Monday, November 01, 2010

Indulgence Season now open. For the Indulgences for the Faithful Departed, available from 1 to 8 November, see here.

Of course, this is a contentious issue ecumenically. Yesterday was celebrated as the Festival of the Reformation in the Lutheran Church, because it was on the eve of All Saints that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517. Ever since then, indulgences has been a flashpoint issue in the dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics.

My children were treated yesterday to a "fun" children's address in which (according to their report) the one giving the address came into the church crying something along the lines of "Pay your money and get your sins forgiven". They were then taught that sins are only forgiven through confession and repentance. Of course. That is what the Catholic Church teaches too. Indulgences has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins, and perpetuating this myth is not helpful.

But when I tried to explain what an indulgence is to my children, I found myself floundering. That is because there are at least four ideas behind the doctrine of indulgences that need to be comprehended before the doctrine makes any sense - it is like a picture which is dependant upon the frame for its full understanding. That framework consists of the following doctrines:

1) Purgatory
2) "Merit"
3) Communion of Saints
4) the Authority of the Church to bind or loose

Each of these issues in turn is hotly contended between our two communions, and just complicates the misunderstandings.

I also find that trying to explain the doctrine of indulgences to a non-Catholic comes up against a problem that is a little like trying to describe to someone what a stained glass window looks like, when you are viewing the window from inside the church, with the light streaming in and making it look beautiful and attractive and gracious, and the person you are trying to explain it to is standing on the outside of the church, seeing only the grey dark blobs of glass with darkness behind it. It is a doctrine that looks completely different to someone standing inside the Catholic Church to someone standing outside it.

A related problem is that to the person outside the Church, it looks as if we are doing legalistic "works" to win God's favour, his love, his acceptance, his approval, his forgiveness. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. It really has to do with one's relationship to God in terms of one's attachment to sin and purification from that attachment. I find one of the most helpful analogies being that which my friend Peter once pointed out: there are some things which the Church recommends that you can do for "the good of your soul". Even the protestant churches have this, of course. They recommend bible reading, prayer, acts of charity, fasting etc. They know that, as our Lord taught us, these things are "for the good of your soul". They do not "earn" anything, rather they strengthen one's relationship with the Lord and they purify one from attachment to self and sin.

The Authority of the Church to bind or loose on earth and the promise that this will be granted by God in heaven is also central to our practice of indulgences. The Church has the authority to "recommend" this or that act of devotion or charity which the individual believer may engage in and to attach to it the promises of God. That is a very contentious issue in itself, but Catholics believe that the Church actually has the authority to act in the way in which Jesus said it does. It can determine the guidelines by which this "binding or loosing" may be obtained. Of course, here we are not talking about the "binding or loosing" of absolution - which "binds or looses" from the eternal consequences of sin, but the "binding or loosing" of the temporal consequences of sin. It is about purification from the attachment to sin, not forgiveness or acceptance from God.

They are therefore not a "requirement", not a "law" that you "have to" fulfill for acceptance by God, but a gracious invitation to those disciplines that are for "the good of your soul". The doctrine of the communion on saints, of the treasury of "merit" and of purgatory relate to the fact that these acts of devotion can also be shared with others in the communion of saints, namely the Holy Souls in purgatory. They are like the invitation of our Lord to the wedding banquet in the parable. It is all grace. Are there "requirements"? Only in so far as an invitation will often have a "dress code" attached (even in the parable of the wedding banquet, there is a "wedding garment" to be worn - which is itself, of course, a gift from the host). It would be silly to see such a requirement as a "law", when it is all included in the gracious invitation itself. It is, as they say, "all grace".


At Tuesday, November 02, 2010 7:11:00 am , Anonymous Pr Mark Henderson said...

In as much as Indulgences are claimed to remit the temporal punishment due for sins whose guilt has been forgiven, I think your children's Lutheran pastor had a good point, David (at least in regard to the historical situation which pertained at Luther's time). It all centres on what we mean by forgiveness, doesn't it?

At Tuesday, November 02, 2010 10:48:00 am , Anonymous Ogden Chichester said...

