Rorate Caeli

The "Hermeneutic of Continuity" and the Joint Declaration on Justification

The Vatican website reports the address of the Holy Father to a Lutheran delegation from Finland this morning, during which he remarked: “The Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Commission in Finland and Sweden continues to consider the Joint Declaration on Justification. This year we celebrate the tenth anniversary of this significant statement, and the Commission is now studying its implications and the possibility of its reception.”

When the Joint Declaration was first presented at a press conference in 1998 by Cardinal Cassidy, then president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, it was accompanied by the official Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration, a document which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had collaborated on and which pointed out Lutheran passages in the Joint Declaration which appeared to contradict the Council of Trent. The whole purpose of the Joint Declaration was for Lutherans to say things on justification which would not contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church, and for Catholics to say things which would not contradict the Lutheran confessional documents. So when Cardinal Cassidy said the Joint Declaration was ready to be signed, the Lutheran World Federation demurred, saying it was impossible to sign as long as the Catholic Church found some parts of the declaration incompatible with the Catholic faith. Further discussions ensued, and the result was a joint Annex published in 1999 which offered clarification and interpretation in response to the Response of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Cassidy signed in Augsburg, Germany together with a Lutheran bishop on October 31, 1999. And still the disputes and interpretations were not over. There soon appeared an article signed *** (indicating a source within the Curia, probably the CDF) in Osservatore Romano commenting on the Annex which had noted that the Lutherans use the concept of “concupiscence” in a sense different from that of Catholics.

Not stated by the unsigned article was an obvious consequence: the only way to reconcile the Lutheran and Catholic statements on “concupiscence” in the JD—concupiscence is sin (Lutheran), concupiscence is not sin in the proper sense (Trent)--is to use distinct meanings for the subject term when the Lutheran and Catholic propositions are compared. And in the following years, various Catholic theologians would find the Joint Declaration simply indigestible for the Catholic mind. (As an aside, the present writer once spoke with an American archbishop who decided not to hold a joint observance in his diocese when both Catholic priests and Lutheran pastors told him they didn’t understand the Joint Declaration.) Some questioned the authority of the Joint Declaration (is the Christian Unity council president’s signature and a pope’s praise enough to make it an act of authority imposing assent on all the baptized?) as well as some of its content, finding various Lutheran passages to be contrary to the Catholic faith despite the document’s claim that they are compatible. Most notable among these theologians was the late Cardinal Avery Dulles whose 2002 article in the Josephinum Journal of Theology declared flatly that some Lutheran points made in the JD contradicted the Council of Trent and that no theology professor would be allowed to teach those points in a Catholic seminary. Professor Christopher Malloy of the University of Dallas published Engrafted Into Christ: A Critique of the Joint Declaration, a book which Fr. Augustine J. DiNoia, OP of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said needed to be read by all theologians who would treat of the topic (according to the publisher’s brochure).

Pope Benedict XVI has continued to mention the Joint Declaration in his addresses to Protestant groups. In some of his Wednesday catecheses on faith, love and the Law according to St. Paul he has stated Catholic doctrine on justification, although not always using the language and patterns of Trent and even reading the Lutheran slogan “by faith alone” in a Catholic sense. Clearly the famous hermeneutic of continuity with Tradition and the authentic magisterium has to be applied to ecumenical dialogue as well as to the Second Vatican Council. But this means that to the extent the Joint Declaration is “received” by Catholics coherent with the Faith, its key words will signify one thing to Catholics and something else to Lutherans. Better therefore to abandon the ecumenical model of “reconciled diversity” behind the Joint Declaration and return to argument from Scripture and Tradition, so that with God’s grace many Lutherans as individuals and communities may seek full communion and valid apostolic succession, thus restoring unity and enriching us with some good things God has given to baptized souls trapped in Lutheran error, but in good faith, over the centuries.