Indulge me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about indulgences the last few days, because a friend asked me to. I’m always a little amazed that anyone actually reads these posts, and was really touched that this friend would think to ask me if I’d ever written anything about a topic she encountered in her Church. I totally take requests.

Here’s the TL;DR version: the concept of indulgences really doesn’t connect to *my* faith, but I’m glad they remain a part of *the* faith, because part of the beauty of the Catholic Church is the diversity of expressions of faith contained within a global community with two millennia of history.  And thinking about this has highlighted some of the central tensions we face as believers, especially the tension over what’s essential to faith vs. what’s just important to *your* faith. 


If you’re here for the long version, here we go.

First of all, as a convert, my only reference to indulgences for most of my life was from the bit in European history class about Luther objecting to the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences as one of the reasons he tacked his 95 theses on the church door. So I should rush to say that I am no expert on this, nor do I want to be. 

(We don’t sell indulgences anymore.)

That said, indulgences are, in fact, still a thing. Basically, and I’m sure I’m oversimplifying this, the theology here is that as sinners we have two problems: #1 our sin breaks our relationship with God so totally that without God’s mercy and grace we have no hope of heaven and #2 even when (not if) God gives us mercy and grace, we still have sin so integrated into our beings that we need to let God root it out of us, like a gardener pulling weeds. While the sacraments address problem #1, the weeding process takes our whole lives, and then some. I think if we’re honest, most of the people we know who have passed on still needed a little more work; I know I will.

So purgatory is the conceptual place where the rest of that weeding takes place, and indulgences are given by the Church as a way of, for lack of a better term, indicating that you (or a loved one) have had time taken off of that sentence. (It’s hard not to talk about purgatory in penal terms.)

Almost always, indulgences are connected to participating in a specific devotional ritual or pilgrimage and require you to do things that are good things to do anyway, like go to the sacrament of reconciliation, participate in mass, pray the Lord’s Prayer, and pray for the pope and his prayer intentions. A few years ago, when Pope Francis declared a special Jubilee Year of Mercy, you could (and I did) receive an indulgence by going on a pilgrimage (including to the closest cathedral), walking through a designated “Holy Door”, and doing the things I just mentioned. Right now, we’re in the midst of a year devoted to St. Joseph, for which there are no less than 15 things you can do to receive an indulgence. 


My wife’s maiden name is a good, 14-letter German one, which many people butcher and is really hard for a young child to learn to spell correctly. Since not being able to spell your own name would present some pretty significant personal and professional challenges in the long run, when my wife was 3 or so, my mother-in-law taught her how to spell her name by rewarding her with an M&M for every letter she got right. 

Besides being a clear example of behaviorist psychology in action, this kind of practice is something almost all of use, not just with children. If I get [fill in important but not inherently fun chore/project], I will let myself have [fill in reward]. Beyond a tool to address procrastination, this approach also helps us establish good habits, if, in time, we can drop the reward and still keep the important-but-not-fun thing as a part of our routine. When the M&Ms quit coming, my wife kept spelling her name correctly; for a while, it brought the reward of the feeling of satisfaction at being able to master a challenging task. Now, it’s just a part of who she is.

So it is that indulgences can be good for instilling habits that are important and good, like prayer, reconciliation, and mass. And while Pope Francis has used the designations around special years to really expand the menu of paths to indulgences to include a much broader array of faith expressions, the fact that most of the practices associated with indulgences connect to devotions centered on rote prayer is a great way for those who connect with God through such scripted prayers to explore new elements of the faith (and new prayers), which can help them grow and deepen their faith. 

Of course, you could say that the Church could just as easily offer M&Ms for that, but I also think the concept of indulgences meets a need that many have for answers and certainty. How still-broken people can experience a heavenly experience of ultimate wholeness is an issue people have worried about for centuries. If pursuing indulgences gives people some certainty and agency (on behalf of themselves and the people they love), who am I to judge?


All that said, the concept of indulgences doesn’t help me, spiritually. That’s partly a reflection of my own quirkiness; when my work team did one of those personality tests a few years back, there were two measures where I was a radical outlier. On a scale between “Need for certainty” and “Tolerance for ambiguity”, everyone but me was in the middle or leaning toward the need for certainty, while my tolerance for ambiguity was pinned. Likewise, on the scale between “Hierarchical” and “Participatory”, everyone else was in the middle or hierarchical while I was pinned on participatory. (The fact that as the team leader, I am at the top of the hierarchy and responsible for offering certainty created panic for some of my team and hilarity for the rest.) So a hierarchically created concept that relies heavily on routine to provide certainty is not my cup of tea.

Another of my personal quirks is that I’m very sensitive to the problems we cause by measuring the wrong things. I’m a big fan of measuring success, don’t get me wrong. But as a Gen Xer who grew up playing old-school video-game versions of sports I’d played and watched, it’s long been apparent to me that, if you get points for something that isn’t *exactly* true to the intent of the game, it’s hard to resist the temptation to just focus on what gets you the most points, even as it warps the game itself. Tecmo-bowl Football ends up not looking much like real football, if you’re just focused on running up the score. 

