands of petty [priests] are obligatory on pain of hellfire, nor do they hesitate to promise eternal life to him that shall obey. The oppose party meet this extravagance by saying that all the decrees of Papas, councils, bishops are heretical and anti-Christian. Thus one party has enlarged the power of the pontiff beyond all bounds, the other speaks openly of him in terms I would not dare repeat. Again, one party says that the vows of monks and priests are perpetually binding on pain of hellfire, the other says that such vows are thoroughly wicked, that they are not to be undertaken, and if undertaken are not to be kept. It is from the conflict of such exaggerated views that have been born the thunders and lightnings which now shake the world. And if each side continues to defend bitterly its own exaggerations, I can see such a fight coming as was that between Achilles and Hector whom, since they were both equally ruthless, only death could divide.[16]

Here Erasmus understands that each side is becoming hardened in opposing extremes, which only leads to greater division. When Erasmus reluctantly ‘entered the fray’ and disputed with Martin Luther, the latter’s response revealed how unwilling he was to be moderate. Erasmus chose what he felt was the most pertinent crux of doctrine for the Protestants: faith vs. works. Erasmus, as the moderate Catholic Reformer he was, took the moderate approach and affirmed that this is a mysterious paradox, not an either/or but a both/and. No doubt many Catholic brothers of his were not filled with such moderation.

Martin Luther, on the other hand, seemed to insist that any allowance of the will of man as efficacious for salvation lead inexorably to pelagianism:

When we do not let God’s will alone have the will and power to harden and to show mercy and to do everything, we attribute to free choice itself the ability to do everything without grace, despite our having denied that it can do anything good without grace.[17]

It appeared, therefore, to the Catholic side, that the followers of Luther and others were committing a heresy because they were refusing to allow the paradox of the mystery to be itself.

Some argue, however, as we shall see below, that Luther and the Reformers were not arguing for the complete absence of salvific efficacy within good works, and Catholic condemnations misunderstood the Reformers’ common doctrine of sola fide. The Council of Trent attempted to form a balance between faith and works by saying that on the one hand, all good works are a result of God’s grace, but that human cooperation is necessary to effect salvation nonetheless. God, in other words, “does all the work,” and we become adjutores (“co-workers”[18]). This is essentially what Erasmus said.

However, when one side is attempting to correct an extreme with one part of the paradox, and the other wishes to correction that correction by emphasizing the other (and when, moreover, love has run dry), then myopia begins to set in. This means that through the influence of the Evil One, Christians cannot comprehend each other. This occurs because of these emphases. In our example, the Protestant Reformers and their followers found the concept of faith extremely important to emphasize against the despair-induced superstition of the hoi polloi abused by indulgence peddlers. On the other hand, the Catholics found this correction to be untenable, and argued that works must be a part of salvation, or else God is unjust. (It should be noted, moreover, that this controversy among the Catholics themselves did not end with Trent, and raged on between Jesuit followers of Molina (d. 1600) and Dominican followers of Bañez (d. 1604) and later broke loose with Jansenism, which “cast a long shadow” on Catholic spirituality even far into the 20th century. Not until the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church was this firmly and resolutely resolved.[19])

Thus the dark period following Trent branded all Protestants as heretics and under condemnation, and the Protestants responded in kind and branded the pope as the antichrist. Meanwhile, secularism and nationalism was growing and continued to gain steam with the rise of secularist democracy, industrialization, and technology. Slowly the Protestants and Catholics realized that this common enemy was gaining strength in their midst. Sadly, they were unable to bind together to prevent the “suicide of Europe”—the Great War (as Benedict XV put it) and its aftermath in the Second World War. These horrific massacres of human life in the name of petty kingdoms finally jolted Christians to arise from their slumber and make peace with one another. “In their common resistance to the inhumane unchristian system of the Nazis…many Catholics and evangelical Christians discovered that they were not as far apart as had seemed.”[20]

The Beginning of Healing

 The need for healing had grown to such a point that Christians were simply speaking different languages. They were unintelligible to one another. (Is this not a denial of Pentecost?) If, even before 1600 in the same Latin tongue, the Christian terms of theology were being interpreted differently, how much had this problem been exacerbated by the time of Europe’s Suicide? When the Reformers had written about fides, they seemed to mean a passive acceptance of God’s forensic declaration of righteousness. Whereas when the Catholics spoke of fides, they spoke of a process of cooperating with good works: fides quae per caritatem operatur.[21] Never mind the confusion of differing languages, when the same language says different things to different people, division is imminent. The solution of course, is to talk it out. Trent, it seems, was not interested in talking with Protestants, or perhaps the Protestants were not interested in talking with Catholic “papists.” It is, in any event, pointless to attempt to blame one side over the other, and to do so would only prolong greater harm. Both sides hold responsibility for this awful division.

The first stage to healing this awful schism is talking to one another. The Protestants and Orthodox had been meeting together and talking since the brief armistice between the world wars, but the Catholic Church, though expressing certain positive support for the Ecumenical movement, also voiced its suspicions that the movement favored indifferentism.[22] This changed dramatically with the Second Vatican Council which lead to the creation of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and dialogues were begun to numerous non-Catholic Christian communities.

And so the first Lutheran-Catholic agreed statement came out in 1972 at Malta which “laid out a wide-ranging consensus about the doctrine of justification.” Successive meetings occurred, but the same conclusions resulted. In 1994, The Joint Declaration on Justification was released and later signed in 1999. This document boldly asserts that

the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration.[23]

The teachings of either church has “appeared in a new light” to either side, and a greater understanding has occurred, to the point that the Declaration is able to lucidate each doctrine and reconcile it with the other. This is no small achievement, and is all the more tragic when its significance is forgotten.

