Indulgences in the land of Luther

indul2An August 13 Reuters article on the Houston Chronicle‘s website attempts to be incendiary. I can’t decide whether this is major news that should have received more attention (it did not) or a minor footnote. I’ll let you people decide for me.

Philip Pullella lays out Pope Benedict’s decision to grant “special indulgences” to Catholics during the World Youth Day activities in Germany.

VATICAN CITY — Martin Luther may well be turning in his grave after his modern-day compatriot, Pope Benedict, decided to grant indulgences to Catholics during his trip to his native Germany this month.

The Vatican said the pope had agreed to allow “special indulgences” in connection with his trip to Cologne from Aug. 18-21 for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Youth festivities.

I initially questioned the validity of the article, partially because the author’s first name is misspelled (but a Nexis search revealed that this is not the first time it was spelled with two L’s), and because the article just did not feel right for a wire story. But some research turned up an AP article along similar lines and short mentions in both The New York Times and the Orlando Sentinel.

Pullella runs through century’s worth of history and reams of theology in the 400-word story, and uses the Martin Luther connection for Germany to underpin what seems to be his attempt to drum up controversy and outrage Protestants (the Protestant who sent me this article via e-mail was, shall we say, sharing some “Gospel-driven anger” along with Luther):

A decree issued by Cardinal James Francis Stafford last week said plenary indulgences would be granted to people who are not in a state of sin and participate “attentively and with devotion” to World Day of Youth events in Germany.

Those who do not go to Cologne for the pope’s first foreign trip could receive “partial indulgences” if they prayed fervently while the pope is in Germany to ask God to help young people strengthen their faith, the Vatican statement said.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a plenary indulgence can remove “all of the temporal punishment due to sin” while a partial indulgence removes only part of it.

Even some Catholic friends of mine have expressed displeasure with indulgences, despite their consistency with Catholic theology.

Lucas Sayre, a Catholic observer, among other things, and friend is uncomfortable with the theology behind indulgences (by the way, his post that I linked to on the Pope is excellent). He tells me: “Unlike confession, which is one person confessing his sins and sorrow, a mass indulgence of this sort goes out to people merely for doing a deed. It does not look into their heart or their state of sorrow.”

The impact indulgences had on history is somewhat significant. The abuse of indulgences in the Catholic Church’s past had some fairly devastating consequences, leading to the Protestant Reformation, and some would say their issuance during a trip to Germany was controversial.

How many Catholics and Protestants are displeased with the issuance of indulgences for World Youth Day attendees? Is this a bigger story that more news outlets should have picked up on?

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  • Steve Oldham

    It is important to remember that although the RCC recognized the abuse of indulgences in the 16th century, she did not and has not rejected them in principle. Indeed, JPII granted indulgences to the faithful who visited key holy sites during the year 2000. It doesn’t strike me (a Protestant) as odd at all that the Church continues to grant them.

  • Sean Gallagher

    “Unlike confession, which is one person confessing his sins and sorrow, a mass indulgence of this sort goes out to people merely for doing a deed. It does not look into their heart or their state of sorrow.”

    When one makes a confession, one is absolved of the spiritual punishment due to sin, i.e., separation from God.

    In receiving an indulgence, it is the temporal punishments connected to sin that are remitted.

    Be it known, however, that in order to receive an indulgence, one doesn’t simply do “an act”, such as going to WYD, although that is part of it. Sacramental confession is also required, along with reception of Communion and praying for the intentions of the pope.

    I’m Catholic and I’m not displeased at the issuance of the indulgence. At the same time, I’m not doing flips about it. The doctrine of indulgences is a real part of the Catholic faith, but I wouldn’t say that they are at the heart of it.

    Therefore, given the Catholic self-understanding of this doctrine, and its placement in the hierarchy of its teachings, I don’t think that this story should get a lot of traction, even with the connection to land of Luther and all.

    I mean, really, look at the relatively close ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation, embodied in its Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

  • Scott

    Along with what Mr. Gallagher posted, it should be clarified that a state of remorse for one’s sins is something of a prerequisite for an indulgence to be valid.
    Sayre seems to be mistaken on this.

  • http://www.dailycontentions.com Lucas Sayre

    Ok, I felt compelled to make a trip to the friendly Catechism, and here is what I found:

    1471: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”

    This passage seems to back up what Sean and Scott have said. But it also gives me a couple questions:

    1. what is a temporal punishment for sin?
    2. who has already forgiven the sinner, before an indulgence may be forgiven? Is it God (without the Church’s intervention), or the Church acting on God’s behalf? If the answer is the church, then my critique of the theology stands.
    3. if it is God that has forgiven the sin, without the Church’s intervention, then why would any temporal punishment still exist that would warrant an indulgence?

