November 1, 1999
RAY SUAREZ: On October 31, 1517, the German monk, Martin Luther unleashed centuries of disputes with the Roman Catholic Church. One of the chief arguments had to do with how a believing Christian earned salvation -- through belief called justification by faith or living a good life called justification by works. Yesterday, the Catholic Church and Lutheran Churches worldwide ended the argument begun with Martin Luther. Throughout his years as Pope, John Paul II has embraced other Christian bodies while never compromising on historic Catholic teaching. This agreement may reflect that. After 482 years, the two churches declare that justification is achieved by faith, but good works matter, too. Christians are reminded to embrace an ethic of earthly duty to humanity.
RAY SUAREZ: For more, we are joined by Ulrike Strasser, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California-Irvine and a visiting lecturer at the Harvard Divinity School. And Randall Balmer, Professor of religion at Columbia University and the author of "Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America." Professor Strasser, let me start with you. It's interesting because any argument that lasts 500 years is bounding to interesting which it finally ends. But is this a really significant departure for these two churches?
ULRIKE STRASSER: Well, speaking of the significance, I think the way we need to look at this is more in terms of the symbolic significance rather than the sort of practical or political significance. This is, after all, an agreement between church leaders. And frankly speaking, I doubt that it will have an immediate tangible impact on the average layperson and his or her parish community. However, having said that, I nonetheless think that any kind of agreement on an issue that has kept people apart for close to 500 years, represents a major stepping stone towards further healing of a very, very deep of long lasting rift in European society.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Balmer, did they really agree or did they just stress what they agree upon and leave aside those things that they still can't?
RANDALL BALMER: This strikes me as a significant document. I haven't had time to read it thoroughly but it seems to me the Roman Catholic Church is indeed agreeing with Martin Luther 500 years or almost 500 years after the fact, saying that we are justified by grace through faith, and that was certainly one of the touchstones of the Protestant reformation.
RAY SUAREZ: But, significantly the document also says that neither church disavows its past. They don't want to go back on anything they've said before. And they've gone at it pretty hot and heavy. It's been a couple hundred years now, but there have been some very, very strong denunciations in the past.
RANDALL BALMER: There's no question about that, particularly in the 16th century when Martin Luther feared for his life from Catholic authorities and so forth, and the wars of religion in Europe, there was a lot of hostility and has been over the centuries. I think for the Roman Catholic Church now with this document, they seem to be capitulating, it seems to me, to Luther's view of justification by grace through faith.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Strasser, you mentioned that you didn't think that this was going to show up very much in the pews. Five million American Lutherans, sixty million American Catholics, many of them will head to church next Sunday and not know anything much is different. But many American churches and worldwide churches are in these kind of talks. Does this help open the door a little bit more?
ULRIKE STRASSER: Oh, I think it does help open the door and it is a kind of marker of progress of the ecumenical dialogue we've had for 30 years now that we actually can or Protestants and Catholics actually can see eye to eye on one of the major bones of contention of the 16th century.
RAY SUAREZ: But where does this all end? This is a long way short of a merger between these two churches.
ULRIKE STRASSER: Yes, the question would be whether a merger is desirable in the first place. I guess my perspective is more the perspective of the historians. So I look less at how this impacts the future than to my mind how it reflects how far we've come in the past 482 years.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Balmer, what do you think about the state of relations between other churches now that big argument could be settled?
RANDALL BALMER: Well, I think there's... there are two levels. One is theological or doctrinal, and the other is institutional. I read this document as primarily theological or a doctrinal agreement, rather than any sort of organizational coalescence. But I think that the ecumenical movement certainly has been an important movement within Protestantism, not so much between Protestants and Catholics but within Protestantism within the last 30 or 40 years. There's no question about that. I question whether or not it has really significantly advanced the kingdom of God. But that's perhaps another matter.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, there are many conversations going on now between churches that aim not to bring them under a similar umbrella, but to bring them into communion with each other, to make it less difficult for couples where one is from each denomination, to marry, so that they might share the sacraments; that people who are ordained clergy in these denominations could also preach in each other's pulpits. Does this help bring that a day closer?
RANDALL BALMER: It probably does. I think that sort of unity is probably a good thing. But I do worry somewhat... I worry a great deal, in fact, about Protestant ecumenism, that is, the blending of differences theologically in particular. It seems to me that main line Protestantism in America in particular suffers appallingly from a lack of theological definition. And the ecumenical movement, this drive for theological unity, has, I think, even further diminished those differences I think tragically so.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Strasser, most of the world's Lutherans and Catholics are outside the United States, and we sometimes tend to look at developments like this through a very American lens. In Germany, for instance, the sort of seed bed of this 500 years of argument, a place that has fought wars over this -- are we at a point where Germany is going to pay much attention to this document?
ULRIKE STRASSER: I think Germany will. And I think that just the last perspective we had on the sense that there is a sense of a loss of plurality among Protestantism in this country strikes me as a very valid point but also as a particular American perspective, because I do think that kind of ecumenical dialogue just has a fundamentally different place in European life. If I can just for a moment also bring in my persona as someone who has grown up in one of the strongholds of Catholicism in Germany, I certainly feel very attuned to the long lasting social and political legacies of these doctrinal conflicts that were in Europe not just doctrinal but resulted in so many massive changes, so that, for example, in my hometown, in fact one could not be a resident if one were a Protestant, until the 19th century, and could not hold office until the early 20th century. So, in light of the fact that doctrines were also instruments of political exclusion, of social discrimination, to me these doctrinal changes, this coming together is a very welcome move.
RAY SUAREZ: So, when we sometimes talk in America about people not remembering their history, there are also places in the world where people remember it maybe a little too much?
ULRIKE STRASSER: Or experience it tangibly. I'm not sure whether we can remember history too much. I don't think you can expect a historian to concede that but I will say that we experience it in a very tangible way and I think that sort of unity between doctrine and political life that once existed in Europe and shaped it for centuries is just not as tangible in this late 20th century American society anymore.
RAY SUAREZ: So Professor Balmer, are you calling for more rigor? You want these differences still to matter, to hold the line against a post-denominational America?
RANDALL BALMER: Well, I don't have any particular vested interest in denominations per se, but it seems to me that since roughly 1965, America is for the first time truly a pluralistic society. We've had this rhetoric for a couple hundred years but we are truly a pluralistic society. And it seems to me as I survey the American religious landscape, in particular, and I would concede the point about other places being different, but in America, every other group, every other religious or ethnic group, has a voice, it seems to me, in the arena of public discourse. The only voice that seems to be missing as far, as I can tell, is that of main line or mainstream Protestantism. And I think it's because we main line Protestants are...or mainstream Protestants have lost our voice. We have kind of allowed ourselves to get sucked into a kind of theological amalgam that really doesn't say very much.
RAY SUAREZ: Randall Balmer, Ulrike Strasser, thank you very much, both.