Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lutheran Scoffers and Twitter Indulgences

When Pope Francis does things American Protestants like (like washing feet or advocating simplicity), everyone re-posts articles about him, commenting, "I think I love this new pope!"

When Pope Francis announces the granting of plenary indulgences for followers of his tweets, everyone re-posts articles about it, commenting, "Good Lord, those Catholics, they're at it again."

In other words... we like this new pope when he is "like" us, and we revert to our latent anti-Catholic bias when he isn't.

Lutherans are particularly inept at responding to any news about plenary indulgences. Because of Luther and his famous 95 theses, lots of us assume we're experts on indulgences. But our expertise is rather limited. Basically, all Lutherans can say about indulgences is: They're bad!

Back in 1999, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran communions signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Any time there is news about indulgences, Lutherans tend to circle up, and declare, "Wow, I wish those Catholics would read our common agreement on the doctrine of justification. They're drifting again, if they were ever really on the same page with us to begin with..."

But really, if we have a common agreement with the RC on justification, isn't it our duty, first of all, to try and understand how Roman Catholics practice indulgences, and not make assumptions that they are "just like" the indulgences practiced at the time of the Reformation?

So, first, consider this quote:

"What really counts is that the tweets the Pope sends from Brazil or the photos of the Catholic World Youth Day that go up on Pinterest produce authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of everyone." (Claudio Mario Celli, excerpted from an article in the Guardian).

Plenary indulgences are not the absolution of sin, even though a lot of Lutherans assume they are. It's rather more complicated and interesting than that. They are, in fact, remission of temporal punishment due to sin.

So a Lutheran, if they really wanted to understand what the pope was up to in granting plenary indulgences for specific kinds of actions (like following the popes tweets during the World Youth Festival in Brazil), would need to learn at least the following:

1) The difference between eternal and temporal punishments
2) The relationship in the development of doctrine between severe penance and indulgences
3) The relationship between the Roman Catholic view of purgatory, and whatever position a Protestant is going to take on how God goes about make things right and just after death before the kingdom of God is established.

They might also want to consult the Catholic catechism, which reads in part:

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'. (On Indulgences)
Why does this matter to me? Since we have been seeking fundamental agreement in our doctrine of justification with Roman Catholics, I believe it behooves us to begin from a posture of understanding rather than judgment. Is there a way for us to see or observe what is admittedly a very different practice than our own faith practice, but try to understand it internally according to its own merits? Are we willing to read Aquinas, and the catechism, and the modern teachings of the pope, in order to actually try and comprehend what they/he mean by granting such indulgences?

Or are we just going to scoff?

And can we try and see how this is actually parallel to our own faith practices in many ways? Aren't most Protestants trying to figure out how social media can be faith forming? Don't we hope that some of our tweets, this blog, our photos on Pinterest, produce spiritual fruits?

Most profoundly: Don't we believe, in some form or another, that what we do now as the communion of saints, is already participation in our life with God, in which case, reading tweets, when they produce spiritual fruits, really does function something like "indulgences."

If we like this pope, aren't we willing, at the very least, to give the benefit of the doubt? Can't we follow the first rule of improv, and begin by agreeing, and see where that takes us?

So, consider one last quote from the catechism. If we as Lutherans really believe in the office of the keys, the power of God's Word, especially that word spoken extra nos, if we believe Christ really entrusted the work of mercy and grace into our hands (the church), can't we begin by listening, and working hard to see clearly where there is common ground?
An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Clint. I was dismayed at some of the responses I read about this on SM yesterday.

    I am excited by the Pope's use of SM to enrich the experience faith formation in the Catholic church.

  2. First, I had to read up on indulgence. "In Catholic theology, an indulgence is a remission of temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven."

    "temporal" punishment is as fleeting as a tweet, and also then is its forgiveness. As an entrance point to the confessional and direct contact with the church and a priest, the Pope's got it right, as a gateway to a deeper relationship with the institution of church and the people ("pope"le) who make up that institution.

  3. Excellent post. Thank you!

  4. thank you, Clint.

    I once asked a Catholic friend about this "praying to saints" idea. she explained that her understanding was that no one actually "prays to a saint," but that we can ask saints to pray for us, just as we would ask any other friend to pray for us. Which I really liked.

    Start by trying to understand.