Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Catholic Church "Goes Retro"? Oh, I Wish

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.


Indulge Us
The Catholic Church Goes Retro

The Spectrum
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 (, 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.


Liam said...

Um, plenary indulgences haven't been brought back. They (and partial indulgences) never went away. They celebrate the abundance of God's mercy.

It might help for the writer to realize that there is a deeply progressive dimension to indulgences - a spiritual act of mercy for loved ones (or, even better, complete strangers or enemies) who have died. Nothing retro about that.

Maybe because I had friends die of AIDS when I was young, I saw how people offering prayers and indulgences for friends (and the parents of friends doing this even for people they never knew) not as some kind of scrupulous obsurantism of fear, but as a loving affirmation of the communion of saints. It becomes easier to understand when one has had enough people in one's circle die, I guess.

Oh, and it's not buying redemption. Indulgences don't help if the soul for which they are offered is in Hell, and they are not needed for souls who are in Heaven. Purgatory is not Hell. It is a temporary dimension of Heaven, as it were. (It's a bit hard to talk about since these are all outside the bounds of time and space, but that's another discussion.) Vatican II did nothing to change the Church's teaching on Purgatory or indulgences. Not a thing. If someone got the impression that it did, they were misinformed. The practice of indulgences goes way back to the era of persecution of the Church, when those awaiting martyrdom were asked to intercede for penitents and the penances applied to the latter were commuted, as it were.

What did change, in the late 1960s, was the Enchiridion. Indulgences were revised, and the old-fashioned terms of time for partial indulgences (which terms related to old penitentiary formulas for penances) were eliminated.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael.

I'm interested in your description of your seeking for a more mystical spirituality. I'm not sure what Christian Kabbalah is, or what Gnostic Christianity might be. Reading something about them in the links you posted reminded me of the fairly lost (in the West, anyway) tradition of theosis. That might be something to explore, too?


Michael J. Bayly said...

Liam, I guess it's just another case of bad communication from the men at the Vatican. They seem to be experiencing a lot of that lately.

Then again, I went through Catholic primary school, high school, and college, and indulgences - plenary or otherwise - were never mentioned. Why was that?

I think, at the very least, we can say that the current papacy is reemphasizing them. Even the New York Times is talking about plenary indulgences making a "comeback."

I'm curious, Liam: How does offering a prayer differ from offering an indulgence? Are indulgences solely concerned with souls in purgatory?

What if the concept of purgatory (as understood by the Vatican) isn't of importance to most Catholics? Do we all just need to be reeducated?

Also, what does the idea of indulgences say about our understanding of God? There's something very "courtly" and medieval about the whole idea of a king-like God whose mind can be changed about the eternal fate of a soul depending on the number and/or fervor of petitions received.

It doesn't square very well with Jesus' understanding of God as abba, "Daddy," and as "God-with-us," or, for that matter, with many people's inner experiences of the sacred as a loving and encouraging presence.

Is there not a danger that once you start emphasizing the need for petitioning a King-like God who could well refuse you, there's also the possibility of fear and dread becoming a major part of your spiritual life?

Yes, yes, I know about the biblical notion of the "fear of God," but as theologian Paul Collins reminds us: "the word 'fear' here is ambivalent in English, and probably a word like 'wondrous' [or 'awe-inspiring'] comes closer to the meaning of the Latin word." He also notes that "the sense of the word is conveyed by Job when he prays: "Do not let dread of you [God] terrify me" (Job 13:21).

I don't think fear, as understood as dread or terror, has a place in one's prayer life or relationship with God. I've come to think that a leaning toward trust rather than fear, is one of the hallmarks of the spiritual life. Yet I have to wonder about which of these - trust or fear - motivates the seeking of indulgences.

Also, If a soul needs to go through some kind of process in the afterlife before it can be reunited with God, then it has to go through that process. Surely God knows what God is doing. I'm all for praying for the journeys of souls to God, that they know God's enveloping love and guidance on their journey, etc., but the idea that through our prayers and pleadings we can somehow orchestrate a shortcut for them doesn't sit well with me.

And finally, can't one loving affirm the communion of saints without buying into the whole indulgence thing. I mean, I often ask loved ones who have departed this life to pray with me about a certain intention. Indulgences don't come into it, but I'm nevertheless acknowledging and affirming the communion of saints.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts inspired by Liam's thoughtful comment.



Anonymous said...

See the COMMONWEAL site for a vision of how intelligent Catholics still obsess about Fatima, purgatory, indulgences. It is depressing!


Liam said...


