Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence!

Grab yours before it’s too late! So commercial advertising blares out to the world.

The British mainstream left-wing press has published Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets. The article seems pretty sick, and I can only imagine that a newspaper largely run by atheists would make hay out of something like this to discredit all religion.

At the same time, we are touching upon a constant phenomenon in the history of the Church: a conviction according to which, firstly, the high clergy of the Church have take the place of God in questions of what happens to souls after death, and secondly, that those same clergy are hopelessly out of touch with reality and that attempts at being self-consciously “modern” are utterly pathetic.

In the early Church, the indulgence had nothing to do with getting people “off the hook” in the afterlife. Indulgences made sense when reconciled sinners had to accomplish severe penances – like spending years in a monastic “prison” or walking to Jerusalem. The Church from about the third century allowed the practice of recognised holy Christians to pray for sinners and ask for the canonical penances to be shortened. From the sixth century, some of the heavy penances could be commuted for reconciled sinners by having them recite prayers, give alms or going on pilgrimages less difficult than Jerusalem from western Europe. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the indulgence was removed from its association with canonical penances and attached to a more “supernatural” notion of remitting temporal punishment due to sin, even the “other side” of death.

Indulgences go with a particularly Roman Catholic notion of purgatory considered entirely in commercial and juridical terms. The Orthodox and many Anglicans also pray for the dead, but are less clear-cut about the nature of the intermediate state between heaven and hell. I tend to give credence to the notion that there is no need for such a notion, and that souls can obtain the help they need to leave the dark realms to find God’s light. We humans in this world know just about nothing about what awaits us, but certain pieces of “revelation” and different religious traditions allow us to conceive of a number of (or a continuum of) degrees of beatitude as well as degrees of suffering – all outside time, or at least our time.

I tend towards the notion of universalism – that all souls (even the demons) will/might find their way after however long in their present cursed existence – but that sin and wickedness will not go unpunished. I have written about this before, but the bottom line is that we know nothing about what lies outside this life – unless we are blessed with special experiences.

Until now, apart from the time when the RC Church was looking for money to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica, the Church has been reasonably sober and serious about this matter based on its traditional theological stances of having a “treasury of merits” for its children. Now, the idea is being associated with the use of internet social networking and having people follow the Papal visit to Brazil. It is to be seen whether this is true or just the ravings of atheists!

If this is true, then the whole thing is sinking into banality as would not have been imagined in the 1970’s. Salvation a few mouse clicks away! What about those who don’t have enough to eat, let alone enough money to buy a computer and internet connection? It has all become a sick joke!

I have done my best to see in this new Pope a profoundly spiritual man, in spite of his total insensitivity to beauty or music. Still, I won’t judge or denigrate his faithful and clergy – but I am left with many others in confusion and an empty feeling in the pit of the stomach.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence!

  1. Stephen K says:

    I don’t believe in indulgences or the power to give them. I am inclined to think that the cosmic essence will not be denied and karmic justice is inescapable within the mystery of God’s mercy.

    • This is just my thought, which by the way prevents the unscrupulous from making money out of people’s credulity. Most Roman Catholics don’t believe in that nonsense anymore, but pray for their departed loved ones with devotion and honesty.

  2. Evagrius says:

    From what I have gathered, the plenary indulgence comes with the usual requirements (i.e., confession, the Eucharist, prayer for the Holy Father’s intentions), and is granted in this case for watching/receiving certain events live (i.e., while they are actually happening in Brazil).

  3. Michael Frost says:

    The Gannett newspaper headline for this story is “Church has path to salvation in 140 characters or less: Pope Francis to grant indulgences to Twitter followers.” Moderately sized though placed on top of page 8A in my home town paper. I can’t find the story in today’s print edition of the Wall Street Journal. The justifications offered in the article are interesting. This one caught my eye:

    “‘In order to pay attention to the pope’s Twitter feed [Catholics] have to be integrating that into their daily life’, [Loyola University Assistant Professor] Daily said. ‘It is about people making the effort to bring faith into their daily life.'”

