But while a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Church in Slovakia said the agreement would help Catholics to "see Lutherans on the same level," a prominent Lutheran theologian has accused Roman Catholic leaders of acting "hypocritically."
Inter-church relations have frequently been strained in Slovakia, where, according to the 1991 census, 60 percent of the country's 5.4 million citizens are Catholic, while 6 percent belong to the (Lutheran) Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in the Slovak Republic.
The six-point agreement on the mutual recognition of baptism was signed in a chapel of Bratislava's presidential palace on June 4 by Roman Catholic and Lutheran leaders. The agreement sets out a commonly agreed biblical basis for baptism.
The country's president, Rudolf Schuster, praised the agreement as a "good example for politicians moving in the opposite direction."
According to the Lutherans' general bishop, Julius Filo, the agreement is the "first major ecumenical step" between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in Slovakia.
Marian Gavenda, a Roman Catholic spokesperson, said "after a history of tensions between our churches, this agreement will greatly help our mutual ties." The agreement cleared the way for the common celebration of marriage and other inter-church accords, Gavenda said.
He said that Lutherans in Slovakia would now administer baptism in the same way as the Catholic Church—by pouring or immersion—rather than making the sign of the cross with a single finger, a method judged "insufficient" by the Catholic Church. (According to the agreement, "the fundamental signs of baptism" are immersion of the candidate in water, or pouring water on the head.)
"Now that Lutherans have agreed to administer [baptism] in the same way as Catholics, we can generally recognize all their baptisms. This will help Catholics see Lutherans on the same level," Gavenda said.
However, a prominent Lutheran theologian, Professor Igor Kis, dean of the Protestant theology faculty at Bratislava's Comenius University, described this claim as "untruthful and hypocritical."
He said the agreement's main Catholic signatory, Bishop Frantisek Tondra, had privately confirmed his church would continue to reject Lutheran baptisms administered before the agreement. Kis helped to negotiate the agreement.
Kis said that even the Vatican's former Code of Canon Law that applied until 1983 recognized several forms of baptism, including that previously practiced by the Lutheran church in his country.
"It's totally unacceptable for the Catholic Church here to maintain this didn't apply in Slovakia," Kis said. He accused Slovak Catholics of lagging behind the rest of their church in attitudes to Protestants.
"We must hope Bishop Filo is right, and that this agreement will pressure Roman Catholic leaders not to be untruthful and hypocritical," said Kis.
"Similar agreements have been applied in all the countries around us—Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic and others. Can Slovakia's Catholic Church be the only one which fails to observe this?"
Gavenda said the Catholic Church had "no plans" for similar agreements on baptism with some of Slovakia's 15 other registered churches, which include Methodists and Reformed.
He added that there had been opposition to the June accord from Lutheran "fundamentalists" who opposed their church's "new ecumenical direction," as well as from Roman Catholics who viewed Lutheran practice as "not a baptism, but only a sign."
Copyright © 2001 ENI.
ReligiousTolerance.org examines the history and differing Christian views of baptism.
Uncle Marty, an online answer guy who's also a Lutheran minister, answered one reader's questions about the differences between Lutheran and Roman Catholic understandings of baptism
A Mark Copeland special study looks at different methods and aspects of baptism.
The Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of the Augsburg Confession in Slovakia has a Web site still in development.
Britannica.com also has some information on baptism and its history.
One of our readers once asked, "Did Paul Baptize for the Dead?" We asked D. A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Previous Christianity Today articles on Lutheran-Catholic relations include:
Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran Leaders Discuss Indulgences | Understanding, not agreement, sought on historical, theological, and pastoral issues. (Mar. 26, 2001)
At Historic Service, Polish Church Leaders Ask Pardon For Past Mistakes | Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran heads apologize for egoism and indifference. (Mar. 15, 2000)
Pope and LWF President Praise Agreement between Catholics and Lutherans | Work toward Eucharistic sharing next, say leaders. (Dec. 13, 1999)
Lutheran-Catholic declaration "better way" of dialogue, says Vatican | But senior ecumenism official plays down hope for extension of document itself. (Nov. 1, 1999)
Reformation Day Celebrations Ain't What They Used to Be | The Lutheran-Catholic Justification Declaration is a good step, but it's only a beginning. (Nov. 2, 1999)