Indulgences sell newspapers?

orthodox_indulgenceToo frequently in print journalism, headline-induced spin ruins an otherwise solid news article. Such seems to be the case in this New York Times article on the alleged “return” of indulgences.

From a journalistic perspective, the article covers a lot of ground geographically. The article reflects a nice diversity of regions, from Pittsburgh to Oregon to Oklahoma. I would hope that other areas of the country see this article as an opportunity to contribute to the local discussion.

However, reporters calling their local bishop should be careful in how they phrase their questions because if they just base their inquiry on the articles’ headline they may be perceived as fairly uninformed.

Here is the article’s headline:

For Catholics, a Door to Absolution Is Reopened

A major issue for the many of you who have kindly submitted comments to us on this article is the fact that the door to indulgences was never really shut by the church. And the article reflects that fact at the beginning of the article (second paragraph) and at the end (final paragraph):

In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago — the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife — and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.

“It faded away with a lot of things in the church,” said Bishop DiMarzio. “But it was never given up. It was always there. We just want to people to return to the ideas they used to know.”

Overall, most of you who have already submitted comments, liked the article. One suggested that the comments from former America editor and Jesuit Rev. Tom Reese should have been cut from the article and that Notre Dame theology professor Rev. Richard P. McBrien could have been balanced out by another conservative theologian.

One reader submitted an extensive comment that focused on the article’s struggles to capture the true essence of an indulgence: the detachment from sin. The reader also noted that the article didn’t mention the document which lists all indulgences that are available on a regular basis known as the Enchiridion of Indulgences:

With every indulgence there are the requirements of going to confession, praying the Creed, Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, in particular for the intentions of the Pope. And then each indulgence also has other particulars, as listed in the Enchridion or published for particular circumstances. For instance, in this year of St. Paul, the requirement is to visit a church named in his honor and to follow all prescribed prayers.

However, there’s something more than this which was totally missed. In order to obtain a plenary indulgence, i.e. a complete remission of all punishment due to sin, one must have complete detachment to sin. This means there can’t be any desire for any sin of any kind. That’s the difficult part. People I know who try to obtain these indulgences know that they’ll only obtain a partial one because they don’t have that total detachment from sin.

The substance of the article seems to rightly focus on the fact that this is not a shift in church theology, but a marketing attempt of sorts to draw people in closer to the church in the United States. In fact, the article could have been flipped around to focus on the evidence that Catholics go to confession less often these days. The article’s focus could have also centered on the perceived “conservative resurgence,” but my guess is that there have been plenty of articles on that topic lately.

And as a final note on the article’s focus, indulgences tend to catch people’s attention, don’t they?

Image of an 18th-century absolution certificate granted by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and sold by Greek monks in Wallachia (History Museum, Bucharest) used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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  • Will

    I note that an entry on the site says

    A plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful, who piously and devoutly receive, even by radio [or television] transmission, the Blessing of the Sovereign Pontiff, when imparted to Rome and the World.

    I never got an answer to inquiries on whether Benedict expressly added a plenary indulgence to his Urbi et Orbi benediction, as his predecessor did. Did John Paul make a difference by actually saying so? Or did he add this provision?

  • Ed Mechmann

    The link you provide to the Enchiridion of Indulgences is to an outdated edition. The current edition (the 4th Edition, issued in 1999) is available online at the Vatican website, but only in Latin. The English translation is published by the US Bishops conference.

  • Jerry

    The point about the headline is a good one. I know a few peple who got the intent of the article totally wrong from the headline.

    But one thing really struck me:

    … fulfilling the basic requirements: going to confession, receiving holy communion, saying a prayer for the pope and achieving “complete detachment from any inclination to sin.”

    How many people do you know that are completely detached from any inclination to sin?”

  • Brian Walden

    I get the overall feeling that Vitello wrote an article more about people’s feelings about indulgences than about indulgences themselves. I wish he would have gotten a better understanding of indulgences and written an article that would help ordinary people with little knowledge of Catholicism to understand them.

    This isn’t a political topic, it doesn’t affect anyone other than Catholics. It would have been nice to have an article that really opened up an esoteric religious practice to the light. I’d love to see similar articles about practices in other faiths. Instead this article gives the reader a limited understanding of indulgences and a lot of (unqualified) people’s opinions about them.

  • Brian Walden

    How many people do you know that are completely detached from any inclination to sin?”

    I believe the Catholic understanding is that this is required for a valid confession (not just to earn and indulgence) and the sacrament of confession provides the grace to achieve this complete detachment from sin if the person is sincerely repentant and desires to amend their life. This is one reason why Catholics go to confession rather than relying solely on their own ability to make a perfect act of contrition.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The article quoted from the allegedly Catholic theologian Richard McBrien. Couldn’t the Times writer find a copy of the Official Catholic Catechism which is available in the religion section of most bookstores to at least give one quote from?? As for the word “absolution”– that is a word Catholics use to refer to what is effected in the Sacrament of Confession–the proper word for what indulgences effect is “purification.”
    The Orthodox have a vaguely similar teaching in that the souls of the deceased pass through “toll houses” after death. Instead of bringing in Lutherans, as this reporter did, maybe reporters could, instead, take some time to look at Orthodox beliefs which are far more the result of the same Catholic doctrinal root that the dead in some way need and are helped by our prayers for them.
    I’m puzzled by the “absolution” certificate used here to illustrate the story. Did the Orthodox also sell indulgences long after the Latins stopped??? Or was this some sort of Confession “absolution” certificate???? Were these Greek monks in communion with Rome?? Which Patriarch of Jerusalem was the issuer of this document?? There is a real problem with much of the information which goes with this illustration from Wikimedia.

  • Jerry

    Brian, thanks for the comment about detachment from sin. I can understand someone refraining from repeating a sin and maybe that’s the meaning of detachment in this context. I was thinking of it in terms of no longer feeling any temptation. Of course, such theological considerations are not something I’d expect to see in the media.

  • Brian Walden

    Jerry, I agree that explaining the meaning of the quote is beyond the scope of a MSM piece. In my personal opinion would have been better leaving it out altogether if he didn’t have the space to explain it.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Brian (#5),

    One is not required to have complete detachment from sin in order to make a proper confession and receive absolution. There are four requirements: Know your sins, be sorry for your sins, confess your mortal sins (venial sins are not required to be confessed, but it is a good idea to do so), and then to carry out the penance given by the priest.

    A penitent cannot say he is sorry for a sin but still have an intention to carry out the sin again. In that case, even if the priest does not catch the lack of contrition and grants absolution, there is no forgiveness.

    Resolving not to commit a particular sin again is obviously not the same as having complete detachment from sin. Complete detachment is too high of a price to ask for the forgiveness of particular sins. It’d be as if you insulted me and then apologized for it later on and I wouldn’t forgive you unless you had complete detachment from sin. That’s not what God or the Church requires.

    One of the many different acts of contrition recognizes this: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell…” Detesting all my sins isn’t necessarily the same as detachment from them all. Nor is it perfect contrition to say that you’re sorry out of fear of hell. But the Church will take whatever you’ve got, give it to the Lord and let Him perfect it.

    Jerry (#7),

    Those who are completely detached from sin still experience temptation. Just think of none other than Jesus. But the difference is that their love for God far outweighs anything that could be considered desirable on this earth. But you’re right, these theological subtleties cannot be expected from the media.