Click here for the comments of a protestant friend
Back to theological Thoughts
Back to Ecumenism

Total Depravity

This is a commentary on the core text (sections 4&5) of the 1997 joint Catholic-Lutheran declaration of the Doctrine of Justification. My comments are coloured mauve. Numbers in [] indicate canons of the sixth session of the Holy and Oecumenical Synod of Trent, which is quoted in green.

I have added as an appendix, a most informative Newspaper article. More recently, I have added the reaction of the Holy Office.

I should preface this with a few words of my own. I have found reviewing this document somewhat painful. After many years of conversations with evangelical protestants, I had come to the conclusion that the Lutheran/Catholic disputes of the 16th Century were now old-hat, and that while Calvinism was still very much alive the worst bits of Luther's doctrine (namely "Justification by Imputation of Christ's merits" and the "Total Depravity of Human Nature") were long forgotten.

Sadly, this document confounds my hopes. The one sign of hope that it contains is a move on the part of the Lutheran contributors away from the doctrine of "justification by faith alone". There is now a clear and welcome recognition that "justifying faith" includes hope and charity; so at least this lesser disagreement can thankfully be put to rest. The bulk of the document is little more that a juxtaposition of what are otherwise recognizably the opposing theologies exactly as explicated by Trent. Its true significance is the political statements at its conclusion. These assert that the document represents some sort of consensus or agreement on essentials and shows that the judgements of Trent were superfluous or misdirected. This is asinine and is, I am glad to say, formally rejected by the Holy Office.

The canonical status of anyone who associates him or herself with this document is an important question, given that it was championed by pope John-Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger. While it is plain to me that the doctrine it presents is pernicious, it seems to me that anyone who subscribes to or promotes this document is not, in so doing, associating him or her self with any proposition anathematized by the Oecumenical Council of Trent. He is only making the foolish factual error of asserting that the teaching that this document represents does not contradict that of Trent. Until it is stated by the Magisterium that the teaching contained in this document is heretical (which event is most unlikely!), the approval or promotion of it does not count as a heretical act. Even so, it should however be obvious to any Catholic that the doctrine that this document contains at the very least savours of heresy.

4. Explicating the Common Understanding of Justification

4.1 Human Powerlessness and Sin in Relation to Justification

19. We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. The freedom they possess in relation to persons and the things of this world is no freedom in relation to salvation,

I suppose this means that (wo)men are not free (able of themselves) to attain salvation. It is dangerous to confuse freedom from constraint preventing some action with the intrinsic power to attain this end. I am free to attempt to pole vault. I have no ability whatever to have the slightest success in such an endeavour.
for as sinners they stand under God's judgement
Well yes, but God's inclination in judgement is always to acquit, for the slightest pretext! He has no rational motive for being harsh or vindictive. All a sinner has to do to be reconciled to God is to repent (and be baptized).
and are incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God's grace. Because Catholics and Lutherans confess this together, it is true to say:
It really isn't much to the point to assert that (wo)men are "incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance". The fact is that God always takes the initiative: not so much because without that initiative (wo)man is helpless, but more because God will not be compromised in graciousness. There is simply nothing good that (wo)man can do which God has not prepared the way for and in fact caused.
20. When Catholics say that persons "cooperate" in preparing for and accepting justification by consenting to God's justifying action, they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not as an action arising from innate human abilities.
Indeed, as I have just said. The contrary is Pelagianism. [1,2]
21. According to Lutheran teaching, human beings are incapable of co-operating in their salvation, because as sinners they actively oppose God and his saving action.
This doctrine is exceedingly obnoxious and directly heretical.

If any one saith, that all works done before Justification, in whatsoever way they be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; or that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins: let him be anathema. [7]

If any one saith, that the fear of hell: whereby, by grieving for our sins, we flee unto the mercy of God; or
refrain from sinning; is a sin, or makes sinners worse; let him be anathema. [8]

Lutherans do not deny that a person can reject the working of grace.
The opposite is Calvinism.