    I ask these questions, because as Daniel stated, I am uncomfortable with the theology, but further understanding could certainly rectify that.

  • http://christusmedicus.blogspot.com Dev Thakur

    Lucas, to address your questions:

    1. “temporal punishment for sin” just refers to the fact that any/all of the effects of sin must be purified before we go to heaven. That’s either in this life or in purgatory. Indulgences are a concrete application of the Totally Gratuitous Love and Mercy and Grace of God by the Church (who can bind and loose); to say to someone, “here, you are exempted, praise God.”

    2. The sacrament of confession is always considered the normal way sins are forgiven BY GOD, but of course through a physical sacrament. Because Jesus wants it that way. If indulgences can be applied to sins forgiven in other ways (e.g. by perfect contrition and non-culpable ignorance of the sacrament of confession), well that’s a topic for theological speculation.

    3. Whether or not the Church “intervenes,” only God forgives sins. But a very simple example of temporal punishment could be this: I steal $100 from you because I feel like it. I repent, and you forgive me. Do I owe you the $100 back? YES, because (a) it’s rightfully yours and (b) repentance would be totally incompatible w/ me still wanting to keep that money. Also (c) if I still have an attachment to the sin of stealing money, I should grow in virtue so that I no longer do; until them I am cannot enter Heaven, for nothing unclean can enter Heaven. Now, if you did not exact the money back from me, because maybe I spent it and I’d have to work extra to do it, that would be an indulgence. Really whether or not the forgiveness is obtained through the Church or not doesn’t change that it is from God, so I hope this explanation helps.

  • Tom R

    > “Do I owe you the $100 back? YES, because (a) it’s rightfully yours and (b) repentance would be totally incompatible w/ me still wanting to keep that money”

    Aha. But what if I no longer have the money? Do I got to hell because I can only pay $10 of the $100 back?

    Clearly, refusing to repay whatever I can repay of the full amount would be incompatible with “repenting”. It would be nonsensical. But there are cases where a truly penitent person does not perform the prescribed good works because of factors beyond his or her control.

    As an Evangelical, I’ve never seen any conflict between “faith alone is sufficient” and “of course, if you have faith, you’ll jump at any opportunity to do good works”. There is, on the other hand, a wide gap between “willingness to take any opportunity to do good works” and actually doing them. Only God can accurately judge the heart. An outside observer can’t tell, just from someone else’s lack of visible fruit, that they never truly repented. They may, for example, like Dismas the good thief, have died from crucifixion only moments after they repented. As CS Lewis once said, you don’t compare Person A with Person B, you compare Person A as a Christian with the same person had s/he not been a Christian.

    Most works-based religions, whether Christian or not, have some kind of “hardship clause” to ameliorate the harshness of focusing on results rather than intentions and opportunities, but they risk “giving away the farm” to what they see as antinomianism if they allow too many or too easy excuses for failing to make the pilgrimage (to Lourdes, Canterbury, Mecca), for breaking the fast of Lent or Ramadan, for not tithing, for demanding gluten-free communion wafers, for not having spotless animals to sacrifice at the Temple, etc, etc.

  • Stephen A.

    Maybe I’m missing something here, and correct any theological faux fas on my part, but I always thought that Luther’s beef with the pope was that he was SELLING indulgences, not merely GRANTING them.

    The fact that they continue to grant them – conditionally, to ensure contrite spirits – certainly seems legitimate, within Catholic theological bounds, and certainly not as harmful and scary to protestant sensibilities as the reporter tries to imply.

  • Matthias

    Tom R, if I understand Catholic theology correctly, in your example you would do your $90 worth of repayment in purgatory.

  • http://all2common.classicalanglican.net The Common Anglican
  • francis

    Apart from these theological issues, I – as a german Catholic – am a bit annoyed by the constant reference to Germany as the “Land of Luther”.

    Granted, Luther rose up in Germany, but WYD was in Cologne, “Sancta Colonia”, where the citizens united against an Archbishop who wanted to convert them to Protestantism – and they succeeded in forcing him out of office and out of town.

    GB

  • tmatt

    How does this fit in with 91 percent of all American Catholics believing that people of all faiths and beliefs are going to heaven anyway? Just asking….

