Thursday, July 18, 2013

Indulgences for the Modern World

Indulgences are back - though of course they've never really left. According to Roman Catholic theology, after death souls are tormented in Purgatory in proportion to their sins in life. Indulgences allow those who receive them to take "time off" from this punishment and enter Heaven sooner. One of Martin Luther's strongest objections to the Catholicism of the sixteenth century was the selling of indulgences to wealthy individuals, which became one of the driving forces behind the Protestant Reformation.

Following the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church reined in the practice and today indulgences are granted for particular activities and cannot be bought or sold. In a modern twist, the Vatican is now offering them to those who follow Pope Francis' appearance at the upcoming Catholic World Youth Day in Brazil by television, radio, and social media in addition to those who can attend the event in person. So Catholics can in fact get time off Purgatory by following the Pope on Twitter. Talk about updating the practice.

Indulgences these days are granted to those who carry out certain tasks – such as climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome (reportedly brought from Pontius Pilate's house after Jesus scaled them before his crucifixion), a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory.

But attendance at events such as the Catholic World Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro, a week-long event starting on 22 July, can also win an indulgence.

Mindful of the faithful who cannot afford to fly to Brazil, the Vatican's sacred apostolic penitentiary, a court which handles the forgiveness of sins, has also extended the privilege to those following the "rites and pious exercises" of the event on television, radio and through social media.

"That includes following Twitter," said a source at the penitentiary, referring to Pope Francis' Twitter account, which has gathered seven million followers. "But you must be following the events live. It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the internet."


It should probably be pointed out here that the only reason Purgatory exists in the first place is because of just-world assumption nonsense. It essentially exists to address the concept of someone who (in the eyes of the church, of course) sins a lot but not quite enough to be consigned to Hell. The theology of Christianity states that even a deathbed conversion can be valid if it is sincere, which leaves open a loophole for those who have no real desire to follow the rules of the church to nonetheless obtain salvation.

Early church thinkers found it "unfair" that somebody could sin a bunch - because, of course, sinning is fun - and still get into Heaven as long as they didn't quite pass the "magic threshold" that warranted damnation. So they figured that the best way to make it fair was to have even those who would be admitted to Heaven suffer for a while in proportion to their sin in a completely new level of reality specifically created for that purpose. But there is no mention of Purgatory in the Bible.

In fact, a strong argument can be made that the whole idea flies in the face of Jesus' Parable of the Workers in the Vinyard, in which workers who arrive toward the end of the day are paid the same wage as those who started in the morning. That is, the Kingdom of God is offered to all who are saved without distinction, even if they convert late in life. I'll add that as a mystic I interpret the "wage" here as metanoia, enlightened realization, and as such represents a quality that fundamentally lacks any measurable quantity that can be subdivided.

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3 comments:

Matt Van de Ven said...

Purgatory also solves the problem of what to do with all of those great holy people who died before Christ was born/died. Plato, Aristotle all those cool guys are/were kicking it in Purgatory killing time to get into Heaven.

Personally I have been getting indulgences for years as a member of the Confraternity of the Rosary.

They never went away, they have just been one of those things that make Catholics 'weird' in the eyes of Protestant Churches, especially New Testament focused branches.

Scott Stenwick said...

As I see it, if a spiritual practice works for you it works, regardless of whether anyone else thinks it's "weird."

And it's not like some Protestant churches don't have their own brand of strangeness, such as the "Green Gospel" that I rail against on this blog quite often.

Matt Van de Ven said...

I agree with you there, Green Gospel is a total bunch of hooey!