Friday, May 06, 2005

Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Pope Benedict XVI

The election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the chair of Peter was one that made me a little nervous. After all, Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And as such, the media would have us believe that he is a rotweiler. He is against all sorts of things that good Americans should be for… women priests… gay and lesbian marriage… warm and fuzzy bunnies. Ok, maybe he does like warm an fuzzy bunnies, but if he is German, then those warm bunnies probably came out of an oven. Not surprisingly, at his election, I was cautious. This man had after all written the document Dominus Iesus, in 2000, which seemed to be a step away from the recently signed and agreed upon Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). That document was a major breakthrough in ecumenical relations between the Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Justification is, for Lutherans after all, that idea by which the Church stands or falls. How is it that we are made right with God? The Augsburg Confession says in its fourth article, aptly titled “Justification,”

Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.

What is at stake here? Naturally that we are in no way justified by our own works. We cannot earn or storm our way into heaven by the merit of anything that we have done. And of course, the confutation of the fourth article says as much. What happens though, is that the Roman Catholic stance talks about works that are done through God’s grace make one worthy, which is difficult for many Lutherans to swallow. What I think is happening here, is that the two parties have been talking past one another. Lutherans want to talk about justification, but Romans have been talking mainly about the life lived after justification, or in other words, sanctification. That idea is a problem since Lutherans don’t agree as to whether any sanctification happens at all in this life, or if in our justification, we are merely declared righteous, and only made so at the end when Christ returns. But this conversation is one for another time.

Back to Benedict… With conversations that I have had, things that I have read, and the like, I am beginning to feel somewhat optimistic and hopeful in Benedict. Much of this optimism started with an email that was forwarded to me by one of my classmates at seminary. The email had been written by our systematic theology professor, David Yeago, who had said that Ratzinger was one of the four or five greatest living theologians, and had single handedly saved the JDDJ from being out and out rejected. Then, when reading another blog, Confessing Evangelical (which I really like and heartily recommend), the confessing evangelical quoted a newspaper article by Christopher Howse, who said something similar to Yeago, but with much more detail. Howse wrote,

According to the Lutheran theologian, Joachim Track, Ratzinger made three concessions that saved the agreement from collapse (including a declaration thatjustification and final judgment were God's gracious acts).

If this incident showed Cardinal Ratzinger as an altogether more open and conciliatory figure than the fierce enforcer depicted by his opponents, his actions as pope will be watched almost as keenly by Christians outside his jurisdiction as by the flock of this German Shepherd.

In an article by John Allen, reporter for the National Catholic Recorder, Ratzinger is even mentioned as pondering the status of the Augsburg Confession. Allen writes,

"Ratzinger has been involved in dialogue with Lutherans from way back,” said Br. Jeffrey Gros, ecumenical affairs specialist for the U.S. bishops. “In the 1980s he was even interested in declaring the Augsburg Confession [the first Lutheran declaration of faith] a Catholic document. To think that he wanted to torpedo this [agreement] is a total misread.”

This in itself is interesting, since the Lutheran World Federation requires only that a body recognize the Augsburg Confession in order to be Lutheran. If Ratzinger were to do declare the CA a “Catholic document”, what would this do to Lutheran bodies across the world? Again, something fascinating, for future pondering.

So what were the three concessions that Ratzinger made? (quoting from Allen’s article, with some comments of mine)

  1. He agreed that the goal of the ecumenical process is unity in diversity, not structural reintegration. “This was important to many Lutherans in Germany, who worried that the final aim of all this was coming back to Rome,” Track said.
  2. Ratzinger fully acknowledged the authority of the Lutheran World Federation to reach agreement with the Vatican. This concession might seem like a nitpick, but it has much to do with a view of the location from which authority stems, which will be a further issue in ecumenical dialogue.
  3. Ratzinger agreed that while Christians are obliged to do good works, justification and final judgment remain God’s gracious acts. Amen and amen… Too often Lutherans have held that we need not do any good works, since we are justified by God’s grace alone. A healthy dose of language that impels us to work for the furthering of the Kingdom is greatly needed. We are freed FROM sin, death and the devil, as well as being freed FOR something… As I reminded my Confirmation students last week, the Kingdom is coming no matter what. We pray “Thy kingdom come” so that it might actually come in and among us.

Being a German, Benedict XVI would surely be looking for some reconciliation in his homeland. On a recent visit to the Vatican the current presiding bishop of the ELCA, Mark Hanson, encouraged John Paul II to allow Eucharistic sharing between Rome and Lutherans by 2017, five hundred years after Luther posted the 95 theses. Maybe, the time is right.

Grace and Peace,

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