If any one saith, that, since Adam's sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing with only a name, yea a name without a reality, a figment, in fine, introduced into the Church by Satan; let him be anathema. [5]

If any one saith, that it is not in man's power to make his ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissively only, but properly, and of Himself, in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less His own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let him be anathema. [6]

When they emphasize that a person can only receive (mere passive) justification, they mean thereby to exclude any possibility of contributing to one's own justification, but do not deny that believers are fully involved personally in their faith, which is effected by God's Word.
(Wo)men do contribute to their justification, both by faith and charity: though both are inspired by God. The role of human nature is not just negative, it is not totally depraved! This doctrine is directly heretical.

If any one saith, that man's free will moved and excited by God, by assenting to God exciting and calling, nowise co-operates towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of Justification; that it cannot refuse its consent, if it would, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive; let him be anathema. [4]

4.2 Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous

22. We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin's enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ.

When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love.
Yes, but more: God no longer imputes their sin exactly because He graciously takes their faith as an anticipatory down payment or deposit on account of the holiness that their lives are now oriented towards..
These two aspects of God's gracious action are not to be separated,
Indeed, precisely because the former follows as a direct result of the latter.
for persons are by faith united with Christ, who in his person is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30):
also "Wisdom and Sanctification and Redemption."
both the forgiveness of sin and the saving presence of God himself. Because Catholics and Lutherans confess this together, it is true to say that:

23. When Lutherans emphasize that the righteousness of Christ is our righteousness, their intention is above all to insist that the sinner is granted righteousness before God in Christ through the declaration of forgiveness and that only in union with Christ is one's life renewed.

I think this is barely orthodox (because of the word "through"), but it savours strongly of heresy.
When they stress that God's grace is forgiving love ("the favour of God"), they do not thereby deny the renewal of the Christian's life. They intend rather to express that justification remains free from human co-operation and is not dependent on the life renewing effects of grace in human beings.
But this is the exact point of disagreement!  The Catholic doctrine is that justification is identical with "the life renewing effects of grace in human beings". Trent condemns the proposition that Justification is just God's benevolence rather than His gracious action towards the transformation of the sinner into a saint.

If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema. [11]

If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for
Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema. [12]

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema. [9]
24. When Catholics emphasize the renewal of the interior person through the reception of grace imparted as a gift to the believer, they wish to insist that God's forgiving grace always brings with it a gift of new life, which in the Holy Spirit becomes effective in active love.
Indeed, but more than that. Justification, in as far as it can be distinguished from Sanctification, is the first (and crucial) term in a sequence that only exists because it continues towards perfection and an objective merit of God's fully deserved favour. In the end, the redeemed are fully worthy of God. They are divinized; caught up into the divine nature; and can take pride in themselves: only because of God's grace, of course!
They do not thereby deny that God's gift of grace in justification remains independent of human co-operation.
Of course! God's gift of grace, being grace, is by definition independent of human merit, and being God's initiative is by definition independent of human co-operation!
4.3Justification by Faith and through Grace

25. We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God's gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him.

Excellent, so "Justifying Faith" is not just Faith, but also Hope and crucially Charity. [11]
Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.
This is misleading. It is because God envisages the process that "justifying faith" sets in motion that He accounts the justified as pleasing to Him. The basis of justification is always God and His gracious action, but this immediately leads to sanctification, which then merits His favour.

It is also misleading because "faith" here has been redefined to include "hope and charity". Nothing significant follows this free gift that could be thought to be "the basis of justification". Rather it is charity that merits and is the basis of justification.

26. According to Lutheran understanding, God justifies sinners in faith alone (sola fide). In faith they place their trust wholly in their Creator and Redeemer and thus live in communion with him. God himself effects faith as he brings forth such trust by his creative Word. Because God's act is a new creation, it affects all dimensions of the person and leads to a life in hope and love.
Excellent. I think this paragraph taken by itself would escape the central anathema represented by [11]. It is most regrettable that it must be taken alongside what has already been stated.
In the doctrine of "justification by faith alone," a distinction but not a separation is made between justification itself and the renewal of one's way of life that necessarily follows from justification and without which faith does not exist.
But just as renewal follows necessarily from "justifying faith", justification follows from that renewal itself and so only indirectly, though necessarily, from "justifying faith". The text here is confused, because it says that charity follows from faith and yet that faith is dependent upon it for being faith. A chicken-and-egg situation if ever there was one!
Thereby the basis is indicated from which the renewal of life proceeds, for it comes forth from the love of God imparted to the person in justification. Justification and renewal are joined in Christ, who is present in faith.
They are joined because Justification is an anticipation of Renewal.
27. The Catholic understanding also sees faith as fundamental in justification. For without faith, no justification can take place. Persons are justified through Baptism as hearers of the Word and believers in it. The justification of sinners is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace, which makes us children of God.
Exactly so. Justification is being made righteous by justifying (better: sanctifying) grace.
In justification the righteous receive from Christ faith, hope, and love and are thereby taken into communion with him. This new personal relation to God is grounded totally on God's graciousness and remains constantly dependent on the salvific and creative working of this gracious God, who remains true to himself, so that one can rely upon him. Thus justifying grace never becomes a human possession to which one could appeal over against God.
Amusing idea. Sanctifying grace is, at least in a sense, God Himself!
While Catholic teaching emphasizes the renewal of life by justifying grace, this renewal in faith, hope, and love is always dependent on God's unfathomable grace and contributes nothing to justification about which one could boast before God (Romans 3:27).
Note the crucial difference between boasting about and being proud of oneself.
4.4 The Justified as Sinner