To a large extent, the Declaration is a clarification on all the misunderstandings and accusations which have clouded our judgment of one another for centuries, and takes the form of explaining the terminology of each side: “When Lutherans say such and such, they do not deny this Catholic doctrine…when Catholics say such and such, they do not deny this Lutheran doctrine.” In this way, the Declaration acts in the same way as an orthodox council in order to form a common language. The central affirmation of the Declaration is highlighted by Kasper in no. 15:

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, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

Notice the balance that is struck here. “Grace alone” causes us to be accepted, and the Holy Spirit “euips and calls” us to good works. Thus an equilibrium is maintained between an extreme Lutheran or Catholic view point.

It is, however, only the beginning of healing. Though the condemnations of the 16th century no longer apply to the Lutheran or Catholic doctrine explicated in the Declaration, much worked needs to be done. First of all, there remains important issues to be further clarified. When signing the document, the Vatican issued a number of clarifications on important aspects of the doctrine that still needed to be addressed. Intercommunion, moreover, has not been established. Roman Catholic priests do not have the authorization to give the Holy Gifts to Lutherans. Some say that the ordination of women is the greatest factor preventing intercommunion.[24] The Declaration is condemned by hardline Lutherans.[25] Moreover, the Declaration seems to present problems for Catholics. For it “clearly cannot be maintained” that Trent has been overturned, since it is reposes on the infallible authority of ecumenical status.[26] Nevertheless, as Kasper maintains,

[Lutheranism] can be interpreted according to our present understanidng of faith in such a way that Luther’s doctrine, as set for in the Joint Declaration, is no longer ruled out as opposd to it and thus Church-dividing.[27]

Moreover, the condemnation of any heretic is always a condemnation of his heretical teachings as understood by the council. If the Church errs in discerning who is the heretic, in the midst of the slander of wicked and ambitious men (like von Eck, who wanted a Cardinal’s hat for condemning Luther), she does not err in setting forth the orthodox dogma.[28] Therefore, he who disoveys the council with full knowledge is indeed an intrasigent heretic and is in danger of hellfire. However (and this is a big however!) the Church leaves the eternal state of any person’s soul in God’s hands. We know some who have gone to heaven. The Church has never claimed the authority to tell who is in hell.[29]

But the Declaration is also only the beginning of healing for another reason. Though the Catholic Church has signed this document, and thus no longer anathemetizes Lutheranism (insofar as it is confessed through the Declaration), Lutheranism has no ecclesial parallel to ratify such a statement for its members. The Declaration was signed by the Lutheran World Federation, which posseses no authority for all the world Lutheran churches. Thus even if the a complete consensus was made in any document, such that intercommunion could be established, no authority on the Protestant side can effect reunion. Even though further dialogue has occurred, and further common documents have been issued, it is left to individual Christian churches (or even individual Christians) to reconcile themselves to the Holy Father and their mother church. The World Methodist Council affirmed this document in 2006,[30] and in 2007 the Traditional Anglican Communion sought reconciliation with the Holy Father, and in 2008 the Anglo-Lutherans did as well. Having set aside former prejudices, the Catholic Church welcomes her Protestant brethren in a joyful reunion of Christian love and truth.

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.

[1] Athanasian Creed

[2] 1 Jn. 4:16

[3] It is interesting to note, however, that the continuous movement of Sufism among Muslims through the history of Islam, though always a minority movement (and sometimes condemned), often has very strong overlapping tenets with this central claim of the Christian faith. It is said by some that the Sufis barrowed heavily from their Christians subjects during the Islamic imperial period. Others, however, maintain that Sufis are simply probing the depths of the Qur’an and finding a deeper, esoteric meaning (however much this may conflict with the public cult of salat).

[4] Nostra Aetate, 2

[5] Dominus Iesus, 22

[6] Nicene Creed

[7] 1 Pt. 4:11

[8] Following St. Augustine’s theodicy on the problem of evil.

[9] Chesterton, Orthodoxy

[10] Vladimir Soloviev expands this philosophically when he connects ontology to the Trinitarian principle in the last section of his great treatise, Russia and the Universal Church.

[11] Though some make a ruckus about the attribution to the Latin father, saying that this principle came from anti-Christian writings, let us be at peace and recognize its truth in general principles of the holy Fathers rather than debating about sources—these things are dubia.

[12] “In every region of lands;” from the Roman Canon

[13] Walter Cardinal Kasper, “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: A Roman Catholic Perspective,” in Rusch, ed., Justification and the Future of the Ecumenical Movement (Liturgical Press, 2003),18

[14] 1 Pt. 2:1

[15] It need not burden us to use both partisan terms here. The facts of history declare that there was plenty of both happening during this awful time.

[16] Erasmus, On Free Will, trans. Rupp in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (Westminster, 1969),95

[17] Luther, On the Bondage of the Will in ibid., 229

[18] 1 Cor. 3:9

[19] O’Collins, Catholicism, 212

[20] Kasper, 15

[21] “Faith which worketh through love” (Gal. 5:6)

[22] This is seen especially in Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos (“Minds of Men”) which condemned Ecumenism as indifferentism and proclaimed the Catholic Church to be the true Church.

[23] Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 41 accessed at < pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-jointdeclaration_en.html>

[24] See Lutheran Saltzman’s article in First Things: “Why Can’t Lutherans Take Catholic Communion?” <;

[25] See for example Bennett’s article “The Roman Catholic-Lutheran ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification:’ A Denial of the Gospel and the Righteousness of Christ” at <

[26] “Some Reflections on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrinf of Justification” L’Osservatore Romano, April 2001, <;

[27] Kasper, 18

[28] The Orthodox churches have discovered this in their healings over Chalcedon. The Chalcedonians condemn Dioscoros, while the Orientals venerate him as a saint; both, however, agree on the doctrine.

[29] O’Collins, 231