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Was The Joint Declaration Truly Justified? | An Interview with Dr. Christopher Malloy | Carl E. Olson

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In October of 1999 the "Joint Declaration On the Doctrine of Justification" (JD) was signed by representatives from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Catholic Church. These included Dr. Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the LWF and Edward Cardinal Cassidy, president (1989-2001) of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who signed the document in Augsburg, birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. The document elicited a wide range of responses, with some Protestants (Lutheran and otherwise) and Catholics believing it marked the end of any substantial disagreements about justification, while others--again, both Protestant and Catholic--were not convinced that the document answered satisfactorily a number of substantial questions.

One Catholic critic of the JD was Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., who wrote an essay critique of the JD in 2002, in the Josephinum Journal of Theology, that highlighted several of his concerns with the document. But perhaps the most detailed and lengthy response, at least in English, was published in 2005. Engrafted into Christ: A Critique of the Joint Declaration (Peter Lang, 2005) was written by Dr. Christopher J. Malloy, an assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas since 2001. In the introduction, Dr. Malloy provides a history of the JD and then writes:

There are two lines of scrutiny that can be pursued in an effort to verify the merits of the Joint Declaration. On the one hand, its historical implication can be investigated: Did the original positions of each communion not, in fact, substantially conflict with one another? ... On the other hand, the contents proper to the JD can be investigated: Does the JD adequately represent the teachings of both communities? (p 5)
To answer these two essential questions and many other related questions, Dr. Malloy divides his book into four major sections. The first, "The Teachings of the Reformation Era" (pp 19-122), sets forth the Catholic and Lutheran positions, provides important background material about the Council of Trent, and explains the meaning and importance of the doctrine of "double justice." The second part, "Contemporary Attempts at Rapprochement" (pp 123-192), examines the work of three twentieth-century theologians/schools of theology: Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng, the Finnish School of Lutheran theologians, and German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. Dr. Malloy shows that of these theologians, only Küng believed that "no doctrinal alteration is needed by either Protestants or Catholics."

Part three is "Critical Analysis of the Joint Declaration" (pp 194-313) and includes chapters on background dialogues, the essence of justifying grace (both Lutheran and Catholic paragraphs), and resulting difficulties. Dr. Malloy concludes the third part with this assessment: "The contents of the Joint Declaration, therefore, are not merely flawed in isolated cases; they are in organic fashion contrary to the integrity of the Catholic faith." The fourth and final part, "Evaluating the Divide" (pp 315-387), contains theological reflections "on the divergent understandings of the essence of justification" and focuses on five related questions about the nature of justification.

While academic and rigorous in approach, Engrafted in Christ is accessible to the serious reader who has an interest in the topics of justification, salvation, and recent ecumenical dialogue. Although focused on Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, the book's examination of the teachings of Martin Luther are helpful to those wanting to better understand the theological disagreements that led to and were addressed by the Council of Trent. It also provides an excellent explanation of the Catholic understanding of justification, built upon both Scripture and official Church documents. In light of the ongoing conversations--both formal and informal--between Catholics and Protestants of many different backgrounds, IgnatiusInsight.com recently interviewed Dr. Malloy about his book, justification, sola fide, and several interrelated issues.

IgnatiusInsight.com: It seems that an increasing number of Catholics and Protestants--including some Lutherans and Evangelicals (Dr. Mark Noll comes to mind, for example)--are saying that the issue of justification is no longer a central matter of division between Catholics and those Protestants who adhere to sola fide and a classical Protestant understanding of justification. Is that the case? Why or how can those claims be made? Do you agree, generally speaking, with them?

Dr. Christopher Malloy: As a famous saying goes, "It all depends", that is, on what the words mean. To cut to the chase very quickly (more nuance below), "faith alone" is not a common Catholic way of speaking, since Catholics read Paul's "by faith" as signifying compactly and by synecdoche a set of gifts: sanctifying grace, faith, hope, and charity. Many Lutherans would disagree, claiming that Paul's "by faith" does not signify grace and charity as well. Though he is read quite differently by different Lutherans, Luther himself has been taken by many to exclude charity from the faith that justifies, that is, from its justifying character. In his 1531 comments on Galatians 5:16, he contends that we shall not need faith and hope when we have been thoroughly cleansed. In the meantime, we need faith because we still lack the obedience God demands. Because we lack the obedience God demands in the law, we are damnable in his sight--he could damn us unless Christ covered us with his righteousness. Catholics link the end of the need for faith with the advent of the beatific vision and not with the final cleansing from damnable sins. According to this line of thought in Luther, however, it seems that faith's justifying role is not informed by charity but rather supplemental to the defects of charity.

