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A moment of healing for the Christian family

Mahatma Gandhi once said the problem with Christianity is that it has never been tried. It’s a point that applies with special force to Jesus’ prayer, preserved in the Gospel of John, that his followers may all be one.

Over the centuries, Christianity has seen so many schisms and ruptures that a flow chart of church history would look like a process of cellular division. The common Christian family that Jesus intended is badly broken.

Every Christian is, in that sense, a child of divorce.

Even those of us (undoubtedly the majority) who long ago abandoned the battle lines, who have made our separate peace with one another, still feel the pain of partition. We long for unity, just as the world longs to see us united, so badly does it thirst for examples of how difference does not have to mean division.

Herein lies the importance of the joint agreement signed by representatives of the Roman Catholic church and the Lutheran World Federation in Augsburg, Germany, on Oct. 31 -- the 482nd anniversary of the day Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.

Admittedly, the subject matter of the agreement -- the doctrine of justification, or how God saves the human person -- is no longer one that stirs the passions of people in the pews. Most Christians, in fact, cannot help but look at the faith versus works debate as a tempest in a theological teapot.

The agreement does not even declare agreement on all the nuances. It admits that the two churches harbor different understandings of many key concepts, such as the Lutheran notion of simul iustus et peccator -- that the human person is simultaneously justified and yet remains a sinner.

What the document does, and this is why the Lutheran/Catholic joint agreement is the crown jewel of the post-Vatican II ecumenical movement, is to say what most of us have long felt in our hearts: That these differences are not enough to divide us, that the old anathemas are null and void.

This agreement is the product of decades of painstaking theological work. Quite often those engaged in the dialogue were told their energy was misplaced, that they were concerned with arcana that no longer matter in the late 20th century. They deserve thanks for their perseverance. Healing a relationship -- even when it means revisiting a now-remote past -- is never a trivial pursuit.

As a practical matter, the joint agreement should be of enormous value in parishes and congregations all over the world, wherever Lutherans and Catholics rub shoulders. Pastors can now cite an official declaration of the highest authorities in both churches, stating that whatever disagreements remain are between brothers and sisters in the faith, not between warring camps accusing each other of heresy.

Given that almost one-quarter of Catholic marriages every year are to non-Catholics (a percentage that reflects only “on the books” marriages, not unions formed without official church approval), this sort of agreement should be of real comfort to many families.

But even more fundamentally, what happened in Augsburg moves the Christian family closer to being whole. It means a family of faith that is more united, thus more credible in proposing unity to a world ever more menaced by tribalism.

It is critically important that the momentum generated in Augsburg not dissipate. To that end, the Christian churches of Europe should embrace the draft Charta Ecumenica that emerged out of the 1997 Ecumenical Assembly in Graz, Austria. Cosponsored by the (Protestant) Conference of European Churches and the (Catholic) Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, the text presents the core principles that must guide ecumenical progress. The two bodies have invited comment from local churches over the next year, and it is vital that Christians seize the moment.

Equally important, ecumenical experts in the United States and elsewhere should study the Charta Ecumenica to see if, with minor adaptations, it could also serve as a focal point for conversations in their own countries. As the draft puts it: “There is no alternative to reconciliation and ecumenism.” (The draft can be found on the NCR Web site, www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm).

What happened in Augsburg was healing on a grand scale. That is why it is so welcome -- and why the work must not stop.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 1999