Mr. Schütz seems to have delivered a more full-throated response, and of course he did, he's excellent.

But I do tend to find that just as many of us are separated by a common language, so too is it the case that we're separated by these common theological terms. In any dialogue or debate, it is helpful to start by "defining our terms." But I have often found this to be sometimes a battle in and of itself.

At Tuesday, November 02, 2010 10:53:00 am , Anonymous Ogden Chichester said...

I meant this to be a reply to Pr. Henderson. Just smack me around for failing to use the combox correctly.

At Tuesday, November 02, 2010 11:02:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

Not at all, Ogden. It gets a bit confusing at times!

You are quite right about theological terms and language. I was having a conversation about this topic with a Lutheran close to me, and found immediately that the words that I was using clashed with the words that she was hearing in her head. I had one narrative operative in my mind, and she had another operative in hers. This is partly what I meant by the stained-glass window analogy - we inhabit an entire building and see the window from inside this building where it all makes beautiful sense. Those outside on the street are contending with a different surrounding "ambience", which doesn't communicate the same message. I guess what I am trying to say to Lutherans and others who object to the doctrine of indulgences is "come inside and take a look from our perspective".

At Tuesday, November 02, 2010 11:17:00 am , Anonymous Ogden Chichester said...

Or as I say to some of my former co-religionists (Lutherans in fact), "Just wade a little into the Tiber; it's not so bad."


At Thursday, November 04, 2010 9:29:00 pm , Anonymous Pr Mark Henderson said...

But you seem to be missing the point, David (and Ogden), in fact you've basically given me the Lutheran doctrine on temporal 'punishment'! The point at issue centres on the question of whether 'temporal punishment' for sins is remitted along with the guilt, to use Roman Catholic - sorry, Catholic! - terminology. Your point about how we treat a wayward son is not germane to the question, because the Catholic doctrine is not that the temporal punishment for sins is merely remedial in intention, but that it is just what it says - punitive! Cf Trent, "the satisfaction imposed by them is meant not merely as a safeguard for the new life and as a remedy to weakness, but also as vindicatory (i.e. avenging) punishment for former sins” (Council of Trent, Session 14, Chapter 8). Elsewhere in the same document punishments are referred to as satisfactions for sins, along with the usual Trentine double-speak that (somehow) this does not obscure the merit of Christ. This teaching is, at best, based on a misunderstanding of the Gospel, or at worst a perversion of the Gospel!), which teaches that through Christ "we have peace with God" (Rom 5:1) and "do not come into judgment" (John 5:24). The merciful King "forgave the debt" of his servant and let him go; he didn't call him back and and ask for 10%! (Matt 18). The forgiveness was complete. When the woman caught in adultery was forgiven, our Lord told her "go in peace", there was no need for satisfaction, because our Lord would make that for her. When sins are loosed they are loosed, taken away, as far as the East is from teh West! As one more felicitous with words than I put it, "the quality of mercy is not strained".

At Friday, November 05, 2010 10:50:00 pm , Anonymous Schütz said...

I look forward to it. As regards "positivism" (and its good buddy, "nominalism") I had no idea either that Lutheran theology was driven by such things - until I began to undergo instruction in the Catholic faith from a very well trained Dominican who could spot "positivism" and "nominalism" a mile away (and hit it with his sling-shot from the same distance). It was truly a bit of an epiphany to me. What can I compare it too? Imagine it was like having grown up all your life wearing a pair of rose coloured sunglasses, such that you have never realised that the world was any other colour. And then one day someone says, "Don't you realise that the world only looks pink to you because you are wearing those rose-coloured sunglasses?", and you say, "What sunglasses?", and he says, "These one's" and he takes them off your nose and shows you. At one and the same time you suddenly realise that you HAVE been looking at the world through a pair of rose coloured sunglasses all your life (a fact of which you were not previously aware) and THAT is why it looked so pink all the time. A poor analogy, perhaps, but truly that is what is going on in Lutheran theology with "positivism" and "nominalism". Once you actually learn to recognise that this you are doing theology with "postivist/nomilalist" sunglasses, you can actually learn to take them off and see the world for what it is.


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