Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Ratzinger Credited with Saving Lutheran Pact

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Ratzinger Credited with Saving Lutheran Pact

Article excerpt

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 95 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 unraveling, 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 reestablish the trust that had been shattered.

Most Vatican observers believed the response flowed from Ratzinger's pen.

Rumors 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. …

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