Too frequently in print journalism, headline-induced spin ruins an otherwise solid news article. Such seems to be the case in this New York Times article on the alleged "return" of indulgences. From a journalistic perspective, the article covers a lot of ground geographically. The article reflects a nice diversity of regions, from Pittsburgh to Oregon to Oklahoma. I would hope that other areas of the country see this article as an opportunity to contribute to the local discussion.
However, reporters calling their local bishop should be careful in how they phrase their questions because if they just base their inquiry on the articles' headline they may be perceived as fairly uninformed.
Here is the article's headline:
For Catholics, a Door to Absolution Is Reopened
A major issue for the many of you who have kindly submitted comments to us on this article is the fact that the door to indulgences was never really shut by the church. And the article reflects that fact at the beginning of the article (second paragraph) and at the end (final paragraph):
In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago -- the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife -- and reminding them of the church's clout in mitigating the wages of sin.
"It faded away with a lot of things in the church," said Bishop DiMarzio. "But it was never given up. It was always there. We just want to people to return to the ideas they used to know."
Overall, most of you who have already submitted comments, liked the article. One suggested that the comments from former America editor and Jesuit Rev. Tom Reese should have been cut from the article and that Notre Dame theology professor Rev. Richard P. McBrien could have been balanced out by another conservative theologian.
One reader submitted an extensive comment that focused on the article's struggles to capture the true essence of an indulgence: the detachment from sin. The reader also noted that the article didn't mention the document which lists all indulgences that are available on a regular basis known as the Enchiridion of Indulgences:
With every indulgence there are the requirements of going to confession, praying the Creed, Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, in particular for the intentions of the Pope. And then each indulgence also has other particulars, as listed in the Enchridion or published for particular circumstances. For instance, in this year of St. Paul, the requirement is to visit a church named in his honor and to follow all prescribed prayers.
However, there's something more than this which was totally missed. In order to obtain a plenary indulgence, i.e. a complete remission of all punishment due to sin, one must have complete detachment to sin. This means there can't be any desire for any sin of any kind. That's the difficult part. People I know who try to obtain these indulgences know that they'll only obtain a partial one because they don't have that total detachment from sin.
The substance of the article seems to rightly focus on the fact that this is not a shift in church theology, but a marketing attempt of sorts to draw people in closer to the church in the United States. In fact, the article could have been flipped around to focus on the evidence that Catholics go to confession less often these days. The article's focus could have also centered on the perceived "conservative resurgence," but my guess is that there have been plenty of articles on that topic lately.
And as a final note on the article's focus, indulgences tend to catch people's attention, don't they?
Image of an 18th-century absolution certificate granted by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and sold by Greek monks in Wallachia (History Museum, Bucharest) used under a Wikimedia Commons license.