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Justification and Sacramentality:
The Christian Community as an Agent for Justice


A Catholic Reflection on the Report of the International Conversation between the Catholic Church and the World Communion of Reformed Churches 2011-2015

Robert F. Christian , O.P.

November 2017


1. The purpose of this commentary is threefold: (1) to highlight the ecumenical value of the agreement reached in Justification and Sacramentality: The Christian Community as an Agent for Justice (hereafter, JS); (2) to indicate areas that need further study; and (3) to note particular or potential difficulties for a Catholic understanding, and reception, of the document.

2.  The first area requires some initial general observations about the genesis of JS, the type of document it is intended to be, and the achievement it represents.

3.  The second and third areas overlap, since some difficulties for a Catholic understanding of salient points in the document may require further study, which could help clarify or even solve them, whereas some other topics might be judged as obstacles to reception because they appear to be incompatible with already received Catholic doctrine.

4. Inevitably, the second and third purposes of this commentary require more description and explanation than does the area of the ecumenical value of the agreement as such. Therefore, this commentary will necessarily devote more space to these areas than to the first area. But it should be clear from the beginning that the relatively greater length of this commentary devoted to the second and third purposes is not an indication of an overall negative judgment concerning the worth of the document. It bears noting that the positive stress that comes with listing areas of agreement and the value of such agreements is, in fact, a foundation for assessing how what is held in common can, in the future, lead to even greater agreement. From the Catholic perspective, many—though not all—criticisms regard matters of omission, not of positive error. It is perhaps easier to imagine what more should be said rather than correcting what has been said. Like many agreed or convergence statements, all parties give thanks for what is held in common, and from that point, work to give a full presentation of areas of divergence and areas for future exploration.

5. Another preliminary remark concerns hermeneutics. Care must be taken to understand sympathetically what is said in the document. From time to time it may be useful to suggest expressions that, it is hoped, convey the meaning intended by the authors, or by particular traditions, in a way that can be grasped by all without ambiguity. When using terms hallowed by particular use in different traditions, e.g., simul iustus et peccator or instrumental causality, it will be necessary to explain how the traditions that use such expressions want them to be understood. This is important in order to avoid having different traditions use the same expressions in different, conflicting ways, leading to the paradox of the common use of an expression fostering confusion rather than clarity. The reverse is also true. Not every apparent opposition is an opposition in reality. This is recalled in § 35 which cites the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, From Conflict to Communion:

What appears to be an opposition in expression is not always an opposition in substance. In order to determine the exact relationship between respective articles of doctrine, texts must be interpreted in the light of the historical context in which they arose. That allows one to see where a difference or opposition truly exists and where it does not.

Since the 1990s, solid ecumenical practice has made explicit the fact that sometimes, terminology that was once polemical can now be seen instead to communicate the same truth, albeit with distinct nuances.[1]

6. With regard to the two expressions cited above—simul iustus et peccator and instrumental causality—it behooves the partners in dialogue to consider carefully, with regard to the first, how to understand simul: if it means “at one and the same time,” it is necessary to understand well how grace works in a person, and how sin affects a baptized person. Likewise, it would be imprudent to presume that it means “over time,” rather than “at any time.” JDDJ paragraph 29 points out this difficulty.

7. Paragraph 19 of JS presents the notion of simul iustus et peccator in such a way that the notion of “lifelong repentence” might fruitfully be placed “in dialogue” with the Catholic notion of ongoing conversion (the mortificatio described as a constant dying to sin) mindful, however of a key difference: Catholics hold that it is at least possible that some — while always struggling against sin — can overcome sin here and now with the help of God’s grace.

