Ecumenical Trends
Volume 34  No. 8  Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute   September 2005


Editor’s note: The first two articles in the September 2005 issue of Ecumenical Trends by George H. Tavard and John Reumann are papers that were delivered at the Catholic Theological Society of America's meeting in St. Louis, Missouri on June 11, 2005.

Reflections on the Lutheran/Catholic Dialogue


The decree Unitatis Redintegratio was promulgated by Paul VI on November 21, 1964. Its implementation began immediately, with the preparation of ecumenical
dialogues, the first of which was the US dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans.  The most notable fruit of this dialogue so far has been the Declaration on the
Doctrine of Justification by Faith, that was signed in the cathedral of Augsburg, on October 31, 1999, in the name of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, by Cardinal Cassidy and Dr.Ishmael Noko, President of the Federation.  There have also been, as I will briefly indicate, other remarkable fruits of the decree. 

To begin with, I wish to draw attention to several other dates!  - March 16, 1965: preparatory meeting of Lutherans and Catholics, Baltimore. - July 6-7, 1965: first meeting of Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue, Baltimore.  - August 25-27, 1965, and April 13-15, 1966: a Roman Catholic-Lutheran Working Group, in Strasbourg, France, plans for an international dialogue. Their Joint Report is approved by the Lutheran World Federation meeting in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, July 17-21, 1966.  - September 4 to December 8, 1965: last session of Vatican Council II.  - November 28-30, 1967 (Zurich): first meeting of the international dialogue (Joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic Study Commission).  - February 9, 1972 (Malta): first statement of the Joint Study Commission, “The Gospel and the Church”.  - August 31, 1999: signing of Declaration on Justification, Augsburg. 

As one can see, the American planning meetings took place before the last session of the Council. The International planning began also before the last session.  The American meeting came first.  The dialogue group that was then constituted (Lutherans and Catholics in Conversation) held its first meeting also before the last session of the Council.  This shows the seriousness of the ecumenical commitment of the American bishops in 1965 and the eagerness of the Lutheran World Federation, in its American office, for dialogue with the Catholic Church.

As the preparatory meeting has not been generally known, I will speak of it first.  It took place in the office and under the chairmanship of Cardinal Shehan in Baltimore. The Lutheran members were Paul Empie (d. 1979), representing the New York office of the Lutheran World Federation, Warren Quanbeck (d. 1979), professor at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, George Lindbeck, professor at Yale Divinity School, and the Missouri Synod theologian, Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-1973), professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. The Catholic members were the present Cardinal William Baum, who had come to the Council with his bishop, Charles Helmsing, of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and who became the first secretary of the Bishops’ Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, the well-known Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray (1904-1967), Msgr.  Joseph Baker, of St. Louis, a close friend both of William Baum and of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, who had been one of Cardinal Ritter’s two advisers at the Council, and myself. During the conciliar sessions I had come to know William Baum and his bishop. In fact, when Bishop Helmsing was invited by Cardinal Bea to introduce chapter II of Unitatis Redintegratio before it was debated and voted upon (which he did on October 7, 1963), I was, at his request, the actual author of his relatio

The discussion in this planning task force turned around the question: Where should the dialogue start? The group eventually recommended beginning with a joint consideration of the Nicene Creed, as was in fact done at the first meeting, on July 6-7, 1965. If I remember well, the original suggestion came from John Courtney Murray. In 1963 Murray had published a book, The Problem of God (Yale University Press), which contained the Thomas More Lectures he had given at Yale University.  In those lectures Murray had spent some time reflecting on the Nicene “problem”, that was solved in 325 by the introduction of homoousion into the Creed. He had expressed the opinion that the question of the consubstantiality of the Word with the Father remained today the central problem about God.  He had also called it “the first ecumenical question.” I quote: “I do not think that the first ecumenical question is, What think ye of the Church? or even, What think ye of Christ? The dialogue would raise out of its current confusion if the first question raised were, What think ye of the Nicene homoousion?” (p. 53).

