Can you reduce the punishment of your sins by making the sign of the Cross when your coworker blasphemes? Will God have mercy on you if you give up meat, quit smoking, or watch a pope on TV as a sign of penitence? Yes, according to the Vatican's revised doctrine of indulgences.

Lutherans and Catholics just reached an agreement last month about the fundamentals of justification by faith, but the Catholic tradition of granting indulgences (which in part sparked the Reformation) is still a sharp point of contention (CT, October 25, 1999, p. 24). The Vatican recently revised its stance on indulgences to move away from a form of medieval fund-raising to a streamlined "celebration practice" for the next millennium. In announcing the revision, Pope John Paul II called indulgences "one of the signs that belong to the tradition of jubilee celebrations." The pope's emphasis on indulgences has elicited concern from both Anglicans and Lutherans. "But this does not affect the agreement we have come to in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," says Dan Martensen, Director of Ecumenical Affairs for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "The Pope's emphasis on indulgences just points to the ongoing differences in our doctrines and traditions."

Cardinal William Baum, the Vatican's penitentiary major, told Religion News Service that the Vatican understands indulgence as "one of many words not welcome" to the church's partners in ecumenical dialogue. Still, Baum says, the two churches will strive to reach agreement on the major tenets of Christian faith. The tenth round of dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans begins in Florida in December.

The Vatican's new Enchiridon Indulgentiarum lists 33 (instead of 74) steps for penitent Catholics to take in an indulgence, or reduction of punishment resulting from sin. Catholics earn indulgences through good deeds accompanied by confession, communion, and prayer. Such deeds typically include public proclamation of the Catholic faith—such as praying the rosary with a group of friends, or any other "public testimony in determined circumstances of everyday life." The church no longer sells indulgences, as was the practice in the Middle Ages when hospitals and churches were financed by those paying for official pardons.

Baum says today's indulgences indicate a penitent sinner's change of heart.

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