As you know, in what Cardinal Kasper termed “a historic day,” delegates to the World Methodist Council voted unanimously to accept the previously Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Regarding the Methodists’ resolution, a Catholic News Service story tells us, “In the Methodist understanding, it said, human beings cannot cure the effects of original sin and corruption. It said the fact ‘that people are able to respond to God’s call is due only to God’s prior work’ of grace that helps people accept salvation in Jesus.”
I know that I don’t really have the time or abilities to be anything like an effective blogger. But this would seem to be a very good time to at least share part of a lecture delivered earlier this year by the Capuchin priest and theologian William Henn of the Pontifical Gregorian University about the significance of the Joint Declaration for ecumenism (and, thus, for all of us):
What is so heartening about the declaration is that it illustrates how two communities can come to a new awareness about the degree of their unity in faith, when they examine a once-divisive doctrine within a broad context of study and dialogue. The declaration states:
By appropriating insights of recent biblical studies and drawing on modern investigations of the history of theology and dogma, the post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogue has led to a notable convergence concerning justification, with the result that this Joint Declaration is able to formulate a consensus on basic truths concerning the doctrine of justification. In light of this consensus, the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century do not apply to today’s partner.
The agreement provides a short statement of consensus in the basic truths relative to the doctrine of justification, whose heart is the following words: “Together we confess: 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” (paragraph 15). Seven related topics are then briefly explored, such as how each community explicates the assurance of salvation or the good works of the justified. In each of these related topics, traditional Lutheran and Catholic teaching, catechesis and theology is formulated in different and even contrasting ways. But these different formulations and their underlying sensibilities neither contradict the fundamental consensus nor need be seen as in strict opposition to one another. Thus, on the question of good works, both communities agree “good works – a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love – follow justification and are its fruits” (paragraph 37). However, it would seem that Catholics and Lutherans have contradicted one another in the past about whether such good works may be called “meritorious.” The declaration then presents these historical oppositions in a new light:
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 remains the unmerited gifts of grace […] When [Lutherans] view the good works of Christians as the fruts 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 fulfillment of God’s promise to the believer (paragraphs 38-39).
The point is that different sensibilities concerning the word “merit” have led to quite different affirmations about it. Upon closer examination, however, these affirmations turn out not to be contradictory. Catholics speaking about merit in no way intend to deny the utterly gratuitous nature of justification in Jesus Christ; Lutherans denying that good deeds are meritorious in no way intend to reject what the New Testament teaches about God’s reward and about the responsibility of believers to produce fruits worthy of salvation. Pope John Paul II, in Ut Unum Sint, par. 38, wrote that one of the benefits of dialogue is the discovery that formulations once considered in opposition are sometimes instead merely “the result of two different ways of looking at the same reality.” When the Catholic Church officially approved the joint declaration on justification, it was stating that such an unmasking has occurred with regard to that particular doctrine.
The joint declaration is a fine example of two principles which gained new clarity at Vatican II, the principle of the hierarchy of truths and the principle that a plurality of formulations is possible in expressing revealed truth. First of all, the Joint Declaration nicely illustrates the hierarchy of truths by going to the very heart of the doctrine of justification, as expressed in the short statement quoted above, and then addressing subsidiary questions like those concerning the “assurance of salvation” or “merit” in light of that more central doctrine. Not only this, but the declaration seeks to situate the doctrine of justification in relation to the whole range of biblical teachings about salvation in Christ as well as in relation to the whole range of Christian doctrine. When the doctrine of the hierarchy of truths first appeared in Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism in 1964, many thought it might allow for doctrinal unity based upon a reduced number of truths. What one sees in the Joint Declaration, in contrast, is a promising and unexpected use of this principle in a way that denies no doctrine but allows for a more accurate reading of what once seemed to be contradictory positions but which now can be acknowledged as compatible.
The other principle is that enunciated by John XXIII at the opening of the council and reiterated by the constitution Unitatis redintegratio which distinguishes between the real content of a doctrine and its time-conditioned formulation (UUS 18, 38). Of course, there is a lasting truth expressed in any solemn teaching of the Church and a perennial normativity to the formulation in which it is expressed. At the same time, the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and many other scholastic theologians that the actus credentis terminatur non ad enuntiabile sed ad rem – that the act of the believer is not directed to the proposition but to the reality – confirms that Pope John was not creating ex nihilo some new and outrageous principle. Indeed, one of the first texts produced by the newly formed International Theological Commission was on the theme of Unity in Faith and Theological Pluralism. Its very first thesis states that the ultimate cause of plurality in the expression of the faith is to be found in the mystery of Jesus Christ himself, who is the one and only savior of all peoples. Since no human expression is exhaustively adequate to the mystery of salvation in Christ, a variety of formulations and approaches is not only possible but may be desirable. The joint declaration seems to reflect quite directly this insight. It means also that the principle motive for the divisions at the time of the 16th century reformation has been overcome.