Indulge us

New York Times reporter Alessandra Stanley made the front page on November 28 with some shocking news from the Vatican. "Urging Millennial Penitence, Pope Is Offering Indulgences," the story’s headline snickered. What followed was a mishmash of potted history ("a practice that drove Martin Luther to rebel, beginning the Reformation"), obtuse theological commentary ("Indulgences are an ancient form of church-granted amnesty"), and barely concealed condescension ("liberal Catholics are embarrassed by a practice that seems to offer a short-cut to salvation").

The news peg for this patronizing essay was the release of the papal bull Incarnationis mysterium in which John Paul II proclaims 2000 a Holy Year, and authorizes the dispensing of indulgences for such practices as charitable works and acts of self-denial.

Stanley states that the pope’s aim is to restore indulgences to a "prominent" position in Catholic penitential practice. That seems dubious. For in truth, the theology of indulgences is intricate-sometimes too intricate-and the practice has notoriously been abused, as John Paul knows. Still the church has never abandoned its right to confer a remission of punishment for sin, in this world or the next. Indulgences do not, and never have, granted "amnesty" for sin, which can only be forgiven after confession, personal penitence, and prayer. But even repentant sinners, the church teaches, must perform acts of purification. Indulgences release sinners from such obligations. To do this, the church redistributes what is called "the treasury of merits of Christ and the saints" to those in spiritual need.

The very notion of an afterlife, let alone the idea of judgment, is of course the real stumbling block to many people. The claim that what the church binds on earth is also bound in heaven only aggravates that scandal. Yet making manifest the connection between this life and the next is one of the great works of biblical religion. For Catholics, that connection is perhaps best expressed in the notion of Christ’s mystical body. In baptism we are incorporated into the communion of Christ and his saints. With that incorporation comes a recognition of our mutual interdependence. As members of one body, those who are better off, for example, understand that they have an obligation to share what they have with the poor. In a similar fashion, early Christians fasted and prayed not just for themselves, but for one another and of course for the dead. As members of one body, the sharing of graces, like the sharing of material necessities, was a natural expression of solidarity, not a crude purchase of spiritual assets. It is in this sense that the church is authorized to grant indulgences, to draw spiritual nourishment for the needy from the vast reserves of Christ’s grace.

If this idea strikes one as folly, you might ask if people are more likely to share their worldly goods if they also have a sense of shared spiritual identity. Or 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 short-cut to salvation.

In the spirit of the millennium, however, we are willing to grant Ms. Stanley and the Times a partial indulgence. They obviously suffer from what moral theologians call "invincible ignorance."

Published in the 1998-12-18 issue: 
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