May I direct your attention to a discussion I have been having with Mark Henderson on is “Glosses from an Old Manse” blog concerning Indulgences.
I admit that at first I over-reacted with a bit of a rant. Mark reckons he has found a “weak spot” in my faith. Not a “weak spot”, no, but certainly a “sore spot”. It irks me no end that our Protestant brethren continue to insist that the Catholic Church is inconsistent in its confession that our salvation is completely through the grace and mercy of God in Christ Jesus, and not the result of anything we have done or merited apart from his grace and mercy. He asks:
Does not this teaching and practice detract from the completeness (“It is finished” “Today you will be with me in Paradise”) and thus the glory of Christ’s sacrifice for us?
My short answer to that question should have been a straight forward “NO” and left it at that.
My question to him is “Why do you think that the doctrines of Purgatory and Indulgences and associated practices in any way detract from the completeness and glory of Christ’s sacrifice?”
One thing that we have realised in this little “dialogue” is that a major difference between Lutherans and Catholics is how we view what Lutherans call “synergism”, ie. the work of human beings being joined to the work of God. Lutherans energetically and scrupulously maintain a clear distinction (eg. in their liturgical theology they maintan a strict distinction between “sacramental” parts – what God does – and “sacrificial” parts – what we do), while Catholics (and even more so, Orthodox) affirm that God by his grace joins our efforts with his gracious action (eg. so that the liturgy, while being entirely the action of God for us, is also our action for him). At the heart of this is a completely different theology of anthropology, that is, of human nature.
For instance, in the book “The Ratzinger Report” page 146, Cardinal Ratzinger defended the act of praying for the dead as a “widespread” and “immediate” “human” impulse. Lutherans would see this in the light of the fallen nature – that we desire to do something that is sinful and not in accordance with God’s word. Catholics would see this as a sign of that good nature that remains in human beings even after the fall, and thus affirm that the desire to pray for our departed loved ones is good and pleasing to God.
Personally, I think prayer for the dead accords beautifully with Jesus’ words: ““Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Given how much we love our departed friends and family, and how much their eternal welfare is of concern to us, why would God say to us “Sorry, this is one thing you are not allowed to pray for”?
Incidentally, when teaching on this subject recently, I realised that we are perhaps mistaken in our usual take on Jesus’ words to the thief from the cross in Luke 23:42-43. It occured to me that what Jesus was doing was directly answering the thief’s request in reference to “the Kingdom”. The “today” could well refer to the fact that right there and then on the cross, Jesus was “coming into his Kingdom”. This is signified by the earlier verses which are all about this subject:
35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”