In a decision intended to resolve an issue that split the Western Christian world nearly 500 years ago, the Vatican said Thursday that it would sign a declaration with most of the world's Lutherans affirming that Roman Catholics and Lutherans share a basic understanding of how human beings receive God's forgiveness and salvation.
The document, approved last week by the Lutheran World Federation, declares that Catholics and Lutherans have found an essential common ground on the issue of "justification," the action by which a human being is made worthy of salvation.Reformation leader Martin Luther held that justification comes solely through faith in God, while the Catholic Church taught that a person's good works play a role.
Now, through the declaration, Catholics and Lutherans agree that divine forgiveness and salvation come only through God's grace and that good works flow from that.
The consensus, while acknowledging that serious differences remain between the two churches on the issue, represents a new appreciation for basic elements in each other's teachings along with recognition of beliefs they share. The declaration is a result of years of biblical scholarship, inter-church dialogue and a renunciation of age-old stereotypes.
Catholics and Lutherans also remain divided by major issues of faith, such as the infallibility of the pope and the ordination of women.
Although the debate on justification might seem rarefied to people outside these churches, it has historically been heated and regarded by Lutherans and other Protestants as crucial to their religious identity.
Although Catholics and Lutherans have been increasingly working together in this country and in Germany in recent years, the legacy of the Reformation has kept tensions alive between the two groups in some other parts of the world.
In accepting the document, called "The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," Catholics and Lutherans agreed that the condemnations they hurled at each other in the 16th century, as Europe slid into a devastating period of religious warfare, no longer apply.
Announcing the Vatican position in Rome, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said, "I wish to stress that the consensus reached on the doctrine of justification, despite its limitations, virtually resolves a long-disputed question at the close of the 20th century, on the eve of the new millennium."
But both Cassidy and the Vatican, in its statement, said that areas of considerable disagreement required further discussion. The cardinal also said the declaration "has limits" in that it does not address major differences between Catholics and Lutherans on such issues as authority in the church.