  • http://nottoomuch.com Brian

    Oh dear, oh dear. The doctrine of indulgences can only be seen as complete nonsense. God’s forgiveness of the penitent is complete and total. Punishment was remitted through the attoning death and resurrection of Christ. A Protestant point of view? Yes indeed, and Biblical too.

  • Dan Crawford

    How many Catholics really care about indulgences?

  • http://revivalblog.com carl

    The big point with Luther was that if the Pope could keep people out of hell, why wouldn’t he keep everyone out? The question still stands.
    Though to me, this doctrine is no more silly than praying to dead people.

  • http://www.exceptionalmarriages.com Greg Popcak

    First, I resent those non-catholics who, in ignorance, say that indulgences are “silly.” Let’s show some respect shall we?

    Second, an explanation.

    Imagine your child fails to clean his room when you ask him, he will be in trouble. If he expresses sorrow, you may forgive him but he still has to clean his room. In other words, you have “absolved” him (so to speak) of the spriritual consequences of his offence against you (i.e., the anger you felt)but the temporal consequences of the offence still stand (i.e., he has to clean his room.)

    But imagine the same scenario. Your child did forget to clean his room, but he also did some fairly nice things that day. He helped his sister with her homework. He cut the grass. In general, he’s been trying to show you that he’s a responsible kid. When you tell him about the room. He expresses remorse, and you forgive him (absolution of the spiritual consequences) but you ALSO tell him, “Tell you what, you’ve been working so hard around here, don’t worry about your room. I’ll take care of it for you.” That is an indulgence–a heroic act of forgiveness on your part that recognizes the serious effort your son has been exhibiting in other areas to be a faithful son, even though he dropped the ball in this one area.

    When Benedict grants an indulgence for WYD, he is saying, “Because of the effort your are making to stand up and learn more about your faith and using this time to stand as a witness to the gospel, even though you forgot to ‘clean your room’ fuhgeddaboutit. God’s grace has got it covered this time. Just don’t do it again, cappice?”

    Does that make more sense?

  • http://www.wrandomwramblings.blogspot.com Scott Roche

    So God’s grace is only sufficient to forgive you the temporal consequences (are we talking purgatory here or just trying to make ammends for the sin?) if you work really hard? Personally if my kid was showing all that responsibility I’d still make him clean his room. In fact I would expect him to.

    Explain it to me this way. My kid fails to clean his room (which is a sin as it is failing to honor his parents). He goes to WYD but fails in other respects to qualify for the indulgence. What temporal consequence does he have to pay?

  • Sean Gallagher

    How does this fit in with 91 percent of all American Catholics believing that people of all faiths and beliefs are going to heaven anyway? Just asking….

    I don’t know how the question was phrased that resulted in the claim that 91% of Catholic Americans believe that people of all faiths will go to heaven.

    I suspect that, if this figure is truly valid, there are some folks in there that have a mistaken notion in there about what the Catholic Church actually teaches about the way in which God can save those who are either not Christian or who do not have all of the means of salavation available to them.

    I also suspect that, if this figure is truly valid, there are some folks in there that do understand and accept what the Church teaches on this point.

    I know that the Catholic Church teaches that while God has set up an ordinary way in which people are saved, he is not bound by it and can save anyone in ways beyond our knowing, except that, ultimately, everyone is saved through the death and resurrection of Christ.

    The Catholic Church teaches that people of any faith or no faith at all, who through no fault of their own, do not know about the ordinary way by which God saves them is still open to the mysterious work of his saving grace.

    If, however, you do have adequate knowledge of of the ordinary way that God has established for people to be saved, and have sufficient freedom to accept, but, in that freedom, reject it, then that’s where the phrase “no salvation outside the Church” kicks in.

    Now how does this fit in with the topic of indulgences and WYD in Cologne? Probably not a lot. I suspect that a lot of Catholic Americans don’t have an adequate understanding of the Church’s teaching on indulgences.

    That, in itself, is regretful. But, as I noted above, the teaching on indulgences isn’t at the top tier on the hierarchy of teachings. So I’d be more concerned about those in that supposed 91% who have a faulty understanding of the Church’s teaching on the way in which God saves people.

  • http://www.exceptionalmarriages.com Greg Popcak

    Scott,

    I mean no disrespect, but I get the impression you are being intentionally obtuse. Forgive me if I am mistaken, and allow me to clarify.

    1. God’s grace is sufficient to forgive the temporal consequences of sin–that’s the entire point of an indulgence in the first place. What do you think is granting the indulgence? Its God’s grace. That said, it is normal to not just seek God’s forgiveness, but your brother’s as well. Please read Matt 18:15-17. You will see that in addition to divine forgiveness (which, of course is perfectly sufficient), God normally requires you also seek forgiveness from your brother for sins against him.

