Roman Holiday

Before you get to heaven, you gotta raise a little hell

In the controversial film Dogma, two fallen angels try to get back to heaven on the wings of a plenary indulgence -- a bit of grace instituted by the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century to pull sinners straight into God's arms.

On March 31, Archbishop Justin Rigali is scheduled to shepherd more than 100 St. Louisans on a pilgrimage to Rome, where they will receive their plenary indulgences quite legitimately.

Pope John Paul II is celebrating the millennial jubilee by offering indulgences all around. Athletes will receive them at the Olympic Stadium on Oct. 30; frazzled travelers need only stop at the tiny chapel in Rome's airport. And for those who can't imagine traveling with the shy and rather rigid archbishop (how do you sneak away to buy Prada and Armani, or guzzle Chianti on the Spanish Steps, or visit the Pizza Rustica in the red-light district?), there are 15 local pilgrimage sites, ranging from the Cathedral Basilica to the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Mo.

Jeremy Eaton
Jeremy Eaton

After hiding for decades in a dusty old dogma closet, indulgences have gained a conservative pope's blessing. Younger Catholics are shaking their heads, repeating the phrase "plenary indulgence" in disbelief. Didn't all that end when Martin Luther hammered his outrage onto the wooden door of the Cathedral of Wittenberg? Weren't indulgences the flashpoint for the Reformation that burned the Church's reputation and created all those Protestants?

Well, yeah. And they're still a flashpoint.

Just ask the Lutherans, who were sincerely shocked to hear the pope offering plenary indulgences for the millennial jubilee less than two months after Catholics and Lutherans signed a historic agreement, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, that many saw as a step toward reunification. Celebrated Oct. 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, the Declaration proclaimed, finally, "a shared understanding.... By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God." In other words, the two churches had finally reconciled Luther's objections, agreeing that only faith can save us.

Robert Kolb, Ph.D., professor of theology at Concordia Seminary, belongs to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which refused to sign the Joint Declaration, anticipating just such conflicts. He remembers Rigali speaking at Concordia years ago about the pope's plans for the millennium but swears the archbishop never mentioned indulgences, which came as a bit of a shock. "The Roman Catholics I know best are embarrassed by John Paul's proclamation," says Kolb. "It doesn't make ecumenical conversation any easier."

Officially, an indulgence is "a remission of the temporal or purgatorial punishment of sins already pardoned." It's actually a rather elegant theological concept, suggesting that our sins cause damage or disorder and that even after we're forgiven, we must do something to make restitution, restore the world's equilibrium and regain our integrity.

But behind that delicate reminder is a dark, smoky hall of mirrors winding all the way back to the 11th century, its images bent and fattened by corruption and just plain confusion.

The practice was begun by local bishops after the sackcloth and ashes of the early Church's harsh public penances (you knelt outside the church for years, and certain sins, among them murder and adultery, could be forgiven only once) had softened into private confessions. Indulgences added an extra layer, urging good works to make restitution for sins that would otherwise have to be purified in Purgatory.

Ahh, Purgatory -- a uniquely Roman Catholic construction, meant to remind people that before they stood in the luminous presence of God, their souls might need a bit of a wash. Today's theologians talk gently about regaining integrity, but medieval Catholics imagined a pit of suffering that was, one priest authoritatively pronounced, 1,000 times the pain of childbirth.

Indulgences allowed the faithful to do a little purification ahead of time under more comfortable circumstances. Even the most celebrated path to a plenary indulgence, going on a Crusade to bring infidels back to Christendom (or, if that failed, to slaughter them, crying, "God wills it!") was easier than Purgatory. And the cowards back home could do all sorts of things -- visit shrines, wear tiny envelopes filled with the dust of a saint's bones, abstain from legitimate pleasures -- to receive either a partial or a plenary (full) indulgence.

The best kind, obviously, was plenary, and the best time to receive one was the jubilee year, which continued the ancient Hebrew tradition of wiping the slate clean every 50 years (eventually accelerated to every 25 years). The jubilee was first held in Rome in 1300, a stroke of genius by Pope Boniface VIII because the Crusades had made pilgrimage to the Holy Land too risky. Catholics from all over Europe flocked to Rome -- hotel bills skyrocketed -- and money poured into the papal coffers. Dante, who was there, watched priests rake up silver and gold coins, mentally slating them places in his Inferno.

By the 1500s, indulgences were being sold like junk bonds. They could now be bought for dead people, too, so there was sudden pressure to get Grandma, who'd died mean-drunk on dandelion wine, out of Purgatory. Then, in 1516, Pope Julius II authorized a Dominican priest, John Tetzel, to travel through Germany preaching indulgences. "When in the coffer a coin clings, out of Purgatory a soul springs," sang Tetzel, gathering gold to pay off an archbishop's bank loan and fund Julius' pet project, the rebuilding of St. Peter's.

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