Grab yours before it’s too late! So commercial advertising blares out to the world.
The British mainstream left-wing press has published Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets. The article seems pretty sick, and I can only imagine that a newspaper largely run by atheists would make hay out of something like this to discredit all religion.
At the same time, we are touching upon a constant phenomenon in the history of the Church: a conviction according to which, firstly, the high clergy of the Church have take the place of God in questions of what happens to souls after death, and secondly, that those same clergy are hopelessly out of touch with reality and that attempts at being self-consciously “modern” are utterly pathetic.
In the early Church, the indulgence had nothing to do with getting people “off the hook” in the afterlife. Indulgences made sense when reconciled sinners had to accomplish severe penances – like spending years in a monastic “prison” or walking to Jerusalem. The Church from about the third century allowed the practice of recognised holy Christians to pray for sinners and ask for the canonical penances to be shortened. From the sixth century, some of the heavy penances could be commuted for reconciled sinners by having them recite prayers, give alms or going on pilgrimages less difficult than Jerusalem from western Europe. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the indulgence was removed from its association with canonical penances and attached to a more “supernatural” notion of remitting temporal punishment due to sin, even the “other side” of death.
Indulgences go with a particularly Roman Catholic notion of purgatory considered entirely in commercial and juridical terms. The Orthodox and many Anglicans also pray for the dead, but are less clear-cut about the nature of the intermediate state between heaven and hell. I tend to give credence to the notion that there is no need for such a notion, and that souls can obtain the help they need to leave the dark realms to find God’s light. We humans in this world know just about nothing about what awaits us, but certain pieces of “revelation” and different religious traditions allow us to conceive of a number of (or a continuum of) degrees of beatitude as well as degrees of suffering – all outside time, or at least our time.
I tend towards the notion of universalism – that all souls (even the demons) will/might find their way after however long in their present cursed existence – but that sin and wickedness will not go unpunished. I have written about this before, but the bottom line is that we know nothing about what lies outside this life – unless we are blessed with special experiences.
Until now, apart from the time when the RC Church was looking for money to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica, the Church has been reasonably sober and serious about this matter based on its traditional theological stances of having a “treasury of merits” for its children. Now, the idea is being associated with the use of internet social networking and having people follow the Papal visit to Brazil. It is to be seen whether this is true or just the ravings of atheists!
If this is true, then the whole thing is sinking into banality as would not have been imagined in the 1970’s. Salvation a few mouse clicks away! What about those who don’t have enough to eat, let alone enough money to buy a computer and internet connection? It has all become a sick joke!
I have done my best to see in this new Pope a profoundly spiritual man, in spite of his total insensitivity to beauty or music. Still, I won’t judge or denigrate his faithful and clergy – but I am left with many others in confusion and an empty feeling in the pit of the stomach.