Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Indulgences

I've sat on this story for a couple weeks, though I haven't totally refrained from comment. By clicking the link, you'll be directed to a New York Times article about the re-introduction of the practice of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. This practice hadn't completely disappeared, but the RCC is encouraging the practice once more, as part of a concerted effort to reinvigorate people's interest in and practice of Confession.

The article states:

According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day. [...]

Dioceses in the United States have responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This year’s offer has been energetically promoted in places like Washington, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., and Tulsa, Okla. It appeared prominently on the Web site of the Diocese of Brooklyn, which announced that any Catholic could receive an indulgence at any of six churches on any day, or at dozens more on specific days, by fulfilling the basic requirements: going to confession, receiving holy communion, saying a prayer for the pope and achieving “complete detachment from any inclination to sin.”

I must admit that, as a Lutheran, I get a bit twitchy at the idea of indulgences and even more so at the idea of "achieving 'complete detachment from any inclination to sin'." Due to my own denominational bias, I may be unable to see or appreciate the spiritual benefits of the practice of indulgences, but since I don't believe in Purgatory or in our ability to save ourselves- then I don't see that there are any spiritual benefits to indulgences.

They seem, well, indulgent. Doesn't the Bible encourage to good works(visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, giving cups of cool water, etc) for the glory of God and out of thanksgiving for all that God has done for us? At no point do good works save us, improving our standing before God.

Furthermore, we are incapable of "complete detachment from any inclination to sin". The root of God's judgment and our need for God's grace is that chronic sin is synonymous with being human. We are to try to avoid it, but sometimes our crafty avoidance finds us backing into a waist-deep mess of another kind.

Christ's death on the cross erased the eternal punishment for sin for those who believe in him, according to the Bible. The promise of that sacrifice once and for all is visible in the empty tomb and cross, which are God's signs to us that Christ's righteousness covers our unrighteousness.

We are ever striving through the work and help of the Spirit to more completely understand God's work in our lives and in the world. However, we are never striving to be worthy of it because that will not happen.

Indulgences, to me, seem to be the hamster wheel of works-righteousness. Instead of being freed by Christ's power to care for the people around you, you're constantly striving to eliminate some portion of the punishment that you know you're going to receive after you die.

I read this article and I sigh. Then I look at the empty cross and I say, "Thanks be to God." I couldn't have done it any better.

In truth, I could not have done it at all.

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