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Professor explains return of indulgences

Robert Singer | Friday, February 20, 2009

Notre Dame is no stranger to Catholic tradition, but the renewed focus on the age-old practice of indulgences has eluded or confused many on campus.

A recent article in The New York Times said dioceses around the world are bringing back the tradition of offering indulgences, which lessen the time one spends in purgatory before entering heaven, according to Church doctrine.

Theology professor Richard McBrien said was practiced at its peak from the Middle Ages to just before the Second Vatican Council.

“An indulgence is the partial or full remission of spiritual penalties, or punishments, which still apply to sins that have already been forgiven,” he said.

Even though these sins have been forgiven, they still stand to be punished in the afterlife and acquiring an indulgence would provide some level of pardon from the consequences, according to McBrien.

“A partial indulgence would remit some of those penalties; a plenary indulgence would remit all of those penalties – at least until the person on earth committed another sin before death,” he said. “Then the process starts all over again.”

Indulgences have long been available and their return doesn’t represent a change in policy so much as a shift in focus. One theory states that more bishops are promoting indulgences as more lay people seek them because of a growing hunger to understand the meaning of sin and repentance in modern society.

On the surface, this trend also appears to confirm what many view as Pope Benedict XVI’s efforts to restore traditionalist principles to the church.

“The Pope generally wants to remind Catholics that some devotional elements and practices of the pre-Vatican II Church are still with us and that Catholics who wish to do so can still avail themselves of the spiritual benefits accruing from these devotions and practices,” McBrien said. “The rest of the Church, however, is free to ignore them.”

Although the Pope’s motivations are unclear, McBrien said that the bishops who are pushing the indulgences could have a specific goal in mind.

“In my opinion – and it is only that – those bishops who wish to emphasize indulgences once more are concerned with the diminishing of clerical authority in recent years,” he said. “This may be an attempt on their part to reassert clerical, and especially episcopal, authority.” 

McBrien added: “By making themselves once again the bestowers of great spiritual benefits which only they have the power to confer.  The problem is that most Catholics have no interest in indulgences.”

Lack of interest could prevent the revival of indulgences from having much impact on the daily lives of Catholics. When asked if he thought the renewed tradition would distract people from the church’s ministry, McBrien said, “no, because most Catholics will pay no attention to them, and those Catholics who are involved in social justice ministries will continue to be involved, without reference to the renewed attention to indulgences.”