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November 5, 1999
Column #949


     Last Sunday, exactly 482 years after Martin Luther nailed his ''95 Theses'' to a church door, touching off the Protestant Reformation, leaders of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Unity signed a ''Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,'' dealing with what Pope John Paul II called ''one of the principal arguments which set Catholics and Lutherans against one another.''

     What angered Luther, a Catholic monk in 1517, was that the Vatican was selling indulgences, supposed reductions of the time one would have to spend in Purgatory, in order to raise money to build St. Peter's in Rome. A monk named Johann Tetzel told people at the time:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.

     Luther wrote,. Christ's ''merits are freely available without the keys of the pope. Therefore I claim the pope has no jurisdiction over purgatory...If the pope does have the power to release anyone from purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish purgatory by letting everyone out?'' he asked in his 95 Theses.

     ''Indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation. Those persons are damned who think that letters of indulgence make them certain of salvation. God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when he is on the point of being saved....When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks.  Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith. He who does not have this is lost even though he be absolved a million times by the pope.''

     Luther, a teacher of theology, posted his 95 Theses in Latin, hoping to spark debate among theologians. But they were quickly translated into German, and with the new printing press, spread, resonating with average Germans, especially lines like these: ''The revenues of all Christendom are being sucked into this insatiable basilica....We Germans cannot attend St. Peter's.  Better that it should never be built than our parochial churches should be despoiled.''

     Luther's criticism did spark Catholic reforms. The sale of indulgences stopped. But Lutherans emphasized the ''priority of grace, without denying good works, while Catholics emphasized the fruit of grace, good works, without denying the priority of grace,'' as Brother Jeffrey Gros of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said this week.

     Put that way, it seems obvious and natural that Lutherans and Catholics could agree on that justification comes through faith alone, but that good works are an essential sign of true faith.  However, the two great religions condemned one another for nearly five centuries over the issue.  Even after the Second Vatican Council, it took 33 years for church scholars and hierarchy to thrash out the agreement that was signed in Augsburg on Sunday.

     Nor is assent unanimous. The 2.5 million member Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod is not part of the agreement. Lutheran Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran World Federation, said: ''Trust and hope have increased, and we have learned that which binds us together is stronger than what distinguishes or separates us from one another.''

     Catholic bishops acknowledged, implicitly, that Luther was right to put the Mass into German, as Vatican II allowed the Mass to be said in local languages. Luther also personally translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into German, making Scripture available to average people for the first time.

     Another major contribution made by Luther, who married a former nun, was to elevate the importance of marriage to ''the highest religious order on earth.'' Catholics believed that taking vows of chastity, as a priest, monk or nun, was spiritually superior to the wedded life. ''About a third of adult European Christians at the time lived in religious communities where vows of chastity were the rule,'' writes Allan Carlson. Luther noted that some bishops and priests kept concubines, a case for married clergy. Luther saw Genesis 1:28. ''Be fruitful and multiply,'' as a divine ordinance. He and his wife had six children. He opposed both contraception and abortion.

      Ironically, Lutherans now endorse both while Catholics follow Luther's pro-life lead.

      For an appreciation of Luther's extraordinary contribution, I devoured Roland Bainton's classic biography, ''Here I Stand.'' After reading it, I can agree with Catholic University Professor Joseph Komonchak, who says the signing of the Joint Declaration on Justification by Catholics and Lutherans ''is one of the great ecumenical moments of the century.''

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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