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Most Protestants may not be able to give a precise explanation of the doctrine of justification or, for that matter, of any other central doctrine of the Reformation, but they often have a vague sense that Martin Luther’s protest began with an attack on indulgences. What exactly indulgences were may be a bit foggy for them, but they know indulgences were something bad, very Roman Catholic, and had something to do with working or, worse, buying one’s way into heaven.

Confusion thus abounded when, in the midst of the ecumenical publicity surrounding the Lutheran“Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification , the papal bull officially announcing the Jubilee Year 2000 gave a significant place to the indulgence attached to the Jubilee. This bull was soon followed by a new edition of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum , the official handbook of indulgences. (Ironic in light of the ecumenical brouhaha, the Enchiridion includes a new plenary indulgence relating to participation in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.)

If Catholics have agreed that the justified are accepted by God through Christ’s grace alone, as the Joint Declaration says, then how can the Vatican proclaim an indulgence attached to various “good works” related to the Jubilee? For Lutheran critics of the Joint Declaration , the indulgence was a sign that they were right after all, although the Lutheran church leadership did not allow that issue to become a major problem. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, however, withdrew its representative to the Ecumenical Commission for the Jubilee after a civil but testy exchange of letters with the Vatican.

Whatever else one may say about indulgences, they are not quite what they used to be. (Peter Neuner, Catholic professor of theology at Munich, titled a recent article “Is This Still an Indulgence?”) Many of the abuses that surrounded indulgences in the early Reformation era (e.g., attaching an indulgence to the good work of a financial contribution, which amounted to the sale of indulgences) were banned already by the Council of Trent and the reforms of the Catholic Reformation. The early twentieth century saw massive historical investigations into the origin of indulgences by Nikolaus Paulus and Bernhard Poschmann. These studies showed the roots of indulgences in the solidarity of the Church with persons carrying out the sometimes severe (but relatively infrequent) public penances required by the early Church; they also showed how indulgences changed as penance itself changed with the rise of frequent private confession. Indulgences were not, as Protestant polemic asserted, the invention of cynical church princes to bilk the credulous, but an institution invented by no one, the creation of a series of incremental changes that occurred over centuries.

This historical scholarship provided the background for a series of theological and doctrinal statements that have recast the theological understanding of indulgences. Karl Rahner’s articles on indulgences from the 1950s and 1960s have had a far“reaching influence (see below). The 1967 papal constitution on indulgences, Indulgentiarum Doctrina , did not fully endorse Rahner’s interpretation, but Rahner insisted that the constitution did not reject his interpretation either. Recent Vatican statements on indulgences produced in connection with the Jubilee have moved even closer to the Rahner outlook, especially in a papal catechesis on indulgences given in September 1999.

Despite unclarity in some medieval statements, indulgences have never provided forgiveness, salvation, or justification. They are aids in the struggle with the consequences of sin that forgiveness does not remove, the effects of sin on the self and others that are referred to as “temporal punishments” (whether “punishment” is the most useful category for understanding these effects can be debated). An indulgence is an expression of the solidarity of the wider Church (which includes Christ, Mary, and all the saints) with the person who is willing to undertake special efforts in addressing those effects or temporal punishments. If we truly believe that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), then can that solidarity be without result?

So far, so good; and such Protestant theologians as the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer have suggested ideas very similar to these. The ecumenical problem develops with the way this general idea becomes specific in the practice of indulgences. First, this solidarity of the Church with the penitent has come to be understood as an aid the Church can directly administer. As the 1967 Constitution puts it, the Church “intervenes with its authority to dispense to the faithful, provided they have the right dispositions, the treasure of satisfactions which Christ and the saints won for the remission of temporal punishments.” Even if one ignores the question of whether saints win satisfactions, there is still the question of where the Church gets the specific authority to dispense this treasure. If it is the same authority by which the Church forgives sin, then why cannot the priest in confession remit the temporal punishments along with the eternal punishment?

Official documents say less about the source of this authority than most suppose. Rahner suggests that the treasury is not directly “dispensed,” but rather an indulgence is an “authoritative prayer” by the totus Christus ”Christ and his Body, the Church”to the Father, a prayer we can be morally certain will be answered. The 1967 Constitution seemed particularly wary of this approach, but the papal catechesis of September 1999 adopted it. John Paul said that an indulgence is “the expression of the Church’s full confidence of being heard by the Father when”in view of Christ’s merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints”she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment.”

