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...

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