Pope Benedict XVI




Dismayed by what conservative church members see as a loss of understanding of a central Christian doctrine, the concept of sin, the Catholic Church has been reviving the practice of indulgences.

The church’s controversial return to a doctrine that fell out of favor in recent years has important social and cultural consequences that will by no means be limited to the Catholic Church but will in fact affect us all.

The movement to revive the granting of indulgences has created a vigorous debate within the church, which has spilled even into the pages of the New York Times.

It’s a very interesting article and an important subject given the number of Catholics in the United States and their likely continuing increase as the proportion of the population with Latino origins continues its rise. And given that ideas have consequences, how Catholics resolve this issue will have a great effect on American society and culture.

The practice of indulgences, common during the Medieval Era, basically involves the church granting time off from purgatory for truly penitent sinners who confess their sins to a priest and follow through with acts of contrition.

Because of abuses that arose naturally due to human frailty, the practice was attacked during the Reformation—and indeed served as a spark for that grand change in Western civilization. The Catholic Church retained the practice while working to curb abuses, but indulgences fell out of favor even in the Catholic Church in the past few decades.

The practice of granting indulgences has been revived in recent years, however, with the election of Pope Benedict XVI. As argued by the New York Times debaters, the thinking is basically as follows: one, indulgences are biblically defensible and are a lasting and important part of the church tradition; and, two, that the loss of the tradition has resulted in a lessening of the understanding of sin and appreciation of its seriousness, among the Catholic faithful.

I won’t presume to speak to what Catholics should do within their church, but it does appear to me that the argument that there are some serious flaws in the argument that the practice of indulgences is necessary lest people fail to appreciate the power of sin. It has been my observation that numerous churches without indulgences and purgatory have a great appreciation of the power of sin in the human soul.

The same is true, it appears to me, of the argument that the granting of indulgences encourages the faithful to take the sacraments more seriously. In both cases, the argument is that the use of ritual make something real (sin, the sacrament) more real to the faithful. That may be true to some extent, but it seems to me that the history of abuse of indulgences points to a major flaw of this approach: that it is all too natural for human beings to make the ritual the more important thing and lose their appreciation for the truth to which it is supposed to point us.

Despite these concerns, I wish the Catholic Church well in its effort to increase its adherents’ appreciation of core doctrines and work toward the greater faith and personal transformation that such understanding may bring—for an increase in the appreciation of the power of sin would be a tonic for the culture.

Currently many Americans seem to manifest a very weak understanding that they are fundamentally responsible for their actions and the conditions of their lives. This leads to all sorts of ills. If the Catholic Church’s revival of indulgences helps turn that around, it will be a very positive cultural event indeed.