Presentation to the Vatican Sala Stampa of His Eminence Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy,
President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

25 June 1998


1. It is for me a pleasure and source of much satisfaction to present today a document declaring that a consensus on fundamental truths regarding the doctrine of justification has been reached in the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

2. This document is the result of a long process of intense dialogue under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation. It must be considered without any doubt an outstanding achievement of the ecumenical movement and a milestone on the way to the restoration of full, visible unity among the disciples of the one Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

3. To put this achievement in perspective, it is necessary to recall that the doctrine of justification was a central issue in the dispute between Martin Luther and the Church authorities in the 16th Century. The contrasting presentations and understandings of this fundamental Christian doctrine became the subject of condemnations both on the part of the Council of Trent and the Lutheran Confessions. The consensus now achieved will be of importance, moreover, not only for Catholic-Lutheran relations and future dialogue, but also for progress in the search for unity between Catholics and other communities coming out of the Reformation controversies.

4. The theological dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, at the international level, began soon after the close of the Second Vatican Council, in 1967. Three phases of dialogue have been completed and a fourth is in progress. From the first phase of this international dialogue, it became more and more clear that studies and dialogue by Catholic and Lutheran scholars had begun to show that there was an emerging agreement on the doctrine of justification. Thus the report of the First phase of dialogue in 1972, the so-called Malta Report, stated that “Today ... a far reaching consensus is developing in the interpretation of justification” (N° 26). The dialogue statement All under One Christ, 1980 put it even more strongly: “A broad consensus emerges in the doctrine of justification, which was decisively important for the Reformation” (N° 4). The dialogue called the doctrine of justification “the central point of controversy in the Sixteenth Century” (The Ministry in the Church, 1981, N° 9). The whole third phase of dialogue examined this doctrine more at length and in reference to the Church (Church and Justification: Understanding the Church in the Light of the Doctrine of Justification, 1994).

Important studies emerged by some Lutheran/Catholic national dialogues which were used in preparing the report, just mentioned, of the third phase of dialogue. Those included the American study Justification by Faith, and the German study The Condemnations of the Reformation Era, Do They Still Divide? All of these contributed to paving the way for the Joint Declaration. The Joint Declaration is, in fact, not a new study. Rather, it brings together in a concise way, the essential findings of the studies done previously, and seen especially in the dialogue reports just mentioned.

5. In 1994 a group of theologians, appointed respectively by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation, produced a first version of a project of a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification. This began a study process covering almost four years, during which that version underwent two revisions in 1996 and in 1997, before being officially submitted to the Holy See and the members of the Lutheran World Federation for approval.

On the Catholic side, this study involved particularly the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian unity and the final result which I have the honour to present today is the fruit of intense collaboration between these two dicasteries. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Chrisitan Unity was considerably helped in its study of the first version by the comments of a number of Episcopal Conferences in places where there are significant numbers of Lutherans and Catholics living side by side, and especially by those Conferences which have been engaged at the national level with corresponding Lutheran churches.

6. As you can see from the text of the Joint Declaration, the consensus reached is expressed in a particular style. There is for each of the questions discussed a common affirmation, followed by an explanation on the part of each of the dialogue partners, indicating how their traditional explications of the point in question are in harmony with the common statement.

There are 44 common declarations, covering basic truths on justification. The agreement reached on these allows us to say that a high level of consensus has been reached and further to state that where such consensus has been reached the condemnations levelled at one another in the 16th century no longer apply to the respective partner today.

In this connection, I should perhaps point out that we cannot of course erase these condemnations from history. We can, however, now state that, in so far as a consensus on the understanding of basic truths articulated in the Joint Declaration has been achieved, the corresponding condemnations found in the Lutheran Confessions and in the Council of Trent no longer apply.

7. At the same time this Joint Declaration has limits. It is one important step forward, but it does not pretend to resolve all the issues that Lutherans and Catholics need to face together on their pilgrimage out of separation, and toward full visible unity. The Joint Declaration itself speaks of “questions of varying importance which need further clarification. These include, among other topics, the relationship between the Word of God and church doctrine, as well as ecclesiology, authority in the church, ministry, the sacraments, and the relation between justification and social ethics” (N° 43).

8. In affirming that a consensus in fundamental truths on the doctrine of Justification has indeed been reached, the Catholic Church is issuing an accompanying explanatory Note in which certain points regarding the document are being clarified for the benefit of the members of the Catholic Church, and as a contribution towards overcoming the divergences that still exist.

You have a copy of this Note, but I should like to indicate briefly and explain its contents.

