The Pope Offers Mercy—Protestants Won’t Be Indulged

Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo | September 13, 2016

On December 8, 2015, Pope Francis opened the enormous bronze Holy Door in Saint Peter’s Basilica to launch the Year of Mercy. Normally cemented shut, the doorway symbolizes entrance into God’s presence where the faithful seek to obtain God’s mercy.

A central feature of the Jubilee Year is the dispensing of plenary indulgences. For many, the word “indulgence” conjures images of the 16th-century relics of Wittenberg, which boasted a sample of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk and a twig from the burning bush. We visualize woodcuts and frescoes depicting a family of languishing souls reaching out through purgatorial flames. We see indulgence preachers traversing the German countryside with wagons full of coins, coffers, and certificates endorsed by the pope. And we think of Martin Luther, who finally stood up and said, “Enough!” 

But there is more to the story.

Indulgences and Misunderstandings

In medieval theology, like today, the sacrament of penance required repentant sinners to make satisfaction for their transgressions through spiritual and corporeal works of mercy. This involved saying prayers, serving the poor, giving alms, or going on a pilgrimage. In the year 1095, Pope Urban II decreed that penitents would be released from their obligation to perform these works if they joined the…

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