Many centuries ago, a pope who was trying to build St Peter’s basilica in Rome started selling indulgences—literally “time off” in purgatory—to raise money.Soon this idea had warped into the view that Christians could be saved by works. A zealous German Augustinian friar named Luther condemned this: a person could only be saved by faith in God’s grace—and western Christendom fragmented in what we now call the Reformation.
A few decades ago, in a Church that seems far, far away from the one we now know, a young Catholic priest wrote a doctorate about the greatest Protestant theologian of modern times. Published in 1959 as Justification, Hans Küng’s conclusion was that Karl Barth’s classical Reformed notion of justification by faith was thoroughly in line with mainstream Catholic thought. On reading it, Barth agreed with him.
In the meantime the German-American theologian Paul Tillich was also promoting a toenadering between Lutherans and Catholics, emphasising the need for both a Protestant principle and a Catholic principle in theology.
He too shared Barth and Fr Küng’s view that a common understanding of justification—that a person is made righteous before God—was possible. Like them, he drew on ancient common traditions (Augustine, Aquinas et al) as well as Luther to emphasise that God’s grace redeemed us, not our own efforts, but that out of this came a sense of gratitude that made our cooperation with God in salvation through works necessary.
Three years after Justification’s publication, Fr Küng was one of the advisors to the bishops gathered at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Where previously his thought had led to an investigation by the Holy Office, he was now an important contributor to the theological renewal that inspired the bishops to revisit many things the Church had taken for granted. Centuries of theological bickering (sometimes backed up by religiously inspired warfare and persecution) now seemed pointless in a secularist age which religious people could no longer afford to maintain.
In a spirit of renewal and return to Christian sources, the bishops of Vatican II overthrew much of the past hostility: Protestants were no longer “heretics” but “separated brethren”, and the desire for greater unity of Christians was expressed in a commitment to dialogue between Catholics and other Christian Churches. In the wake of the Council, and to the delight of the Protestant and Orthodox observers whom John XXIII had invited, commissions were set up to resolve doctrinal differences.
Building on the spiritual glasnost of the time, the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue continued in the decades that followed. Many of that earlier generation dropped out and were replaced by new scholars and bishops on both sides. Some like Barth and Tillich died in the late 1960s.
Fr Küng was marginalised by the Vatican after he published a rigorous critique of papal infallibility in 1969—though he remained (and remains) a priest in good standing, he was declared “no longer a Catholic theologian” in 1979. He created a centre for ecumenical theology in Tübingen, Germany, and a centre for interreligious peace—for which the current pope, Benedict XVI, has high regard, one might add.
Fast forward to 1999: after decades of discussion the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a Joint Declaration on a common understanding of justification by faith.
Although both sides recognised that a few minor differences of interpretation remained, the declaration argued that Catholics and Lutherans were in fundamental agreement: we are saved by the freely given grace of God in Christ. Aware of this grace we can only respond in gratitude by good works. With this declaration one of the central points of dispute, perhaps the central dispute, of the Reformation that had kept Christians apart was swept away.
This could not have happened without the Council’s commitment to ecumenism and the serious return to Christian sources that it had entailed, fed by the works of theological scholars, Catholic and Protestant alike.
There is a postscript. A few years later at a conference of world religions, a Lutheran bishop (a signatory in 1999) gave Fr Küng a pen with which the bishop had signed the Joint Declaration.
“You deserve this” he said to Fr Küng, whose work is not mentioned in the text. He felt, as many do, that without Fr Küng’s book, and the insights he’d brought to Vatican II, the Joint Declaration might not have been possible.