Catholic Church Revives Practice of Indulgences

The New York Times reports that the Catholic Church has begun reviving the practice of indulgences under Pope Benedict XVI.

Like the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the indulgence was one of the traditions decoupled from mainstream Catholic practice in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops that set a new tone of simplicity and informality for the church. Its revival has been viewed as part of a conservative resurgence that has brought some quiet changes and some highly controversial ones, like Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to lift the excommunications of four schismatic bishops who reject the council’s reforms.

The indulgence is among the less noticed and less disputed traditions to be restored. But with a thousand-year history and volumes of church law devoted to its intricacies, it is one of the most complicated to explain.

For folks in my generation, the indulgence is primarily known as the means through which the existence of the entire universe is threatened in the movie Dogma, so I’m not sure I welcome its revival.

Still, given Pope Benedict XVI’s overall conservatism, I suspect that this is just the first of many old traditions that Catholics can expect to see revived. Other traditions I expect to pop back up include the Latin Mass, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and the Spanish Inquisition.

Just kidding on that last part, of course. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. LaurenceB says:

    I believe that entire post was just a setup for the punch line, wasn’t it? lol

  2. There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.

    Me thinks someone has been talking to madison avenue. Buy one to give and buy one to keep. Planned obsolescence with the commission of another sin. Not for sale, but give to charity and its yours, Limit one per customer per day.

    Of course there is the slight problem of Protestants undercutting the market, offering forgiveness that has already been paid for by someone else on your behalf.

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    LaurenceB –

    You caught me. 🙂

  4. Bithead says:

    I note with interest the similarity between these and carbon credits.

    I note also,a large increase in the number of Yahoo seraches on the 95 thesies.

  5. John425 says:

    The Pope has had secret meetings with Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh. In the spirit of Ecumenism, they have agreed that beheadings MAY be appropriate in certain situations when pertaining to their respective faiths, but may not be performed by anyone outside their particular faith. Mel Gibson, puportedly on the Papal Shit List, was not available for comment.

  6. Steve says:

    Dogma was, in fact, the first thing I thought of when I read the headline.

  7. Herb Ely says:

    Be skeptical of the NYT’s coverage of religion stories. Before formin an opinion, go here for a critique of this story by an experienced religion reporter.

  8. Anderson says:

    Herb’s link takes one to a critique of the article’s headline, but which is otherwise uncritical of the article’s content — “an otherwise solid news article.”

  9. sam says:

    Mel Gibson, puportedly on the Papal Shit List

    For a wonderfully inside-papalball account why Mel might be on the PSL, see this:

    Is Mel Gibson a Sedevacantist? Sedevacantism verses Sedeprivationism

  10. John425 says:

    Sam is slightly off base about Mel’s backsliding. Mel acknowledges that he is a proponent of “vacant chairs”, particularly when he wants to sit in one, but he categorically denies that he would sit in the lap of someone who is already seated. Such heresy would be akin to that of a Seventh Day Adventist getting a “lap dance” on a Saturday night. Mel is a true syncretic and attends St. Michael’s Church of the Psychic Parlor.

  11. legion says:

    You cannot buy one … but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one.

    Ummm… isn’t giving money to the Catholic Church itself within the definition of ‘charitable contribution’? *sigh* Everything I hear about Benedict’s decisions just makes me respect him less, and gives me less hope for any sort of co-existence with other religions.

  12. tom p says:

    All I know is I am going to avoid guys named Loki on the bus… especially if they have an onion in one hand and a knife in the other.

    (gotta love that movie)

  13. steve s says:

    Catholic Church Revives Practice of Indulgences; Continues Age-Old Practice of Sexual Deviance

    Not to pick on the Catholic Church. I’m not an anti-pope protestant, I’m an atheist. But if I wanted to commit crimes internationally, and get special treatment by law enforcement, you can bet I’d don some kind of clerical garb.

  14. DL says:

    Catholic bashing is what is back in play. The Church never took indulgences out of play – it was those pretend Catholic parishes that ignored them, and the confessional, and sin, etc. Why do you think 53% of Catholics voted for the first infanticide seeking president ever? Not one bit of dogma changed in Vatican II but those too close to the incense went far left and far away from Catholicism in the “spirit of Vatican II.” Needless to say, indulgence are and have been a legitimate part of Catholicism (without the selling of course)

    PS So has forgiveness been a main teaching -apparently a difficult concept for some.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Forgiveness…along with a “charitable contribution”? I can’t imagine how that could be a difficult concept for some…