Author: Aidan Lewis
If you thought that 16th century Catholicism was extinct, think again. While it’s unlikely that Pope Benedict XVI could rally enough support to burn heretics, an equally antiquated means of dealing with sin is resurfacing in the Church. One of the more eye-catching items in recent news was the Church’s decision to reinstate the practice of indulgences.
If indulgences sound familiar to you, you probably heard about them briefly in a high school social studies class touching on the Protestant Reformation. In the 16th century, the Vatican derived much of its money from selling and displaying spurious religious artifacts; another major source of revenue was through sales of indulgences. An indulgence would essentially detract from the number of years a sinner would spend in Purgatory as a consequence of earthly sin. Martin Luther’s opposition to the Church rose partly out of indulgence sales.
Interestingly, though, the new indulgences aren’t for sale. Churches are giving them out as rewards for certain spiritual tasks which include various prayers and devotions. A plenary indulgence, which completely absolves the sinner, is obtainable through greater displays of faith, like acts of charity towards the Church. While indulgences are no longer explicitly for sale, it appears that they are meant to strongly encourage monetary contributions.
The Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has published a bulletin insert in which it defends “the practice of granting and obtaining indulgences” as “deeply rooted in Sacred Scripture and Church teaching.” While the second part of that statement may be true, the first is completely fallacious. Biblical evidence for the reality of Purgatory is scarce; biblical evidence that the Church can subtract years from purgatorial punishment—provided the realm exists—is nonexistent.
The USCCB bulletin claims that indulgences are effective because God will respect the petitions of the Church on behalf of sinners. While the idea that God listens to the pleas of the Church is biblical, there is no mention of God absolving sinners solely because of the Church’s intercession; ultimately absolution is supposed to be God’s prerogative. The very idea that the Church somehow knows the years of punishment designated for any given person in the afterlife runs contrary to biblical teaching.
It’s not as if the Church doesn’t understand the erroneous nature of this doctrine—bishops are saying that indulgences are supposed to provide Catholics with more of an incentive to go to church, since the number of attendees at confession has dwindled recently. So isn’t this an admittance of the real motive for reinstating the practice? The indulgence isn’t grounded in scripture; it’s a large, glaring advertisement for church involvement.
I find this lapse in reasonable scriptural interpretation both frustrating and amusing. It is one of many unbiblical practices that the Church has canonized in recent years, and the fact that indulgences have been absent for so long, and are only now being endorsed on a wide scale, raises another question—why is forgiveness available at certain times but not at others? I’m skeptical of anyone or anything that purports to have special, singular influence with the Divine. It’s strange that a doctrine as unfounded as indulgence-giving would appeal to anyone who has even skimmed the Bible.
Aidan Lewis is a first-year ECLS major. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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