Right away, you can see a difference between some interpretations of "faith alone". As everyone knows, the phrase itself is not in the Scriptures; Luther did not intend to correct Paul, but to correct certain readings of Paul that he considered erroneous. It is the meanings and referents of terms, however, that matter, as Pope Bl. John XXIII taught. One reads "faith alone" in Aquinas's commentary on Galatians, as one does in Luther's 1531 commentary. Yet, leaving Luther and his many diverging interpreters aside, I can say that Thomas emphatically meant the following--that no works before justification can justify the human person. Faith, for Thomas, is itself the justice by which a human person "is truly just" in God's sight only if and because it is buoyed by hope and informed by the charity by which the human person cleaves to God as spouse and friend. Some Lutherans see these characteristics of "cleaving" to God in faith itself. Here, there is a significant point of contact between Catholics and some Lutherans; this agreement needs to be celebrated and also further discussed and elaborated.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you mean by "further discussed and elaborated"?

Dr. Malloy: Well, if indeed it is true that we have here an agreement about justifying faith, about that which constitutes the justice of the justified person, about that which "pleases God" in the justified person, then we by logical consequence agree on many other things.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Could you spell out those consequences? For example, are any of these relevant in the pastoral sphere?

Dr. Malloy: There is enormous pastoral import to these matters. For Catholicism, justification makes the human person truly just--interiorly and before God--so that the justified has the infused grace and the constant help of God by which to obey all of the law sufficiently. This means that the human person can avoid every single mortal sin. More, the human person can, by infused grace and God's constant help, grow in the very grace by which he is made truly just. He can merit eternal life by his good works wrought in charity. He can even merit an increase in eternal life. This is mind-blowing, truly. God has not only justified but also divinized man! So justified and divinized, man works with God so as to journey to his eternal abode. If he violates the commandments, however, he loses the grace by which he is justified. He sins mortally and merits hell. This is a horrific thought, and yet it is a real possibility. This is why Catholic moral theologians talk so much about the "moral object" of various acts. For Catholics, the "moral object" can be a life-threatening issue. At the end of our lives, as St. John of the Cross warns us, Jesus will ask each of us, "Did you love me above all?" Paul even speaks of a judgment according to works as part of his Gospel (Rom 2:16).

I have traced the immediate pastoral impact, but I wish now to add a bit more depth. The Catholic faith holds that the human person (justified initially by God's power and not by his own--although not without his own cooperation if he has the use of free will) is made clean interiorly. When God infuses grace, he releases man from the debt of obedience man owed, refused, and could not repay, and God heals the soul, the intellect, and the will. Therefore, the human person standing before God is released of past debt and healed of everything damnably offensive; hence, the person incurs no debt presently. He is not punishable by eternal damnation, for he renders God what is due (unless he commits a mortal sin).

Therefore, in the Catholic perspective, sins are not merely "covered" as though there persisted in man something for which God could damn him. Some Lutherans have read Psalm 32:1-2 and Romans 4:7-8 as though God, in justification itself, simply covers still present sins. The Catholic faith reads this "covered" language as meaning release from past debt and a "blotting out" of all that is interiorly offensive to God. Catholics find a Scriptural basis for this in Psalm 51, the privileged "Sitz im Leben" of which (for the Jews) was the Day of Atonement (for Catholics, every Friday at Lauds). In this Psalm, the meaning of the "covering" imagery is revealed by parallelism in verse 9: "blot out all my iniquities". Psalm 32 itself contends that "there is no deceit" (v. 2) in the person so blessed; he is "righteous" and "upright in heart" (v. 11). Catholics read Paul similarly: When Paul says, "None is righteous" (Rom 3:10) he does not mean "not one in all the world". He means that no one is righteous who has not been justified.

In summary, the Catholic teaching on forgiveness is that God's forgiving act is totally free and totally effective. God releases man from past offenses and heals the fallen will so that there is in the justified nothing so offensive that it could be punished with damnation (unless the man commits a mortal sin). Hence, "No one born of God commits sin" (1 Jn 3:9), that is, a sin that is mortal (1 Jn 5:16f), for nearly everyone daily commits "venial" sins (1 Jn 1:8), which of their nature differ from mortal sins. Hence, the justified human person enjoys a heart restored and recreated by God's grace (Ps 51:10) so that he can walk in all of God's ways (Ezek 36:25-27), fulfilling the New Law (Rom 8:4-8). Moreover, as Irenaeus specifies, the New Law is more rigorous than the Old Law (e.g., Mt 5-7). While the Gnostics thought that Christ destroyed the Law, Irenaeus argued the Christian faith: What is jettisoned is not the 10 Commandments but the temporary socio-political and ceremonial laws. What matters is not fleshly "circumcision" but a spiritual circumcision (Rom 2:29; Gal 6:15) and keeping the divine commandments (1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6). Of course, the justified person does not follow the law as a menial servant (Rom 8:14-15) but as a son, as a friend of God (Ja 2:23; Jn 15:14), for his heart has been circumcised (Deut 30:6f) so that he can obey the law of love (Deut 6:4-9; Rom 13:10).

