By Andrew Santella
New York Times Magazine, March 14, 1999
Salient Facts: Papal Indulgences
In celebration of the millennium, a long-forgotten tradition is
due for a (second) renaissance.
Indulgences? Sounds like a distant memory from history class.
Thats because they were most notorious in the 16th century--or
about halfway through the second semester. Theyre meant as
a way for Catholics to reduce their debt to God, which people build
up through sin (and which they otherwise must work off through penance
or, later, in Purgatory). To earn these indulgences, worshipers
had to perform special prayers, make pilgrimages or undertake acts
of personal sacrifice.
Didnt they cause a whole mess of trouble the last
During the Renaissance, the Catholic Church started actually selling
indulgences, for cash, to wealthy patrons. That move didnt
go over very well with critics like Martin Luther, who called them
frauds of the faithful. In fact, they were a big part of what caused
him to break with the Church--and thereby launch the Protestant
Then why does the Vatican want to bring them back?
To celebrate the millennium. Selling them was forbidden in 1563,
but indulgences themselves--though increasingly marginalized--were
never officially disallowed. In celebration of the year 2000, which
has been declared a holy year, the Vatican has chosen to promote
them again. To make the tradition more appealing, the requirements
have been updated--even "abstaining for at least one whole
day from unnecessary consumption (e.g. from smoking or alcohol)"
is said to lessen your stay in Purgatory if you donate your drink
money to charity.
So you can get to heaven more quickly by giving up smoking?
And you thought it would get you there more slowly. Religious folk
of every stripe are trying to make devotion more relevant to everyday
life, and the Catholic Church is no exception. In this case, however,
some people think the project might be going a bit too far. "Offering
indulgences for giving up smoking," says the Rev. Richard McBrien
of the University of Notre Dame, "is like offering indulgences
for not drinking poison."