A Roman Catholic Appreciation of Justification by Faith
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Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, famously broke with the Roman Catholic Church, primarily over the doctrine of justification. Luther insisted salvation came through sola fide (faith alone), but Catholic leadership disagreed and excommunicated Luther for his views. So, it certainly would have surprised Luther to hear that his name would be mentioned with approval at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on Good Friday in 2016. On this day, sacred to all Christians, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, gave the Good Friday sermon to an audience that included the pope, cardinals, bishops, and thousands of the Catholic faithful. He said,

There is a danger that people can hear about the righteousness of God but not understand its meaning, so instead of being encouraged, they are frightened. Saint Augustine had already clearly explained its meaning centuries ago: “The ‘righteousness of God’ is that by which we are made righteous, just as ‘the salvation of God’ [see Ps 3:8] means the salvation by which he saves us.”… Luther deserves the credit for bringing this truth back when its meaning had been lost over the centuries, at least in Christian preaching, and it is this above all for which Christianity is indebted to the Reformation, whose fifth centenary occurs next year. [Emphasis mine] The reformer later wrote that when he discovered this, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Fr. Cantalamessa went on to quote immediately from Paul: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy” (Titus 3:4–5). Next, he referenced Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our own trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” (Eph 2:4–5). Clearly, Fr. Cantalamessa was linking what had once been seen as an essentially Lutheran (and generally “Protestant”) understanding of justification with a biblical one, applying this view of justification to all Christians, including Roman Catholics, and most significantly the pope.

Recent Consensus

Though Luther surely would have been surprised to hear these words spoken in this context before such an audience, recently there is a history of ecumenical advances between the Catholics and Protestants pre-dating the papacy of Francis. Though there remain some significant differences regarding the understanding of the Eucharist/Communion, as well as church hierarchy, in 1999 Catholics and Lutherans signed the Common Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This document was additionally signed by the World Methodist Council in 2006 and is also being considered now by the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

Additionally, anyone who has kept up with recent actions of Pope Francis or read his writings would not be surprised by Cantalamessa’s remarks. For example, the pope has made several gestures of reconciliation and fellowship to Lutherans and other Christian believers, as in his 2015 visit to the Lutheran church in Rome; his visit to Lund, Sweden, in October 2016 in honor of the Reformation; and his video appearance at Together 2016, a gathering of young evangelical Christians in the United States capital. Recently, Pope Francis spoke about the link between conversion and ecumenism to the annual ecumenical delegation from Finland: “True ecumenism is based on a shared conversion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Redeemer. If we draw close to him, we draw close also to one another.”

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A Roman Catholic Appreciation of Justification by Faith