In a map accompanying an article yesterday on the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches mending a rift, the German town of Wittenberg was shown in the wrong location. (Published 11/02/1999)

Four hundred and eighty-two years ago today, the blunt-speaking monk Martin Luther nailed his legendary attack on Catholic Church practices to a church door in Germany, an act of conscience that triggered the Protestant Reformation--the wrenching division of Western Christianity--and more than a century of religious wars that killed hundreds of thousands.

Today, the heirs of that acrimony and fracture, the leaders of the modern Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, signed a document that officially settles the central argument about the nature of faith that Luther provoked. The agreement declares, in effect, that it was all a misunderstanding.

"In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life," proclaimed Catholic Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, Pope John Paul II's emissary, as he signed the Augsburg accord on behalf of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide. All but 3 million of the world's 61.5 million Lutherans were represented by Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran World Federation, and by the Rev. Ishmael Noko, the federation's general secretary.

Hundreds of clerics and theologians, many in flowing robes of purple, white or black, trod quietly through the sunny streets of this old Bavarian city where Luther had two momentous confrontations--in 1518 and 1530--with the Catholic hierarchy.

The church leaders moved from Mass at the Catholic Basilica of St. Ulrich and Afra to the blessing and signing of the accord at the Lutheran Church of St. Anna. Cross-faith services around the world today echoed the Augsburg ceremony.

The agreement is significant beyond the dispute over doctrine that it resolves. It has deep implications for future relations among Catholics and Protestants, said theologians and church leaders. Many said the accord gives added promise to the ideal their denominations champion--of full communion, or merger, between the churches.

"This is a critical breakthrough; it's the first major step toward reconciliation between the two churches since the Reformation," said the Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and one of the negotiators and signers of today's agreement.

"Now we understand we have creeds in common, and that removes the taint of heresy from both sides," Anderson said. "It's the difference between handling each other as if we were prickly sea urchins and being able to shake hands."

The broader movement toward Christian reunification, called ecumenism, has inspired extraordinary dialogues and built bridges across ancient ecclesiastical and theological canyons--especially as the calendar has moved toward the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus. They have gone hand in hand with a loosening and even reinvention of church traditions--of worship, of language, of music, of ministry--from the dropping of Latin in the Catholic Mass to the ordination of women in most Protestant denominations.

Now, as the Augsburg accord suggests, the value of separate denominations is under question. The Lutheran-Catholic concord "is one of the most important ecumenical moments of the century," said the Rev. Joseph Komonchak, professor of theology at Washington's Catholic University. "This document appears to be saying that the doctrine that Luther thought was central to the Reformation, and which led him to undertake it, is not one on which there are serious enough differences between Catholics and Lutherans to justify the division of the church. And that is a pretty big statement," he said.

"If in Luther's time you had had a comparable willingness to listen and hear what the other side was saying, it's quite possible the break would not have been so severe," Komonchak added.

The impact of the accord will be gentle if not imperceptible to American Lutheran and Catholic churchgoers, although clergy in Augsburg said the two flocks are likely to see much more of one another in joint occasions, exchanges and fellowship. Strains on Catholic-Lutheran marriages, too, may be eased.

There are 61 million Catholics in the United States and 5.2 million American Lutherans whose churches belong to the worldwide federation; 2.6 million other Lutherans belong to the Missouri Synod, a branch that rejected the accord.

The argument that has preoccupied Lutheran and Catholic negotiators for more than 30 years involves what is called the doctrine of justification. Lutherans have believed that faith alone, an acceptance of God renewed every day, ensures eternal salvation. The Catholic Church has long taught that salvation comes from the sum total of faith and good works--that a life of devotion and service on Earth earns the faithful the key to heaven.

The key language of today's Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification appears to give decisive weight to the Lutheran position on salvation through faith, while embracing an ethic of earthly service championed by Catholics.

"There are no winners and losers," said Augsburg Bishop Viktor Josef Dammertz. "We are Christians of different backgrounds, but we are all on the same path--seeking the truth of God."

Anderson, the American Lutheran leader, said of the protracted negotiations in which he participated, "We realized we were not as far apart as we thought, that we were just using different vocabularies."

Luther's teachings on "justification by faith" drew him a succession of ecclesiastical confrontations, denunciations and bans. Ever since the 1545-1563 Council of Trent, the Catholic Church's official condemnations of Luther's teachings have stood on the books, as have Lutheran condemnations of Catholicism's "justification by works."

Wars over the churches' influence and the murder and persecution of Protestants and Catholics raged in Europe until the mid-17th century. Among many Christians around the world who inherited the divisions, bitterness and mutual suspicion still linger. With this accord, the official condemnations have been lifted--deemed not to apply to the two churches' new understanding of justification.

Does the doctrine have any contemporary relevance?

"Far too many Christians today, I believe, are tempted to think that they are justified not so much by faith as by material success, or by political correctness, or by charismatic experience, or by pious acts, or by good deeds of a humanitarian nature," said the Rev. J. Robert Wright, a church historian at General Theological Seminary in New York and an ecumenical leader in the Episcopal Church. "These are cheap and inadequate substitutes," he said, for "the basic truth of the gospel--that it is by faith alone, by grace through faith, that we are set right with God."

Conspicuous among the mostly conservative Lutherans not subscribing to the accord are those who belong to the Missouri Synod. According to the Rev. A. L. Barry, its president, the Catholic Church has "not budged" since the Council of Trent's insistence on justification by works.

John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, a magazine of ideas that circulates among evangelical Christians, said, "Many people see this as a desperate gesture that confirms that all established historic church bodies have lost their distinctive faith commitments."

But, Wilson said, "Others have a more hopeful perspective--that we have finally left behind the flabby ecumenism of the '60s, which was more about social issues, and that Protestants and Catholics are having serious talks about doctrine and healing their divisions."

Staff writer Hanna Rosin in Washington contributed to this report.

Luther's Reformation

1483: Martin Luther born in Eisleben, Saxony.

1505: Abandons legal studies and enters an Augustinian monestary in Erfurt.

1507: Ordained a priest.

1512: Becomes a lecturer of biblical theology at Wittenberg University.

1517, Oct. 31: Posts his "95 Theses" on the chapel door of Wittenberg castle. His grievances are centered on the sale of indulgences -- the purchase of an indulgence ensures for the buyer a remission of sins.

1518: Luther is summoned to an imperial Diet in Augsburg; the election of a new emperor, Charles V, slows any punishment for Luther.

1520: Luther publishes three controversial works that attack the supremacy of the papacy and many traditional practices. The Scripture had become for Luther the sole authority for religious truth.

1521: At the imperial Diet in Worms Luther is urged to recant, but he refuses. He is declared a heretic. Luther and his supporters burn the papal banning orders in Wittenberg.

1522: Luther returns to Wittenberg, where he continues to lecture as his reforms take root.

1525: Marries Katharina von Bora. Luther publishes another work in which he tries to prove that people cannot do anything to contribute to their salvation; they must receive it from God as a gift -- justification by faith.

1530: Luther issues the Augsburg Confession, a summary of Lutheran beliefs.

1546: Until his death in 1546, Luther devotes himself to building a new church.

SOURCES: World Book Encyclopedia, City of Wittenberg, Carthage College

CAPTION: Cardinal Cassidy, left, and Bishop Krause shake hands during the signing of the declaration ending the doctrinal dispute that sparked the Reformation.