A doctrinal debate which helped trigger the 16th century Reformation has re-emerged after the Presbyterian Church challenged the pope’s offer of indulgences to Catholics coming to meet him in Dublin this summer.
Pope Francis has granted ‘plenary indulgences’ for Catholics attending his visit in August – a remission of the punishment for sins which “may be applied to the living or the dead” – including deceased Catholics in the “purifying fire” of Purgatory.
In the 16th century Catholic monk Martin Luther helped prompt the Reformation by drafting his famous 95 theses, in part to oppose the sale of indulgences by Dominican friar Johann Tetzel.
Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic, said few Catholics today take indulgences seriously. “It’s something that was over emphasised in the past and is now under emphasised,” he told the BBC. “Most people would file it in the same theological drawer as things like exorcism.”
He added: “Popes tend to grant indulgences as a way of publicising an event.”
But Catholic priest Fr Patrick McCafferty said they are firmly based on scripture. “Purgatory is simply cleansing and healing after death and it is effected by the grace of God and the Blood of Jesus Christ,” he said. God is “indulgent” towards His children’s weaknesses and the teaching on indulgences is “simply an illustration of His providential care” he added.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland responded that “the only mediator” between God and men is Christ and that “in Him alone is to be found forgiveness of sin through his finished work on the cross”.
It added: “There is no need for indulgences, or anything similar, to know the liberating forgiveness of our great and gracious God.”
However, the church added that while “theologically very different” from the Catholic Church “we want to join with our fellow Roman Catholic citizens in welcoming Pope Francis” to his visit in Dublin this summer.
A Methodist Church spokesman said similarly: “We would obviously not have the doctrine of purgatory or believe we are able to affect the future of those of who have died.”
But Wallace Thompson of the Evangelical Protestant Society said his group is repeatedly told that differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have largely disappeared “and that by insisting otherwise, we are living in the past”.
However, the papal announcement on plenary indulgences is “a reminder that nothing really has changed – the issue which sparked the Reformation in Luther’s time still resonates today,” he said.
Retired Free Presbyterian Minister Rev David McIlveen, a close friend of Rev Ian Paisley’s, said the pope’s announcement “confirms why Bible-believing Protestants cannot welcome him to Northern Ireland”. He added: “This cynical exploitation of the eternal souls of men and women is a direct contradiction to the gospel ... this announcement might well open the door for another Protestant Reformation.”