8. Paragraph 20 states that “God continues to forgive the sins of those who are justified, and they can never fall ultimately from the state of justification.” It is desirable that this notion be explicitly linked to—or divorced from—the praying for forgiveness mentioned in paragraph 19. This would make it clear whether praying for forgiveness is “merely” an effect of justification or is in some way instrumental in maintaining one’s justification. The tenor of the paragraph (“they can never fall ultimately from the state of justification”) suggests that praying for forgiveness is something the baptized Christian ought to want to do, but need not. Given the Catholic teaching that those cannot be saved who, “if they are aware that the Catholic Church was founded by God through Jesus Christ as a necessity for salvation refuse to enter it or to remain in it” (Lumen gentium 14), or who, though fully incorporated into the Church, do not persevere in charity (ibid.), the adverb never (they can never fall ultimately from the state of justification) is a challenge to further study. Indeed, Lumen gentium adds that if the sons and daughters of the Church “fail to respond to [Christ’s] grace in thought, word and deed, not only will they not be saved, they will be judged more severely (nedum salventur, severius iudicabuntur).” Paragraph 20 states that, from the Reformed perspective, “the gift of faith includes the assurance of salvation” which “does not come from anything in ourselves [but] is based on Christ and the promises of God. Our perseverance is based on the promise of God to be faithful to us in Christ to the end.” Clearly, the meaning of simul is crucial for further progress on this point.

9. Instrumental causality is treated below in paragraphs 33 to 35.

10. This commentary will be divided into two main sections. The first describes the ecumenical value of the agreement reached in JS. The second treats of difficulties that require further study in common or which pose a challenge to Catholic reception of the document.

I  The ecumenical value of the agreement reached in JS


11. The ecumenical value of JS lies in its demonstration that a dialogue can be fruitful and worthwhile even while some important matters remain to be resolved. It is not the case that dialogue comes to a halt when issues that continue to divide communities remain unsolved. Rather, acknowledgement is made of the problematic issues that have not yet been successfully tackled, and the dialogue continues.

12.  This is evident right from the beginning. The title, Justification and Sacramentality: The Christian Community as an Agent for Justice, is not to be understood as promising that all the issues connected with justification and sacramentality are mutually agreed on, and that therefore, the dialogue can talk from a basis of commonly acknowledged unity in those matters about the Christian community as an agent for justice. Rather, the report indicates that there is sufficient agreement about justification and sacramentality to move the dialogue away from what might be termed further systematic considerations towards consequences deriving from what is already commonly held in the area of social morality or ethics. The last part of the JS explicitly links the notion of the Church as agent for justice to the notions of justification, sanctification, and sacramentality, while yet acknowledging that work remains in those fields.

13.  At a time in the history of the ecumenical movement when some disagreements seem to present insuperable barriers to the achievement of full, visible unity, it is important to see, as JS shows its readership, that progress towards unity can still be made even when obstacles remain. Such progress is a sign that the unity for which Jesus prayed (John 17:21) and for which our churches and communities labor may be achieved not merely by approaches that represent logic corollaries deriving from some agreed positions, but also by other means known to the Spirit.  

Widespread consideration of neuralgic issues

14. During the three phases of Catholic-Reformed dialogue which preceded the phase represented by the current Report, some major ecumenical achievements occurred, one of which features prominently in JS, namely, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity on 31 October 1999. The JDDJ, while not bringing about a perfect union between Catholic and Lutheran perspectives in the area of justification, did nevertheless demonstrate an attractive theological agility according to which both Catholics and Lutherans could assert the priority of grace and the importance—as a consequence of grace (although the issue of the relation of grace to one’s will was not completely elucidated)—of a life of good works. The JDDJ succeeded in attracting the attention of other communities. In 2006 the World Methodist Council associated itself with the JDDJ. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), while not studying the JDDJ officially, did receive reports from some members and from its European Area Committee. Presciently for this fourth phase, these reports devoted special attention to the relationship between justification and justice.

15.  In 2010, the WARC itself was merged, as the result of a Uniting General Council, with the Reformed Ecumenical Council. The resulting fellowship, the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), comprises Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, Waldensian, United and Uniting churches. Inevitably, the fact of being together entailed studying together what they are and how they intend to live. With regard to what they are, a common understanding of baptism is crucial,[2] and with regard to how the baptized live, it was logical to study how the planting of the Kingdom of heaven implies fostering justice in this world (see JS § 7). As the Report says, “For the Reformed churches today, ‘justification’ and ‘justice’ are integral to each other” (§ 7).