Your mild reductio ad absurdam about the courtly Sky God King applies equally to all petitionary intercessory prayer, not just indulgenced prayer. And Christianity, in the communion of saints, is simply a religion that celebrates intercessory prayer. Christ commands his disciples to practice intercessory prayer, in point of fact. (Eg, pray for them that persecute you...)

Anyway, indulgenced prayer is a specific form of petitionary prayer. Because the fruits of the prayer are more defined, so to the type of prayer is more defined. Indulgences may be applied to the souls of the dead, or to oneself (one cannot apply indulgences to the souls of other living people). The nature of indulgenced prayer (confession, prayers/actions, specific intention, et cet;) is that is it extremely deliberate. Or, to use a more progressive term, it is replete with mindfulness. And that's something to celebrate, not to be afraid of simply because one assumes it carries bad baggage from the distant past - people should strive to avoid shibboleths of that sort.

The NY Times article was, btw, rightly skewered on Catholic blogs for yet again being inaccurate on matters of Catholic faith practice (American secular newspapers are basically very shallow on this type of reportage - and more unreliable than reliable).

PrickliestPear said...

Liam: "Your mild reductio ad absurdam about the courtly Sky God King applies equally to all petitionary intercessory prayer, not just indulgenced prayer."

Petitionary prayer makes divine grace the prize of a popularity contest. It implies that God will care more about someone if we care about them, too. But what about the people that nobody cares about (and nobody prays for)? Does God care for them less?

Petitionary prayer is the product of bad theology. It's something to be outgrown.

Liam said...

Prickliest Pear

Apparently, Jesus lacked your maturity.

When in doubt, I will trust his immaturity over your maturity.

You might want to read up on how petitionary prayer does not imply what you think it does. And you might be shocked that many Christians have a habit of including all those similarly situated or all of those who are in need of prayer - and, in the case of indulgences, deferring to God's choice of intention, et cet. The world of petitionary prayer is hardly as crabbed and grubby as you appear to imagine.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Prickliest Pear,

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your perspective.

You've identified a type of prayer you consider is the product of "bad theology."

Can you share a type of prayer that reflects "good theology"?



Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Colin,

I’m only just getting into Tau Malachi’s book, Gnosis of the Cosmic Christ: A Gnostic Christian Kabbalah, so I’m hesitant to try and explain in any great detail what Christian Kabbalah is.

Here’s how it is defined in the book’s introduction:

The Kabbalah is said to be the revelation of the mysteries of creation and God, the mysteries of the human soul – in a word, mysticism. . . The Kabbalah is a mirror in which is reflected the fiery intelligence that has caused humanity to rise beyond all other species of creatures on the earth – a fiery intelligence that makes us self-aware and empowers us with the capacity of a conscious evolution far beyond our present state. Kabbalah basically means “something received and imparted.” Thus, as much as a mirror of the fiery intelligence, it is the transmission of the fiery intelligence.

Elsewhere, Malachi observes:

The Christian Kabbalah is not so much the worship of Yeshua Messiah (Jesus Chirst) but rather a conscious evolution toward Christhood – a divine or super-humanity. In this regard, the Christian Kabbalah is quite different from the Jewish Kabbalah from which it evolved, and Gnostic Christianity is very different from any orthodox form of Christianity.

This idea of “evolution toward Christhood” reminds me of the writings of folks like John Sanford and John White (see here).

One book I can recommend for a good introduction to Christianity’s esoteric tradition is Richard Smoley’s Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition.

It’s been a while since I read it, but I’m pretty sure Smoley writes about the tradition of theosis. I gave away my copy of Inner Christianity to a friend who was having a hard time with organized (i.e., exoteric) religion. I think it’s time I found myself a new copy. (Smoley’s latest book, by the way, is Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity. It’s one that I’d definitely like to read at some point.)

I also found parts of Andrew Harvey’s Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ very good. (I say “parts” because I never actually finished reading the entire book! Perhaps I’ll put it on the top of my Lenten reading list.)

Anyway, I hope some of this has been of help to you.

Thanks for stopping by.



Terry Nelson said...

"I went through Catholic primary school, high school, and college, and indulgences - plenary or otherwise - were never mentioned. Why was that?"

Easy answer on Jeopardy: "What type of education took place at the beginning of the general apostacy?"

The winner gets a trip to Australia.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Terry,

Good to have you back visiting and commenting here.

Do you really believe that Vatican II triggered and was thus part of "the general apostacy"?

What exactly do you mean by this term? It sounds like something the SSPX folks would say.