Fast Passes to Paradise?


Indulge me, OK? Because while I retained some vague childhood notions about Fast Passes to Paradise, I was surprised to read, on the front page of the February 10 New York Times, that under Benedict XVI, partial and plenary indulgences have “increased markedly.’’ Also news to me: You can transfer your earned credits to the dead if you wish, though the limit of one indulgence per day per customer still applies.

Part of the explanation looks like a baldachino-sized loophole, though: To earn one, not only do you have to go to confession and receive Communion; you also have to achieve “complete detachment from any inclination to sin.’’ Which would seem to put all of us out of contention—like those airline promos with such limited availability that no one you know personally has ever qualified to fly across the country for $27.

Isn’t that the sort of thing that encourages our critics and enriches Christopher Hitchens? Isn’t the whole idea that special prayers said on special days can ease our suffering bound to encourage the misimpression that pain is a punishment for our sins?

A decade ago, a Commonweal editorial took the Times to task for a similar story, about John Paul II’s announcement of Jubilee Year indulgences:

One might ask if the Times would be quite so supercilious in reporting on the traditional Jewish practice of saying kaddish. Kaddish, after all, is not said for the benefit of the living. It is no mere metaphor. By saying kaddish, the Jew believes he will reduce for those who have died the time spent in Gehenna. It is a sharing of spiritual gifts—a beautiful expression of how, as the psalmist says, love conquers even death. Only the spiritually tone-deaf would call it a shortcut to salvation. In the spirit of the millennium, however, we are willing to grant...the Times a partial indulgence. They obviously suffer from what moral theologians call “invincible ignorance.”

Mea culpa, then. Because though I sometimes find my old paper’s Catholic coverage patronizing—behold their quaint and colorful folk ways—in this case I find any derision embarrassing but understandable.

I know it’s not Benedict’s job to make our lives as Catholics easier; al contrario, right? But should one of my secular friends want to know what is up with this odd throwback, what have our church leaders given me to work with?

In the Times, I see, Brooklyn’s Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio explains it this way: “Why are we bringing it back? Because there’s sin in the world.” Which may explain why, when we want to convey that something is a—what’s the word?—non sequitur, we invariably reach for Latin, the language of the church.

Maybe the reporter DiMarzio talked to caught him on the fly, or misunderstood. So let’s see what John Paul II had to say on the subject back in 1998, when, ahead of the celebration of the Jubilee marking the third millennium of Christianity, he announced that he was expanding the ways to earn an indulgence to include giving up smoking or drinking for a day, or visiting a prison inmate.

In Incarnationis mysterium, John Paul encouraged Catholics to seek forgiveness for our historical errors, and asked wealthy countries to forgive or ease third-world debt. Great. But he also talked up individual plenary indulgences as “one of the constitutive elements of the jubilee.” Any nontheologian out there find that even remotely helpful?

A Web site called Catholic Online ( offers an intro to indulgences that refers to

an account of St. Philip Neri, who died in 1595, preaching a jubilee indulgence in a crowded church. A revelation was given to him that only two people in the church were actually getting it—an old charwoman and the saint himself. Not exactly encouraging, huh? But don’t worry. If you aren’t perfectly disposed and can’t get the plenary indulgence, you’ll at least come away with a partial.

Which, though I’ve been carrying around a holy card of St. Gerard Majella, protector of expectant mothers, for the last thirteen years, strikes even me as fully daft. And what’s worse, as a reminder that the Vatican was literally built on the sale of indulgences.

True, the quid pro quo of an indulgence no longer involves Rod Blagojevich-style pay-for-play, and hasn’t since 1567. But it still seems like a pretty straightforward spiritual transaction at the favor bank. And—forgive me—like exactly the kind of shortcut that enthusiasts insist it is not.


Read more: A discussion of indulgences at dotCommonweal.

Published in the 2009-02-27 issue: 

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of

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