Twitter, World Youth Day, and IndulgencesJul 21st, 2013 | By Jeremy Tate | Category: Blog Posts
The following post is not intended to offer an academic or theological defense of purgatory or the practice of granting indulgences as Called to Communion has already discussed these doctrines and practices at great length. For readers interested in a thorough treatment of indulgences, purgatory, and pilgrimages, see Bryan Cross’ article from January of 2011. This short post simply aims to offer some reflections in light of Pope Francis’ decree from July 9th concerning the obtaining of plenary indulgences via social media for following the events at World Youth Day in Brazil. My hope is that those who read the post will not see the practice of granting indulgences as a deterrent to Catholicism, but as yet another reason to go deeper in exploring the riches of the Catholic Church and the boldness of her claims.
(Christ the Redeemer, this well known symbol of Catholicism in Brazil will be seen by thousands of young Catholics on pilgrimage to Rio De Janeiro this week for World Youth Day)
Sitting in a Western Civ class freshman year at Louisiana State University I heard, for the first time, the little couplet attributed to Johann Tetzel; “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” The clever rhyme stuck in my head as I walked back to my stinky dorm room. At the time I was in the early phase of processing the distinctives of Reformed theology and this new knowledge fit well into the Reformed narrative of Church history. The Reformers were heroes. They had rescued Christianity and preserved the gospel despite men like Johann Tetzel doing their best to lose it.
Everything about indulgences seemed utterly foreign to what I had read in the New Testament. But more than that, they just seemed weird, in the fullest sense of the word. The practice seemed to be surrounded by other odd doctrines and practices unique to Catholicism; purgatory, prayers for the dead, pilgrimages, and a treasury of merit. In fact, the practice seemed so far down the line of peculiar Roman Catholic beliefs that I dismissed it without another thought.
In seminary, however, a new question presented itself to me that would eventually lead me back to some of the seemingly strange practices within Catholicism. The question I faced demanded an answer; did Jesus establish a Church and what authority did He give to her? I came to the conclusion that Christ indeed established one, single, indivisible Church, with a visible head and His own presence in the Eucharist at the center of worship. More importantly, I discovered the sacramental nature of the Church. The Church wasn’t merely a place to meet in common worship, but truly the vehicle by which God pours his redemptive grace into the world. Along the way I discovered that the odd practice of granting indulgences wasn’t really so odd.
Sure, an indulgence was something additional, but an additional grace, not an additional weight. The Catholic Catechism defines an indulgence as follows;
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”
Note that an indulgence does not forgive a sinner of the guilt of their sin. The sin is forgiven already through God’s free grace, merited for us by our Savior Jesus Christ. An indulgence is more grace, not less. To understand this point it’s necessary to understand the double consequence of sin. Again, the Catholic Catechism is helpful;
To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain. – Catholic Catechism, 1472
Common human experience bears witness to the double consequence of sin. A man may receive forgiveness from his wife for adultery, but the forgiveness does not immediately remove all the consequences of the sin (the memories of the other woman, the habitual pattern of lying, broken relationships with extended family and children, and the wounds in her heart may remain for some time.) Likewise, sin has a double consequence. Again, see Bryan Cross’ previous article for a deeper look at the doctrine.
But even if one comes to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Church’s practice concerning indulgences there may still have been some shock with the Pope’s recent decree. When I first saw news of the decree it had been cut down to a sound bite -“POPE TO GRANT PLENARY INDULGENCES BY TWITTER.” To be honest, a bit of that former skepticism towards the Church surfaced in my mind when I discovered this news. Not only a bit of skepticism, but also a bit of incredulity at the tactic! Doesn’t the Vatican know that the conservative crowd that actually believes in the Church’s teaching on purgatory is also the least likely to follow anything on Twitter! But then, as I’ve learned to do, I realized it would be best to read what the Pope actually decreed on the matter.
The decree, released July 9th states;
“The faithful who on account of a legitimate impediment cannot attend the aforementioned celebrations may obtain Plenary Indulgence under the usual spiritual, sacramental and prayer conditions, in a spirit of filial submission to the Roman Pontiff, by participation in the sacred functions on the days indicated, following the same rites and spiritual exercises as they occur via television or radio or, with due devotion, via the new means of social communication…”
A couple points; Pope Francis is addressing a specific audience, the faithful who could not attend World Youth Day due to a “legitimate impediment.” Simply not feeling up to a trip, or disinterest, would not count as legitimate impediments. When this narrower audience is identified it becomes clear that this decree flows from Pope Francis’ love and concern or the poor. In a Church of mercy and compassion Catholics in good health with the financial means to travel shouldn’t have advantages over the sick and poor. As a good and faithful Bishop, Pope Francis imitates the love of Jesus towards the poor and marginalized and this recent decree is merely one example of this compassion.
In conclusion, only when the Church is rightly understood as the vehicle of God’s redemptive grace in the world can the practice of granting indulgences be understood. While it may still feel strange for those new to the Catholic Church or to those considering it, further investigating the practice only leads to a greater appreciation for the superabundant merits of Christ and the gift of the Holy Catholic Church as the conduit of the grace merited by Jesus’ death on the cross.