He who holds the keys to the kingdomRobert Mickens
- 18 February 2006
For many modern Catholics, the practice of granting indulgences to hasten the path through purgatory to heaven is thought to have been ended by Vatican II. Under Benedict XVI there has been a revival ? and it is one which tells us much about papal authority
?When a coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs.? Every good Protestant who is old enough to have grandchildren will recognise these words. They are attributed to a sixteenth-century German friar, Johann Tetzel OP, who actually sold indulgences to help finance the construction of St Peter?s Basilica in Rome. It was this abuse that ignited the rage of Martin Luther, who in 1517 helped launch the Protestant Reformation.
Many Catholics today, at least those on the progressive wing of the Church, probably never give indulgences a second thought. The notion that by securing an indulgence ? quite simply the removal of the temporal punishment of sins that have already been forgiven by the Church ? one can secure a fast track to heaven seems curiously outmoded to many. It is an aspect of Catholic life that belongs, if not to the Middle Ages, to the pre-Vatican II era.
But now there is clear evidence that indulgences are very much back at the heart of Catholic life as seen from the Vatican. In his first 10 months of office, Pope Benedict XVI has explicitly ? and surprisingly ? granted a plenary indulgence in connection with three major ecclesial events: last year?s World Youth Day, the fortieth anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II, and the recent World Day of the Sick.
So what should we make of such recommendations? Has the Church taken a step backwards? Or have indulgences continued to exist, but been quietly ignored? In fact it can be argued that Benedict?s interest in indulgences tells us a great deal about how he perceives his own authority and that of the Church.
In classic Catholic teaching, forged between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, the practice reflects the belief that pastors can ?set the individual free from the vestiges of sin by applying to him or her the merits of Christ and the saints? ? what has been called the ?treasury of the Church?. Basically, an indulgence ? either partial or plenary (full) ? allows one to reduce his or her ?time? in purgatory or apply this grace to someone else who is already deceased. In order to obtain a plenary indulgence one must perform the prescribed task, plus go to sacramental confession, receive Eucharistic Communion, and pray for the Pope?s intentions.
The Council of Trent, which sat from 1545 to 1562, not only outlawed the selling of indulgences but also roundly condemned Martin Luther as well: ?The Church? condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them.? This same formula was re-stated, verbatim, by Pope Paul VI in 1967, some two years after the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which ? significantly ? had chosen not to issue condemnations or anathemas.
The practice of indulgences was never really addressed at Vatican II. And yet, some four decades later, a good number of Catholics ? and many Protestants, too ? continue to hold rather firmly but equally erroneously to the notion that the Council did away with indulgences ? or, at least, severely altered them. It was actually Pope Paul who oversaw the ?revision? of the practice. But the formula that Paul devised was only a partial reform that satisfied neither the Neo-Tridentines (such as the schismatic Lefebvrists) nor the so-called ?progressives? more sympathetic to Luther?s position.
Shortly after his election as Bishop of Rome in 1963 Paul VI formed a commission to revise the practice of indulgences. The findings, in a text called the Positio, were sent to the all the presidents of the world?s episcopal conferences in June 1965. The main thrust of the paper was to link the indulgence with the interior attitude of the believer and his or her action rather than with a place (such as a shrine or church) or an object (perhaps a holy medal).
Further, the numerical calculation of partial indulgences (for example, reducing a fixed number of days or years from purgatory) was to be banned and inflation of indulgences in general curtailed. This means that only one plenary indulgence could now be gained per day.
When the bishops arrived in Rome later in the autumn of 1965 for the fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council the conference presidents were asked to state their views on the Positio, but when they did there was outrage among some. The feisty Antiochan Patriarch of the Melchites, Maximos IV, urged that indulgences be suppressed outright, saying they were ?not only without theological foundation but the cause of innumerable grave abuses which (had) inflicted irreparable evils on the Church?.
Then the German bishops added fuel to the fire. The Archbishop of Munich ? Cardinal Dopfner ? stated unabashedly: ?The idea of a ?treasury? that the Church ?possesses? leads all too easily to a materialistic or quasi-commercial conception of what is obtained by indulgences.? He recommended that the Positio be scrapped and that a group of international theologians (Karl Rahner was one such he had in mind) be selected to re-write it.
The Pope formed his new commission and in early 1967 issued the Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum Doctrina ? which looked similar to the original Positio. The new document said that a believer could gain the indulgence only by fulfilling three obligations: by doing the prescribed work, by having the proper disposition (attitude of the heart) while doing the work, and by acknowledging the authority of the Pope in the process.
Indulgentiarum Doctrina was in effect a restatement of the medieval Catholic doctrine of indulgences, with more personalistic language common in the theology of the initial post-Conciliar period. (This remains a criticism of the neo-Tridentines today.) And yet the anathema of Trent is still there. Partial indulgences were no longer calculated by days and years and the number of plenary indulgences was reduced. Yet critics from the other end of the spectrum are perhaps still most disturbed that indulgence theology likens divine justice to human justice and its need for reparation.
More than a change in practice, the early post-Conciliar period saw a change in attitude. But all that began to change still further with the pontificate of Pope John Paul II and his heavy emphasis on traditional devotional practices.
In his 1998 bull for the Holy Year ? Incarnationis Mysterium ? the Polish Pope made the indulgence a ?constitutive part? of the Church?s Jubilee celebrations, which bewildered some Protestants, for in the same document the Pope also sought to give an ecumenical flavour to the event. The World Alliance of Reform Churches? (WARC) representative on the ecumenical commission for the Jubilee ? Waldensian Pastor Salvatore Ricciardi ? was one of the more ardent protesters. The bull ?seems wholly untouched by the events which shattered western Christianity in the sixteenth century?, Ricciardi wrote in October 1998, and then withdrew from the commission.
Receiving the indulgence ?is not automatic, but depends on our turning away from sin and our conversion to God?, Pope John Paul said at a general audience in September 1999. ?The paternal love of God does not exclude chastisement, even though this always should be understood in the context of a merciful justice which re-establishes the order violated,? he said.
The late Pope also issued a new manual that added a fourth way people could ?gain? indulgences: by giving public witness of their faith by their frequent participation in the sacraments or by proclaiming the faith through word or example to someone who does not believe.
?If you die immediately after receiving a plenary indulgence, you go directly to heaven,? said Fr Ivan Fucek SJ at the Vatican press conference that unveiled the book.
Then after the Holy Year the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity invited representatives from WARC and the Lutheran World Federation to a two-day discussion on indulgences. Participants expressed satisfaction with the meeting and a Vatican official said there would be follow-up sessions. But to this date, there have been none.
Since then Pope Benedict has indicated that he will make indulgences much more visible than his immediate post-Conciliar predecessors. There are good reasons for this. Theologically, the Pope seems to be emphasising the medieval doctrine ? codified at Trent ? of the ?economy of salvation? and the necessity of the Church. And politically he is making direct appeal to those Catholics ? both those still in communion with Rome and those like the Lefebvrists that are in schism ? who feel the practice of indulgences and the doctrine of Purgatory have been almost irreparably minimised.
But by revising the granting of the indulgence, Pope Benedict is actually doing nothing new at all. But the words of Paul VI in his 1967 document might offer a further clue to the new Pope?s motives: ?We ought not to forget that when they try to gain indulgences the faithful submit with docility to the lawful pastors of the Church. Above all, they acknowledge the authority of the successor of Blessed Peter, the key-bearer of heaven. To them the Saviour himself entrusted the task of feeding his flock and ruling his Church.?