Indulgences in the land of Luther

indul2An August 13 Reuters article on the Houston Chronicle's website attempts to be incendiary. I can't decide whether this is major news that should have received more attention (it did not) or a minor footnote. I'll let you people decide for me. Philip Pullella lays out Pope Benedict's decision to grant "special indulgences" to Catholics during the World Youth Day activities in Germany.

VATICAN CITY -- Martin Luther may well be turning in his grave after his modern-day compatriot, Pope Benedict, decided to grant indulgences to Catholics during his trip to his native Germany this month.

The Vatican said the pope had agreed to allow "special indulgences" in connection with his trip to Cologne from Aug. 18-21 for the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Youth festivities.

I initially questioned the validity of the article, partially because the author's first name is misspelled (but a Nexis search revealed that this is not the first time it was spelled with two L's), and because the article just did not feel right for a wire story. But some research turned up an AP article along similar lines and short mentions in both The New York Times and the Orlando Sentinel.

Pullella runs through century's worth of history and reams of theology in the 400-word story, and uses the Martin Luther connection for Germany to underpin what seems to be his attempt to drum up controversy and outrage Protestants (the Protestant who sent me this article via e-mail was, shall we say, sharing some "Gospel-driven anger" along with Luther):

A decree issued by Cardinal James Francis Stafford last week said plenary indulgences would be granted to people who are not in a state of sin and participate "attentively and with devotion" to World Day of Youth events in Germany.

Those who do not go to Cologne for the pope's first foreign trip could receive "partial indulgences" if they prayed fervently while the pope is in Germany to ask God to help young people strengthen their faith, the Vatican statement said.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a plenary indulgence can remove "all of the temporal punishment due to sin" while a partial indulgence removes only part of it.

Even some Catholic friends of mine have expressed displeasure with indulgences, despite their consistency with Catholic theology.

Lucas Sayre, a Catholic observer, among other things, and friend is uncomfortable with the theology behind indulgences (by the way, his post that I linked to on the Pope is excellent). He tells me: "Unlike confession, which is one person confessing his sins and sorrow, a mass indulgence of this sort goes out to people merely for doing a deed. It does not look into their heart or their state of sorrow."

The impact indulgences had on history is somewhat significant. The abuse of indulgences in the Catholic Church's past had some fairly devastating consequences, leading to the Protestant Reformation, and some would say their issuance during a trip to Germany was controversial.

How many Catholics and Protestants are displeased with the issuance of indulgences for World Youth Day attendees? Is this a bigger story that more news outlets should have picked up on?

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