Hillsdale alumna argues unity between Catholics and Lutherans in new book | Wikimedia Commons

Before you threw out your checkered suspenders, you were the sort of freshman who would loudly snap those elastic hitches against your chest while you argued soteriology until 2 a.m. in the Galloway lobby.

It was embarrassing. You, a Catholic, had no understanding of soteriology (it means how-we-get-the-salvation), but you were familiar with the chorus from that “Jesus Christ is My Ninja” video that you found so funny in seventh grade. And here were these Lutherans, alive with the glory of love, explaining that when the Church grants indulgences, it cannot pardon the penalties incurred through sin. The treasures of the Church are not the power to bind and loose sins. No, the true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

You respond ecuminically.

“Hey, well at least we all believe in God.”

That’s always a safe feint. With the passing of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, it’s even relevant: Sectarian conversation has increasingly focused on trying to find a common ground where Christians can unite against the looming — and too often vaguely defined — threat of modernity.

But the recent spurt in ecumenism nearly always seems to be outward facing. The outside world is threatening, and unless the small-o orthodox Christians huddle together, we’re going to be overrun by a mob of Simpletons à la “A Canticle for Leibowitz.”  

But for Hillsdale alumna Mary C. Moorman ’01, none of this matters. Christians — and specifically Catholics and Lutherans — must find common ground with each other before they can face the world. Her book “Indulgences: Luther, Catholicism, and the Imputation of Merit” tries to unite the two faiths by arguing that the Catholic Church’s teaching on indulgences is Rome at its most Lutheran. It’s a radical take to be sure (considering it was the issue of indulgences that initially drove Luther from the Church) but Moorman has brought an arsenal of qualifications to justify her claim. 

Moorman drop-quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on indulgences, which is: “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 which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” 

Simply put: Indulgences don’t give us grace, but they lessen the punishment we would have to suffer in purgatory otherwise.

According to Moorman, Luther took that definition and absolutized it to fit his whole theory of soteriology. For Lutherans, salvation comes to us out of God’s infinite mercy. We don’t cooperate with Christ; Christ acted as a cover for our sins by dying on the cross. Everything we have is freely given. We can do nothing but thank God and do his will. 

Moorman argues that this view of salvation implicitly unites the Catholic and Protestant traditions because “it is precisely in the practice of indulgences that the Catholic Church explicitly affirms a sense of the mere imputation that is often absolutized in Protestant soteriologies, inasmuch as the logic of the indulgences holds that the external merits by which we are restored through the indulgence are not our own but are granted to us on account of another.”

Maybe so. But not in the way Moorman goes about it. Although she’s clearly done a lot of research, Moorman has written only a “conversation starter.”

By recontextualizing the debate over salvation through indulgences, Moorman misses why Luther took issue with the practice in the first place. The dispute over whether the Church had the authority to remit penance was secondary. For Luther, indulgences are bad chiefly because they distract the Christian from his personal relationship with God. Indulgences tempt the faithful with desires to skip out on reparation for sins. The true Christian realizes how wretched he is and does not desire anything except God’s will.  

Moorman can talk about covenantal relationships and how the Church may be “the bride of Christ,” and how “spousal union means shared authority,” but her arguments don’t answer Luther where he is most concerned. In both his famous “95 Theses” and “Explanation of the 95 Theses,” Luther recoils with horror that a Christian would desire to gerrymander his way to Heaven with indulgences. The issue of the Church’s authority is essential, but secondary.

Trying to make Lutherans accept indulgences is a tough project if you only understand the logic of indulgences as a Catholic would. Moorman — and a hoard of other apologists for the Catholic Church — argue well, but only for those who already agree with the Catholic Church’s teachings. 

As I finished the book, I was reminded of that drunk Yale graduate who, last year, tied a student to a chair while shouting “repent and submit to the Pope!” Aghast, his friends watched the spectacle, and the taste of Old Crow was forever ruined.

Being right is never enough if you don’t converse with your interlocutors on their terms.