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.