It’s official. As the post below notes, indulgences are back. Well, they never really went away, but the Vatican has recently been pushing them with new-found fervour. As noted below, you can check it out here or find it on the cover of yesterday’s New York Times.

I just want to add some thoughts jumping off from where the previous post left off.

As a Protestant, I get a little worried about indulgences. (By the way, terms matter here. If you don’t know what an indulgence is, see my appendix below.) The sale of indulgences was a major spur of the Reformation. Luther felt that, in practice, the Church was essentially selling salvation. Consequently, his re-articulation of the Gospel underscored the un-mediated path Jesus’ cross opens for the sinner to approach God and receive grace by faith. In other words, you could bypass the middle man and go straight to the CEO of Mercy, Inc.

I believe, with all the good folks at Mockingbird, that people are saved by grace (one-way love) alone through faith alone. As singer-songwriter Jason Harrod says, “Mercy is the only thing worth anything” (From his “gangsta-folk” song “Molly” off his album, Harrod and Funck, recorded with Brian Funck). So it’s not an understatement to say I have issues with indulgences.
But let’s look at the silver lining. There are some good things here:

  1. The Catholic church, in highlighting indulgences, wants to redirect people to the reality of sin. A Catholic bishop says just that in the article. And we need as much of this as we can get. As songwriter Bill Mallonee (frontman of the amazing indie/alt-country Vigilantes of Love) has said in a recent interview, “The Good News doesn’t make any sense until you know what the bad news is. And the bad news isn’t that we have a few harmless peccadilloes and we screwed up on the way between high school and college or whatever—it’s deeper than that. It’s unrelenting.” If you need confirmation on the reality of sin and your own life doesn’t give you enough clues, watch AMC’s Mad Men. Nevertheless, many people don’t realize that gnawing feeling inside them is a need for absolution. This act by the Catholic church may help some people see that.

    2. The revival of indulgences makes the Gospel relevant. It makes what Mockingbird stands for a lot clearer. There really are different understandings of salvation. Imagine a system in which you needed priestly absolution and an indulgence to be totally free-and-clear before God. Now imagine a system where a man or woman arrives at the same forgiven place by nothing he or she does, but merely says, “God, forgive me,” upon realizing his or her own sinful state, and it’s done. 100%. There really is a difference. And that difference matters.

    Appendix: What’s an indulgence? In Roman Catholic teaching, after you’ve confessed your sins to a priest and that priest has absolved you, there are still lingering effects of your sin. So even though you are forgiven, you still have to endure “temporal punishment” to cleanse you further. This is done through penance—either in this life, or if that’s not enough, in purgatory. An indulgence is when then church says, “OK, we remove part or all of your temporal punishment if you perform some kind good work of devotion.” So to review: Commit a sin, go to confession, get forgiven. But you still have the temporal punishment to deal with. So go to a priest, do the good work he prescribes, and receive a partial or full (“plenary”) indulgence. By the way, in this system, the indulgence draws on a treasury of merit stocked with the good works of Christ and all the saints.