Under the title “Declaration” it is clearly stated that “a considerable agreement has been reached” on a question that has been for centuries so controversial. Indeed “it is rightly stated that there is a consensus in fundamental truths of the doctrine of justification”. At the same time, the Catholic Church is of the opinion that we cannot yet speak of a consensus such as to eliminate every difference between Catholics and Lutherans in the understanding of justification. And as a matter of fact the Joint Declaration itself refers to some of these differences.

Under the second heading “Clarifications”, the Catholic Church indicates several points that need further study. The major difficulties are to be found in paragraph 4.4 of the Joint Declaration concerning the justified person as sinner. We have some difficulty in seeing how the explanation given in N° 29 regarding the Lutheran understanding of the justified person as sinful can be fully compatible with the Catholic doctrine explained in N° 30. The Lutheran explanation seems still to contradict the Catholic understanding of baptism in which all that can properly be called sin is taken away. Concupiscence remains of course in the justified, but for Catholics this cannot be properly called sin, while in N° 29 it is stated that for Lutherans it is truly sin. Moreover, the Statement in N° 22 that “God no longer imputes to the justified their sins” does not seem an adequate explanation of the Catholic understanding of the interior transformation that takes place in the justified person. The term “Opposition to God” that is used in NN° 28-30 is understood differently by Catholics and Lutherans and so becomes, in fact, equivocal. For these reasons it is difficult to see how, in the current state of the presentation, given in the Joint Declaration, we can say that the Lutheran doctrine of “simul iustus et peccator” is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decrees on original sin and justification.

One of the most discussed points in the Joint Declaration has been the question considered under N° 18, concerning the Lutheran understanding of justification as criterion for the life and practice of the Church. For Lutherans this doctrine has taken on an altogether particular significance. The Joint Declaration states clearly that for Catholics also the doctrine of justification “is an indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ”. Catholics, however, “see themselves as bound by several criteria” and our Note indicates what those criteria are by stating that, “according to Scripture and already from the time of the Fathers of the Church, the message of justification has been organically integrated into the fundamental criterion of the regula fidei, that is the confession of the one God in three persons, christologically centered and rooted in the living Church and its sacramental”.

The Catholic Church has noted with satisfaction that N° 21, in conformity with canon 4 of the Decree on Justification of the Council of Trent, states that man can refuse grace; but it must also be affirmed that, with this freedom to refuse, there is also in the justified person a new capacity to adhere to the divine will, a capacity that is rightly called cooperatio. Given this understanding and noting that in N° 17, Lutherans and Catholics share the common conviction that the new life comes from the divine mercy and not from any merit of our own, it is difficult to see how the term “mere passive” can be used by the Lutherans in this regard, and how this phrase can be compatible with the affirmation by the Lutherans in N°21 of the full personal involvement in faith. A clarification would therefore seem necessary in order to determine more exactly the degree of consensus achieved in this regard.

The Catholic Church also maintains with Lutherans that these good works of the justified are always the fruit of grace. But at the same time, and without in any way diminishing the totally divine initiative, they are the fruit of man, justified and interiorly transformed. We can therefore say that eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits.

In pursuing this study further, it will be necessary to treat also the sacrament of penance, through which the sinner can be justified anew.

And then in a third section, the Note indicates some Prospects for Future Work. The hope is expressed that the present important step forward towards agreement on justification may be followed by further studies that will make possible a satisfactory clarification of the divergences that still exist, some of which concern aspects of substance and are therefore not all mutually compatible, as affirmed on the contrary in N° 40. Particularly desirable would be a deeper reflection on the biblical foundation that is the common basis of the doctrine of justification both for Lutherans and Catholics.

And the Note finally expresses the wish that Catholics and Lutherans might seek to find a language which can make the doctrine of justification more intelligible also for the men and women of our day.

9. In conclusion, I wish to stress that the consensus reached on the doctrine of justification, despite its limitations, virtually resolves a long disputed question at the close of the twentieth century, and on the eve of the new millennium. It is a response to Pope John Paul II’s appeal in Tertio Millennio Adveniente that “the approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of conscience and the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives, so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium” (N° 34), and will be an enormous encouragement to Catholics and Lutherans as they continue to work in the years ahead for the visible unity to which the Lord is calling us. Indeed, it will be an encouragement to the whole ecumenical movement. It will show that patient work to overcome difficulties through dialogue can achieve results that go far beyond what could have been hoped for when the dialogue began.

There will be a formal signing of the Joint Declaration and a celebration of the consensus achieved sometime in the autumn. In the near future as part of the process of reception and dissemination of the document, the Pontifical Council will be forwarding a copy of the Joint Declaration, together with other relevant documentation to the Episcopal Conferences for their information, examination and study.


[Information Service 98 (1998/III) 95-97]