    2. I didn’t “grant the indulgence” so to speak to my metaphorical child for going to WYD. I granted it for demonstrating a serious intention toward responsibility and generosity in many other areas of family life. Yes, usually, I too would make him clean his room anyway, but every now and then, if he is really trying hard to be a great metaphorical son, I can cut him some slack because of the serious effort he is showing. Please see Col 3:21 if you question this fairly common parenting practice.

    To bring this around to the spiritual life, if I go through the trouble to make the pilgrimage to WYD and spend four days in prayer, witnessing to the gospel of life, and bearing witness to the joy and grace of Christ who is alive and active in the world. I am doing a good thing. So, even if in other areas of my life I am not yet perfect, my heart is in the right place, and I am actively doing more to build up the Body of Christ than I have–hopefully–been doing to tear it down. As a result God gives me grace–through the healing ministry of the Church–to remove some of the temporal consequences of my sins (i.e., the pracitcal damage my sins have done to the Body of Christ). So you see, this is a testament to how God’s grace is sufficient to remove the temporal consequences of sin.

    Now, you need to understand that just like letting my metaphorical kid off from cleaning his room isn’t normative, neither is the granting of an indulgence. BUT, EXACTLY BECAUSE GOD’S GRACE IS SUFFICIENT, the Church is empowered by Christ to offer that extraodinary grace, in appropriate circumstances, to forgive BOTH the spiritual and temporal consequences of a sin as a way of encouraging us on our journey to become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.

    I hope that helps. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to continue the conversation beyond this, so I will leave the last word to you and all the other good people here.

    Greg

  • http://www.physicsgeekjesusfreak.blogspot.com Matthew M.

    If indulgences are still part of Catholic doctrine, and as Stephen A. pointed out they aren’t *selling* the indulgences, then I think this is probably not that huge a story, and I’m not surprised it didn’t make a bigger splash.

    As I recall from my high school education, the going slogan in Luther’s time went something like “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”. That’s a bit different from what I’m hearing described by the commenters.

  • http://www.wrandomwramblings.blogspot.com Scott Roche

    You’re forgiven Greg, as I was not being intentionally obtuse, merely curious on a point of theology that I don’t understand and that you still didn’t explain to my satisfaction.

    I asked what a temporal consequence was for a child that willfully disobeys his parents and who went to this conference but failed to complete the other requirements of the Pope’s indulgence would be. Would he do time in purgatory or simply have a mad parent? If the former then how is that temporal? If the later how can God’s grace make the parent not be mad? Does an indulgence mean that the person doesn’t need to get forgiveness from the person he sinned against? (I’m familiar with the passage in Matthew, thanks)

    Regarding not making a kid clean his room, sure sometimes you have to cut your kids some slack. Sometimes even if they don’t deserve it because of some other good they did. That’s grace.

    And I would love for you to show me where God grants the church the power to extend the kind of grace you’re talking about. But since you don’t have the time I guess one of these otehr folks will have to show me.

    * Note the above post does not contain any intentional sarcasm, but rather earnest seeking of answers.

  • Sean Gallagher

    I asked what a temporal consequence was for a child that willfully disobeys his parents and who went to this conference but failed to complete the other requirements of the Pope’s indulgence would be. Would he do time in purgatory or simply have a mad parent? If the former then how is that temporal? If the later how can God’s grace make the parent not be mad?

    If the parents did not in any way discipline the son for not obeying them, then the justice that is the due would occur in purgatory.

    How is that temporal? It is temporal in that it is the meeting of the requirements of justice for an evil act done in time. The fact that the justice takes place out of time may make it more mysterious and, in fact, the Catholic Church has not defined the precise way in which one goes through this final process of purification. But, in any case, the justice being done is rooted in time.

    Does an indulgence mean that the person doesn’t need to get forgiveness from the person he sinned against?

    Any sin, however large or small, is a rupture not only between the person committing it and other people but also between the person committing it and God.

    God surely desires there to be reconciliation in both spheres. But, ultimately, he does not require it to come about between the sinner and the one sinned against or society in general in order for reconciliation to be made between the sinner and him.

    Yes, the sinner is called to seek the forgiveness of those he has sinned against. And those sinned against are called to forgive seventy times seven times (or however you want to translate that passage).

    But the sinner’s salvation is not dependent upon the free choice to forgive or not forgive of the person he has sinned against.

