The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia is honoring its 200th anniversary by offering its members a plenary indulgence, a practice begun in the Middle Ages that remains controversial and often confounding today.
An indulgence, according to the church, allows Catholics who perform certain acts to shorten the time after death that their souls will have to spend in purgatory to atone for their sins.
"It adds to the joy of the occasion, it allows each person a participation in the event, and it provides a lasting souvenir," Cardinal Justin Rigali told the archdiocese's 1.5 million members in a recent letter.
Plenary indulgences are relatively rare and typically require a pilgrimage to a shrine. Pope John Paul II granted a worldwide plenary indulgence for the Jubilee Year of 2000.
Between now and the final bicentennial Mass of April 13, local Catholics seeking an indulgence must make a pilgrimage to an area shrine or special bicentennial Mass, make an act of sacramental confession and receive communion around the time of a pilgrimage, and pray for the intentions of the pope.
A uniquely Roman Catholic practice whose abuses helped launch the Reformation, indulgences still "stir up more misconceptions than perhaps any other teaching in Catholic theology," according to one Catholic Web site.
Indulgences do not forgive sin or spring souls from hell, said William Madges, a theologian and the academic dean of St. Joseph's University. "Indulgences kick in for sins that have already been forgiven" by shortening the soul's time in purgatory before reaching heaven, he said.
And they are not for sale.
Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Thomas said last week that the Vatican granted a plenary indulgence at the request of Rigali, who sought it as a gift to his archdiocese.
The Catholic Church teaches that people who have received absolution for their sins from a priest may, through an indulgence, draw on the "treasury of merit" accumulated by Jesus, Mary and the saints to lessen or eliminate the punishment owed to God.
Indulgences "are a share in the mystery of the gift of the mercy of Christ," said Thomas, who likened them to "washing the chalk dust from a blackboard after the words - or sins - have been erased."
"The general rule of thumb is, finish your penance and get an indulgence," said Robert W. Shaffern, a church historian at the University of Scranton.
But 490 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theological arguments to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, indulgences continue to baffle Protestants, most of whom believe that faith in the redemptive power of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection are all one needs to stand justified before God.
John Reumann, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, said last week that Catholics' continued use of indulgences had "negative consequences" for the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which the Vatican and Lutheran World Federation signed in 1999.
In that document - which took 30 years to negotiate - both churches agreed that salvation is achieved "by grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part."
Good works do not earn grace, it continues, but are evidence of one's state of grace.
"From a Lutheran point of view, one would wish that Roman Catholics would downplay, if not eliminate, indulgences, especially in view of the possibility of their misuse and misunderstanding," said Lutheran theologian William G. Rusch.
Rusch, a former director of ecumenical affairs for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, helped develop the declaration and was a major contributor.
The "continued use of indulgences in and of itself does break the agreement," he told The Inquirer in an e-mail.
Christian D. Washburn, a theologian at the Philadelphia archdiocese's St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and a Catholic representative to the American Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, challenged Rusch's understanding of indulgences.
"It is surprising that, after all of the advances made by the ecumenical movement, some Lutherans still persist in asserting that Catholics believe indulgences bring justification," Washburn wrote to The Inquirer.
"In order to obtain an indulgence, the individual seeking indulgence must have already been justified, or as Catholics would more commonly put it, must be in the state of grace."
Although rooted in early-Christian piety, indulgences became corrupted in the early 16th century when a German monk, Johann Tetzel, began selling them to raise money for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Tetzel not only created a price list for certain sins, but devised a slogan: "As soon as a coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."
Tetzel might be long forgotten, however, had not a fellow monk been in endless anguish about his inability to free himself from sin.
Luther's outrage at the corruption of indulgences inspired him in 1517 to pen his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, better known as the 95 Theses, which declared damnation on those who believed in them.
Four decades later, the Catholic Church condemned the abuse of indulgences, but also replied with damnation of "those who maintain the uselessness of indulgences."
Pope Paul VI reiterated that curse, or anathema, as recently as 1967, but the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation revoked those curses in the 1999 Joint Declaration.
And yet indulgences remain problematic, "a topic nobody [in the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue] feels comfortable with," said the Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer of Georgetown University.
Together with Rusch and Reumann, he contributed to the declaration and witnessed its signing.
It could be years before the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue reaches a formal understanding on indulgences, Fitzmyer said last week, but an agreement was necessary.
"We're finally getting around," he joked, "to the most neuralgic problems of the 16th century."