In short, the heart of the law has not been destroyed by Christ, contrary to the Gnostic belief. Rather, the heart of the law has been fulfilled and perfected (Rom 10:4; Mt 5:17-19).

IgnatiusInsight.com: Some might ask, "How can anyone love God with his 'whole strength'?" This seems impossible to many Christians, even many Catholics.

Dr. Malloy: You have asked what may be the crucial question. Of course, no one can love God as much as God is lovable. No one except God, that is. In fact, even Jesus in his human nature cannot love God as much as God is lovable! Every creature--and Jesus' human love of God is creaturely--"fails" to love God infinitely. Does this mean that every creature offends God? Of course not! John Paul II follows the whole thrust of the tradition when, in Veritatis Splendor, he distinguishes two sides of the law. There is a negative lower limit, beneath which one cannot go without losing friendship with God. Every single mortal sin is a violation of this lower limit. A "fundamental option" for anger towards God, for total despair, for surrender to concupiscence, is not a necessary condition for mortal sin. It is certainly a sufficient condition, but mortal sins are rarely so drastic. One free act of adultery is a mortal sin. "Thou shalt not" is the negative or "lower limit" side of the law.

The negative side is has as its end a positive side--the Love of God and Neighbor! The upward side of the law is limitless. Paul strives for the upward limit, as should all Christians, for we are all called to radical holiness. Yet, let us not get scrupulous! Let us not think as follows: "Because we can love more, therefore we have sinned mortally".

We will likely be imperfect. We will likely sin venially. We will likely have many imperfections--those only others can see! We must make distinctions: mortal sin is not venial sin; venial sin is not imperfection; one stage towards maturity is not necessarily "faulty imperfection". The Orthodox are very good at underscoring a dynamic of Christian life--that we are born as babes and we must grow. This is the law of life. It is no fault of the adolescent that he is a bit awkward in basketball. So too, it is not necessarily a sin, and certainly not at all a mortal sin, for a Christian to be a bit awkward at an early stage of growth. Yet, as we grow in our Christian vocation, things that before were out of our control are now in our control. Hence, if I do now the things I used to do with impunity, I now do them with culpability. Everyone can love God more. Everyone can grow in love. Thérèse taught us this, and she lived only twenty-four years! How quickly we can grow--God's grace is powerful.

This is the most urgent thing for a Christian--to press on in the upward call of Christ (Phil 3:14). At the beginning of my answer to this question, I noted how important the question is. I say this because Martin Luther and many others saw the rigor of the commandment to love God. They felt their unworthiness acutely in the face of this commandment. Some (e.g., Francis de Sales and Thérèse) even felt condemned by its rigor. To feel condemned does not mean that one has committed a mortal sin. Indeed, as some theologians have argued recently, living saints who love God have this role of suffering in solidarity with the condemned. In their psyche they feel abandoned, but in the depths of their hearts they cleave to God, and they never lose the deepest peace. It is certainly not Catholic to say they are "damned" for the sake of others, even though their love of God is so great that they fear offending God infinitely more than they fear any punishment (1 Jn 4:18).

IgnatiusInsight.com: You speak of "experience". I have heard it said that the Lutheran way of framing things is more closely tied to experience than is the Catholic way of framing things. Is this true, and if so, in what way?

Dr. Malloy: We must make some distinctions. Whose experience are we speaking of? There are many saints who did not describe their experience as a dialectic between "condemning law" and "forgiving mercy".

But let me get to the spirit of your question. Many Lutherans have drawn attention to the Lutheran "mode of discourse" as "existential". The Catholic Magisterium, by contrast, typically speaks "metaphysically". That is, the Catholic Magisterium speaks objectively by way of describing precisely what happens when God justifies, identifying the aspects involved: God's agency, Christ's merit, baptism as the instrumental cause, human acceptance of God's grace (itself enabled by grace), and the essence itself of justification, namely, the transformation of an enemy into a friend, a child of wrath into a son. The "essence" of justification involves what God effects in justifying. In technical terms, it is the "formal cause" of justification. So, the Catholic mode of discourse covers the many elements pertinent to this event.

The Lutheran mode of discourse is subjective and personal. Lutherans describe a particular kind of experience, an acute experience of sinfulness, mercy, and trust--a trust that bears fruit in love.

