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Indulgences today

January 2006 | by Andrea Ferrari

In his Expository Thoughtson Matthew 12:38-50, J. C. Ryle highlights the danger of a partial reformation. Writing at the end of the 19th century, Ryle commented on the unclean spirit who went back to dwell in his old house taking seven worse spirits with him: ‘Delivered as they were from heathen darkness by the preaching of the gospel, [Churches] have never really lived up to their light … They have all been too ready to be satisfied with mere external amendments. And now there are painful symptoms in many quarters that “the evil spirit has returned to his house” …

‘Between unbelief in some quarters, and formal superstition in others, everything seems ripe for some fearful manifestation of antichrist. It may well be feared that the last state of the professing Christian Churches will prove worse then the first’.

Zeal for indulgences

In the light of these remarks, it is interesting to remember that many saluted Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism with great enthusiasm, persuaded that a new era of reform had begun. In the wake of this fervour, some of the hopes of the ecumenical movement were realised – leading in 1999, for example, to an agreement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the doctrine of justification.

But now, seeing the new pope’s zeal in promoting indulgences, many ecumenical leaders within the Protestant camp are confused and frustrated. Some are even remonstrating. Perhaps the Roman Catholic hierarchy hopes that the heirs of Luther, Calvin and Knox will consider the indulgences of Benedict XVI with the due indulgence!

Benedict has already granted plenary indulgences three times. The most recent was announced on 29 November 2005 – for Catholics ‘who honour the Virgin Mary on the feast of the Immaculate Conception’ (8 December).

Dismay

The Vatican said that Pope Benedict has declared the indulgence to mark the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. The announcement, they say, indicates that the pope, ‘when he renders public homage of praise to Mary Immaculate, has the heartfelt desire that the entire Church should join with him, so that all the faithful, united in the name of the common Mother, become ever stronger in the faith, adhere with greater devotion to Christ, and love their brothers with more fervent charity’.

Of course, we may ask ‘What does that mean’? In ecumenical circles people are answering in dismay, lamenting that to insist on indulgences is divisive and damaging to ecumenical relationships. Moreover, they say that to deliberately associate the Second Vatican Council with the feast of the Immaculate Conception is contrary to the spirit of that Council.

Non-ecumenical Protestants will ask the same question but give a different answer. We firmly believe that a partial repentance is not repentance at all! The aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council was just a partial reformation – an external embellishment designed to improve the appearance while nothing changes beneath the surface.

Does the revival of indulgences mean that the ‘unclean spirit’ has returned? If so, then the last state will surely be worse than the first.