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Catholic-Lutheran Accord on Justification May 28, 1999

VATICAN ( -- A day after the announcement that Catholic and Lutheran leaders would release a formal joint statement on the theological issue of justification, Rome is buzzing over the apparent resolution of a bitter old disagreement.

On May 27, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, announced that on June 11 he would hold a joint press conference with Dr. Ismael Noko, the secretary general of the World Lutheran Federation. At that time, he said, the two would announce the date for a formal signing of the joint statement on justification.

In June 1997, a commission of theologians appointed by the Vatican and the World Lutheran Federation issued a 44-point statement on justification, which quickly won the endorsement of the Lutheran group. However, the Vatican asked for "clarification" on a few key points, and the formal adoption of the joint declaration-- originally scheduled for autumn 1998-- was postponed.

The question of justification-- of how men are made righteous in the sight of God-- has been a crucial theological difference between Catholics and Lutherans since the 16th century, when the Council of Trent condemned the teaching of Martin Luther that justification comes solely through faith in Jesus Christ. Luther responded by condemning the Church teaching, arguing that Catholics placed too much emphasis on the role of human works (although the Council of Trent specifically rejected the notion that man can be saved by his own works). Those condemnations remain in force today.

In 1967, when Catholics and Lutherans began an ecumenical dialogue, the issue of justification quickly came to the forefront. Thirty years later, the panel of theologians assembled by the two churches have found that their beliefs on the issue are ultimately compatible, and that the differing "developments" on that issue of justification in the two churches "are not such as to provoke doctrinal condemnations." The joint declaration released in 1997 explained that "the sinner is justified by means of faith in the saving work of God in Christ," but "that faith is active in love," and therefore a Christian cannot passively faithful, but must show his faith in works of charity.

The joint declaration which will be unveiled simultaneously in Rome and Geneva on June 11 will be the same one which was made public in June 1997, Cardinal Cassidy said. Having asked for clarification on some points in that statement, and receiving assurance that the Lutheran theologians agreed with the Catholic understanding on certain key points, the Vatican has now authorized formal publication of the statement.