Plenary Indulgences? Really?

The Catholic Church has decided to bring back one if its most baffling and unneccesary traditions.

A handy definition: “An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God’s justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive.”

In a nutshell, the Church gets to hand out get out of purgatory free cards to certain parishioners. Or at least offer reduced sentences. It’s a bit obscure and the logic of trotting this old chestnut out in this day and age escapes me. The Jesuit priest in the New York Times article does note that the new emphasis will be on a personal accountability and individual reconciliation of sin. At least the Catholic Church is no longer putting them up for sale, since the last time that happened somebody got really mad and nailed a letter to a door.

Part of my own Catholic education and upbringing included philosophical justifications for rules and theological points that non-Catholics see as anachronistic and pointless (if not blasphemous and/or idolatrous). I can see indulgences occupying the same somewhat metaphorical role as acts of contrition or papal infallibility. I can’t really see anyone running to church because they can now guarantee a reduced sentence in the limbo of purgatory. It makes the church seem like a divinely authorized district attorney, looking to cut a deal.

But I also think that it represents a puzzling attempt to shore up the importance of the church in the everyday lives of parishioners that feels both excessive and unnecessary. Only the oldest of the old school members of the church would be able to remember the practice from the time before Vatican II streamlined Catholic practice and made it more accessible to the modern world, by moving towards masses conducting in the local dialect instead of Latin, for example.

Vatican II was not without controversy, but reinstating the church as a further intermediary between the individual and the deity seems likely to flounder in more spiritually adventurous and secular cultures like America’s. It is also as difficult to explain to outsiders as it is to grasp for insiders. I just don’t see the point in resurrecting this old theological chestnut.

Leave a Reply