28. We confess together that in Baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person. But the justified must all through life constantly look to God's unconditional justifying grace. They also are continuously exposed to the power of sin still pressing its attacks (cf. Romans 6:12-14) and are not exempt from a lifelong struggle against the contradiction to God within the selfish desires of the old Adam (cf. Galatians 5:16; Romans 7:7-10). The justified also must ask God daily for forgiveness as in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12; 1 John 1:9), are ever again called to conversion and penance, and are ever again granted forgiveness.

29. Lutherans understand this condition of the Christian as a being "at the same time righteous and sinner." Believers are totally righteous, in that God forgives their sins through Word and Sacrament and grants the righteousness of Christ which they appropriate in faith.

God's forgiveness does not make one righteous. Apart from anything else, there is the matter of "temporal punishment" and also the question of the deformation of the conscience and will that corresponds to the habituation of sin. The penitent believer is generally far from righteous; but is still a friend of God and in communion with God, by the indwelling of the life of the Trinity.
In Christ, they are made just before God. Looking at themselves through the law, however, they recognize that they remain also totally sinners.
No one is totally a sinner. There is no description of a person e.g. "male", "right-handed" that anyone is totally. Human nature is not totally depraved either before or after justification. This doctrine is obnoxious! Human nature is simply not quite as it should be. Of course if sin is just "not being quite right", then I suppose it is acceptable to say that believers are totally not quite right, but the language is - at best - a little eccentric..

If any one saith, that, in every good work, the just sins venially at least, or - which is more intolerable still - mortally, and consequently deserves eternal punishments; and that for this cause only he is not damned, that God does not impute those works unto damnation; let him be anathema. [25]

Sin still lives in them (1 John 1:8; Romans 7:17, 20), for they repeatedly turn to false gods and do not love God with that undivided love which God requires as their Creator (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:36-40 pr.). This contradiction to God is as such truly sin. Nevertheless, the enslaving power of sin is broken on the basis of the merit of Christ. It no longer is a sin that "rules" the Christian for it is itself "ruled" by Christ with whom the justified are bound in faith.
This is gobbledegook.
In this life, then, Christians can in part lead a just life. Despite sin, the Christian is no longer separated from God, because in the daily return to Baptism, the person who has been born anew by Baptism and the Holy Spirit has this sin forgiven. Thus this sin no longer brings damnation and eternal death. Thus, when Lutherans say that justified persons are also sinners and that their opposition to God is truly sin, they do not deny that, despite this sin, they are not separated from God and that this sin is a "ruled" sin. In these affirmations, they are in agreement with Roman Catholics, despite the difference in understanding sin in the justified.
This is dangerous nonsense. The Lutheran doctrine seems to be that the believer is simultaneously totally righteous and totally depraved. The contrary and simple position, that (s)he is a sinner on the way to holiness is wholesome doctrine. This question is picked up in the response of the Holy Office to this document, but in a very muted way.
30. Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ imparted in Baptism takes away all that is sin "in the proper sense" and that is "worthy of damnation" (Romans 8:1). There does, however, remain in the person an inclination (concupiscence) which comes from sin and presses toward sin. Since, according to Catholic conviction, human sin always involves a personal element and since this element is lacking in this inclination, Catholics do not see this inclination as sin in an authentic sense.
They do not thereby deny that this inclination does not correspond to God's original design for humanity and that it is objectively in contradiction to God and remains one's enemy in lifelong struggle. Grateful for deliverance by Christ, they underscore that this inclination in contradiction to God does not merit the punishment of eternal death.
Precisely, because it is just the imperfection of the person's finite intellect, knowledge and will; and this imperfection is being healed by God's gracious action and will eventually be subsumed in the infinite perfection of the divine nature.
and does not separate the justified person from God. But when individuals voluntarily separate themselves from God, it is not enough to return to observing the commandments, for they must receive pardon and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation through the word of forgiveness imparted to them in virtue of God's reconciling work in Christ.
Indeed, though in "emergency" an act of contrition always suffices, because this necessarily implies an implicit desire for sacramental absolution.

