From the Worldwide Faith News archives

LWF General Secretary: Consultation on Indulgences

Date 15 Feb 2001 07:43:04

The Ecumenical Consultation on Indulgences in Rome, 9-10 February 2001.
Comments by LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko

The ecumenical consultation helped to clarify further the practice of
indulgences as it developed historically throughout the Middle Ages, and how
it has been interpreted theologically by the Roman Catholic teaching
authorities as well as by various theologians up to our time.

For Roman Catholics, the practice of indulgences is the granting of freedom
from punishment still due for sin after sacramental absolution.

For Lutherans, this practice disappeared from our tradition at the time of
the Reformation. The nailing of the ninety-five 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.

The difficulties connected with the abuses at the time and the unclear
significance of this practice led Luther and other reformers to a preaching
of the gospel and an administration of the sacraments where indulgences did
not have a place.

In 1998, Christian churches were reminded of the continuation of this
practice in the Roman Catholic tradition through the focus on indulgences
connected to the preparation for the Jubilee Year, 2000.

With this development, the question of indulgences became a point of
discussion in the ecumenical movement, partly as a result of the fact that
we have moved closer together over the last decades as a result of the
bilateral dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church. The signing of the Joint
Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Vatican and the Lutheran
World Federation on 31 October 1999 was an important milestone in the
movement towards the unity that we are called to seek in Christ.

We are appreciative to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
for inviting us to this consultation together with the World Alliance of
Reformed Churches. The event took place in a genuine spirit of ecumenical

The discussion of indulgences that is now under way can be an opportunity
for the parties involved to focus on some important pastoral issues that go
beyond the practice of indulgences. How do we pastorally stand by and
support individual believers in the struggle against sin? How does the
church as the communion of saints share the burden of the effects and guilt
of committed sins?

In dealing with such questions, we are reminded that, when Lutherans and
Roman Catholics signed the Joint Declaration on Justification, we committed
ourselves to continue our ecumenical efforts "to interpret the message of
justification in a language relevant for human beings today."

For Lutherans, the language of indulgences does not have a place in the
interpretation of justification. But there are related issues, e.g.
regarding the practice of penitence, where our traditions can provide mutual
enrichment in a deepened understanding of justification.

Obviously, the question of indulgences is also related to wider issues for
further substantive discussions being dealt with in our dialogue with the
Roman Catholic Church about the understanding of the church, the sacraments
and the authority of the gospel.

It is my hope that the planned publication of the contributions presented at
this consultation in Rome will contribute to the fruitful continued
discussion, where our broader constituencies can also be involved.

Geneva, February 15, 2001

(The LWF is a global communion of Christian churches in the Lutheran
tradition. Founded in 1947 in Lund (Sweden), the LWF now has 131 member
churches in 72 countries representing over 60.2 million of the nearly 64
million Lutherans worldwide. The LWF acts on behalf of its member churches
in areas of common interest such as ecumenical relations, theology,
humanitarian assistance, human rights, communication, and the various
aspects of mission and development work. Its secretariat is located in
Geneva, Switzerland.)

[Lutheran World Information (LWI) is the information service of the Lutheran
World Federation (LWF). Unless specifically noted, material presented does
not represent positions or opinions of the LWF or of its various units.
Where the dateline of an article contains the notation (LWI), the material
may be freely reproduced with acknowledgement.]

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