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Indulgences as Ecumenical Barometer

Prof. Michael Root

Leave it to a Lutheran to research and understand indulgences to the point that he probably knows more about them than any Catholic other than the Major Penitentiary himself. Not just any Lutheran, of course, but Professor Michael Root, a lay ecclesial minister and theologian-ecumenist of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I have had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Root and listening to him on a few occasions – at Oberlin for the F&O anniversary, in Graymoor for a USCCB institute, and at a NWCU or two over the years.

He was in Rome to teach an intensive course at the Gregorian on eschatology in ecumenical perspective (which the Angelicum ecumenism students never heard about until after the fact) and he spoke at the Centro Pro Unione this afternoon. For as high-caliber a presentation as this was, attendance was dismal, I am sad to say, perhaps because of good weather combined with the laissez-faire approach to communication in the Eternal City (“Why is it called the Eternal City? Because that’s how long everything takes!”)

Nevertheless, Professor Root presented a finely honed bit of research on the development of the idea of indulgences in the Catholic Church, its perception and reception in ecumenical encounter and dialogue, and suggested that some of the most recent language of the Church on indulgences is palatable even to Lutheran seminarians! We have come a long way since the Reformation.

Despite these deep changes in indulgence theology, one can still find holy cards printed with actual numbers of “days off” of purgatory for each indulgence, as if time exists in eternity! Most people, Catholic and Protestant alike, probably know nothing about the theory of indulgences that represents theology any more recent than the Reformation. Trent, if we are lucky.

In preparing for the Great Jubilee of 2000, Pope John Paul II had called together an ecumenical commission to advise on the preparations for the Jubilee. One of the points raised was the fact that another planning commission had announced a plenary indulgence for the Jubilee before considering its ecumenical impact, and apparently without applying the pope’s own theology of indulgences to the practice! It was what might be called a catechetical moment for some of the Jubilee planners, and the spark that ignited Prof. Root’s interest in the topic.

A small example of the development in indulgence theology and its slow reception was raised by a member of the audience. The Council of Trent banned the sale of indulgences more than 400 years ago, but even in the run up to the Jubilee 2000, the pope’s own Cathedral, San Giovanni Laterno, had prepared worship aids which included something along the lines of “the purchase of indulgences can be done through the following means…” Though there was no actual sale of indulgences, the language still reflected this idea some four centuries after it had been forbidden by the Catholic Church itself!

The text of the lecture itself will be far more valuable than my month old notes on it, but it does not seem to be online yet. Perhaps in the next copy of the Centro Pro Unione Bulletin. I will repost when available. It will be worth the read!

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