If any one saith, that he, who has fallen after baptism, is not able by the grace of God to rise again; or, that he
is able indeed to recover the justice which he has lost, but by faith alone without the sacrament of Penance, contrary to what the holy Roman and universal Church - instructed by Christ and his Apostles - has hitherto professed, observed, and taught; let him be anathema. [29]

4.5 Law and Gospel

31. We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the Gospel "apart from works prescribed by the Law" (Romans 3:28). Christ has fulfilled the Law and by his death and resurrection has overcome it as a way to salvation.

The Law was never an obstacle to salvation, just not a "way to" it! The only basis for salvation that has ever been and could ever be is God's love and compassion and good-will towards all that He has made. I have no idea what it might mean to "overcome" anything "as a way to" anything, I presume that this is a mistranslation and that "overcome" should read "superseded" or something similar. The same strange use is repeated below.
We also confess that God's commandments retain their validity for the justified and that Christ has by his teaching and example expressed God's will which is a standard for the conduct of the justified also.
Indeed. How otherwise? After all, God's commands are not arbitrary, but just explications of what is good for (wo)mankind!
32. Lutherans state that the distinction and right ordering of Law and Gospel is essential for the understanding of justification. In its theological use, the Law is demand and accusation. Throughout their lives, all persons, Christians also, in that they are sinners, stand under this accusation, which uncovers their sin so that, in faith in the Gospel, they will turn unreservedly to the mercy of God in Christ, which alone justifies them.
The Law itself is not an accusation. It is a delight and a joy! It is the truth that liberates! It is only when obedience to the law is erected as a spurious and conceited basis for self-righteousness (which it was never meant to be!) that the Law turns on its subjects and accuses them of sin. I am not aware that the Jewish people have this attitude towards the Mosaic Law, certainly the Prophets and Sages did not. It is an attitude towards the law largely invented by a twisted lutheran imagination!
33. Because the Law as a way to salvation has been fulfilled and overcome through the Gospel,
The Law was never a way to salvation. It did not need to be fulfilled as such, and certainly not overcome! Now Love of and Joy in the Law was a way to salvation; it still is: because that Love is nothing more than a Love of God and implicitly of Christ Jesus!
Catholics can say that Christ is not a lawgiver in the manner of Moses.
Christ simply re-affirmed the Mosaic Law. In particular its foundation: Love of God and Love of Neighbour. It is this love that justifies, as I have already asserted.

If any one saith, that Christ Jesus was given of God to men, as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a
legislator whom to obey; let him be anathema. [21]

When Catholics emphasize that the righteous are bound to observe God's commandments, they do not thereby deny that through Jesus Christ God has mercifully promised to his children the grace of eternal life.

4.6 Assurance of Salvation

34. We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God. In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ's death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God's grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace.

35. This was emphasized in a particular way by the Reformers: in the midst of temptation, believers should not look to themselves but look solely to Christ and trust only him. In trust in God's promise they are assured of their salvation, but are never secure looking at themselves.

If any one saith, that a man, who is born again and justified, is bound of faith to believe that he is assuredly in the
number of the predestinate; let him be anathema. [15]
36. Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ's promise, to look away from one's own experience, and to trust in Christ's forgiving Word alone (cf. Matthew 16:19; 18:18). With the Second Vatican Council, Catholics state: to have faith is to entrust oneself totally to God, who liberates us from the darkness of sin and death and awakens us to eternal life. In this sense, one cannot believe in God and at the same time consider the divine promise untrustworthy. No one may doubt God's mercy and Christ's merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation.
God intends the salvation of all people, but from this it does not follow that all are saved.
4.7 The Good Works of the Justified

37. We confess together that good works (a Christian life lived in faith, hope, and love) follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. Since Christians struggle against sin their entire lives, this consequence of justification is also for them an obligation they must fulfil. Thus both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love.

