Friday, February 20, 2009

Indugences are Back

Young Catholics will no doubt be as surprised and confused as Protestants. It seemed as if they were a thing of the past, along with such practices as the mandatory eating of fish on Fridays. Yet it would appear that indulgences are making a comeback in church practice.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, entitled "For Catholics, a Door to Absolution Is Reopened," bishops are beginning to publicly announce the availability of the "plenary indulgence" (which eliminate any punishment in Purgatory until another sin is committed.) After reading the article I would have to note that the author is not entirely accurate with his Catholic theology, yet many in the mainstream media are weak on theology. Explaining indulgences and the doctrine of Purgatory to which they are related is sometimes a tricky business. With fairness to Catholics it is not right to paint Purgatory and indulgences as the theological equivalent of a "Get Out of Hell Free" card. Still, Purgatory has long disturbed Protestants because of our differing views of the status of a believer in Christ (we are covered in His righteousness and therefore holy in His sight), and the inference that works are attached to the whole business of salvation (where a good Catholic is encouraged to say prayers, attend mass, etc. for the purpose of accumulating time out of Purgatory.) Furthermore, the idea of any "temporal punishment" is unsavory to Lutherans who see such ideas as mitigating against the doctrine that punishment for sin was placed on Christ, even though we all suffer the 'consequences' of our individual sinful actions.

Indulgences are familiar to Lutherans in large part because of our history with Martin Luther and his reaction against the abuse of indulgences in 15th century Europe. As is well know, these letters of release time from Purgatory were sold, and even promoted for sale in part to fund the expansive building project of St. Peter's cathedral in Rome. Luther first addressed this publicly in his famous 95 Theses posted for debate in 1517.

Interesting is that the reintroduction of indulgences is being met with mixed reactions. Traditionalists within the church welcome them. Others wonder why now. One diocese heavily promotes them, another gives minimal attention. Part of the problem is trying to explain a custom and church teaching that has long been out of practice. Those over 50 will remember it, but those younger simply have no frame of reference.

One Lutheran theologian noted that the reintroduction of indulgences will "not advance the dialog" that has gone one between Catholics and Lutherans in recent years. Indeed, this will be a complication, to say the least. It opens up the original debate of 500+ years ago. However, that is good, since too often it has been my fear that we have overlooked too many of the differences between the two churches in the hasty interest of showing some kind of outward unity.

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