Why Catholic Indulgences Are Making a Comeback

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Alinari Archives / Corbis

Alinari's Meeting Between Dante and Beatrice in Purgatory. Through the Catholic doctrine of indulgence, believers can minimize their time spent in purgatory

It sounds too good to be true. Now, for a limited time — the year of St. Paul, to be specific, which ends in June — say a prayer, pop by a designated church and qualify for an indulgence that deducts time from your scorching sojourn in the cleansing fires of purgatory.

Indulgences (no relation here to bubble baths or truffles) have been part of Catholic doctrine since the Crusades. When the Church offered them for sale in the 1500s — call it mercy for money — religious reformer Martin Luther protested. These days, they can't be bought. "How does that MasterCard ad go?" muses Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Some things are priceless." (See pictures of Pope Benedict XVI visiting the U.S.)

The pardons have fallen by the wayside in the past few decades, but they're being revived in conjunction with a new emphasis on the importance of charity in Christian life. Catholicism, with 67 million followers in the U.S., is big on formulaic repetition of the Hail Mary and "Our Father" variety. But the Vatican is starting to move away from that and toward, according to the church's Manual of Indulgences, a "greater zeal for the exercise of charity."

It's no longer enough to repeat a prescribed number of prayers; you also have to do good, such as volunteer at a soup kitchen, help resettle refugees or donate to a worthy cause. Much like how many high schoolers have to fulfill a community-service requirement, Catholics are being urged to become do-gooders. "The church's teaching has evolved," Walsh says. "Part of indulgences is not just saying special prayers, but also doing good works." (See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.)

At the core of indulgences is sin, which can either lead to eternal punishment — i.e., hell — or time spent in purgatory, a place of suffering where imperfections are scrubbed away in preparation for entering heaven. Confession erases eternal punishment, but temporal punishment remains. Plenary, or full, indulgences are the equivalent of a get-out-of-purgatory-free card. Partial indulgences simply shorten your stay.

Mike Aquilina, who attends Holy Child Church outside Pittsburgh, Pa., estimates that he fulfills the requirements for an indulgence a few times a year by visiting a saintly burial site Stateside or St. Peter's Basilica when he's in Rome on business. "God doesn't get anything out of it, the Church doesn't get anything out of it — but I sure do," says Aquilina.

Indulgences are a handy marketing tool for the church, a way of encouraging people to amp up their spiritual life. But figuring out exactly what they are and how they work can be confusing. "It brings people who aren't Catholic up short," says David Steinmetz, a professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School. (Read "Finding God on YouTube.")

The rules can confound even believers. William Damkoehler, an actor from Rhode Island, learned about indulgences as a kid in Catholic school. As an adult, he's bewildered by them. "It seems like the church is trying to get business back by offering rebates," he says.

The essence of plenary indulgences is tricky to nail down. They're granted if you meet specific criteria: go to confession, receive communion, pray for the Pope, visit a particular shrine. How do you know you actually got an indulgence? Faith.

If you merit a full pardon, it's fine to break out the bubbly. But if you drink too much champagne and start a barroom brawl? Indulgence revoked, and you're back to square one. How's that for an incentive to keep doing good works?

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