38. According to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened. When Catholics affirm the "meritorious" character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.

39. The concept of a preservation of grace and a growth in grace and faith is also held by Lutherans. They do emphasize that righteousness as acceptance by God and sharing in the righteousness of Christ is always complete. At the same time, they state that there can be growth in its effects in Christian living. When they view the good works of Christians as the fruits and signs of justification and not as one's own "merits," they nevertheless also understand eternal life in accord with the New Testament as unmerited "reward" in the sense of the fulfilment of God's promise to the believer.

This is gobbledegook. If something is a reward it is merited. The two words mean the same thing.

If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema. [24]

If any one saith, that the just ought not, for their good works done in God, to expect and hope for an eternal
recompense from God, through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if so be that they persevere to the end in well doing and in keeping the divine commandments; let him be anathema. [26]

If any one saith, that the justified sins when he performs good works with a view to an eternal recompense; let
him be anathema. [31]

If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they
are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life - if so be, however, that he depart in grace - and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema. [32]

5. The Significance and Scope of the Consensus Reached

40. The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics. In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification described in paragraphs 18 to 39 are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their difference open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding basic truths.

This judgement is unwise, reckless of sound doctrine and contrary to reason.
41. Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent.
On the contrary, it pains me to note that at least Canons [4, 7, 8, 9, 24, 25, 26, 31, 32] of the Sixth Session of  the Holy Oecumenical Synod of Trent are still applicable, and that any person that affirms the doctrine contained in this document is in grave danger of attracting the anathemas attached to those canons. I formally and explicitly dissociate myself from any such affirmation.
The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration.

42. Nothing is thereby taken away from the seriousness of the condemnations related to the doctrine of justification. Some were not simply pointless. They remain for us "salutary warnings" to which we must attend in our teaching and practice.

In fact, and most unfortunately, this document adequately demonstrates that they are still very relevant.
43. Our consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification must come to influence the life and teachings of our churches. Here it must prove itself. In this respect, there are still 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. We are convinced that the consensus we have reached offers a solid basis for this clarification. 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.
This is a nonsense. There has been no substantive agreement on the doctrine of justification here. Until there is, neither will there be any on these other issues.
44. 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.
The truth will set you free. Most regretfully, this is not it.

Ratzinger credited with saving Lutheran pact


National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999

More than 500 years ago, Martin Luther triggered the Protestant Reformation because he believed the Catholic church was fatally wrong about how salvation works. This fall, in Augsburg, Germany, Catholics and Lutherans will officially declare that argument resolved. The two churches will abandon the anathemas they hurled at one another in the 1500s, in what is believed to be the first time the Vatican has ever nullified such a doctrinal excoriation. The signing will take place on Oct. 31, the anniversary of the day Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.

It is a blockbuster agreement, a crowning achievement of the ecumenical dialogue spawned by Vatican II -  and it almost didn't happen. Despite his public image as an ecumenical roadblock, the man credited by sources on both sides with saving it is none
other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “It was Ratzinger who untied the knots,” said Bishop George Anderson, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, who spoke to NCR by telephone. “Without him we might not have an agreement.” News of Ratzinger’s role is especially revealing since press reports identified him in June 1998, when the deal seemed in danger of unravelling, as the source of its problems.

Lutherans have traditionally held that salvation comes through faith alone, while Catholics emphasize good works. The heart of the new agreement, which combines both ideas, is this key sentence: “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 us and calling us to good works.”

The agreement is expected to be especially welcome in Latin America and Eastern Europe, where competition for converts often strains the relationship between Lutherans and Catholics. Experts also hope it will pave the way for further agreements toward “full communion” - including the sharing of sacraments, worship and ministers.

Yet just a year ago, the deal seemed dead on arrival. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, stunned ecumenical enthusiasts in June 1998 by presenting an unexpected Catholic “response” to the Joint Declaration. This response was sharply critical, wondering aloud if the agreement really warranted reversing any anathemas. Many Lutherans were furious; one claimed that the Holy See had “betrayed” both the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic theologians who had worked on the agreement, and that it would take decades to re-establish the trust that had been shattered.