Courtney Murray had made the question clearer a little further: “What think ye of the homoousion - is it the Christian faith or is it philosophy?” (p. 59-60).  In his writings Martin Luther had approached faith from another angle, as the means by which one is aware of the gift of Justification.  It is not a means to be used as one fancies. It is itself God’s gift. There is therefore a close connection in the believer between faith, with Justification as its central content, the Word that is believed, and the ultimate reality to which faith relates the believer, namely God in the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ.  Luther’s Catholic contemporary, John of the Cross, put it another way: “Faith is the proper and proximate means” of union with God.1

Now the Confessional Books of Lutheranism begin with what they call the tria symbola catholica seu oecumenica, namely, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, regarding which Luther declared, “there is no disagreement between us and our adversaries.” In Murray’s perspective, what better way to affirm the fundamental convergence of the Catholic and the Lutheran traditions than together reassert the Nicene Creed, and the homoousion to Patri that is at the heart of it? 

What, if this was done, ought the next step to be? The planning meeting did not anticipate, though it did not rule out, that the dialogue would then focus on specific articles. The thought was, rather, that a reaffirmation of the fundamental agreement on the Nicene Creed would naturally lead to a joint study of the Augsburg Confession, the question being, “Since the polemics of the Reformation period make little sense any more, can Catholic theology today recognize the Augustana, in part or in totality, as a Catholic creed?”

There was in the planning meeting no extensive discussion of the doctrine of Justification by faith alone. We nevertheless agreed that, although it was hotly contested in the sixteenth century, the question of Justification, - by faith alone, or by faith and good works? - is not a problem today between the two Churches.  Both sides agree in doctrine and practice that no one is justified by personal intentions and actions, but only by faith in the redeeming life, death, and rising of Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, good intentions and actions following as normal developments in a life of faith. 

I will not at this point review the nine joint statements that Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue published between 1965 and 1995. After talking about the Nicene Creed the dialogue went on to discuss “one baptism for the remission of sin” (1966). And from there it continued with the other “sacrament of the Gospel”, the Eucharist, seen, because of past controversies, as a sacrifice (1967) and in its relation to the Ministry (1970).  One topic leading to the next, the dialogue continued through “Papal Primacy” (1974), “Teaching Authority and Infallibility” (1980), “Justification by Faith” (1985), “The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary” (1992). I would like to spend some time with the last topic so far, “Scripture and Tradition” (1995). Its release was not as widely echoed in the religious press as that of the previous statements, and it has not had their impact. And yet it deserves close attention. It presents several noteworthy features.

Firstly, it functioned, when it appeared, as a sort of conclusion to the critical examination of the main issues raised by Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformation. The Reformation turned essentially around two issues, Justification by faith, and the exclusive primacy of the written Word of God (sola scriptura). Given the statement of 1985 on “Justification by Faith”, an agreement on Scripture and Tradition would nicely wind up an ecumenical study survey of the Reformation.  For once the “material” and the “formal” principles of the Reformation have been found to be also fundamental Catholic principles, the separation of Catholics and Lutherans in two distinct communions has basically lost its historic justification.

Secondly, “Scripture and Tradition” recorded the conclusion of the historical debate, begun in the years before Vatican II, about the decree of the fourth session of the Council of Trent (April 8, 1546) on “Scripture and the apostolic traditions”.  As asserted by a number of scholars, though denied by a few until the promulgation of Dei Verbum at the close of Vatican Council II, the Council of Trent did not teach that Scripture and the apostolic traditions constitute two sources of faith, even though it was frequently, yet not universally, interpreted in that sense in the Counter-Reformation.2 This historical conclusion was indirectly confirmed by the constitution of Vatican II, Dei Verbum (promulgated on November 18, 1965).  The joint statement of 1995 understood Scripture and tradition to constitute one dynamic reality:  In the present round of dialogue we have found that the Lutheran sola scriptura, when taken in conjunction with other Reformation principles, such as sola fide, sola gratia, and solus Christus, gives rise to a dynamic understanding of the Word of God that approximates what Catholics often understand as tradition in the active sense: the Spiritassisted “handing on” of God’s revelation in Christ.  We also found that Catholics no longer speak of tradition as a separate source but see it, together with Scripture, as the Word of God for the life of the Church (n. 66).

