US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Indulgences are back and not for sale

By Megan Sweas | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I’ve been hearing about how indulgences are being promoted by the church again, most recently for the year of St. Paul. This week an article in the New York Times attempts to explain this practice—which may be as mystifying to young Catholics as it is to non-Catholics.

This might give a bad impression to those who connect indulgences with their sale, which Martin Luther protested, bringing about the Reformation. In fact, a Lutheran minister quoted in the NYT piece isn’t sure the move is good for dialogue: “It has been something of a mystery to us as to why now,” says Rev. Dr. Michael Root, dean of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C.

Catholic pastors say they are a way to try to get people back to Confession.

As a young adult Catholic, I have a confession to make: I learned about indulgences and purgatory not in CCD, but in a class on European history (just as the NYT says). Perhaps I was gone the day we talked about purgatory or maybe it was just beyond me, but when I learned about it in publich school, the idea that in my church we believed we could pray (or in past centuries pay) to burn time off in the waiting room for heaven was a big surprise to me—and it wasn’t too appealing either.

To me, therefore, talk of modern people getting indulgences is a bit strange. At least the church seems to be taking into account the legions of young people who didn’t grow up with this tradition in its approach: “The latest offers de-emphasize the years-in-purgatory formulations of old in favor of a less specific accounting, with more focus on ways in which people can help themselves—and one another—come to terms with sin.”

I won’t argue if you complain that religious education has grown fluffy and that in general my generation doesn’t take sin seriously enough. I just also appreciate the perspective of the Lutherans. As Root explains, “Our main problem has always been the question of quantifying God’s blessing.”

Are you in line for indulgences or are you still unsure about this practice?