Most Vatican observers believed the response flowed from Ratzinger’s pen. Rumours of a rift between Cassidy and Ratzinger ensued, especially because that same summer Ratzinger had set back the dialogue with the Anglicans by suggesting the church's teaching on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations was infallible. German Lutherans were wary of Ratzinger, in part because in 1996 the German newsmagazine Focus reported that Ratzinger had vetoed a papal proposal to reverse the excommunication of Martin Luther. Vatican sources denied the report.

Those who know Ratzinger, however, say few figures have exercised greater influence on him than Luther. In a 1966 commentary on Vatican II’s “The Church in the  Modern World,” Ratzinger said that the document leaned too heavily on Teilhard de Chardin and not enough on Luther - a remarkable comment in an era with no official Lutheran-Catholic contact, when many Catholics still branded Luther a heretic.

“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.”

On July 14, 1998, Ratzinger fired off a letter to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine calling such reports a “smooth lie.” Protesting that he had sought closer relations with Lutherans since his days as a seminarian, he said that to scuttle the
dialogue would be to “deny myself.”

On Nov. 3, 1998, a special ad hoc working group met at the home of Ratzinger’s brother Georg in Regensburg, Bavaria, to get the agreement back on track. Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselmann convened the group, which consisted of him, Ratzinger, Catholic theologian Heinz Schuette and Lutheran theologian Joachim Track. By all accounts, Ratzinger played the key role. “He was very positive, very helpful,” Track said when he spoke to NCR by telephone. Track said Ratzinger made three concessions that salvaged the agreement. First, 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. Second, Ratzinger fully acknowledged the authority of the Lutheran World Federation to reach agreement with the Vatican. Finally, Ratzinger agreed that while Christians are obliged to do good works, justification and final judgement remain God's gracious acts.

Anderson said Lutherans are grateful for Ratzinger’s help. The two churches still have much ground to cover, however, before reaching full communion. “Since the Reformation, we've had separate histories. The declaration of papal infallibility on the Catholic side, and the ordination of women on ours, are two obvious examples,” Anderson said.

Still, observers say the event in Augsburg will mark a true breakthrough. “This is the first time the Catholic church has ever entered into a joint declaration with any of the churches of the West,” Gros said. “We've never tackled a theological issue like
this that was so church-dividing. In that sense, we're looking at a major achievement.”

Track said Ratzinger deserves much of the credit. “We had our doubts, but our experience was that he really did want to bring this to a good end.”








The "Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification" represents a significant progress in mutual understanding and in the coming together in dialogue of the parties concerned; it shows that there are many [but not even most] points of convergence between the Catholic position and the Lutheran position on a question that has been for centuries so controversial. It can certainly be affirmed that a high [but not very high] degree of agreement has been reached, as regards both the approach to the question [fine!] and the judgement it merits (1) [what does this phrase mean?]. It is rightly stated that there is "a consensus in basic truths [whatever these may be] of the doctrine of justification" (2).

The Catholic Church is, however, of the opinion that we cannot yet speak of a consensus such as would eliminate every difference between Catholics and Lutherans in the understanding of justification [A masterful understatement!]. The Joint Declaration itself refers to certain of these differences. On some points the positions are, in fact, still divergent [Indeed, and the Lutheran position is formally heretical and subject to the condemnations of infallible canons of the Oecumenical Council of Trent!]. So, on the basis of the agreement already reached on many aspects, the Catholic Church intends to contribute towards overcoming the divergence's that still exist by suggesting, below, in order of importance, a list of points that constitute still an obstacle to agreement between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on all the fundamental truths concerning justification. The Catholic Church hopes that the following indications may be an encouragement to continue study of these questions in the same fraternal spirit that, in recent times, has characterized the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.


