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.

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."

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.

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