In the past week, thanks to the New York Times, I've thought about indulgences at least as much as I had in my entire life up to this point. Judging from the lively back-and-forth on this post, I'm not the only one who's been doing some quick self-catechesis.For those not yet sick of the topic, the NYT follows up today with an online "Room for Debate" blog (their term -- it's not a "blog" in any real sense of the word, just a collection of short articles). Unfortunately, the Times is still not getting any holy cards for their explanation:
Catholic churches have recently revived indulgences, a spiritual tradition that faded away in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council. The indulgence, as Paul Vitello of The New York Times explained in a recent article, is "a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife."
Oh well. If readers keep going, they'll see that notion debunked by the always even-tempered John Allen (too bad they didn't ask him for help in the first place!). His take is an especially helpful exercise of his talent for combining comprehensiveness and comprehensibility. I do think he's being a tad optimistic, however, when he notes, after describing the situation that made "indulgences" a dirty word: "Needless to say, that abuse was curbed a long time ago." I wish it were "needless" to point that out, but in fact it seems to be quite necessary. (The absence of corruption in the Church is hardly something the average newspaper reader is willing to take for granted.)
The next response is from University of Scranton medieval-history professor Robert Shaffern (from my hometown parish!). He places the subject in a helpful historical context -- though he may be giving readers (like me) too much credit by referring to, but not elaborating on, "the creeping Pelagianism that many think is a serious problem among Catholics today."The other two responses are generally predictable reactions from right and left. Colleen Carroll Campbell, a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center called on to give the positive take, can't resist trotting out that old postconciliar caricature:
Catholics growing up in the 1970s and 1980s were more likely to spend their CCD classes making felt banners and painting "Jesus Loves You" on rocks than learning about the necessity of frequent sacramental confession or the means the Church offers to alleviate "temporal punishment due to sin."
I'm a product of this era, and yes, I did my share of religious arts and crafts. But what this version of the story leaves out is the fact that religious ed of previous generations had its own unhealthy excesses. Yesterday I was talking with a religious sister who is a hospital chaplain. She said many of the older patients she ministers to as they face death are struggling with an overwhelming amount of fear -- their concepts of the afterlife are so crowded with calculations about sin and punishment, purgatory and pain, that they can't take comfort in the thought of going home to God. She said, "Their childhood faith had no concept of a loving God" -- and without that, even careful instruction in the intricacies of indulgences, purgatory, and "temporal punishment" can't prepare a person to meet God face to face. If catechists took a soft approach in the 1970s, perhaps it's because they resented having to research God's soft side on their own. I may have been relatively untutored in the double consequence of sin, but the "Jesus Loves You" message came through loud and clear -- and if I now embrace the idea of purgatory as a fundamentally hopeful notion, rather than another frightening obstacle to happiness, I suspect that's why.Campbell is eloquent, however, in explaining the appeal of indulgences (and the theology that supports them) to spiritual seekers. The rebuttal from the left, offered by Leonard Swidler, is less helpful -- Benedict may be intent on "roll[ing] back the joyful renewal accomplishments of the Second Vatican Council," but I think there are better grounds on which to make that argument. And yes, of course, the pope has bigger fish to fry (or catch?), but (at least until this week) announcing the occasional plenary indulgence wasn't preventing progress in other areas, as far as I can see.I grant a partial indulgence (void where prohibited) for anyone still putting up with all this indulgence talk from me. Happy Valentine's Day, everyone. And don't forget: Jesus loves you!Update: One more follow-up post here.
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.