1. The major difficulties preventing an affirmation of total consensus between the parties on the theme of Justification arise in paragraph 4.4 "The Justified as Sinner" (nn. 28-1,0 ) [While this is true, it is overly dismissive of significant divergencies in other sections of the Joint Declaration, which this note disingenuously neglects.]. Even taking into account the differences, legitimate in themselves, that come from different theological approaches to the content of faith, from a Catholic point of view the title is already a cause of perplexity. According, indeed, to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in baptism everything that is really sin is taken away, and so, in those who are born anew there is nothing that is hateful to God (3). It follows that the concupiscence that remains in the baptized is not, properly speaking, sin. For Catholics, therefore, the formula "at the same time righteous and sinner", as it is explained at the beginning of n. 29 ("Believers are totally righteous, in that God forgives their sins through Word and Sacrament ... Looking at themselves ... however, they recognize that they remain also totally sinners. Sin still lives in them..."), is not acceptable.
As stated here, this issue is of little importance, because concupiscence undoubtedly remains in the baptized, so while (s)he is being Justified (s)he is still a sinner in the obvious sense that (s)he still sins: occasionally, often or even habitually; at least venially. The real issue is that Lutherans believe that human nature is radically corrupt and irreformable, even by God's grace!
This statement does not, in fact, seem compatible with the renewal and sanctification of the interior man of which the Council of Trent speaks (4). The expression "Opposition to God" (Gottwidrigkeit) that is used in nn. 28-30 is understood differently by Lutherans and by Catholics, and so becomes, in fact, equivocal. In this same sense, there can be ambiguity for a Catholic in the sentence of n. 22, "... God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love",
because man's interior transformation is not clearly seen [This is because Lutherans specifically reject this transformation]. So, for all these reasons, it remains difficult [In fact, it is entirely impossible!] to see how, in the current state of the presentation, given in the Joint Declaration, we can say that this doctrine on "simul iustus et peccator" is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decree on original sin and justification [Indeed, and much else!].

2. Another difficulty arises in n.18 of the Joint Declaration, where a clear difference appears in the importance, for Catholics and for Lutherans, of the doctrine of justification as criterion for the life and practice of the Church.

Whereas for Lutherans this doctrine has taken on an altogether particular significance, for the Catholic Church the message of justification, according to Scripture and already from the time of the Fathers, has to be organically integrated into the fundamental criterion of the "regula fidei", that is, the confession of the one God in three persons, christologically centred and rooted in the living Church and its sacramental life.

3. As stated in n. 17 of the Joint Declaration, Lutherans and Catholics share the common conviction that the new life comes from divine mercy and not from any merit of ours. It must, however, be remembered - as stated in 2 Cor 5:17 - that this divine mercy brings about a new creation and so makes man capable of responding to God's gift , of co-operating with grace. In this regard, the Catholic Church notes with satisfaction that n. 21, in conformity with can. 4 of the Decree on Justification of the Council of Trent ( DS 1554) states that man can refuse grace [This is because the protestants involved are Lutherans, not Calvinists. Lutherans have never disagreed with Trent on this matter!]; but it must also be affirmed that, with this freedom to refuse, there is also a new capacity to adhere to the divine will, a capacity rightly called "cooperatio". This new capacity given in the new creation, does not allow us to use in this context the expression "mere passive" ( n. 21). On the other hand, the fact that this capacity has the character of a gift is well expressed in cap. 5 (DS 1525) of the Tridentine Decree when it says: "ita ut tangente Deo cor hominis per Spiritus Sancti illuminationem, neque homo ipse nihil omnino agat, inspirationem illam recipiens, quippe qui illam et abicere potest, neque tamen sine gratia Dei movere se ad iustitiam coram illo libera sua voluntate possit".

In reality, also on the Lutheran side, there is the affirmation, in n. 21, of a full personal involvement in faith ("believers are fully involved personally in their faith"). A clarification would, however, be necessary as to the compatibility of this involvement with the reception "mere passive" of justification, in order to determine more exactly the degree of consensus with the Catholic doctrine. As for the final sentence of n. 24: "God's gift of grace in justification remains independent of human co-operation", this must be understood in the sense that the gifts of God's grace do not depend on the works of man, but not in the sense that justification can take place without human co-operation [Exactly so!]. The sentence of n. 19 according to which man's freedom "is no freedom in relation to salvation" must, similarly, be related to the impossibility for man to reach justification by his own efforts [exactly so!].

The Catholic Church maintains, moreover, that the 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 (5), they are also 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 (6) [This is the nub of the matter!]. This doctrine results from the interior transformation of man to which we referred in n.1 of this "Note". These clarifications are a help for a right understanding, from the Catholic point of view, of paragraph 4.7 (nn. 37-39 ) on the good works of the justified.