    I would love for you to show me where God grants the church the power to extend the kind of grace you’re talking about.

    Jesus granted the Church the authority to bind and loose, as was mentioned above. I think that deals directly with this issue.

    For more on the matter, I’d refer to you an article on the topic written by Catholic writer Mark Shea: http://www.mark-shea.com/indulgences.html

  • http://www.wrandomwramblings.blogspot.com Scott Roche

    Thanks Sean.

  • sharon d.

    Words can scarce express how very, very uninterested I am in coming to this site to read Greg Popcak and Sean Gallagher explaining the theology of indulgences, or Carl calling the doctrine silly (plus throwing in the irrelevant barb on prayer to the saints), or Tom R calling Catholicism a works-based religion.

    My bookmark is full of websites where I can read apologetics and inter-Christian debate and/or sniping. That’s not what I come here for. So please quit. And, GR guys, maybe next time one of these issues comes up you could provide URLs for the different doctrinal sides, and then direct commenters away from rehashing the Reformation Battles.

    Francis notes, helpfully, that the media has been lazy in adopting the “Land of Luther” meme, given that Cologne historically was in fact not, it seems, in any sense Luther’s. That comment was informative and relevant to this site’s mission. Thank you, francis.

  • tmatt

    sharon:

    If you read the site much, you know that I am constantly trying to get people to return to the purpose of the blog — pushing for the media to do a better job of accurately covering these issues.

    This is not a religion blog. It is a blog about how the media cover religion.

    But I try, try, try not to whine about this too often.

  • Tom R

    Tmatt, tuus regio blogospherae, ergo you set the parameters.

    However, I don’t think simply linking to already-written polemics will always cover the field. often, we are told, theological disputes are the result of misunderstandings and confusion of terminology. So there’s always the chance that someone’s new formulation might break the impasse.

    “… Tom R calling Catholicism a works-based religion.”

    Sorry, Sharon. As far as I can make out, Catholics get annoyed because Protestants (a) wrongly believe in salvation by faith not works, and also (b) wrongly accuse Catholics of believing in salvation by works.

    “… Cologne [...] where the citizens united against an Archbishop who wanted to convert them to Protestantism – and they succeeded in forcing him out of office and out of town…”

    Ah, private judgment — ain’t it grand. Don’t follow them blindly just because they sit in Moses’ seat…

  • Tom R

    > “Jesus granted the Church the authority to bind and loose, as was mentioned above.”

    A typical conversation:

    Catholic: “Jesus says ‘Whatever Peter binds on earth will be bound in heaven’. No exceptions, no limits, no qualifications.”

    Evangelical: “So one day a Pope could ordain women, then!”

    Catholic: “Heavens, no, of course not! Obviously there are limits to the authority Jesus granted His Church!”

  • Maureen

    You guys don’t have the language quite right. To get a plenary indulgence, not only do you have to do whatever it’s for, go to Confession, take Communion, pray for the Pope’s intentions, and have a contrite heart.

    You also have to be unattached to all sin, even the teensy-weensy venial ones. (Which, I’ll grant you, is easier after going to Confession and Communion and all that. But it’s not easy, and it’s pretty much only done by the grace of God.)

    Partial indulgences are easier, but you still have to maintain the contrite heart.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will Linden

    At John Paul’s accession, he added a plenary indulgence to his blessing *urbi et orbi*.
    I recall little or no media attention, except to note that it was an addition to tradition, and rather unusual to extend it to the broadcast audience.
    Did anyone object to this? And did Benedict follow the example? (As I did not follow enough of the coverage to find out.)
    Why the attention now and not then, and why should it not stir up our nasty, suspicious minds to suspect an attempt the keep the Benedict the Bogeyman pot boiling, in the face of his failure to burn anyone at the stake or stone homosexuals?

  • http://moss-place.stblogs.org Peony Moss

    John Paul II also granted an indulgence for certain works of piety during the 2000 Jubilee Year, and I don’t remember any sneering press coverage then. It strikes me as being another way of painting Benedict VI as the Fuddy-Duddy-Old-Pope. Lazy.

  • Tom R

    > “Tom R, if I understand Catholic theology correctly, in your example you would do your $90 worth of repayment in purgatory.”

    Ah, now I dimly remember the epilogue to the Parable of the Prodigal Son: where his father says, “You’re completely forgiven, but you still need to log a few months cleaning my stables for no pay before you get the ring, robe, fatted calf [etc] deal. Just just to show you’re genuinely repentant, of course.”

    I think Luther chopped that passage out of the King James Bible just after he burned Servetus.


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