16. Finally, the impetus deriving from a common understanding of the Church as creatura Verbi and sacramentum gratiæ—terms that do not stand in opposition to each other, but are like two sides of the same coin—led to a sympathetic appreciation of the magisterium of the last three Bishops of Rome with regard to this report’s focus on the Church as an agent of justice.

17. How each of these neuralgic issues has been treated demonstrates the importance of trust and of a receptive, open consideration of the steps that follow from what many are saying together. If the theological virtue of hope can be described as the virtue by which the goal we know through faith (unity in Christ) is worked toward through choices that bring us closer to that goal, then the communities in dialogue about justification, the Christian’s identity (in particular, the Christian’s share in the tria munera Christi thanks to baptism), the sacramentality of the  Christian community, and the transformation of the world into a more just place modeled on the Kingdom, are evidence of hope. In these regards the JS makes a significant contribution to today’s ecumenical climate.

Other important areas of agreement

18.  JS notes that “God is not bound by the sacraments” (§ 45). As shall be mentioned below, this statement should be understood as denoting that God does, in a real way, bind himself to the sacraments even while not being limited to producing the effects of sacraments also outside of sacramental celebrations. Properly understood, this statement usefully diminishes any temptation to consider a sacramental rite a sort of deus ex machina.

19. Regarding baptism, JS notes “that the baptismal liturgies as practiced both in the Catholic Church and in the Reformed churches do not reflect the language of justification” (§ 40), and it suggests that it might be fruitful in the future to focus instead on the relationship between baptism and grace. This is an important statement on at least two counts. First, it implies that for those involved in the dialogue, liturgy is a locus theologicus, and liturgies with common elements in both traditions are seen as witnessing to truth. Secondly, it builds on the relationship of justification to grace as found in JDDJ, and this witnesses to the effect of a careful consideration of a significant document in the ecumenical area.

20. A further area of agreement concerns the share of the baptized in the munera of Christ (§ 53). Paragraph 80, in fact, speaks of this as “a most promising theme for dialogue which could lead to the uncovering of greater ecclesiological convergence between us [namely] a focus upon the nature of the Church as a prophetic, priestly, and royal/shepherd people of God, a theme which is explicitly proposed both by Calvin and by the Reformed tradition as well as by the Second Vatican Council.” Presumably, future dialogue would need to deal with the question of whether sharing in the tria munera Christi is ontological (§ 43, for example, is not clear on this point).

II  Difficulties requiring further study or which could impede Catholic reception of JS

The theological virtues

21. Although JS, in paragraph 19, quotes Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (“[Christ] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them”) which describes hope as a theological virtue, the lack of any explicit reference to hope in this section and elsewhere suggests that an investigation into the relationship among the three theological virtues, and an explanation of their relationship to baptism, which would necessarily differ somewhat depending on whether the subject of Baptism is an infant or an older person able to choose the sacrament for himself.

22. Such an investigation could shed light on how JS intends one to understand the statement that according to the Reformed tradition, “Christ’s righteousness and life are given to us whole and entire by faith, which unites us with Christ and makes us members of his body the church. They are given to the believer once and for all, in and with baptism, and then ever anew day by day” (§ 17).

23. In Catholic thought, baptism confers a disposition to the theological virtues when it is conferred on infants, and it strengthens those virtues, which may already be present in the subject of baptism, in the case of older candidates. This disposition is not lost, since, Catholics hold, the sacrament imparts a character which is indelible on the soul of the baptized. Should the Christian turn away from virtue, he or she will lose grace (see § 23), but the receptivity to a life of faith, an orientation to eschatological happiness (hope), and charity, remains as Christ’s pledge of fidelity to those who are his own. Thus, for the Catholic, one is eitheriustus” or “peccator”, but even as sinner, one has a relationship with the Lord who is ever faithful to his promises.

