Joint Declaration on Justification: History Making or Precious Memory?

[1] On October 31, 1999, an historic moment of ecumenical reception for Lutherans and Roman Catholics took place at Augsburg, Germany. The Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification was signed that day by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican. A decade later, on October 1, 2009, a service will be held in Chicago to mark the tenth anniversary of that moment. The service will take place at Old St. Patrick’s Church (700 W. Adams Street), beginning at 6:30 p.m. Time will tell whether the occasion will be remembered as an event of celebration with grand prospects for the future or a memorial service for what once was an era of ecumenical promise.

[2] Plans for the service called for the participation of two individuals whose names appear on the declaration. Dr. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, signed the declaration on behalf of Lutherans. Signing with him were the LWF vice presidents at the time, including then Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Cardinal Walter Kasper, then secretary and now president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, signed on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, as did Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then president of the council, both acting on behalf of Pope John Paul II.Their signatures marked the official reception of the fruits of many years of dialogue on the doctrine of justification—the doctrine that was one of the issues of contention in the Reformation of the sixteenth century.

[3] Dr. Noko will address participants in the October 1 service, but Cardinal Kasper will not be there. A couple of weeks after publication of the ELCA’s proposed social statement on sexuality and the resolution of ministry matters, Cardinal Kasper canceled his plan to participate in the October 1 service. Earlier communication from other Roman Catholic leaders had indicated concerns regarding possible changes in ELCA standards for ordained ministry. Replacing Cardinal Kasper as homilist will be the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, archbishop of Atlanta and chair of the ecumenical committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Role of the ELCA

[4] Various ELCA theologians contributed significantly to the development of the joint declaration. Given the hope-filled prospects that the declaration seemed to signal when the text was received and embraced, grief would be an apt response if those prospects are drowned in the context of this time.

[5] I watched with intense interest the development of the joint declaration. I recall, for instance, a significant meeting one day in Rome. The room in which the meeting occurred was not large, but it certainly was impressive. In my recollection, 18-foot, heavy scarlet drapes adorned the windows from ceiling to floor. Scarlet paper covered the walls. A large, narrow, u-shaped table occupied much of the floor. We stood as the cardinal entered the room. He took his place at the center of the table. Then he turned to me as the leader of the ecumenical delegation and asked me to open our meeting with prayer.

[6] After prayer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave a brief overview of the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Questions followed. My question was this: Did he believe that it would be possible for Lutherans and Roman Catholics to develop a joint statement on the doctrine of justification? His response was immediate and emphatic: Yes, certainly. He said that the biblical work had been done on the topic. The theological work had been accomplished. As long as we clearly understood that such a statement would address only the specific doctrine of justification and would not resolve other issues, then the effort could proceed and be a fruitful one.The answer Cardinal Ratzinger gave during that meeting in February 1994 was a timely and encouraging one. We knew that any eventual success in approval of such a joint statement would depend on his willingness to support the project.

[7] Prompted by the request of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran World Federation had committed itself in 1993 to a process of preparing a statement on justification in collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church. Significant work on the topic had taken place in the bilateral dialogue between U.S. Lutherans and Roman Catholics. The seventh report of that dialogue addressed specifically the doctrine of justification. That report was issued in 1985.[1] A first draft of the joint declaration was completed in March 1994. The draft underwent revisions, leading to a final version in January 1997.

Steps in Affirmation

[8] The Council of the Lutheran World Federation affirmed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in June 1998. The council acted on the basis of positive responses by 81 member churches. Those churches represented 84 percent of the Lutherans in the LWF. Prior to the council’s action, the 1997 ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted 958 to 25 in support of the declaration.

[9] The response from the Roman Catholic Church on June 25, 1998 appeared to put some last-minute impediments in the way of approval, but in fact it led to a refinement of the final document. The response affirmed the Joint Declaration, acknowledging a consensus in the basic truths regarding justification. But further clarification was said to be needed before the churches could declare that the condemnations from the time of the Reformation do not apply to the teaching presented in the Joint Declaration. Therefore, an “Annex” of “elucidations” for the document was developed.

Common Statement and Annex

[10] Part of the final process that led to the texts of the Official Common Statement and its Annex was initiated by the late Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselmann[2] of Bavaria and then-Cardinal Ratzinger.[3] They met with two professors of theology, Heinz Schütte from the Roman Catholic side and Joachim Track from the Lutherans. Developed through their efforts was a five-page text, which was received and revised by the LWF and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting of Christian Unity (PCPCU). The Official Common Statement with an Annex was introduced in a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 11, 1999, by Cardinal Cassidy and Dr. Noko.

Description of Content

[11] The drafting of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification had started with an emphasis on the issue of the sixteenth-century condemnations. Along the way, however, the need to formulate a common understanding of justification became a priority. Such a common statement provided the basis on which the churches could declare that the condemnations do not apply to current teaching.

