Oddvar Moi

Cardinal Edward Cassidy's Letter to the Lutheran World Federation Concerning the Joint Declaration

Cardinal Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Letter of July 30, 1998 to Lutheran World Federation General Secretary Ishmael Noko.

I take the occasion to offer some reflections which seem necessary in view of certain misreadings of the Catholic response that have appeared since my presentation.

Little attention seems to have been paid to the very important distinction in the Catholic response between the declaration and the clarifications that followed. As His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has pointed out in a letter to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and published in that paper on July 14 last, only the declaration is to be considered strictly as a response to the question raised in the joint declaration, and this response is clear and totally unequivocal: "There is a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification."

The second part of the Catholic response has a completely different value to that of the declaration. The points made in this section of the response are titled "clarifications," and as Cardinal Ratzinger mentions in the letter referred to above, could have been presented as "explanations," since they deal with some of the questions that are considered as such in the joint declaration. The joint declaration and the resolution approved by the Lutheran World Federation in response to the joint declaration state that the dialogue needs to continue in respect of certain questions. The Vatican response goes a little further and indicates those points requiring some further dialogue.

It must be clear to all from the long and difficult discussions concerning the joint declaration in both the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation that, notwithstanding the fundamental agreement reached in that document, further study is called for in the case of a few single points. This cannot, however, be seen as going back in any way on the consent expressly stated on fundamental truths of the doctrine of justification. This consensus, especially as regards the third part of the joint declaration on the common understanding of justification, is an enormous step forward in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue and understanding. The consensus covers the whole range of fundamental truths dealt with in the joint declaration.

As regards the second part of the Catholic response, there seems to have been a very one-sided reading of the document on the part of some Lutheran commentators. Apart from overlooking the essential distinction already made, statements have appeared referring to "the many reservations" made in the Catholic response. In fact, there are no "reservations" and just a very few clarifications, about which I submit for your consideration the following reflections.

As was obvious from the discussions preceding the responses to the joint declaration, the point that continued to attract the most attention was that concerning the justified as sinner. The Catholic response does not question the agreement stated in No. 28, but focuses on one very precise point, namely the Lutheran teaching as presented in the joint declaration that post-baptismal concupiscence is properly called sin. It remains difficult for a Catholic to see how this can be reconciled with the Council of Trent's teaching that in baptism everything that is really sin is taken away. There are consequences here also for the common understanding of the nature of the renewal and sanctification of the interior man. For the Catholic doctrine the word sin is accepted as having the meaning used in everyday life and defined by the Oxford dictionary as a "willful violation" or "transgression" of God's law and not simply as the continuing taint of wrong desire against which one must struggle constantly.

Elsewhere in the joint declaration (No. 15), Lutherans declare with Catholics that "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." Hence our difficulty comes from a presentation of doctrine that seems to contradict itself. For that reason the Catholic response does not state that the relative condemnation of Trent remains, but that it is difficult to see how in the present presentation the doctrine on simul iustus et peccator is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decree on original sin and justification. Could this important point not be resolved by a Lutheran presentation that explains the unusual use of sin in this context by which the word loses its normal character of being a willed and voluntary opposition to God? In this case, there would be no real problem, and the question of the condemnation would no longer exist.

The second point raised in the clarifications should not be cause of concern for Lutherans, since it merely sets out the Catholic understanding that justification has to be organically integrated into the fundamental criterion of the regula fidei, that is, confession of the one God in three persons, Christologically centered, and rooted in the living church and its sacramental life. We were assured before making our response, and this has since been repeated, that this clarification of ours was perfectly in line with Lutheran doctrine as set out in the Augsburg Confession, in the Smalcald Articles and in other Lutheran doctrinal statements. In view, however, of the many discussions on this point in the Lutheran World Federation at Hong Kong and elsewhere, it was thought well to state the Catholic position clearly here for a more precise presentation of the Catholic doctrine in this connection. It would not seem necessary to study this question further.

The third and last clarification concerns again a difficulty on the part of the Catholic Church to feel comfortable with the lack of a clear explanation of the Lutheran insistence on the phrase mere passive when elsewhere in the joint declaration and in official Lutheran writings such as the Formula of Concord it is clearly affirmed that the justified person is able to refuse grace (Joint Declaration, 21) and "though still in great weakness can by the power of the Holy Spirit cooperate and must so cooperate" (Formula of Concord, 65).

It should be obvious in view of the above that there can be no difficulty for the Catholic Church to affirm and sign the joint declaration, since it accepts without reservation its conclusion that "a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification has been reached." The clarifications do not negate that consensus and would not seem to create major problems for further study and a more complete presentation.

Some questions have been raised about the Catholic understanding of the part of the joint declaration that deals with "the significance and the scope of the consensus reached." That is stated well in No. 40, and the Catholic response endorses this fully. Similarly, on Nos. 42,43 and 44 there is no difficulty. The response to No. 41 from the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church does differ slightly. While asking for further study on some points, the Lutheran response has declared that "the condemnations in the Lutheran confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this declaration." The Catholic response states that where a consensus has been reached, namely on the fundamental truths of the doctrine of justification, the condemnations of the Council of Trent no longer apply — and as we have seen, that includes all that is said in No. 40.

The Catholic response does not state that any condemnation of the Council of Trent still applies to the teaching of the Lutheran churches as presented in the joint declaration. It does, however, point out in the clarifications that the Catholic Church cannot without further study and clarifications affirm categorically that the doctrine on simul iustus et peccator no longer incurs the condemnation. As indicated above, it remains difficult to see how, in the current state of the presentation, given in the joint declaration, we can say that this doctrine is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decree on original sin and justification. I do not see this as a negation of No. 41, but as hesitation to affirm it categorically, pending further study.

Hence, in accord with common procedure in such cases, frequent particularly in respect of solemn agreements in the international sphere, I believe that the agreement reached and the nature of the clarifications allow the Catholic Church to sign the joint declaration without delay and in its integrity. It is my fervent hope, and that of His Eminence Cardinal Ratzinger, that this signing may take place in the coming months. We feel that a significant achievement of great importance for the ecumenical movement has taken place. Pope John Paul has expressed his joy and satisfaction at this "important ecumenical acquisition" and has extended his "gratitude to all, both Catholics and Lutherans, who have contributed to this important outcome." It is particularly your responsibility and mine not to allow this historical moment to lose any of its significance.

In conclusion, I regret that the point made in the Catholic response concerning the authoritative nature of the approval of the joint declaration by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation has resulted in some difficulty for a number of Lutheran commentators. As you will observe, the Catholic response recognizes the great effort made by the Lutheran World Federation, through a worldwide consultation with the synods of the member churches, to reach a consensus that would be truly meaningful. There is no intention of calling into question the authority of the Lutheran consensus. It was felt, however, that even with such an overwhelming approval as the joint declaration received from these synods, there still remain important differences concerning the understanding by the two partners of authority in the church, which leave unanswered certain questions. The whole question of authority in the church is involved here indirectly, and so it seemed necessary to indicate this as a matter for further study in the ongoing dialogue.

Hva syns du om disse tankene? Send meg dine tanker, meninger og reaksjoner.