By Vatican News
We cannot undo the history of division, but it can become part of our history of reconciliation, says Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He was speaking a few days after the publication of a revised Italian translation of the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" (JDDJ).
The JDDJ is a key text in the dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, and is seen as an important step towards overcoming the fundamental point of division between the Church and the Lutheran ecclesial community, namely, the question of salvation. Signed in 1999, representatives of the Methodist, Anglican, and Reformed Churches later embraced the document.
Twenty years on from the initial agreement, a new Italian translation was announced was announced by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation on 3 January 2021 - the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's excommunication by the Church. The excommunication of Luther remains a “painful wound,” Cardinal Koch says, and yet one on which is now grafted a firm will to continue, guided by the Gospel, along the path of reconciliation.
In an interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Koch explains the significance of the new Italian translation of the JDDJ.
Q: Your Eminence, on 3 January 2021, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation published an updated Italian translation of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ). What is the specific importance of this Declaration?
Cardinal Koch: The “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” of 1999 represents an important step on the path of Catholic–Lutheran reconciliation. The crucial question of Christian existence of how one arrives at salvation and remains in salvation had given rise to bitter controversies in the 16th century that eventually led to division in the Church.
After centuries of confessional controversies, in 1999, Catholics and Lutherans were able to confess together, in a differentiated consensus: “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” (JDDJ, 15).
Q: The version just published contains other texts translated into Italian for the first time. Can you explain this?
Cardinal Koch: The “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” of 1999 was originally a bilateral document, the fruit of Catholic–Lutheran dialogue. Providentially, it was later received multilaterally. The World Methodist Council, the Anglican Communion and the World Communion of Reformed Churches also adhered.
In 2019, not only representatives of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, but also representatives of the other three world Communions just mentioned also gathered at the University of Notre Dame in North America, reiterating their shared ecumenical commitment for the future. All the related texts can now be found in the new publication. For us, it was important to deepen an understanding of this special witness of ecumenical reconciliation in the Catholic, Italian–speaking world.
Q: Differently to the other translations, the Italian version also has an ecumenical foreword signed by you together with the Secretary General of the Lutheran World Federation, Reverend Martin Junge. Why was 3 January 2021 chosen as the date of publication?
Cardinal Koch: The date of 3 January 2021 marked the 500th anniversary of the excommunication of Martin Luther by Pope Leo X. This event continues to represent a painful wound in the history of Catholic–Lutheran division. The condemnation of Martin Luther of the Pope, defined as “Anti–Christ”, also similarly contributed to mutual alienation.
The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity faced the challenge of clarifying, from the ecumenical point of view, the historical, theological and canonical questions relating to the excommunication of Martin Luther. This task has been entrusted for some time to an ecumenical group of experts. We trust that in the near future it will be possible to issue a “Joint Message”.
Without anticipating the final outcome, it was important for Reverend Junge and myself to demonstrate, through the publication of this Italian version on the 500th anniversary of the excommunication of Martin Luther, our firm intention to continue the journey of reconciliation under the guidance of the Gospel.
Q: Your Eminence, what further steps towards Catholic–Lutheran reconciliation do you have in mind?
Cardinal Koch: In 2030 we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession. The “Confessio Augustana” is now part of the Lutheran confessions; in 1530 it was the last attempt, sadly unsuccessful, to impede the imminent division of the Church.
The Augsburg Confession has an ecumenical potential that Catholics and Lutherans could rediscover. Taking this opportunity could be a promising task for the near future.