[12] After a brief introduction, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification contains five major sections:

1. The first section outlines the biblical basis of the agreement.

2. The second section describes the ways in which the doctrine of justification is an ecumenical problem. After all, as the declaration notes, “A common understanding of justification is…fundamental and indispensable to overcoming” divisions (¶ 13).

3. The third and fourth sections constitute the central section of the declaration. The third section expresses a shared understanding of justification. As stated in paragraph 15: “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.”

4. The fourth section applies this common understanding to seven historically controversial issues. Those issues are: (1) sin and human cooperation with God’s justifying act; (2) justification as forgiveness and renewal; (3) the place of faith in justification; (4) the justified and sinner; (5) law and gospel; (6) the assurance of salvation; and (7) the good works of the justified. A statement of agreement is expressed on each of those seven issues. That statement of agreement is followed by separate, specific Lutheran and Roman Catholic affirmations. Actually, those affirmations are divergent at points. Yet, according to paragraph 40, their divergence does “not destroy differentiated consensus.” Those differences “are no longer occasion for doctrinal condemnations” (¶ 5).

5. The fifth section addresses the “Significance and Scope of the Consensus Reached.” This final section declares that “consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification” exists between Lutherans and Roman Catholics (¶ 40). Thus, the doctrinal condemnations from the Reformation era regarding justification do not apply today (¶ 41).

[13] The declaration emphasizes that the agreement “must come to influence the life and teachings of our churches” (¶ 43). Further, there is this acknowledgment: Questions related to the doctrine of the church, ordering of ministry, the sacraments, ecclesial authority, and social ethics still must be addressed. The declaration affirms that the “Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church will continue to strive together to deepen this common understanding of justification and to make it bear fruit in the life and teaching of the churches” (¶ 43). The Joint Declaration concludes with these words: “We give thanks to the Lord for this decisive step forward on the way to overcoming the division of the church. We ask the Holy Spirit to lead us further toward that visible unity which is Christ’s will” (¶ 44).


[14] What have we learned from the process of the development and reception of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification?

1. First, people in the pews take such developments seriously in relation to their personal lives. Thus, participants in bilateral dialogues must be mindful not only of biblical, ecclesial, and theological issues but also of pastoral concerns.

2. Second, the substantive efforts of members of bilateral dialogues are crucial. True dialogue does not mean just being nice to one another. Substantive biblical, theological, and ecclesiological work must be done thoroughly and with care. In such dialogues, patience is needed. So is a willingness to listen, learn, and perhaps even come to some new understandings of old issues.

3. Third, mutual trust of leaders and participants is essential. Deep mutual trust allows for careful and sometimes confidential exploration of issues, including their various ecclesial ramifications.

4. Fourth, for the sake of the internal health of our respective churches, we need to talk with one another. If we do not do so, we succumb to the temptation of drinking our own denominational bath water and calling it champagne.

5. Fifth, urgency exists for fostering dialogue, especially because various ecclesial, administrative, and social factors now threaten the ongoing search for deeper expressions of our baptismal unity in Christ.

6. Sixth, our quest is not to create the unity of the church. Rather, our quest is to find deeper and more profound ways to express the unity of Christ’s body, the Church. Unity in Christ is not ours to create. Indeed, that unity is a gift and a promise—a gift and promise that we can seek and receive.

[15] The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification gives us hope. It is truly an historic document—a document testifying to the official reception of results of years of dialogue on one topic. But it is not the end of the quest. Clearly, more needs to be done. The 11th round of the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue is seeking to address some issues unresolved by the declaration. The topic of this round is “The Hope of Eternal Life.” Among the areas to be addressed are concepts of the continuity of the community of faith in time and eternity, purgation, prayers about or for the dead, specific and general resurrection, and understandings of an interim state in anticipation of the great resurrection.

[16] In my experience, there seems to have been greater consciousness of the joint declaration on the part of leaders at the Vatican in Rome than among ELCA leaders and members or U.S. Roman Catholic bishops. Joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic prayer services have transpired in some places. The declaration has been the focus of study occasionally by ecumenical gatherings of clergy or laity. But the great promise that the signing seemed to signal 10 years ago still needs untiring nurture. Genuine ecumenical reception cannot be only a memory of a wholesome moment now past, but also must be a matter of continuing mutual trust and persistent hope.

[1] The U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue began in 1965. From 1979 until 1983, this dialogue engaged in the study of justification by grace through faith. The international Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue was inaugurated in 1967. In 1972, the international dialogue issued its report on “The Gospel and the Church,” which is often called the “Malta Report.” Even at that early stage of the international dialogue, the statement was made: “Today…a far-reaching consensus is developing in the interpretation of justification….”

[2] He died on October 2, 1999, only 29 days before the official signing of the declaration to which he had dedicated heroic effort.

[3] They had become acquainted during Cardinal Ratzinger’s service as Archbishop in Munich, where Dr. Hanselmann served at the time as the bishop of the Evangelical Church.