So I also worry about the idolatry of the scoreboard as it relates to indulgences. If you focus too much on checking the boxes to get the prize, you can lose sight of the point of the practice, which is to deepen your relationship with God.

And that gets to my more central reason for rejecting the practice of indulgences in my own spiritual life. I learned a long time ago that I am a horrible dieter. Tell me what not to eat, and I will either immediately crave only those things or find something even worse to substitute in. To the extent that I have had success in my nutritional life, it’s been by focusing on what good foods are and trying to eat as many of them as possible, leaving less room for the bad stuff. I have to accentuate the positive in order to eliminate the negative.

Same with my spiritual life. Holiness is not just about an absence of sin but is just as much about the presence of virtue. Historically, Christians have leaned heavily on the fear of judgment for sin in our messaging and not nearly enough on the cultivation of the fruits of the Spirit that come from a life devoted to love. When I live my life focused on avoiding sin, I don’t do so hot. When I live my life focused on cultivating the fruits of the Spirit, I have less room for sin. So a focus on reducing my sentence in purgatory doesn’t help me.


But beyond all of this, thinking about indulgences has helped bring to the foreground a couple of other underlying tensions in faith I wanted to mention, including the one that I think actually prompted my friend’s question.

Is awe or intimacy your primary reaction to God? Traditionally, religions of all sorts present divinity as something fundamentally other, superior, sublimely powerful, impossible to fully understand, requiring sacrifice and worship. The scandal of the Incarnation, in which Christians profess that God became fully human in the person of Jesus, is that it offers a different picture of God as intimate, parental, lover. In doing so, it elevates a theme that is woven through the Hebrew Scriptures, as God relates personally and intimately to individuals (Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets) as well as the entire nation of Israel. But confessing Jesus as both fully human and fully divine shows God as much closer to us than we imagined.

The awe-intimacy tension is one of those “both/and” elements of Christianity with unhealthy extremes. Those who favor awe tend to focus on the crucifixion and resurrection stories and forget the message of Jesus’ ministry. They can focus on ritual adherence to the detriment of encountering God in those around them. Conversely, those who lose a sense of awe can get so comfortable with their “Jesus-buddy” that they lose an appreciation for holiness. As someone more at risk of the latter failing, a song by Addison Road, “What Do I Know of Holy,” is a good nudge for me.

Heart or Head? There is what I think is a distinctly Western European approach to faith as an act of cognition – an assent to a set of beliefs. Most of traditional theology is centered here – theology as “faith seeking understanding” is by its nature an activity of the mind – and the explanation of purgatory is very much a result of brilliant people thinking through the consequences and challenges of a Christian worldview. But what I have grown to appreciate through my post-academic life is that the essence of faith isn’t about assent but about relationship. I am a Christian, far less because of the tenets I ascribe to than by the community I belong to and the God that I experience. 

Reinhold Niebuhr identified the challenge of the human condition intellectually, as the anxiety of being able to think beyond our own perspective but thereby recognizing that we could never achieve all we aspire to. Brené Brown identifies the challenge of the human condition relationally, as the shame of feeling unworthy of love and belonging and the fear of vulnerability. The longer I live, the more I favor Brown’s wholehearted perspective.

Essentials or Extras? One of the central challenges the US Catholic Church faces reflects a debate that is probably eternal: what is essential to the faith, and what’s extra? Because we all start with a tendency to universalize our experience, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the elements of faith that matter to me are the only elements that matter, period. While this happens to all of us, there is a current faction of US Catholics who are rejecting the changes of the church in the Second Vatican Council and declaring that only “traditional Catholicism” is a true expression of the faith. Latin mass is the key flashpoint, but the fissures caused by this faction are much broader than liturgical. The role of laity and women in particular, application of Catholic social teaching, the whole Eucharistic coherence discussion – all of these are driven at least in part by the split between traditional and modern Catholics. It is a schism in the making.

If your priest or bishop is highlighting traditional expressions of the faith like devotions connected to receiving indulgences, they might just be offering a way for people to dig deeper into their faith in a new way. If they are crowding out or explicitly denying other expressions of Catholic faith, then you’re probably dealing with this “rad trad” (radically traditional) movement.

Here’s what I can offer as solace to those who are caught in this:

  1. It’s hard to read the Gospels and Acts without recognizing that those who sought to put limits on how God can act or who God can love are almost always proven wrong. God’s love is bigger than any attempt to limit or define it.
  2. This rad-trad faction is strong in the US, but a minority of the global Church and to an ever-greater degree runs contrary to the direction of Pope Francis and the leadership of the Church. The Church is bigger than this group.
  3. The history of the Church is full of tensions and splits, from the debate among the apostles over whether to allow non-Jewish believers all the way down. This isn’t new, and yet somehow we’re still here.
  4. It’s as much your Church as it is anyone else’s. Vatican II was clear in underscoring the role of every believer in the life of the Church, and some of the rad-trad response has reflected a desire by those in the hierarchy to hold on to power. But that doesn’t mean they’re right. They deserve respect, but so do you. (Did I mention my personality test scores earlier?)
  5. My favorite pope, St. John XXIII, used to pray at the end of each night, “God, I have done what I can for Your Church. But it’s YOUR Church, and I’m going to bed.” 

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