Thirdly, the statement of 1995 contributed prophetically to the preparation of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The preface by the Co-chairs, Bishop Harold Skillrud and Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, explicitly endorsed the hope, expressed in 1993 by a consultation on the future of Lutheran/-Catholic relations in the USA, “that by 1997 it may be possible for the Churches to declare that the sixteenth-century condemnations on justification are no longer applicable.” Such a declaration was suggested in 1986 by a study made in Germany by an unofficial Oekumenische Arbeitsgemeinschaft, that came out in English in 1990 as, The Condemnations of the Reformation Era. Do They Still Divide?3

What became the Declaration had already been actively prepared for several years when the co-chairs gave a date to their expectation, 1997. After the German study became known, the Council for Christian Unity created an international task force of nine theologians to study it.  In 1992 the nine reported their agreement to the Holy See with the conclusion that the anathemas of the Council of Trent (session VI, 1547) in regard to Justification4 had become obsolete.  Following this report, a project of declaration was composed in Geneva, 1994 by a team of three Lutherans and three Catholics (both John Reumann and I were part of this team.  This projected text underwent several revisions in Rome and in Germany; and it was signed, after last minute hesitancies, on October 30, 1999,5 in the cathedral of Augsburg. 

When the co-chairs of the American dialogue gave 1997 as the date they were looking for, they did not fully realize the extent of the work that was needed to make the expected declaration possible.  Their optimism was an expression of trust that the hoped-for breakthrough on Justification by faith alone would in fact take place.

Other instances of the fruitfulness of Unitatis Redintegratio can be found in other areas of ecumenical relations, not only in the “Final Report” of ARCIC-I, but also in the growing relations of the Catholic Church with the Orthodox Church and with the Ancient Oriental Churches.  The best known of these fruits is the “commitment to oblivion” of the mutual excommunications between Rome and Constantinople (1254), that was proclaimed by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras on December 7, 1965. Less known but equally significant have been the common declarations signed by Paul VI and John Paul II with patriarchs of the Ancient Oriental Churches.  Although Catholic theology formerly regarded them as “Nestorian” or “Monophysite”, these Churches are now recognized as perfectly orthodox in their doctrine on Christ, even though they have never accepted the Council of Chalcedon and its creed, and the Assyrian Church also rejected the Council of Ephesus. Yet declarations were made in 1970, 1996 and 1997 (Armenians), 1971 and 1984 (Syrians), 1973 (Copts of Egypt), 1993 (Copts of Ethiopia), 1994 (Assyrians), to the effect that the historical differences between them and the Catholic tradition “do not affect the substance of faith” (1984).

If, therefore, the formulations of an ecumenical council as important as Ephesus and Chalcedon have been in Catholic theology can be considered as not necessarily required for doctrinal orthodoxy, then one may expect other farreaching ecumenical developments to be nurtured by further reflection on the medieval councils and the Council of Trent.

In conclusion let me note that, in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (May 25, 1995), John Paul II reaffirmed the irrevocable commitment of the Catholic Church to Vatican Council II and the decree Unitatis Redintegratio. And let me hope that Benedict XVI, who as a theologian in Germany was one of the first to advocate taking a new look at Luther’s doctrine on faith and at the Confession of Augsburg, will make significant gestures toward the reconciliation of the churches.

(Fr. George H. Tavard is a member of the Roman Catholic community of Augustinians of the Assumption, and continues to lecture throughout the world on ecumenical topics.)

1. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, bk II, ch. 9.
2. See H. Bacht, H. Fries, R.J.Geiselmann, Die
Mündliche Überlieferung, Munich: Max
Hueber Verlag, 1957; George H. Tavard, Holy
Writ or Holy Church,
New York: Harper, 1959;
Yves Congar, La Tradition et les Traditions, 2
vol., Paris: Arthème Fayard, 1960, 1963.
3. Original German publication: Karl Lehmann
and Wolhart Pannenberg, eds., Lehr-verurteilungen-
? vol. I, Freiburg-am-
Brisgau: Herder, and Göttingen: Vandenhoeck &
Ruprecht, 1986.
4. On the Tridentine decree, see my book,
Justification. An Ecumenical Study, New York:
Paulist Press, 1983.
5. There are many editions of the text,
e.g., Joint Declaration on the Doctrine
of Justification
, Geneva: Lutheran World
Federation, 1999.

 Volume 34 No 8 pgs 2-4 

Ecumenical Trends Subscription • Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute • Route 9 • PO Box 300 • Garrison, NY 10524-0300.
1-800-338-2620 x2109; Tel +845-424-2109. Email
Subscriptions: 1yr $20. 2yrs-$36. everywhere else 1yr $22. 2yrs-$40.