On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, launching the Protestant Reformation that split the Roman Catholic church and shaped the modern world. This Sunday, 482 years to the day later, the two churches are taking a quiet but momentous step to repair that breach.
After three decades of dialogue and reading the Bible together in several countries, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church will sign a joint declaration on the essential issue that sparked Luther's revolt: how one obtains salvation or finds a right relationship with God.
An agreement on the theological issue of "justification" may seem obscure and outdated in a secular world where sin has all but disappeared from mainstream vocabulary. But for these churches, the declaration ends centuries of condemnations and begins a new era of dialogue - one aimed at "full church communion," resolving differences without necessarily merging.
"It's the first time since the 16th century the Catholic Church has signed an agreement with any Western church," says Karl Donfried, professor of religion at Smith College and a Lutheran representative at the ceremony, to be held in Augsburg, Germany. "It's the beginning of working together in a new context."
This step is part of a vigorous ecumenical push by both Lutherans and Catholics for more visible unity with other churches, inspired by Christ Jesus' prayer that his followers "may be one." Today, many churches are refocusing on this centuries-old call, as they confront an aggressively materialistic culture, declining memberships, and growth in other world faiths.
The search for unity also responds to what Christians see as a worldwide craving for spirituality. "There is a hunger for reconciliation," says Richard Koenig, a retired Lutheran pastor in Millbury, Mass. "People look around the world and it is horribly divided and at war. If 'justification' is understood in its profundity, one is reconciled to God to be reconciled to human beings."
In addition to this weekend's declaration, Lutherans in the United States reached agreement in 1997 for "full communion" with four other Protestant churches, meaning freedom to share clergy and the Eucharist ceremony as well as cooperate in outreach activities. Two months ago, US Lutherans voted in favor of full communion with the Episcopal Church. Episcopalians vote next summer.
"There's very little impulse among Lutherans for mergers," says Martin Marty, a religious historian, author, and pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "In 1991, Lutherans defined the ecumenical goal as being realized when you come to full communion."
And while that is the stated aim of the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, both sides seem aware that it may ultimately be out of reach.
"While the Catholic Church ... is irreversibly committed to ecumenism and the goal of full communion.... I don't think it is generally accepted as a goal among Lutheran leaders," says Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, a publication influential in Roman Catholic circles. To Catholics, he says, full communion means "everybody in communion with the bishops who are in communion with the bishop of Rome."
There is an impulse within Lutheranism for complete reunion, Dr. Marty says, but "that isn't going to happen." Most Lutherans want their church to survive. Moreover, "since we ordain women and Catholics are far from that, it would be hard to picture a merged ministry." Yet the aim, he says, is to reach as much unity as possible.
Catholics, meanwhile, are pushing forward ecumenically on all fronts. Top priority goes to closing the gap with the Eastern Orthodox Church. Dialogue with Anglicans has produced a document called "The Gift of Authority." And Fr. Neuhaus has been involved in a US initiative with evangelical Protestants called Evangelicals and Catholics Together. "In 1996 we published a statement called 'The Gift of Salvation,' which in many ways parallels [this weekend's] Joint Declaration," he says. The initiative is being picked up by groups in Latin America, Ireland, Spain, and Africa, he adds.
The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (43 paragraphs on agreement and differences) hasn't come without controversy. Important voices in the Catholic Church and 240 German theologians have protested. Yet Pope John Paul II and the Lutheran World Federation - which polled its 128 member churches in 70 countries representing 58 million Lutherans - have insisted on going forward.
Justification is the central article of Christianity for Lutherans. Based on Paul's teachings, to be "justified" is to be right with God, to be on the road to eternal life. Lutherans have said justification comes by grace through faith alone. Catholic doctrine has said good works are also required.
The heart of the consensus says: "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."
The agreement gives official encouragement to the interaction that's been going on in local communities around the world. In New England, for example, discussions are under way on how to celebrate, study, and worship together in this new situation.
No one underestimates the huge differences that remain - such as papal infallibility, the role of women, and issues of human sexuality. But the real task, both parties say, is finding fresh ways to share the meaning of justification with a hungering world.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society