Another problem for Protestants is the quantifiable nature of indulgences. A plenary indulgence removes all temporal punishments; a partial indulgence only some of these punishments. But are the consequences of sin and our struggle with them quantifiable in this way? The canonical penances of the early Church were quantifiable, but once the object of an indulgence is understood in terms of a personal struggle with effects of sin, can aid be doled out in statable sums? The 1967 Constitution did away with the measurement of partial indulgences by days of penance or purgatory, declaring instead that whatever is the penitential effect of the good work associated with an indulgence, a partial indulgence doubles that effect. This shift may do away with the crudest quantification, but it still seems closer to a commercial transaction than the dynamics of conversion. (I have heard this new scheme compared to a matching funds system or even “double coupon days” at a supermarket.)

A more plausible assertion would be that an indulgence gives whatever aid the penitent can use. The 1967 Constitution already teaches that a plenary indulgence can be received to its full effect only if the penitent is “free from all attachment to any sin at all, even venial sin,” a difficult standard to meet. When such attachments are present, the plenary indulgence is received as if it were a partial indulgence. Could one say that all indulgences are plenary for those who are truly ready to struggle with all the effects of sin in their lives? Most of us, of course, are still attached to some of those effects and are not struggling against them all that strongly. For us, no indulgence can be plenary. An indulgence is an aid in that struggle, not a substitute for it. (That indulgences undercut true penance was the central argument in Luther’s original critique.)

Indulgences are understood to apply also to those in purgatory. For the popular mind, purgatory is what indulgences are all about. Nevertheless, the actual teaching about indulgences is logically independent of the concept of purgatory. In addition, the Catholic Church clearly differentiates its authority over temporal punishments in this life and the purification taking place in purgatory. An indulgence can only be applied to those in purgatory “by way of prayer.”

Recent Catholic teaching, especially the various texts related to the Jubilee, go far to situate indulgences within a genuine pursuit of repentance in daily life and to remove the rather impersonal, quid pro quo transactional language that has sometimes been associated with them. These recent discussions of indulgences are in fact far closer to the first of Luther’s Ninety“five Theses on Indulgences”which stated that when Jesus called for persons to repent, he “willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance””than are most recent Protestant statements on the Christian life.

Nevertheless, indulgences still point to what may be the nub of Catholic“Protestant differences, the question of the role of the Church in the mediation of Christ’s grace. That the Church does play a role in that mediation should be beyond doubt. It is the Church, after all, that proclaims the gospel and celebrates the means of grace. Luther’s Large Catechism could thus call the Church “the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God.” But even if the Church’s role in that mediation is essentially instrumental, does it make any sort of contribution of its own to that process? Pastor Salvatore Ricciardi, the Reformed member of the Jubilee Ecumenical Commission who withdrew because of the Jubilee indulgence, stated in a letter that the “location of our indulgence is nothing other than Christ crucified and risen; and the Church cannot be an administrator to its conditions, but only a pure and simple witness.”

The conceptual categories used in this assertion may not be fully adequate, but they indicate the deeper issues that the debate over indulgences points toward. Thus, when Mary, the preeminent member of the Church ( Lumen Gentium 53), said her “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord,” was she giving a “pure and simple witness”? Or was she making a human contribution to the history of salvation (although a contribution made only as moved by grace)? The questions directly involved in indulgences are not as profound as those directly raised by the role of the Blessed Virgin, but they point toward the same complex nexus of fundamental ecclesiological questions that now need to be discussed.

To its credit, the Vatican did not ignore or brush aside the Protestant concerns prompted by the Jubilee indulgence. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity sponsored a brief theological consultation on indulgences earlier this year in Rome, with participation by Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed representatives. Besides the usual professors and staff, the President of the Council and the General Secretaries of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches were present. The goal was not an agreement on indulgences, but rather a clearer understanding both of indulgences themselves and of the varying Lutheran and Reformed objections to them. The papers from this consultation (to my mind unfortunately more historical than systematic) should be published in the near future.

Indulgences do not play a major role in the piety of many Catholics. They are not a part of the universal tradition shared by East and West, but a specifically Western medieval development. They are a minor ecumenical obstacle, at most. How we as Catholics and non“Catholics react to indulgences, however, can be a test of our ecumenical will. Are we willing both to read the intentions of the other in the best possible light, as Luther thought the Eighth Commandment required, and to face the genuine theological differences that still separate us with critical but open minds committed to the pursuit of the truth? Real ecumenism requires both.

Michael Root is Edward C. Fendt Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.