As some two dozen evangelical and Catholic theologians and scholars gathered in New York on Dec. 7 to open the latest round of talks in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) dialogue, an issue long since buried (in the minds of many) highlighted the historic doctrinal gap between the two parties: indulgences.
The issue was raised in a 29-page decree Pope John Paul II released late last month proclaiming 2000 as a special jubilee holy year for Catholics. Jubilee proclamations for centuries have emphasized indulgences, but the Catholic Church is changing, and there's a debate about whether to retain old customs. Officials at the Vatican pondered whether to include the mention of indulgences. Most felt the tradition had to be maintained, partly to avoid stirring up traditionalists, but without making it appear that the church was dragging an anachronism into the third millennium.
Lots of Catholics, from bishops down, are embarrassed by indulgences and would prefer not talking about them. At the mention of indulgences in conversation, priests and commentators, even Lutheran-turned-Catholic scholar Richard John Neuhaus (an ECT participant), seem quick to change the subject. Vatican officials at a press conference announcing the jubilee edict took pains to emphasize that indulgences have nothing to do with salvation, and they kept calling attention instead to the paper's central theme of urging Catholics to live sincere godly lives. (Protestant observers find it curious that Catholics who oppose liberalization in most areas often are opposed to the old ways in this area.)
The practice of earning indulgences by doing good deeds (to escape some of the punishment in this life or in purgatory for sins committed and confessed following baptism) is relatively unknown among modern Catholics in the West and an insignificant issue to them. But many of these unbiblical doctrines hang on within Catholicism, Protestant critics chide, and it's something that those proclaiming togetherness need to confront.
The latest ECT talks were designed to do that, said Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George of Samford University's 250-student Beeson Divinity School in Alabama. Confidentiality rules prevent participants from divulging discussion content, Mr. George told WORLD. But he said that the New York meeting, at which he and Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles of Fordham University presented position papers, was the first in a series of deliberations on Scripture and tradition. (Last year, ECT sought consensus on justification by faith.)
"Some controversial Catholic doctrines have their basis in tradition. So, we think it is important to address tradition in light of the Bible-to get at the underlying foundation of some of these teachings," Mr. George said.