4. In pursuing this study further, it will be necessary to treat also the sacrament of penance, which is mentioned in n. 30 of the Joint Declaration. According to the Council of Trent, in fact (7), through this sacrament the sinner can be justified anew ( rursus iustificari ): this implies the possibility, by means of this sacrament, as distinct from that of baptism, to recover lost justice (8). These aspects are not all sufficiently noted in the above mentioned n. 30.

5. These remarks are intended as a more precise explanation of the teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to the points on which complete agreement has not been reached; they are also meant to complete some of the paragraphs explaining Catholic doctrine, in order to bring out more clearly the degree of consensus that has been reached. The level of agreement is high [I have to disagree strongly, here], but it does not yet allow us to affirm that all the differences separating Catholics and Lutherans in the doctrine concerning justification are simply a question of emphasis or language. Some of these differences concern aspects
of substance and are therefore not all mutually compatible, as affirmed on the contrary in n. 40 [Indeed, just as I have said!].

If, moreover, it is true that in those truths on which a consensus has been reached the condemnations of the Council of Trent non longer apply, the divergencies on other points must, on the contrary, be overcome before we can affirm, as is done generically in n.41, that these points no longer incur the condemnations of the Council of Trent [Indeed, just as I have said!]. That applies in the first place to the doctrine on "simul iustus et peccator" (cf. n. l, above ). [Here, I strongly disagree. I believe this to be a dangerous "straw man".]

6. We need finally to note, from the point of view of their representative quality, the different character of the two signatories of this Joint Declaration. The Catholic Church recognizes the great effort made by the Lutheran World Federation in order to arrive, through consultation of the Synods, at a "magnus consensus", and so to give a true ecclesial value to its signature; there remains, however, the question of the real authority of such a synodal consensus, today and also tomorrow, in the life and doctrine of the Lutheran community [Ho! Ho!].


7. The Catholic Church wishes to reiterate its hope that this important step forward towards agreement in doctrine on justification may be followed by further studies that will make possible a satisfactory clarification of the divergencies that still exist. Particularly desirable would be a deeper reflection on the biblical foundation that is the common basis of the doctrine on justification both for Catholics and for Lutherans. This reflection should be extended to the New Testament as a whole and not only to the Pauline writings. If it is true, indeed, that St. Paul is the New Testament author who has had most to say on this subject, and this fact calls for a certain preferential attention, substantial references to this theme are not lacking also in the other New Testament writings. As for the various ways in which Paul describes man's new condition, as mentioned in the Joint Declaration, we could add the categories of sonship and of heirs. (Gal 4:4-7; Rom 8: 14-17). Consideration of all these elements will be a great help for mutual understanding and will make it possible [this is dangerously presumptuous] to resolve the divergencies that still exist in the doctrine on justification.

8. Finally, it should be a common concern of Lutherans and Catholics to find a language which can make the doctrine on justification more intelligible also for men and women of our day [YES!!!!!]. The fundamental truths of the salvation given by Christ and received in faith, of the primacy of grace over every human initiative, of the gift of the Holy Spirit which makes us capable of living according to our condition as children of God, and so on. These are essential aspects of the Christian message that should be a light for the believers of all times.

  1. cfr."Joint Declaration ", n. 4: "ein hohes Mass an gemeinsamer Ausrichtung und gemeinsamem Urteil".
  2. ibid. n-5 : "einen Konsens in Grundwahrheiten der Rechtfertigungslehre" (cf. n. 13;40; 43 ).
  3. cf. Council of Trent, Decree on original sin ( DS 1515 ).
  4. cf. Council of Trent, Decree on justification, cap. 8: "... iustificatio... quae non est sola peccatorum remissio, sed et sanctificatio et renovatio interioris hominis" ( DS 1528 ); cf. also can.11 ( DS 15619 ).
  5. cf. Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, cap.16 (DS 1546 ), which quotes Jn 15,5: the vine and
  6. the branches.
  7. cf. ibid. DS 1545; and can.26 (DS 1576)
  8. ibid. cap.14 (cf.DS 1542)
  9. cf. ibid. can.29 (DS 1579); Decree on the sacrament of Penance, cap.2 (DS 1671); can.2 ( DS 1702).

 Back to top
Hosted by