Return Of The Indulgence, Or, A Truth Revealed

It turns out, if you’re Catholic, you can buy your way out of a state of mortal sin with real dollars.

I had been taught that Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation based on his outrage at the sale of indulgences and the moral decay that the practice brought. Of course, a deeper study of history reveals that while Luther was certainly a figure of towering importance, the breakup of the church in western Europe had its origins in events and philosophers that preceded Luther, it reveals that Luther’s criticism of the church was more subtle than simply criticizing indulgences, and the political fragmentation of the church was neither Luther’s intention nor particularly his doing. All the same, indulgences never seemed right to me.

Call it one of the many things that, as a young Catholic, never impressed me as making any particular amount of sense. Let’s say a teenaged Catholic boy does something the Church says is really bad, like masturbate. Well, having milked his monkey, he’s gone and placed himself in a state of mortal sin, and needs absolution — he is at serious risk, as if there were any other kind, for spending the rest of eternity in the Celestial Ceramics Kiln if he gets hit by a bus without getting God’s forgiveness first.

Now, this forgiveness is obtained when he enters a small, unlit closet and have a conversation with a priest through a semi-transparent screen in the closet next to him, which would go something like this:

Penitent: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been two weeks since my last confession.
Confessor: God forgives all sins, my son. Give me your confession.
Penitent: Father, since my last confession I’ve had impure thoughts about the girl who sits two seats to my left in geometry class.
Confessor: [Thinks: “Well, that makes two of us.” Says:] This is only natural, my son.
Penitent: No, Father, it’s worse than that. I’ve — I’ve abused myself while having these impure thoughts.
Confessor: How many times have you done this?
Penitent: Twenty-six, father.
Confessor: Didn’t you say it’s only been two weeks since your last confession?
Penitent: I only do it once on Sundays, Father! I know that’s the Lord’s day.
Confessor: Well, that’s something. Still, chafing can get to be a problem.

At this point, I always thought the priest had only one thing he could do to wrap things up — instruct the penitent to say a certain number of prayers (typically a ratio of five Hail Marys to one Our Father) and promise to not do it again. He might also throw in a bit of advice like, “Maybe take up a hobby other than polishing your porpoise. Golf is fun.” But the point is that he metes out a punishment, and instructs the penitent to “Go, and sin no more.”

Then, the penitent exits the confessional, kneels at a pew in the church, says the prescribed number of prayers, gets up and makes the sign of the cross, and exits the church, forgiven.* The sacrament of reconciliation is completed when the penitent completed the “sentence” of a certain set of prayers. This completes the ritual and at this point, the penitent is “reconciled” with God and all of his confessed sins are forgiven. Presumably, the penitent is supposed to use the prayer time to meditate upon the wrongfulness of his actions, to resolve to not do them again in the future, and to consider how to live a more moral life.

But it turns out that no, the priest had another option all along. He can also name a figure and upon receipt of a donation in that amount, issue a plenary indulgence. This option is apparently one that Pope Benedict XVI thinks hasn’t been used enough recently, and he’s now encouraging the clergy to start looking for that. I’d always thought that this second option was one that got outlawed, but a close reading of the Gray Lady‘s article indicates that it only was “disfavored” under J.P.2. But Benny-Sixteen apparently likes the idea just fine.

Now, let’s consider for a moment the entire ridiculousness of the situation. The priest theoretically has no idea what’s being confessed or by whom. The sin itself is usually something that is not particularly harmful to society as a whole — as in this example, who has the teenage boy hurt by whacking it? If he had stolen something, the priest could tell him to give it back to the rightful owner and make amends for someone who had really been hurt. But if all the kid’s been doing is making some fist kabobs, this is just something the church wants him to think is a sin all on its own despite not hurting anyone. So the only penance is the mind-numbing repetition of the prayers.

And it’s just plain weird telling a priest, who you may like but rather strongly suspect is gay, that you’re routinely jerkin’ the gherkin. If you’re already confronting issues of what’s really moral and not, and don’t understand how God, who presumably already knows the words to the “Our Father” prayer, could possibly want to hear you say it again fifteen times in a row, the whole thing can seem exceedingly pointless.

In that sense, the use of indulgences makes a whole lot of sense. Because, as Luther pointed out, if you can just pay some money to get your forgiveness that way, you’re not really learning anything or growing morally. If you’ve already bought in to the idea that occasionally cleaning your own pipes is a morally terrible thing to, well, then you’re going to feel guilty about it when you inevitably do it. So the church can have you mumble a bunch of prayers until the words don’t mean anything to you anymore — or, it can profit.

Certainly, the church doesn’t want you doing really bad things like killing folks, stealing stuff, or raping people. But the moral gravity of those acts is patently obvious to anyone who’s bothered to think about them at all. You shouldn’t need God to tell you not to shoot your neighbor in the face. I seriously hope that you all aren’t out there not killing, raping, and stealing just because God tells you not to. Assume, for a moment, that I’m right and there is no God. Given that this is true, why don’t you kill your neighbor whose loud music has always bugged you? The answer is because it’s obviously morally wrong to do it — even if there is no eternal consequence.

But beating the banana? Skipping church on Sunday? Using profanity? These are things of minimal objective importance. No one is hurt if you do them. And these are the sorts of things that people are giong to do all the time. So if the church can aribtrarily make these things “bad,” then when you do them, you’re in a state of sin and need to get out of it. Buy you way out of the sin, and the cash starts flowing in. All the church needs to do is train its clerics in how to wave their hands around in the air in a funny way and mumble some crap in Latin that few, if any, of the customers of the “service” will ever bother to translate. Boom! You’ve got yourself a product with an infinite demand, a monopoly on dispensing it, and it’s just a matter of finding the right price point.

I’m thinking ten dollars per tally-whack is about right. It can’t be too high; most teenagers don’t have a lot of earning capacity. But like a good wine, the price has to have some meaning to the unsophisticated customer, or else the customer will assume that the product is lacking in quality.

It you thought that a game of couch hockey put your soul in peril, but that God would forgive you for ten bucks, how often would you indulge? The answer is, you might dial it back a bit from our hypothetical penitent above, but you probably wouldn’t feel the need to actually stop, which means the sweet, sweet penitence-for-onanism money would start flowing in to the church cuffers, big-time. If you can just get a large enough number of people buying in to the idea, it’s a better money-maker than selling a cup of coffee for four bucks, either with or without breakfast.

So I guess I’m not too surprised that the church is going back to the practice. Nor am I surprised that Protestants will sneer at it. (Begging the question of why they tithe if not to buy their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, albeit using a different payment plan than the one described herein.) My sneer comes from a different source, though — I question both the existence of an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient diety whose very existence is across and transcending the entire universe, who can create and snuff out entire stars and galaxies with a mere thought, who cares very, very deeply about whether or not I varnish my python before going to bed tonight, as well as the validity of the thought that such a harmless, victimless act could possibly be deemed a matter of any moral gravity at all regardless of the existence of such a diety. I have to accept both propositions in order for me to then reach the Protestant-Catholic divide here as to whether giving money to a church will produce forgiveness from God for my “sin.”

But as a business proposition, it’s hard to beat. Well, maybe I could have avoided using the words “hard” and “beat.” Point is, it’s a zero-overhead product with infinite demand, flexible pricing, and customers all but guaranteed to offer repeat business to your monopoly. If you can think of a better way to make money, I’d love to hear it.

* Whereafter our fifteen-year-old penitent frequently might catch a glimpse of his crush wearing a skirt in the wind, revealing her figure, or otherwise find the display of girlflesh tempting, which causes him to go directly home and whack it some more. Thus, the cycle starts anew.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.