I have briefly sketched these two "modes of discourse". There is much truth to the observation that there is often a difference of mode. Advertence to this difference in modes of discourse can perhaps mitigate differences.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you think that all of the differences can be explained in terms of different modes of discourse?

Dr. Malloy: I do not think so. Let me cite a text, written in the 1980s, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger: "Simply to trace all these differences back to misunderstandings is in my eyes a presumptuousness that has its roots in the Enlightenment and that cannot do justice either to that person's passionate struggle or to the weight of the realities at issue" (see Church, Ecumenism, and Politics, p. 104). The issue Carding Ratzinger was dealing with was precisely Luther's exclusion of "charity" from justifying faith. Everyone knows, and the Cardinal of course knew, that Luther holds there to be a charity that begins in the justified person. Only cheap Catholic apologists of the past denied that Luther spoke of incipient charity or sanctification. Yet, as many sympathetic readers have read Luther, he meant by "faith alone" to exclude not merely works performed before justification but also infused grace and charity from faith's justifying character.

Now, let me address your question directly. I would do so in two ways. First, I will take up the issue of divergent modes of discourse. I believe that this issue poses a legitimate avenue of inquiry for ecumenical dialogue. Let us say that some Lutherans agree with the Catholic "metaphysics" of justification. They disagree only with a certain (let us call it) "traditional reading" of Luther, to which I have alluded above. If this is true, then, when these other Lutherans speak of sin "still residing" in the justified person, what do they mean? When they identify this remaining sin with the very sin that was present before justification, what do they mean? When, further, they claim that this same sin is of its nature worthy of eternal punishment, what do they mean? Are they speaking only "existentially"? Do they mean only, "It is my experience that I feel damned and unworthy"? Would they agree that this sin is not "real sin, truly of its nature worthy of damnation"?

If they mean these things only "experientially" and not "metaphysically", then this divergence of discourse might not indicate a real divergence in doctrine. Much investigation would need to be undertaken to establish this definitively, however. Moreover, I think there are pastoral problems with such a mode of discourse in the first place. For instance, would you want a priest telling a young man that his "concupiscence for women" is a "true sin, of its nature worthy of damnation"? Would that priest further this young man's spiritual growth by saying this, even if he meant it only "existentially"? In fact, Catholic pastoral practice is much wiser than this other approach, which is quite dangerous and false. Let's change the subject a bit to make the point more sharply. Say a man suffering a homosexual tendency were to ask a priest, "Is this tendency a sin"? The Catholic answer is: "Of course it is not a sin!" That is, no tendency to sin is a sin, except insofar as a person's freewill choices have fostered the tendency. Let me add one personal anecdote: I asked a Lutheran convert to Catholicism the following question: "Do you think you need to repent for concupiscence?" He could not answer the question. But the Catholic answer is, "No!" A priest would rightly kick you out of the confessional for confessing your concupiscence and non-volitional disorders.

This whole matter relates to those "mortal sins" I mentioned earlier. Catholics do not spread sin out everywhere; they do not smear it into every good work, as though all human works are damnable. Trent condemns such smearing. But one of the important things to observe is this--precisely because Catholics do not "smear" sin everywhere, they are able to attend to actual sins when they commit them. One is not a "raging adulterer" unless one is committing adultery, either physically or with genuine and full "assent" of the mind, which almost always founds its way into bodily action. Temptation is not sin.

I am not confident that most Lutherans would want to say that their mode of discourse is purely "experiential". I am not confident that that they would say, "The sin that remains, which I 'said' was real sin--It's not true sin, not really." To me, it would be unhelpful to tell such Lutherans that that is what they mean. Maybe this is what other Lutherans have meant. But in many cases, I think they want to be taken at their word, metaphysically, as it were. That's how I read Luther. In my opinion, he was so agitated about the Catholic reading of Romans 7 because he wanted to be taken seriously (see his lucid Antilatomus). When Luther asks to be taken seriously, and when one tries to take him seriously, one is not (as some accuse) being "uncharitable". That is a category mistake. Perhaps such readings of Luther are inaccurate, but only God knows if the reader is "uncharitable". More to the point, it begs the question to charge a reading as "uncharitable", since the reader brings the criteria by which to judge a reading as "charitable" or "uncharitable". Many Lutherans, for instance, reads Luther in a very "traditional" manner (explanation on this place-holding name below). Are they "uncharitable"? Not by their terms! They are trying to be faithful. Let me add that it is not merely "conservative" Lutherans who would insist on this; Simo Peura, an outstanding ecumenical Finn with acute intellectual acumen, critiqued an early draft of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JD) for denying that remnant sin was true sin.

Part 1 | Part 2


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