24. The debate over the relation of works to faith, as indeed, the consideration in JS of the relationship between justification and works of justice, would be enriched by an investigation into the nature of the theological virtues as gifts of God, the relationship between those gifts and the sacrament of baptism, and a clearer description of the eschatological orientation of each of the virtues which, in turn, sheds light on the purpose of each virtue in this life. This is especially germane given the link JS makes between charity and agency for justice.

Justification and sanctification

25.  JS affirms full agreement with JDDJ’s statements that “Justification […] means that Christ himself is our righteousness in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father” (§ 27), and that “justification is inseparable from sanctification, which involves the transformation of the sinner and the commitment to live a life of righteousness and love, a life characterized by obedience to the commandments and to the teachings of Jesus” (§ 30).

26.  JS notes that the foundation of this statement is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ (§ 27), but the link between the Son’s assumption of human nature as the instrument of the redemption of human beings, and the instrumentality of the Church (and her sacraments) today needs to be expressed in greater depth. Lumen gentium 8 speaks of the analogy according to which “just as the assumed nature serves the divine Word as a living instrument of salvation inseparably joined with him, in a similar way the social structure of the Church serves the Spirit of Christ who vivifies the Church towards the growth of the body.” An explicit reference to this text would be welcome, because this makes it clear why and how justification is a gift, and it indicates that the modality of receiving that gift is, at least ordinarily, through the visible instrumentality of the People of God. Paragraph 36 presents the problematic clearly. It asks if the Church can be a sanctifying subject, and if so, whether that is because of the proclamation of the Word, the celebration of sacraments, or to both.

27. Likewise, the notion of instrumentality makes it easier to describe not only one’s own sanctification, but also how one who is a part of the “agency” of justice in the Church is a vital part of the instrumentality that the Church enjoys, or, to put it differently, how one participates in the tria munera Christi by sharing in the priesthood of Christ.

28. Paragraph 31 states that “for the Catholic justification refers to a process while for the Reformed it indicates a status.” If justification is inseparable from sanctification, then there is still indeed a significant division between Catholics and Reformed communities on this point. Both communities believe in the fidelity of God to his promises. Their divergences lie in the area of sin and grace. Furthermore, one could mention that an area of future exploration should be that of the divine will, or Providence. To say that God wants all to be saved, but that not all will be saved, is to introduce the difficult area of the antecedent and consequent will of the Triune God. While this is not an easy topic, it is a useful one so that the notion of God’s promises not be taken too mechanically, and the notion of human free choice not be reduced—in effect—to a single act of the will. Paragraph 36 speaks of God’s willing the sanctification of humans and of the cooperation of human beings with God’s will, but much could be gained by explaining God’s will and the sometimes episodic cooperation of human beings more thoroughly.

29.  Finally, an investigation of this theme would require a sensitive explanation of the assertion, “without faith no one is ever justified.” There are many theories about the salvation of unbelievers, but from the Catholic perspective, the dictum extra ecclesiam nulla salus can have two basic meanings. First, those who culpably do not join or stay in the Church (that is, those who know that Christ founded the Church as the needed sacrament of salvation) cannot be saved. Second, the Church as the needed sacrament of salvation is in some way instrumentally used by Christ for the salvation of all who are saved (see Lumen gentium 14 and Dominus Iesus 16).

30. Paragraph 32 mentions that “in the Reformed tradition there have been some who have raised the question about this absolute assurance of salvation over against serious sin committed by the justified believer.” However, JS does not attempt to evaluate the authority of such statements. In the future, it will be imperative to compare and contrast the notions of magisterial authority with the voices of diverse theologians. Like the Reformed acceptance of liturgical tradition as a useful theological source, it is to be hoped that an evaluation of the nature and authority of theological tradition could lead to future breakthroughs.

