This story in a local paper today caused me to set the Wayback Machine, and travel back to the Catholic upbringing of my youth, to understand exactly what the report was about. In the article, the local cathedral was recently renovated, and to celebrate it, Pope Benedict, through The Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary (WTF?), has granted the right to receive certain indulgences if a pilgrimage is taken to the newly renovated cathedral. What is an indulgence, you ask?
First you need to know what sin is. Sin is a bad thing that you did during your lifetime, to put it childishly, which is how it was put to me when I was a child. When you sin, you incur punishment, according to Catholic teaching, depending on the severity of the sin. Mortal sin usually requires a more serious punishment, while venial sins require less. If you die with mortal sin on your soul, you go to Hell. With venial, you go to Purgatory, to spend time there getting rid of those sins, before you get to go to heaven.
Now an indulgence is something you can get from the church to expiate those sins that would ordinarily send you to Purgatory. With an indulgence, you don’t need to go to Purgatory for those sins that you committed prior to receipt of the indulgence. Of course, if you sin later, you need to deal with those new sins without reference to past indulgences. (I know I’m probably over-simplifying this, but since the Church, after 2000 years of theology, seems to have over-complicated it, I think it’s a small concession in the right direction. If you want a more complicated explanation, look here.)
Historically, the granting of indulgences has been somewhat controversial. You might even be able to say that, but for the sale of indulgences, the Protestant Reformation may not have occurred. Martin Luther, after he posted his 95 Theses, which were essentially grievances about the sale, for cash, of indulgences, went on to form his own church, and began the Reformation process.
If you think about it, an indulgence is like a get-out-of-jail card in Monopoly. But an earthly entity, the Church, and the humans who run it, tell us that they know by simply making a proclamation, as long as you meet the prerequisites, they will be able to intercede on your behalf at the great halfway house in the sky. How do they know this? Is it in the Bible somewhere? Where was this process learned? Here’s what the Catholic Encyclopedia says about indulgences:
An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God’s justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive.
I’m so glad they cleared that up.
The Power of the Keys conferred supreme authority in Peter (and his successors) over the earthly Church. It was given to Peter by Christ. The authority to grant indulgences comes from this Power. This could also be where priests derive their power to forgive sins. The remission of punishment through indulgences was further explained as an extension of merits unused by the saints and Christ when they were here on earth. In other words, there was a bank account of sorts set up by the really good people who became saints, who didn’t use all of the credits they generated while here, and the church could use those credits as indulgences, and actually sell them as get-out-of jail cards to people who qualified.
Really? Does any of this sound like the Church was making this up as they went along? They cite one line from the Bible (Matthew 16:19) that simply says:
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
From this the early church fathers figured out this whole merit system that they could use to generate income to help pay for renovations to St. Peter’s Basilica? No wonder Martin Luther got pissed off and nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door!
Now, the article I read in the local paper doesn’t say anything about paying for these indulgences, and technically the church is not allowed to extract financial consideration for indulgences, but I’m cynical when it comes to these things. I don’t think, for a minute, that all these pilgrims are going to a make the trip to the Diocesan cathedral, and fulfill the requirements of indulgences, which are, among others:
— receive the Holy Eucharist (it is certainly better to receive it while participating in Holy Mass, but for the indulgence only Holy Communion is required);…
and then leave without making some monetary contribution to the church. The suggestion is to receive Communion while participating at Holy Mass. And what else goes on at Mass? The Offering (i.e. the passing of the collection plate).
See? I told you I was cynical. The Church learned its lesson after Luther. No outright sales. Be a little more discrete. By insisting on Pilgrimages by people that would not normally attend Mass at the Cathedral, the Church insures an additional infusion of funds. Brilliant!
One other thing. Why would anyone want or need an indulgence. If the purpose is to get you out of Purgatory earlier than usual, in order to get you into heaven quicker, and if heaven is for eternity, what difference does it make if it takes you a few more years, or even a hundred thousand years, to get there. In the grand scheme of things, a million years is a drop in the bucket compared to eternity. So you shave a few years off of your sentence in the Big P. Big deal!You’re still going to heaven, and you’ll still be there for more time than you can even contemplate. Your time in Purgatory is finite, while your time in Heaven is infinite. A small wait should be nothing.
So, first they convince you that if you’re bad, you will not get to spend eternity in heaven, until you make it through Purgatory. They further convince you that this in undesirable, even though in terms of relative time (this is a temporal punishment after all) it is nothing. To get you out of there quicker, they tell you that you can obtain a pass, if only you follow the set of rules they’ve made up. Those rules are designed to put you in a place where a financial contribution is requested, and in most cases, will be made.
Looks like they are still in the business of selling indulgences, not to mention a bill of goods.