On the last day of October, nearly 500 years ago, a German priest named Martin Luther approached the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed to the door his 95 Theses, a list of theological challenges to the Roman Catholic Church.
That simple action set in motion events that led to the Protestant Reformation and the reshaping of the face of Christianity.
Yesterday, Lutheran and Catholic leaders met in Augsburg, Germany, 482 years later to sign a historic agreement on the central issue that led to the Reformation split: the doctrine of justification -- how God grants salvation.
In Baltimore's own gesture of religious peacemaking, Roman Catholic Cardinal William H. Keeler and Lutheran Bishop George Paul Mocko yesterday re-enacted Martin Luther's rebellious act, but this time, nailing a copy of the agreement between the two churches to the doors of the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Assumption.
The prelates then traveled in an ecumenical caravan to Christ Lutheran Church in Federal Hill, where they repeated the gesture.
"Today marks an historic landmark," said Keeler, leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. "In addition to agreeing on a key teaching of our faith given to us by Christ Jesus, our two churches have modeled a style of joint study in which there are no winners or losers, no compromises. Rather, mutual enrichment occurs as our scholars help us to see that different theological formulations can express the same faith, the same truth revealed in Christ Jesus."
Mocko, bishop of the Maryland-Delaware Synod of the 5.2-million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation's largest Lutheran body, recalled days of chillier relations between Catholics and Lutherans.
"Gone are the days when a Lutheran pastor and a Catholic priest, meeting in a hospital elevator, would at best nod, and the frigid silence would make air conditioning unnecessary," Mocko said, to the laughter of several hundred Lutherans and Catholics who gathered at the basilica.
In challenging the church on justification, Martin Luther argued that people can be saved through faith in God alone, and that only faith can win them salvation.
Catholic theology, emphasizing the role of free will, stated that people can cooperate in the process of salvation by performing good works. Luther dismissed that belief with sharp criticism of Rome's practice of selling indulgences, which reduce the time a sinner's soul spends in purgatory.
After Luther's denunciation, Lutherans condemned Catholics in the Augsburg Confessions, one of their foundation documents. Catholics, in turn, condemned Lutherans in the Council of Trent, although they also outlawed the abuse of indulgences.
With yesterday's reconciliation involving representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, those mutual condemnations have been lifted.
Part of what changed, scholars say, is that Catholics and Lutherans have developed a similar approach to interpreting the Bible, including the study of literary forms and the use of history and archaeology in interpreting the text.
"As a result, there is a growing appreciation that although there are some minor differences in understanding, these differences do not justify or warrant the kind of condemnations that each tradition has pronounced upon the other," said J. Paul Rajashekar, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
In the agreement signed yesterday, Lutherans and Catholics recognize that they are describing the same experience of salvation, but have in the past used different language to define it.
In a pivotal passage, the agreement states: "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."
Not every Lutheran is hailing the agreement. The Rev. A. L. Barry, president of the 2.6-million member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the nation's second-largest Lutheran body, called it "a betrayal of the Gospel."
"In truth, the joint declaration is an ambiguous statement whose careful wording makes it possible for the Pope's representatives to sign it without changing, retracting or correcting anything that has been taught by the Roman Catholic Church since the time of the Council of Trent in the 16th Century," Barry said in a statement.
The agreement signed yesterday in Augsburg is the result of 30 years of dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics, talks they hope will one day result in full communion between the two churches.
But, as Mocko noted, the justification agreement says that while the two churches have reached consensus on this issue, there is much that still separates them. Issues include the ordination of women and papal authority and infallibility.
"It is to be noted we do this at the doors, and not at the altar," Mocko said in a ceremony inside the Basilica. "We do it in words; we do not do it with bread and wine.
"We have come a great distance to get to this place; we have yet a great distance to go before we get to the altar together," he said. "But grieving for what is not yet should not prevent us from rejoicing in what is."
Some might wonder what the big deal is. As someone said to Mocko, the concept of justification is just an arcane concept interesting only to theologians.
" `It's an old theological argument from the 16th century, of little relevance for people's concerns today. Who cares?' " Mocko said he was asked.
" `Who cares?' I care," he said. "Because it is not an old argument fought between two ivory towers. This goes to the very heart of what our Christian faith is, how I live my life, what goes on in my heart of hearts."
Pub Date: 11/01/99