Grace and the sacraments

31. The sacrament most thoroughly treated in JS is baptism, and one problem that is not satisfactorily presented concerns the notion that sacraments “contain” grace, or that the sacraments, as instruments of Christ, confer grace. The Catholic Church prefers to speak of sacraments containing grace in order to avoid saying that sacraments are merely occasions of grace—rites that dispose the recipient to be open to the workings of the Spirit “who acts in the Spirit’s own time” (§ 41). The notion that sacraments contain or confer grace denotes a certainty: when the sacrament is properly celebrated by the correct minister in the correct way, for properly disposed recipients, the effect that Christ wills to be communicated by the sacrament is actually communicated. The sacraments are thus certain, or definite, encounters with the Savior whose saving graces flow from his Passion.

32.  Since saving effects are, logically, effects willed by the Savior, and since the Savior redeemed the human race through his death on the Cross, the only way to hold that sacraments contain grace is to explain that they contain grace in a “transitive” way: they are like instruments which are inert unless wielded by someone with a vision of how to use them and a skill in actually using them. When so wielded, they render effective the will of the one using them. Thus understood, sacraments only confer grace when they are used by Christ’s body, the Church, for the purpose of conferring grace. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms both that the sacraments confer grace, and that when a sacrament is celebrated, it is Christ who is celebrating it.[3]

33.  Paragraph 45 states that sacraments “are indeed means of grace, but the Reformed reject the view that grace is somehow “contained” in the elements used in their celebration.” Further exploration of the notion of transitory or transitional containing (which is always to be distinguished from the theology of an ongoing, Real Presence, in the Eucharistic species) might make it possible to advance beyond these words, also found in paragraph 45: “[I]t is not inappropriate to say that the waters of baptism wash away sins […] or that the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper nourishes Christians with the body and blood of Christ […].” This is premised on the notion of “a spiritual relation or sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified.” If an exploration of the question of grace in the sacraments focused on how to understand the sacraments as instituted by Christ to give supernatural effects that exceed the natural effects of which the signs and gestures are capable, it might be possible to reconcile these views which are already close.

34.  The Catholic notion that the sacraments are objective means of grace is important when considering how those who fall into serious sin can “regain” justification (see § 46). The existence, in Catholic sacramental theory, of the “medicinal” sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick, which can be repeated, and of the desirability of receiving the Eucharist frequently, underlines the importance of linking the notion of grace being contained in sacraments with (a) God’s ongoing invitation to sinners to convert and to grow in holiness, and (b) the desire humans have for certitude that a sacrament actually does what it signifies.

35.  The conclusion of paragraph 49, devoted to the question of the ex opere operato efficacy of the sacraments, shows that the participants who composed JS are sensitive and hopeful about future developments in this area: “[W]hat is being criticized here is not the view that the Catholic Church actually holds. It would seem that both positions seek to affirm the primacy of divine agency in the sacraments and that they are effective signs. Still they seem to differ in nuance, emphasis and the language used to express these convictions.”

The number of the sacraments

36. While it is true that the Council of Trent did not explain how to understand what institution by Christ looked like for each of the seven sacraments, it did teach in a binding fashion that Christ instituted seven and only seven sacraments., no more and no fewer. Trent’s teaching refuted the positions that Christ gave the Church the authority to institute sacraments or that the Church presumed on her own that she had such authority, and likewise, Trent was at pains to teach what had already been the common teaching of the Church in both East and West from the time of Peter Lombard (d. 1160). Since the Catholic Church holds that Christ instituted each sacrament, she judges that each of the sacraments is a gift to be welcomed gratefully. There are many theories about how the Church discerned the connection between the will of Christ and certain sacraments, and many theories distinguish between the relative importance of, say, the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist on the one hand, and the medicinal sacraments on the other which restore impaired communion. Nevertheless, no sacrament can be called, in Catholic thinking, an “ordinance” of God in the sense of being simply a wholesome thing to do.

37.  Division on this issue is difficult to overcome, because there are different theological methods employed by Catholics and by the Reformed. Thus, in the future, a common investigation, with reference to the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution Dei Verbum, of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, would be a useful starting point.

