Rome - Five centuries ago, indulgences were a major source of dissent between the papacy and the followers of Martin Luther, but now they can help Christian unity, says a senior Vatican cardinal.
According to Catholic doctrine, the granting of indulgences by the church - usually for good works or special piety by individuals - allows the remission of time spent in purgatory, a place where souls are purified before entering heaven. Indulgences are often seen by Protestants as one of the most controversial aspects of Catholic practice.
In a 7 March article in L'Osservatore romano, the Vatican's daily newspaper, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, stated that properly understood, indulgences are no a hindrance to faith. Rather, he said, they show the mercy of God, through the Church, to the repented sinner.
"The irritation of Protestants about the continuing Catholic practice of indulgences is understandable," Kasper wrote. However, "Today Catholic historians also admit that in the Middle Ages there existed serious abuses of indulgences"
Kasper's article follows an announcement by Pope Benedict XVI, granting a "plenary indulgence" to believers who visit the Basilica of St Paul in Rome during the Pauline Year (June 2008-June 2009). In honouring the apostle Paul, those attending will receive the indulgence.
Catholic teaching says plenary indulgences entail the remission of the entire punishment spent in purgatory, compared to partial indulgences which are intended to remit part of the purgatorial period on the journey to heaven after a person's death.
Kasper noted that the issue of indulgences - which at the time were subject to gross abuse by the church, with indulgences being granted for cash payment - was a major reason for Luther's bid to reform the Catholic Church in the 16th century. Luther strongly criticised the practice in his 95 Theses, which were posted in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517.
However, Kasper stated, the Catholic Church's Council of Trent (1545-1563) "reformed in a radical way the practice of indulgences, and eliminated misunderstanding".
The cardinal noted that his pontifical council organized a symposium in 2001 with Lutheran and Reformed theologians, at which the present-day Catholic understanding about indulgences was explained. "Today indulgences are no longer, in practice, what they were in the 16th century," insisted Kasper.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI had explained the true significance of indulgences, said Kasper. These are intended as a reminder that all human beings need salvation, "which can only come through Jesus Christ".