Last week, indulgences made the headlines again. Many Roman Catholic parishes recently have revived the practice of offering indulgences as a way to get people to think more about penance and return to confession. This move, which has received mixed reviews among Catholic scholars, is troubling and confusing to Lutherans who wonder how the Roman Catholic Church can continue this practice in light of the "consensus in basic truths" between Lutherans and Catholics in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). Indulgences, after all, were the focus of Luther's 95 Theses, which sparked the Reformation in 1517. The practice, which fell into disuse after Vatican II, was revived by Pope John Paul II right on the heels of the adoption of JDDJ. This led to an outcry among many Protestants . In 2001, an ecumenical consultation of Lutherans, the Reformed, and the Roman Catholic Church met to discuss the theological issues involved in this practice in light of the consensus achieved in JDDJ.
Michael Root, a fellow member of the U.S. Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, published an essay around this time which helpfully clarifies what indulgences do (and don't do) in Catholic devotional practice, but even Root is not sanguine about the new attention given to this practice. “It has been something of a mystery to us as to why now,” Root is quoted as saying in the New York Times article, adding that the renewal of indulgences has “not advanced” the dialogue. Indeed, the latest round of dialogue, on the Hope of Eternal Life is discussing, among other things, pentiential practices related to the dead, including indulgences and prayers for the dead, and the recent attention to and encouragement of indulgences does make our work more difficult.