Please understand – i am certainly NOT about to indulge in an anti-Catholic rant. That is not helpful, productive or fair (not least because I have a number of valued friends and relatives who are Catholic). But I have to say that I’m a little surprised about this: Indulgences are back. Or to be more accurate, they never really went away.
This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the compendium of official church doctrine) has to say about the matter:
Section 1471 The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.
What is an indulgence?
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
So I suppose the news (on the BBC here) that the current Pope has approved special indulgences for the 150th anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s appearance at Lourdes is not surprising, and in fact entirely consistent with official teaching.
But it is surprising that the issue which sparked the Reformation is still an issue. It was the selling of indulgences which spurred the young monk, Martin Luther, to post his 95 Theses almost exactly 500 years ago (31st October 1517). The corruption which lay behind it in his day was rampant – and of course the issues today are not entirely the same. But Libby Purves, writing on The Times’ Faith Central, has a pretty fair take on this, I’d say.
The medieval concept had fallen into some disuse (not before time, say many modern Catholics) but the last two Popes have been keen on them. Catholic teaching tries to make them seem more sophisticated than the old idea of get-out-of-Hell-free cards, but a sense remains that Martin Luther – whose outrage at abuses over ‘indulgences’ triggered the Protestant reformation – had got a point. And why should an ability to afford the fare to Lourdes make anyone more worthy than someone who stays home doing good works