Roman Holiday

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.

That’s because they were most notorious in the 16th century--or about halfway through the second semester. They’re 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.

Didn’t they cause a whole mess of trouble the last
time around?

During the Renaissance, the Catholic Church started actually selling indulgences, for cash, to wealthy patrons. That move didn’t 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 Reformation.

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."