Message-ID: <>
Date: Mon, 30 Nov 1998 16:42:41 EST
Subject: [Atheist] re: AANEWS for November 30, 1998
Precedence: bulk

In time for millennium hoopla, Vatican resurrects indulgences

American Atheists, AANews, #509, 30 November 1998

There's the 30-year mortgage, debit cards and banking by phone. Now, the Roman Catholic Church has brought back a practice which even many of its followers had consigned to the historical dustbin as both obsolete thinking and an embarrassment, even an overt expressionism of greed and commercialism, which the playwright Geoffrey Chaucer had mocked in “The Canterbury Tales.” On Sunday, Pope John Paul II officially declared the year 2000 as a “Great Jubilee” for believers, and announced that god would be honoring “indulgences”—credit earned toward punishment time in purgatory (a realm which the Vatican teaches is almost as unpleasant as hell, but only temporary in its duration)— after one has died. Church teachings insist that the living may earn credit through the indulgence system for time spent by others, or later by themselves, in the tortures of that unpleasant hereafter. With the exception of saints (who presumably take an express track to heaven), all Catholics, including clerics and the most sanctimonious, must serve some time in purgatory for their sins. Those sent to hell for the most serious transgressions, though, dubbed “mortal sins” cannot for some unfathomable reason benefit from the indulgence system.

Stopping Short of Simony

Pope John Paul's pronouncement, a “Bull,” is considered the highest form of rule that the Vatican can issue. Titled the Jubilee Year Bull of Indiction, it calls upon Roman Catholics to make a “pious pilgrimage” to Rome, Jerusalem or other designated “holy sites,” as well as pray, confess their sins to a cleric, and perform certain charitable works. The second part of the Bull, considered an appendix, is labeled “Conditions for Gaining the Jubilee Indulgence.” It outlines how penitents can “commute” sentences of suffering in purgatory for themselves or others. These acts of “penitential spirit“ include abstaining for booze or smoking for a day, contributing money to the poor, or by contributing to “activities benefiting the community.” (Catholic organizations might be “suggested” to penitents as convenient conduits for making such donations.) While indulgences granted either generally or by special rescript remain in force during the Great Jubilee, it should be noted that the Jubilee indulgence also can be applied in suffrage to the souls of the deceased.

Although indulgences have technically been part of the Church's teachings, this new emphasis on the practice is attracting media scrutiny, and eliciting embarrassment from some religious quarters. “Indulgences are associated by some with the worst examples of corruption, exploitation and hypocrisy in the Roman Catholic Church's history,” notes today's issue of Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. Prior to the Reformation, the Holy See peddled indulgences to rich and poor alike, and “used the money to pay for some of its grandest buildings, extravagant treasures, and to fund the opulent lifestyle of bishops.” Even St. Peter's Basilica in Rome was constructed using indulgence contributions under the papal reign of Leo X.

An associated practice was known as Simony, defined as the purchase or sale of spiritual things. It is derived from Simon Magus, a magician who according to biblical lore attempted to trade money for spiritual powers from St. Peter himself. Clerical legislation against the practice punctuates the history of the church, suggesting that it has remained widespread. Simony was denounced, starting with the Edict of Milan in 313 c.e., again in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, and later at the Third Lateran Council (1179) and the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Despite this, it remained rampant and corrupted the entire church hierarchy, and eventually became an impetus for the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther (1485–1546), one of the leading critics of the Vatican, cited indulgences and the more blatant practice of Simony as Catholic practices lacking proper foundation in the bible, and including those charges in his ninety-five theses or objections to Papal rule.

Luther cited as a major offender the German monk Johann Tetzel, an indulgence “broker” who worked on behalf of Albert of Brandenburg (1490–1545), who served as both Archbishop of Magdeburg and elector of Mainz. In order to cover his expenses for maintaining a plush lifestyle, and buying high church positions (he later was named a Cardinal), Albert “subcontracted” the indulgence businesses. Ironically, while he remained a creature of the Vatican, he also permitted relative religious freedom in his realm, although Protestants were required to pay off Albert's occasional debts.

More than Martin Luther, though, it was the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?–1400) who is remembered in our time as a scathing critic of indulgences. His monumental work, “The Tales” (known later popularly as the “Canterbury Tales) is a series of vignettes taking place within a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. These pilgrims represent a cross section of English society, from the noble Knight to the Plowman. The Pardoner peddles salvation in exchange for worldly coin, and despite his eloquence in matters of religious doctrine, seems to reduce the fate of the human soul to the status of a commercial transaction.

Still, Embarrassment and Shame Today

Some church officials still hold to the practice of indulgences, although argue that while the practice is spiritually correct, it must be “explained” property to the faithful. The assistant general secretary to the Roman Catholic Bishop's Conference in England and Wales told the Daily Telegraph that officials shame, adding “My reaction (to the Jubilee Bull) is one of embarrassment. Indulgences are associated with childish superstition.”

But “the doctrine is perfectly sound,” declared Rev. Nicholas Coote, cautioning that “indulgences are not magic and people cannot rattle off 10 Hail Marys and think they will go straight to heaven.”

A spokesman for the group's Secretariat, Liam Kelley, admitted to the “chequered history” of indulgences, and added “The language is archaic, but the concept is good.”

Capitalizing on Millennialist Hysteria

John Paul's “Jubilee Bull” comes at an auspicious and, say, politically astute time in history. Sunday's pronunciation was simply the official green light to plans which have been carefully underway for several year, all toward riveting the attention of Catholics and non-Catholics alike on the year 2000. The spectacle begins on Christmas Eve, 1999 with the opening of a “holy door” at St. Peter's Basilica. As estimated 20 million visitors are expected to flock to Italy during millennium celebrations, many of them heading to religious sites including St. Peter's. Another 2 million tourists will be heading to Israel, where both the government and the tourist industry have been working feverishly to construct new hotels and spruce up religious “hot spots” in anticipation of cash-leaden pilgrims.

A wide range of apocalyptics, including fundamentalist Christians, are focused on the arrival of the year 2000. While the Vatican carefully hedges any statements about the millennium, often avoiding the more sensationalist claims that it will mark the Second Coming of Jesus or some other miraculous event, the church is cashing-in on a new wave of “end times” angst and interest in spirituality which is sweeping much of the world. For Catholics, and especially the Vatican hierarchy, declaring the year 2000 a “Jubilee year” makes sense in terms of gaining converts, trying to reinforce the faith of straying flocks, and bring back an old strategy with time-proven results — offering indulgences in exchange for salvation.