38.  Already, as noted above in paragraph 19, the Reformed use of liturgy as a theological source gives evidence of an openness to a more developed notion of Tradition that might help overcome the methodological differences undergirding our opposing positions in this regard.

39.  In turn, such a development could lead to a deeper appreciation of the Church as a sacrament (§ 52).

The sacrament of the Eucharist

40.  JS acknowledges that it is not in a position to speak at length about the Eucharist because the issues that divide Catholics from the Reformed concerning common celebration of the Eucharist have yet to be taken up by the dialogue. As a result, there is some imprecision in paragraphs 66 and following. However, this is not due to any misplaced irenicism, and the statement that “a deep meaning of the Eucharist is charity” is one that is certainly central not only to the concern of JS that the Church be an agent of justice, but also to the notion of communion with God Who is Love which is strengthened by holy communion. It is to be hoped that in the future, the notion of the Eucharist as the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice can be fully explored.

III   Conclusion

41. JS is a document that merits careful attention because it is the fruit of dialogue participants who have seriously considered the fruits of other dialogues (most notably the JDDJ), the scope and limitations of their theological methodologies, and the attempts made by voices in one another’s traditions to move towards agreement on issues that undergird a consideration of the Church as an agent for justice.

42. JS shows that in neuralgic areas of investigation, it is possible to lay aside some issues that cannot yet be resolved and still make progress. In leaving certain issues to the future, JS notes what the issues are from the Catholic and the Reformed perspectives, and it often offers an opinion as to whether a particular topic is a matter of serious theological dispute or, instead, a matter of expression that could, with sufficient clarification, lead to agreement.

43. Given that JS acknowledges areas of continued disagreement, and given that it acknowledges a significant discrepancy between Catholic and Reformed understandings of the sacramental economy, the fact that JS is able to describe sufficient unity to be able to speak of the Christian community as an agent for justice is remarkable. This is due above all to hopeful signs of a convergence in theological methodology. The Report can be accepted as a significant milestone along the journey toward full, visible communion.

The following note below constitutes part of the official Catholic Response to the text of the Justification and Sacramentality: The Christian Community as an Agent for Justice, and has been prepared by common agreement between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

With regard to the section entitled “Areas of Converging Understanding” (in particular, paragraph 48) of Chapter Two, the following Catholic teaching should also be considered: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (n. 1257 Catechism of the Catholic Church).

[1] For an example of this method of treating expressions that once were taken as dividing, but now assist reciprocal appreciation of a commonly held truth, see the Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East signed by Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV on 11 November 1994, which reads in part: “Christ therefore is not an ‘ordinary man’ whom God adopted in order to reside in him and inspire him, as in the righteous ones and the prophets. But the same God the Word, begotten of his Father before all worlds without beginning according to his divinity, was born of a mother without a father in the last times according to his humanity. The humanity to which the Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth always was that of the Son of God himself. That is the reason why the Assyrian Church of the East is praying the Virgin Mary as ‘the Mother of Christ our God and Saviour’. In the light of this same faith the Catholic tradition addresses the Virgin Mary as ‘the Mother of God’ and also as ‘the Mother of Christ.’ We both recognize the legitimacy and rightness of these expressions of the same faith and we both respect the preference of each Church in her liturgical life and piety.”
[2] This was dramatically acknowledged at Magdeburg Cathedral in April, 2007, site of a baptismal font in use since before the East-West split of 1054, when representatives of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox, Ethiopian and Armenian Churches, and the Lutheran, Reformed, United and Methodist communities signed an agreement recognizing one another’s baptisms. In this remarkable statement, the signatories affirm their belief that despite different understandings of Church, they hold a common view of baptism, and every baptism is “unique and unrepeatable.” The statement continues, “We confess with the Lima document: ‘Our one baptism into Christ is a call to the churches to overcome their divisions and visibly manifest their fellowship’ (Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, B6).”  
[3] See, for example, CCC 1127:  “Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.”