From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Lutherans and Roman Catholics talk about indulgences--and related issues

Date 16 Feb 2001 13:32:54


Lutherans and Roman Catholics talk about indulgences--and related issues

by James Solheim

     (ENS) For the first time since the issue contributed to a split in the 
church during the Reformation, Lutherans and Roman Catholics sat down to talk 
about indulgences.

     The ecumenical consultation, held in Rome February 9-10, attempted to 
clarify the historical, theological and pastoral issues and try to reach a better 
understanding--but not aim at an agreement.

     The consultation helped to clarify the practice of indulgences as it 
developed historically throughout the Middle Ages and has been interpreted by 
Roman Catholic teaching authorities, according to the Rev. Ishmael Noko, General 
Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), one of the sponsors.

     "For Roman Catholics, the practice of indulgences is the granting of freedom 
from punishment still due for sin after sacramental absolution," Noko said. "For 
Lutherans, this practice disappeared from our tradition at the time of the 
Reformation," especially after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church 
door in Wittenberg. In one of the theses Luther called for a debate on the "power 
and efficacy of indulgences."

     That debate never took place but Noko said that he saw the consultation as 
"a partial response to Luther's call of so many years ago."

     Many Christians were surprised to discover in 1998 that the practice 
continued in a focus on indulgences in preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000. It 
meant, according to Noko, that "the question of indulgences became a point of 
discussion in the ecumenical movement," largely because theological dialogues 
have drawn the churches closer. 

     Lutherans and Catholics, for example, signed a Joint Declaration on the 
Doctrine of Justification on Reformation Day in 1999, "an important milestone in 
the movement towards the unity that we are called to seek in Christ," said Noko.

     The consultation, sponsored by the LWF, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for 
Promoting Christian Unity, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, "took 
place in a genuine spirit of ecumenical openness," according to Noko.

     While indulgences may not be on the Lutheran agenda, the discussion provided 
what Noko called "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 their dialogue, Lutherans and Catholics will also deal with related 
issues such as "the understanding of the church, the sacraments and the authority 
of the Gospel," Noko said.

--based on reports from Lutheran World Information, information service of the 

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