An Italian Church reform group has criticised the revival during the coronavirus of theologically “problematic” and “ecumenically unfortunate” indulgences.

– A practice “extraneous to the feelings of most Christian people”

“While everyone’s attention is on other things at this particular period of the life of the Church, an old idea is being revived about which we must speak out”, Noi Siamo Chiesa (“We Are Church Italy”) denounced in an April 26 statement.

That “old idea” is that of indulgences, which the Church defines as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church”.

Indulgences recently returned to the headlines with the Vatican decision March 20 to grant them to victims of COVID-19 who due to isolation are devoid of the assistance of a priest, as well as to carers and families who expose themselves to the risk of contagion.

While undoubtedly a humanitarian gesture on the part of Vatican authorities, Noi Siamo Chiesa nonetheless described those indulgences as “a relatively recent ecclesiastical practice in the history of the Church”.

Indulgences, moreover, were “unknown in the first millennium (and still today in the Orthodox Church and Eastern rite Catholic Church), and were “one of the major factors in the break between Luther and the papacy”, the Italian Church reform movement recalled.

“Indulgences have now become extraneous to the widespread feelings of most Christian people”, We Are Church Italy further alerted.

– Against modern ecumenism and the spirit of Vatican II

The reform group said that reviving the practice of indulgences goes against the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church in Augsburg on 1999 and against the celebrations in Lund in 2017 for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation which Pope Francis himself attended.

Not only that, but indulgences also go against the more deep-seated reform movement in the Church since at least the great modernising Second Vatican Council, Noi Siamo Chiesa denounced, and moreover are a “biblically and theologically absurd” practice “that commodify and claim to control God’s freedom and His grace”.

Five years ago, ahead of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis touched on the issue of indulgences in the bull Misericordiae vultus, We Are Church Italy recalled.

In that text, “Francis specified that the indulgence is not a balancing of sins, but rather the cancellation of the ‘negative effect’ that sin leaves in the believer’s behaviour and thoughts, on whose entire life God’s forgiveness extends”, We Are Church Italy said.

“Pope Bergoglio spoke of indulgence, in the singular, but the recent official decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary speaks of indulgences, in the plural, thereby linking to a pre-conciliar and pre-Augsburg vision of the theme”, Noi Siamo Chiesa deplored.

– The coronavirus pandemic, a chance for the Church to rethink sin and forgiveness

On an ecumenical level, too, Noi Siamo Chiesa lamented, the Vatican revival of indulgences also contradicts Pope Francis’ convocation of the wider Christian world in his extraordinary Urbi et orbi blessing March 27 in an empty St. Peter’s Square.

“The stagnation induced by the pandemic in the life of the Church indicates to us that perhaps there is no moment that lends itself better than the present to a rethinking of the great words and practices of the faith, in particular as regards reconciliation, to which is linked the question of indulgences”, We Are Church Italy said.

That rethinking on sin and forgiveness could go “beyond rites and the catechetical list of individual sins”, Noi Siamo Chiesa suggested, adding too that the coronavirus pandemic could be an occasion to promote rites of forgiveness in the community and also, “a greater account of the role of individual conscience in reflections on the ethics of given situations”.

In its discourse on sin, the Church could put in first place “the social and environmental sin for which everyone is responsible in large or small part” and also, some Catholics’ refusal to unequivocally condemn conflict and war, We Are Church Italy suggested.

In its discourse on forgiveness, the Church could also insist on following up after reconciliation with “consistent behaviour” and on the importance of the Eucharist as “the main place of forgiveness and mercy”, the reform group concluded.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.