Roman Holiday

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

Luther couldn't take it anymore. Calling indulgences "pious frauds of the faithful," he launched the Reformation. The Church stopped selling indulgences but swiftly reaffirmed their spiritual value, writing whole treatises to clarify the practice.

It was too late. "By then, Luther didn't even believe in Purgatory anymore," remarks Kolb. In the emerging Protestant view, there was no need for a faithful person to fear death and no need for the Church to set itself up as the dispenser of sanctity.

The Church thought differently. As recently as Jan. 1, 1967, Pope Paul VI "condemned with anathema those who maintain the uselessness of indulgences or deny the power of the Church to grant them." He also revised the doctrine to emphasize the importance of one's attitude and removed the quantitative measurements (seven years, 300 days) that had convinced people they were working off that much time in their Purgatory sentences. "It never meant that," exclaims a local theologian. "What it meant was the remission of punishment that was previously gained by that many days of fasting or pilgrimage."

Jeremy Eaton
Jeremy Eaton

That's a bit legalistic for the guy in the pews, though. "This is one of those teachings that is really hard to keep straight," admits Joan Range, Ph.D., associate professor of theological studies at St. Louis University. "It can easily slip into "Well, if I get this indulgence I'll go straight to heaven' -- and then the emphasis is on doing it rather than on the faith we all need. If you understand indulgences correctly, there is no conflict with the Lutheran view, because it's faith that brings about the indulgence. But that is very slippery."

The Rev. Bob Finn, member of the archdiocese's Millennial Jubilee Committee, says he's "not in a position to know whether the Vatican considered the juxtaposition" before announcing the special plenary indulgences, but the Joint Declaration "affirms something we as Catholics, and at least some Lutherans, hold in common: that all salvation comes from Christ; we can't earn it. In addition, we as Catholics hold a connected understanding of meritorious actions that help deepen our holiness and can be shared with other people. I think most of the Lutheran folks with whom we have joyfully celebrated this common statement would not expect us to suspend our other devotional beliefs."

The U.S. Catholic Conference gave the movie Dogma an O rating, branding it morally offensive because it so woefully misconstrued the teaching, presenting it as a free ticket to heaven. "This is not superstitious for us; it's a way to be more in contact with Jesus Christ," says Finn. "But I don't think there's a surefire way to keep people from overmaterializing any religious practice." He's done his best, helping prepare instructional booklets to distribute at parishes and pilgrim churches. Even the Travel Tyme travel agency in Ellisville offers a rule sheet, reminding the pilgrims that "only one plenary indulgence can be obtained each day"; that recipients must confess their sins, receive Holy Communion and pray for the Pope's intentions (one Hail Mary and one Our Father will be sufficient); and that one cannot obtain indulgences for others who are alive, because that would violate their free will.

It's all very complicated -- but at least you can't buy indulgences anymore. The "pilgrimage certificate" is purely commemorative -- although the trip to Rome, planned by Travel Tyme to include trips to St. Peter's, the Vatican and Assisi, does cost $2,195.

« Previous Page