    This issue points out the eternal problem when dialoging with Rome. All of the medieval scholastic dogma is still there. It may be hidden away and all but forgotten by the clergy and laity, but it is still fully binding. I do hope the good Doctor Martin is getting a chuckle out of it today. 🙂

  4. I certainly don’t endorse the concept of indulgences, but perhaps it would help to remember that they are not about salvation per se. According to RC teaching, those who receive them are already in a state of grace; indulgences, then, are a matter of moving from purgatory (which is occupied only by the already saved whose eventual entry into heaven is assured) into heaven after a last bit of cleaning up. Again, according to RC teaching, indulgences do NOT give one the ability to move from hell to heaven after one has died outside the grace of God.

    • Michael Frost says:

      If you want to see a real mess about prayers for the departed, check out Archpriest Josiah Trenham’s (PhD) piece in The Word, June-Aug 2013, the Antiochian Archdiocese magazine. He repeats some of the hoary legends:

      “There are numerous instances of prayer for the unbaptized departed by the Saints. St. Thekla prayed for her unbaptized friend, Falconilla after her death and saved her. … St. Gregory the Dialogist prayed for Emperor Trajan and saved him from hell. St. Theodora obtained pardon of sins for her departed husband, the last iconoclast Emperor Theophilos, by her prayers for him.” (p. 38)

      Oddly, unless I missed it somewhere, doesn’t appear he discusses Luke 16: 19-31, the Rich Man in Hades and Lazarus at Abraham’s side. I’d love to see Fr. Trenhan’s exegesis on these very important words of Christ.

    • As I said in my article, the concept developed from the days when penitents were being laid onto with four dozen lashes of the cat o’ nine tails or made to grovel in the dust outside churches for months on end – to its being extended to the hereafter. The whole notion got very distorted with the onset of scholasticism and Nominalism.

      Most of us are aware what the catechisms teach and what often gets believed. Read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and the lovely things Cordelia narrated to the Canadian businessman who married Julia – sacred monkeys in the Vatican and all that sort of thing. Waugh had an amazing sense of satire based on the things he discovered in 1930’s Roman Catholicism! At least they had the traditional Mass in those days!

      • Michael Frost says:

        Fr. Anthony, That made my day. Waugh! But for me, all about Scoop!, Black Mischief, and The Loved One. All three comedic classics. In the latter, I’ve never forgotten the character whose last name means something like “one who brings longing for death”.

    • Stephen K says:

      If I may be “indulged” in my reminiscence of how indulgences were understood – not in terms of official theory in text books but in terms of little children’s minds. I have before me my little 1958 edition Sunday Missal which I got for my first holy communion all those years ago. A typical example is the note in parentheses after the ‘prayer to St Michael’ (Prayers after Low Mass) and the little booklet inserted into its pages containing the “Prayer before a Crucifix’: “indulgence of 10 years” and “plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions”.

      Indulgences were never understood by me in terms of pre-reformation travesties but in terms of the idea that saying prayers was good and showed repentance and love of God: if you said x or y prayer, your time in purgatory would be reduced by a or b period.

      Why did we not even then spend our every waking moment reciting the prescribed prayers by the hour to reduce the time we were going to spend in purgative fire to no time at all? I think ultimately because, though real enough to cause anxiety over naughtiness and “sins”, stuff about the ‘after-death’ was not real enough. Gautama – the Buddha – realised this and was generally disinclined to speculate in after-death terms.

      It was all very mechanistic and ex opere operato. The idea that a prayer, pilgrimage or penitence can cause this sort or remissional effect is really suspect and unsatisfactory on several levels. Not that such things – which are the raw material of religion – are intrinsically bad or futile psychologically or spiritually. It is just that indulgence theory is more akin to magical than spiritual religion, and that any earthly authority could assert an ability to grant such eschatological dispensations seems to me to be an assertion too far.

  5. Neil Hailstone says:

    A lay Anglican Catholic writes with a view from the pew. I do believe as do many of those I worship with in the existence of an intermediate state between heaven and hell. Not a place as depicted by over active imaginations in times long ago. No fiends with glaring eyes and spiked tails torturing sinners on spits over hot fires. Rather a place of further instruction. Described by one priest of my acquaintance in a homily as a place for a ‘Wash and brush up’.I also would associate myself with remarks written by Fr Anthony quite some time ago about a graded continuum.

    Hell exists but many views which appear about it in fundamentalist writings and fiery sermons seem to me to be sub Christian. I would see grounds for hope that whatever constitutes this state may not be eternal.

