No Time for Indulgences

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Wolf_11-2017

Back in the good old days, we could afford to argue among ourselves about justification by faith alone, indulgences, and the intercession of the Virgin Mary.  But now, with abortion, gay marriage, and illegitimacy exalted in popular culture and protected by law, and with religious freedom under assault, we should set aside our differences so we can work together to save America.

Half right; thus, dead wrong.

The exact opposite is true: If America is to be saved, Protestants and Catholics need to be at each other’s throats again, without cutting them of course, in a full revival of prejudice and maybe even a little segregation.

Indulge me for a moment, if you will.

We have reached the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, marking Martin Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.  Famously, the act was sparked by the monk Tetzel’s sale of indulgences in Saxony.  Protestants and/or Lutherans (a debate for another time) are celebrating by holding some conferences, publishing some books, and having various minor festivals.  What we are celebrating is less clear.  Some of us see in Luther’s Theses (especially the first one, which distinguishes between the Biblical concept of repentance and the Roman Catholic understanding of penance) the beginning of the return of the pure Gospel—justification by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone—to the center of Christian doctrine and life, which would be expressed more fully 13 years later in the Augsburg Confession.  Others, perhaps confusing the names Martin and Ma ritain, see Luther’s act as a protest on behalf of “freedom of conscience.”  The latest Luther movie, The Idea That Changed the World, shown in prime time on PBS and in churches across the country, concludes with a section on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Catholics, it seems, cannot make up their minds.  Rome still offers indulgences, which promise the partial or plenary removal of temporal punishment for sin, dispensed under whatever conditions the pope requires, according to his sole authority to apply the superfluous merits of Christ and the saints to souls in a state of grace, living or dead.  I saw with my own two eyes the closing of the Holy Doors by Pope John Paul II, marking the end of the Jubilee Year indulgence, then walked inside St. Peter’s to see what Tetzel’s coffer-coins had paid for.  The current pontiff, Pope Francis, famously offered a plenary indulgence to anyone who followed the events of World Youth Day 2013 (with “due devotion”) on Twitter; a partial indulgence was also granted for any Catholic who, during the mass event at Copacabana Beach, would pray to God “invoking the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Brazil, with the title Nossa Senhora da Conceicao Aparecida . . . ”

In late summer of this year, “62 clergy and lay scholars” signed a document of “Filial Correction,” admonishing Pope Francis for giving rise to “scandal concerning faith and morals” and fostering “heresies and other errors” as a result.  Their bold rebuke of the Vicar of Christ is not aimed at his Twitter indulgences, however, but at some of his statements in the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia regarding marriage and—very specifically—at his “praise” of none other than Martin Luther.

Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther, calling him a “wild boar” in the Lord’s vineyard, and Henry VIII, Leo’s erstwhile “Defender of the Faith,” ordered all Christian princes to burn his books and the man himself with fire.  Five centuries later, Pope Francis has lauded Luther as an “intelligent” “reformer” who “encountered [a] propitious God in the Good News of Jesus.”  It particularly irked the signatories of the “Filial Correction” that the Pope praised what in their private judgment is Luther’s doctrine of justification, and that Pope Francis believes that, “Nowadays, Lutherans and Catholics, and all Protestants, are in agreement on the doctrine of justification: on this very important point [Luther] was not mistaken.”  In fact, the signatories reckon the Pope’s errors on marriage to be the result of his love affair with Luther and justification by grace alone through faith alone.  They conclude by instructing the man whom they believe to be infallible when speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals (“Romani Pontificis definitiones ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae irreformabiles esse”) on the very meaning of the Gospel, and chiding him for kind words spoken about a man who offered—how shall I put it—filial correction.

