Indulgences in Philadelphia

Philadelphia archdiocese celebrates its bicentennial by offering indulgences. Lutheran theologians are upset, and see this as incompatible with the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

John Reumann, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, said last week that Catholics’ continued use of indulgences had “negative consequences” for the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which the Vatican and Lutheran World Federation signed in 1999.

In that document – which took 30 years to negotiate – both churches agreed that salvation is achieved “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part.”

Good works do not earn grace, it continues, but are evidence of one’s state of grace.

“From a Lutheran point of view, one would wish that Roman Catholics would downplay, if not eliminate, indulgences, especially in view of the possibility of their misuse and misunderstanding,” said Lutheran theologian William G. Rusch.

Rusch, a former director of ecumenical affairs for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, helped develop the declaration and was a major contributor.

The “continued use of indulgences in and of itself does break the agreement,” he told The Inquirer in an e-mail.

But this, again, is nothing new. Indulgences are taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, were offered by Pope John Paul II for the Jubilee Year of 2000 in Incarnationis Mysterium, and a fourth edition of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum was released in 1999.

Contemporary Catholic teaching on indulgences appears in the 1967 letter of Pope Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina; among the authorities he cited–Pope Leo X, including Exsurge Domine, his 1520 bull condemning Martin Luther.

There’s that “hermeneutic of continuity” again.

The root of the Catholic understanding of indulgences is that your sin may be forgiven by God, but you still have a price to pay, called “temporal punishment.” You either pay this now, or later (or get it remitted through an indulgence). Regardless, the point is the same: You still have a debt to pay. Christ didn’t pay it all for you–he didn’t make complete satisfaction for your sins.

Here’s how the Baltimore Catechism explained it:

Q. 629. What punishments are due to actual sins?

A. Two punishments are due to actual sins: one, called the eternal, is inflicted in hell; and the other, called the temporal, is inflicted in this world or in purgatory. The Sacrament of Penance remits or frees us from the eternal punishment and generally only from part of the temporal. Prayer, good works and indulgences in this world and the sufferings of purgatory in the next remit the remainder of the temporal punishment.

Q. 630. Why is there a double punishment attached to actual sins?

A.There is a double punishment attached to actual sins, because in their commission there is a double guilt:

(1) Of insulting God and of turning away from Him;

(2) Of depriving Him of the honor we owe Him, and of turning to His enemies.

Q. 803. Does not the Sacrament of Penance remit all punishment due to sin?

A. The Sacrament of Penance remits the eternal punishment due to sin, but it does not always remit the temporal punishment which God requires as satisfaction for our sins.

Q. 804. Why does God require a temporal punishment as a satisfaction for sin?

A. God requires a temporal punishment as a satisfaction for sin to teach us the great evil of sin and to prevent us from falling again.

Q. 805. Which are the chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin?

A. The chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin are: Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving; all spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and the patient suffering of the ills of life.

Here’s how the teaching is put in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.83

1473 The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.”84

For a fuller explanation of all this, see St. Thomas Aquinas on Satisfaction and on Indulgences.

What sort of forgiveness is this? The Gospel, though, proclaims that Jesus Christ is our substitute. We are forgiven freely and completely in him. We are fully justified in him–he is our righteousness, our justice–by faith. Our debt is marked, “Paid in full.”

Perhaps someone should go post the 95 Theses on the door of the Philadelphia cathedral?

(BTW–the folks who prepared the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification never thought to mention indulgences. How could they–and we who raved about it– have been so blind?)