I read this yesterday and was surprised that no one had posted it yet… As a Lutheran, I’m obviously not a fan of indulgences; I don’t know of any biblical evidence to support this practice. Some excerpts from the NY Times article are below.

According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.

Dioceses in the United States have responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This year’s offer has been energetically promoted in places like Washington, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., and Tulsa, Okla. It appeared prominently on the Web site of the Diocese of Brooklyn, which announced that any Catholic could receive an indulgence at any of six churches on any day, or at dozens more on specific days, by fulfilling the basic requirements: going to confession, receiving holy communion, saying a prayer for the pope and achieving “complete detachment from any inclination to sin.

Good luck with that one. If the gospel is by definition GOOD NEWS – then the complete detachment from any inclination is some seriously bad news.

After Catholics, the people most expert on the topic are probably Lutherans, whose church was born from the schism over indulgences and whose leaders have met regularly with Vatican officials since the 1960s in an effort to mend their differences.

“It has been something of a mystery to us as to why now,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael Root, dean of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., who has participated in those meetings. The renewal of indulgences, he said, has “not advanced” the dialogue.

“Our main problem has always been the question of quantifying God’s blessing,” Dr. Root said. Lutherans believe that divine forgiveness is a given, but not something people can influence.

But for Catholic leaders, most prominently the pope, the focus in recent years has been less on what Catholics have in common with other religious groups than on what sets them apart — including the half-forgotten mystery of the indulgence.

It is too bad that the Gospel – the unmerited grace bestowed on lowly, underserving and continually rebellious sinners given freely on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice for us all (despite our active rejection) – is not enough to set apart from other religions.