It is never quite clear which chair this (or any) Pope is sitting in at any given time.  But it is clear that Pope Francis does not teach or confess what Luther taught about justification.  The Pope is simply echoing the language of the equivocating Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ, 1999), in which the liberal Lutheran World Federation compromised with Rome’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity by agreeing to the Roman Catholic definition of justification, which, for centuries now, has consistently been “by grace alone, through faith”—not faith alone on account of Christ alone, as Protestants of the Reformation confess.  The Council of Trent specifically addressed our doctrine 470 years ago in Session VI, Canon 12: “If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake [propter Christum], or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.”  Thus, in 1999 some of us referred to the JDDJ as the “Augsburg Concession.”

Who cares? asks many a culture warrior today: Why stir up these animosities, now half a millennium old, when there are bigger fish to fry?  I answer: because there are no bigger fish to fry.  Heaven and Hell are real and rather important to ponder.  Yes, of course, but . . . I will add also that our inability as Christians to stand firm on, and find our identity in, these core doctrines has brought American culture and the West in general to the state in which we now find them.

As the false doctrines of the Enlightenment spread like a sinister fog over the West, Christians Protestant and Catholic increasingly confused the freedom from sin and eternal damnation offered to every man, Jew or Greek, in the Gospel with the modern notions of “liberty” and “equality,” dulling the sharp edge of the Christian Faith (“I came not to bring peace, but a sword”) to such an extent that the blade no longer cuts.  In the name of not offending Christians of other denominations and unbelievers, among whom we live in an ever secularized society with its big ugly Wall of Separation, we indulge our desire for respectability.  But in so doing we have also lost the fundamental grounding of Christian morality, the glue that holds our various communities together.

We spend a great deal of time analyzing the methods of the Cultural Marxists who carefully devised a plan—a march through the institutions—and successfully executed it.  But what made Americans vulnerable to these predations?  I answer: the dumbing down of our denominations and their dogmas—not just the dogmas pertaining to marriage and the nature of man, male and female, but our dogmas concerning such questions as (to borrow from Luther as read by Pope Francis) “How can I get a propitious God?”  To connect theology with morality is foolishness to men of the “enlightened” world, which loves darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.  Today, our Solons attempt to ground moral standards in “pure reason,” “universal izable” ethics, and the sacred texts of “science.”

But the connection between theology and morality is as old as the world.  Furthermore, our distinctive doctrine (lex credendi) is connected to our traditional liturgies (lex orandi).  What we believe and pray publicly about the Holy Trinity, Heaven, and Hell is necessary to our understanding, formulation, and public expression of the truths of natural law that curb violence and libertinism in society at large.  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “mere Christianity” is but the hallway; we must leave the hallway and go into one of the rooms to find a hearth, furniture, fellowship, and sustenance.  Yet our postmodern rooms are increasingly bare—whitewashed with psycho-therapeutic preaching, “contemporary” worship, “attractional” human-service programs, and barely any mention of sin, the wrath of God, grace, or the “article on which the Church stands and falls” to be found.  No table, no sustenance.  Our hollowed-out rooms become hallways through which our young people pass, on their way out the exit door, drawn away toward the glowing back-alley neon lights of leftism, hedonism, and red-pill racialism.

The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation memorializes for us the historical fact that simple Christian doctrines transformed a moribund, corrupt, decadent Christendom, prolonging its life, strengthening nations, elevating the estate of marriage, and over time giving shape to the majority of people who colonized, founded, and pioneered this country, as well as their culture.  If you disagree with my assessment, you only prove my point: We will not win any Culture War by politics alone, or even by putting America first.  The whole comprises its parts.  Our politics follow what we believe regarding human nature, sin, and salvation.  Human beings reorder their lives (and the lives of others) around deeply held religious beliefs, as Islam is showing us once again, to our horror.  There is no saving of Christian morality or ostensibly Christian society when we turn away from historic, doctrinally rich expressions of the Christian Faith in favor of pseudo-Christian civic religion.

And so we cannot afford to set aside our differences: We need to rediscover them, defend them vigorously and magnanimously, teach them to our children, celebrate them in worship and festival, and nail them to the church door when necessary.      

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