A recent editorial in the Spectrum, a student publication of the University of Buffalo, looks at the Vatican’s efforts to bring back plenary indulgences. In examining this particular move on the part of the institutional church, this great little editorial (humorously entitled “Indulge Us: The Catholic Church Goes Retro”) identifies a fundamental problem with Roman Catholicism. “The Catholic Church,” it says, “seems to reveal in applying bureaucracy to God . . . No other organization in history has put more steps between God and the people.”
Interestingly, I’ve been struggling with this exact same realization of late. Perhaps this accounts for my developing interest in the Sufi Way and the idea of a Christian Kabbalah, as explored in Tau Malachi’s Gnosis of the Cosmic Christ. I think whenever religion gets too organized and, in the case of Roman Catholicism, mired in imperial-like trappings and bureaucracy, we inevitable see a countering rise in interest in the mystical, i.e. the mystery dimension of our faith. And when you think about it, that’s really “going retro.” I mean, a mystical experience (which can be as simple as a heartfelt prayer) bypasses all the bureaucratic bullshit, all the middlemen - and in Roman Catholicism they literally are men - and connects one to the divine source of all religion. And as Catholic theologian Paul Collins reminds us, this divine source is “a phenomenon to be explored, not a reality to be possessed or defined.”)
Of course, I don’t view the bureaucracy of the Church that the editors of The Spectrum rightly critique as an intrinsic trait of Catholicism, not even Roman Catholicism - however much some may want us to believe to the contrary. There are healthier ways, more freeing ways, more authentically Christian ways of understanding ourselves as Roman Catholic. (Check out, for instance, this post over at the Progressive Catholic Voice. In an attempt to clarify what it means to be a progressive Catholic, the editors of the PCV – myself included – discuss the question: “In what sense are we Roman Catholic?”)
Following is the Spectrum’s editorial on plenary indulgences.
The Catholic Church Goes Retro
February 11, 2009
The Catholic Church Goes Retro
February 11, 2009
More than any other religious organization in history, the Catholic Church seems to revel in applying bureaucracy to God. The church has always had a variety of reasons for this, which range from vaguely spiritual to overt lip service, but the fact remains that no other organization in history has put more steps between God and the people.
So it should come as no real surprise that the church has brought back Plenary Indulgences in this time of trial. For those not versed in the Catholic dogma, a Plenary Indulgence is essentially a way to buy one’s way out of purgatory, which is the middle ground between heaven and hell. Boring but not expressly painful, purgatory is one of those things your average Catholic would like to avoid.
Of course, the church did away with the practice of actually purchasing indulgences in 1567. The modern iteration can be obtained by way of confession, followed by charitable and otherwise pious acts. Got that? The church is now providing incentives for behavior that other religions simply expect out of their faithful.
Has the failing economy had such a negative effect on the Catholic Church? Are they so strapped for cash that they will, for all intents and purposes, sell redemption?
The various motivations given by those bishops and other church higher-ups in charge of this decision have centered on the fact that, yes, there is still sin in this world. Are the faithful to believe that the Vatican has been blind to the continued existence of sin in the last few decades, or does the Church simply want to bring back another ritual of worship to further their hold over their flock?
Time and study have revealed Christ’s messages to be much more in tune with individualized worship and faith in God’s unconditional love and forgiveness for us all - a view of Christianity that doesn’t leave much room for an organization such as [Roman] Catholicism. One cannot help but wonder whether the Vatican understands this, and is making one last grasp for power and relevance. Remember that faith is connection to God; religion is only a human tool for control.
Recommended Off-site Links:
Indulgences Return, and, for Catholics, a Door to Absolution is Reopened - Paul Vitello (New York Times, February 9, 2009).
Pardon the Indulgence - Chris Dawson (cdawson.blogsot.com, February 10, 2009).
The Real Threat from the Quantum Visionaries - Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, January 14, 2009).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
The Sufi Way
The Sacred Heart: Mystical Symbol of Love
In the Garden of Spirituality: Doris Lessing
In the Garden of Spirituality: Paul Collins
Benedict’s Understanding of the Church
The Golden Compass: Pointing Beyond Authoritarianism
Conversing and Arguing with the Theology of Philip Pullman
Image: The Cosmic Christ by Alex Grey.