Pop Culture
Feb 10, 2009, 08:02AM

Church to Offer Indulgences Again; Catholics Say, “Huh?”

Pope Benedict brings out an old Catholic practice from the vault; so old, in fact, that most American parishioners don't even know what it is.

The New York Times reported this morning that Catholic churches, including some in New York, have begun offering indulgences again, years after the practice fell from favor. The announcement has been met with a resounding “Wha…?” from believers and non-believers alike. In case you were missed that day in Sunday School or World History, I’ll catch you up: An indulgence is a distinctly Catholic practice by which, through saying certain prayers or performing certain rituals, some of your sins are forgiven and you thus have less time in Purgatory. An indulgence can be partial (taking off a certain amount of time) or plenary (get-out-of-Purgatory-free card).

Like transubstantiation or anything having to do with the Virgin Mary, indulgences have been a controversial Catholic practice. Martin Luther initiated the Reformation in 1517 in part because indulgences were being sold willy-nilly across Europe. In short, indulgences were at the center of the one of the most important and traumatic events in modern intellectual history. And yet, this quote from the Times article sums up the general reaction of the faithful:

“It’s what?” asked Marta de Alvarado, 34, when told that indulgences were available this year at several churches in New York City. “I just don’t know anything about it,” she said, leaving St. Patrick’s Cathedral at lunchtime. “I’m going to look into it, though."

When I read the story, I shared Ms. de Alvarado’s bafflement, so I called the foremost authority on Catholicism I know: Grandma. Remarkably (at least to me), she hadn’t heard anything about indulgences being offered again.

“We got indulgences up until I was in the 8th grade,” she told me, which would have been the mid-1940s. They were especially common in October (the month of the rosary) and during Lent in the spring. “We would go to the Stations of the Cross every Friday during Lent. And we liked to do it anyway because we could go after and get a Coke on the way home. They didn’t tell us about [getting time off in Purgatory] because we hadn’t done anything serious yet in terms of sins; it was just to help us get into Heaven. But even then [the practice] was fading.”

Indulgences were entirely phased out of mainstream Catholic practice after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1960—my father heard nothing about them in 12 years of Catholic school, nor I in eight of Sunday school.

This news raises two disturbing points, the first being a general lack of historical awareness about religious issues. Perhaps it will get more coverage in the coming days, but something that very well might cause Martin Luther to turn over in his grave just isn’t that sexy of a story. And if the Times article and my eight years of weekly Catholic education are good indicators, awareness of church history is not especially high in the average parishioner (Grandma, of course, mentioned the Reformation). Can an indulgence count for much if you don’t really know what it means in the context of the Catholic tradition? The other issue is this: Why now? With this, the reintroduction of the Latin Mass, insensitive-seeming comments about Islam and the rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Benedict XVI’s papacy has ranged from a staunch return to traditionalism at best to a flagrant disregard of public opinion at worse. Greil Marcus utilized the phrase “old, weird America,” and I can’t help but think of many of Benedict’s policies as being a return to the old, weird Catholic Church.

A third issue is far too broad for a blog entry: Can you quantify forgiveness for sins in units of time, even if you aren’t selling it? Sorry, Grandma, but I may be with the Lutherans on this one.


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