Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pardon the Indulgence

The Catholic Church is up to its old tricks again—its VERY old tricks. It has reinstituted the practice of granting indulgences. When I first saw this story I thought it was a joke. I went to Catholic High School—St. Anthony’s in Smithtown, NY—and I learned all about indulgences back in ninth and tenth grade when I studied Church history. My teacher, Mr. Donlon, was an intense intellectual and, as I recall, he presented indulgences as something too theologically complex for 14-year olds to understand. So I went to the Catholic Encyclopedia to learn what he would not teach us.

I don’t think I am oversimplifying with the following description of the official Catholic Church teaching on indulgences, but if I am, please set me straight:

1) The members of the Church are like the organs of the body—they share one life and one spirit.

2) Each good action of church members accrues expiatory power in a “treasury” controlled by Church.

3) The Church controls an inexhaustible fund of “satisfaction” based on the good works of its members, the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints, the works of the Virgin Mary, and the infinite value deposited by the life and death of Jesus Christ.

4) The Pope and his chosen delegates can grant use of the funds built up in the treasury to shorten or even cancel the amount of time a soul is required to spend in Purgatory before going to Heaven.

5) Control of this treasury is granted NOT to individual Christians but instead to the Church. In order to tap into this fund of “satisfaction” there is required an exercise of authority and the Church alone can determine how, on what terms, and to what extent indulgences may be granted.

The Church outlawed the outright sale of indulgences in 1567, so now you can earn an indulgence through charitable contributions and other acts. The church contends there is no quid pro quo.

Paul Vitello in a recent New York Times article writes:

“According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.”

When I think about this idea of indulgences I am forced to admit a certain amount of admiration for the Church. The Church has found a way to place a value on the amount of time spent in Purgatory. They have "commoditized" the lessening of a soul’s suffering. I am both horrified and impressed at the theological convolutions, contortions, and gymnastics required for the Church to find itself morally okay with the concept of trading contributions for a lessening of suffering.

For one thing it becomes undeniably clear that a system requiring this much explanation is surely a construct of humans and NOT divinely inspired. If there were a God, S/he would not have the idea of a BANK filled with the moral valence of untold good works. Banks where good deeds are hoarded is certainly a human idea. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Once it is admitted that Christ left the Church the power to forgive sins (see PENANCE), the power of granting indulgences is logically inferred.” Maybe. But the power to act as bankers doling out propitiations is far from logically inferred.

On one level, the Church is only doing what individuals have done forever. This makes sense since the Church is simply a human construct and it therefore exhibits human behaviors writ large. When I do something dumb in my marriage with Erica I might bring her flowers or chocolate to shorten my time in the doghouse. If Isabel has done something to anger me, she will sometimes give me a big hug and say, “I love you SO MUCH, Daddy.” She might not be aware of what she is doing or why, but it is clearly an effort to shorten the length of time I am mad at her.

These “tricks” often work in human relationships because they are subtle and unmentioned. What horrifies me about indulgences is how strictly transactional it makes the process of making up for something. It takes a fine-tuned trick humans have mastered below the radar and puts it out where everyone can see it. And in the process it has somehow cheapened the acts of contrition. It places into doubt both the sincerity of the penitent and the good intentions of the Church.


  1. What is it about the Roman Catholic faith that sends people up the wall? Surely if you are an agnostic or an atheist it should matter little what the Church teaches or preaches? Also, those who label themselves "independent" or "recovering" or "ex" Catholics should be free from such malice as I have read here - if they are "free" (which they always were and are) to take or leave Catholicism, why do they not just leave it alone? Why cannot those of us who believe be left to believe in peace? If we choose to be "benighted" and "confused" what does it matter to anyone but ourselves? Is it perhaps because they are not as quite settled in their disbelief?

  2. I saw your posting on the NYT website. I am not Catholic though I understand basic Catholic theology. Thanks for explicating for me in a way that I can easily understand the basic human need that underlies the otherwise obscure concept of an indulgence.

  3. I read your posting in the NYT and I am a Catholic, former teacher, advanced degrees, etc. Yours was one of the most sensible comments I read about indulgences, or at least one that resonated with my feelings about the topic.
    I feel that the Catholic Church, bless her heart, is going through one of those pendulum swinging growth phases. If the concept of indulgences has started to mean something to the faithful once again then good for them.
    If indulgences lead people to a greater love for God, then go for it!
    The fact that for most of the history of the Catholic church people have lived well without indulgences says something about their value as well.