    We cannot speak definitively about the afterlife given our limitations of knowledge, time and space. I think most traditionalists among whom I am numbered would see Heaven as a place of calmness, light and joy where we will be with those who we loved deeply especially family members. People like myself who have committed certain sins which we hugely regret and for which we have received forgiveness through the Sacrament may well be due for ‘Purgatory’ For our own good I would say.

  6. While the word “purgatory” has freely been used by Anglo-Catholics, it has tended to be seen as representing the idea that because there is a “holiness without which no man will see the “Lord” our sanctification – our journey more deeply into his love – continues beyond death. This journey has usually been regarded in our tradition as an ongoing experience of cleansing, healing and renewal. We have been reluctant to say much more than that. In good-natured debate with an evangelical Lutheran, it was once said about sanctification and prayers for the departed: You might be justified by faith, but you still have to become the kind of person it is possible to live with for eternity!

    Also of note, and – I think approaching something of this way of looking at things – is the following from Cardinal Ratzinger, writing (in the original German) in 1977:

    … Purgatory is understood in a properly Christian way when it is grasped christologically, in terms of the Lord himself as the judging fire which transforms us and conforms us to his own glorified body ….

    … [T]he purification involved does not happen through some thing, but through the transforming power of the Lord himself, whose burning flame cuts free our closed-off heart, melting it, and pouring it into a new mold to make it fit for the living organism of his body[.]…

    …A person’s entry into the realm of manifest reality is an entry into his definitive destiny and thus an immersion in eschatological fire. The transforming “moment” of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of “short” or “long” duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naive and unproductive. The “temporal measure” of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed. …

    The essential Christian understanding of Purgatory has now become clear. Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather is it the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God, and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.*

    *Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. Translated by Michael Waldstein; translation edited by Aidan Nichols, OP. Dogmatic Theology, volume 9. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988. Pp. 229 ff. Translation of Eschatologie–Tod und ewiges Leben. Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet Verlag, 1977.

    • Michael Frost says:

      When it comes to the RCC, the snippet from then Cardinal Ratzinger doesn’t come close to the totality of RC dogma tied to purgatory. The statement obscures all that is tied to this for them. Start with the “sacrifice of the mass for the dead”. Mix in the “treasure of merits”. Finally, add “indulgences”. As the RCC CCC makes clear at paras. 1030-1032, “The [RC] Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent.” What was binding then is binding now! And as paras. 1474-1479 make crystal clear, it is the pope alone, controlling the RCC, who is in charge of the treasury and the indulgences. They admit the treasury is infinite (at 1476) and that he could easily and simply release all the souls in purgatory but chooses not to as “the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity.” (at 1478)

      The key to the system is that it is ALL about controlling the faithful in the here and now. To control their time, money, and talent. No different, theologically, than it was in 1517! (It is interesting that absolutely none of this makes it into the Joint Declaration on Justification with the LWF.)

      Thus, I don’t think it is accuate to say,”The essential Christian understanding of Purgatory has now become clear.” Rome’s understanding is light years away from anyone else’s official position. I think for EOs and some Anglicans, about all we can say is that what happens after each of our deaths is entirely in the hands of a just but loving triune God, who sent forth the Incarnate Word to be our savior and provided us with His Gospel, and who is all knowing and all powerful.

    • Michael Frost says:

      One can encounter some of the interesting dynamic with the RCC understanding of purgatory by looking at the specific details. The mixing of the words “purification” and “punishments” is most fascinting and enlightening. For example, while paras. 1030-32, 1472, and 1479 discuss purification, paras. 1471-73 and 1478-79 clearly discuss “the temporal punishments”. So the purification is only made effectual by the punishing. The therapeutic language is based on the juridical. Officially, it is still far more Dante than Cardinal Ratzinger. This comes forth in para. 1472: “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.” The footnote for this para. is their council of Trent. Would be interesting to read the original Latin for their councils of Florence and Trent?

  7. oops . . . I did not, of course, intend the stray ” to slip in before the word “Lord”

  8. Rdr. James Morgan says:

    A male ‘Sister of Perpetual Indulgence’ officiated at a friend’s daughter’s garden wedding several years ago. ‘she’ was wearing a wimple etc, but was obviously a male person. It was all quite bizarre and I hope someone videotaped the whole thing. I hope this does not become anywhere usual in climes we inhabit. it is very disconcerting.

Leave a Reply to Fr Anthony Chadwick Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s