Almost five centuries after Martin Luther protested against many practices of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican has held a consultation with two organizations representing mainstream Protestantism to discuss the issue of indulgences—a practice that contemporary Protestant theologians find perplexing, as Luther did.

The consultation on indulgences, held in Rome on February 9 and 10, brought together leading theologians representing the Vatican's Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which represents 60 million of the world's 64 million Lutherans, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), which links 75 million Christians in 214 churches in 106 countries.

After the meeting, one key participant, Zimbabwean theologian Dr Ishmael Noko, the general secretary of the LWF, said that Luther's "nailing of the 95 theses, an event that many cite as the beginning of the Reformation, was a call by the young Luther, as a devout Catholic, to a debate about the 'power and efficacy of indulgences'. But the theological debate that he called for on October 31, 1517 never took place. I see the ecumenical consultation that has now taken place as a partial response to Luther's call of so many years ago."

Indulgences are not normally a dominant practice in the day-to-day life of most Roman Catholics. However, the publication by the Vatican in 1998 of a document on how the faithful could obtain plenary indulgences in the Catholic Church's jubilee year in 2000 reawakened long-standing differences about the issue. (Indulgences are made available by the church to Catholics in jubilee years, which are held every 25 years.)

The publication of the document prompted criticisms from Protestant churches in Italy, France, and Switzerland, who considered the reaffirmation of the practice of indulgences to be an anti-ecumenical act.

Following the church protests, WARC, to which many of the churches that protested belong, also withdrew from the ecumenical committee for the Catholic jubilee, and declined to send representatives to most events in Rome for the jubilee. However, many other confessional bodies, including the LWF, participated in jubilee events in Rome.

This month's consultation in Rome was called by the Vatican in response to the Protestant criticisms regarding indulgences. The Vatican was also concerned about the strong media focus on the conditions for obtaining indulgences rather than on the pastoral theology behind the practice.

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According to Roman Catholic teaching, the souls of those who have died in a state of grace undergo a period of purification in purgatory before being admitted to the Beatific Vision—in heaven. In purgatory these souls may undergo punishment for sins that have already been forgiven and also for venial—minor—sins.

Indulgences shorten or, in the case of plenary indulgences, cancel outright this unspecified period in purgatory. The church teaches that Catholics can obtain an indulgence—either for themselves after their own death, or for another soul already in purgatory—by following certain rituals or acts of self-denial.

The abuse of indulgences, such as their sale by professional "pardoners", was one of the practices that prompted Martin Luther's protest in the 16th century. But the theology of granting indulgences is generally problematic for Protestant and also Orthodox churches because they do not accept the Roman Catholic understanding of purgatory.

The Roman teaching on indulgences also highlights radical differences with Protestants on issues such as the nature of the church.

The document published in 1998, Conditions for Gaining the Jubilee Indulgence, as the Vatican prepared for the jubilee year, explains in detail how indulgences are obtained: Catholics must have been to confession, and on the day they wish to receive the indulgence they must receive the Eucharist and pray in one of various places, such as churches in Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, in a Catholic cathedral or in any place where they are visiting those in need or in difficulty. An indulgence can also be obtained in a jubilee year by refraining from smoking or alcohol and "donating a proportionate sum of money to the poor" or by "devoting a suitable portion of personal free time to activities benefiting the community, or other similar forms of personal sacrifice."

Hundreds of thousands of Catholics traveled to Rome last year to obtain an indulgence.

At this month's consultation two Catholic theologians presented papers on the history of and teaching about indulgences. Two Lutheran and two Reformed theologians were invited to present response papers. All the presentations will be published this year.

Both Dr Noko and his counterpart at WARC, Dr Setri Nyomi, who also took part in the consultation, welcomed the fact that the talks had taken place and expressed hope that it would lead to further discussions. But both officials also made it clear that the talks were not a bid to reach an agreement on the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, but were intended rather for clarification.

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Theologians on the staff of WARC and LWF who were in Rome for the talks also welcomed the discussions, but pointed out that indulgences had no place in Protestant teaching. Both Dr Odair Pedroso Mateus, a Brazilian theologian on WARC's staff in Geneva, and Sven Oppegaard, an ordained Norwegian theologian with the LWF, told ENI that while the theological documents, such as the papal declaration Incarnationis Mysterium:Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, included some impressive pastoral theology, the instructions for obtaining an indulgence did not really reflect this theology. The problem was the nature of indulgence itself.

Oppegaard said that many Protestants faced a difficulty over the issue - that "such beautiful theology should boil down to such a practice."

Dr Mateus said that for many ordinary Catholics without theological training, indulgences appeared to be a "market exchange. The structure is: I do something for God and I get something from God. This kind of mentality is similar to the theology of prosperity of neo-pentecostal churches which teach that you can get rich if you are faithful to God, if you give money to the church, [or] if you follow the instructions of the church. It legitimizes the idea that life is not about grace and gratefulness but about exchanging goods, about buying and selling, about capitalism."

Asked by ENI whether the consultation had served a usefulpurpose, Dr Mateus said: "I believe these conversations have a role of admonition - it's a case of the Protestant church reminding the Roman Catholic Church that efforts should continue so that one day this practice [indulgences] will lose the aspects we reject."

Oppegaard told ENI that "there was genuine willingness on the Catholic side to listen to the way our tradition has understood and related to this practice. But the most important result of the consultation was a clarification of the broader pastoral issues that are relevant in all our church traditions." He said that all the churches faced a challenge to find pastoral practices regarding penance for sin which could be meaningful and helpful to all their members. "It is an enormous challenge, and one in which ecumenical cooperation could be of great assistance."

He added that "when an individual commits a sin, this impacts on the fellowship of believers. According to Catholic teaching, the church, as the communion of saints, has in it a richness of grace enabling it to forgive in the name of Christ." Such teaching, he said, could provide insights for progress between churches on pastoral matters, even though Lutheran objections to indulgences remained.

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Dr Nyomi was also apparently impressed with at least this aspect of Roman teaching: "It was good," he said, "to learn from the Roman Catholic inputs that the indulgences was a way in which the church accompanied individuals in their dealing with the consequences of sin. This is a valid challenge to the individualism that may characterize some ways in which consequences of sin are addressed in some circles."

Related Elsewhere:

Incarnationis Mysterium:Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 is available at the Vatican's Web site.

The 1998 document Conditions for Gaining the Jubilee Indulgence says that, "The plenary indulgence of the Jubilee can also be gained through actions which express in a practical and generous way the penitential spirit which is, as it were, the heart of the Jubilee. This would include abstaining for at least one whole day from unnecessary consumption (e.g., from smoking or alcohol, or fasting or practicing abstinence according to the general rules of the Church) or other similar forms of personal sacrifice." Read more here.

Other Christianity Today articles about the doctrine of indulgences include:

Protestants Boycott Jubilee Event | (March 6, 2000)

Many—But Not All—Churches Share in Opening of Jubilee Door in Rome | Historical ceremony's link to indulgences brings criticism from some Protestant churches (Jan. 24, 2000)

Taming the Reformation | What the Lutheran-Catholic Justification Declaration really accomplished—and what it did not. (Jan. 10, 2000)

Roman Catholics | Vatican Amends Indulgences Doctrine (Nov. 15, 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. 1, 1999)