“Martin Luther must be turning over in his grave,” tweeted a former student of mine last night, re: the following announcement from the Vatican (via The Guardian passing on news from an Italian newspaper) about a certain practice that both prompted and survived the Protestant Reformation:

Pope Francis
Pope Francis – Creative Commons (Presidency of Argentina)

Indulgences these days are granted to those who carry out certain tasks – such as climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome (reportedly brought from Pontius Pilate’s house after Jesus scaled them before his crucifixion), a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory.

But attendance at events such as the Catholic World Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro, a week-long event starting on 22 July, can also win an indulgence.

Mindful of the faithful who cannot afford to fly to Brazil, the Vatican’s sacred apostolic penitentiary, a court which handles the forgiveness of sins, has also extended the privilege to those following the “rites and pious exercises” of the event on television, radio and through social media.

“That includes following Twitter,” said a source at the penitentiary, referring to Pope Francis’ Twitter account, which has gathered seven million followers. “But you must be following the events live. It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the internet.”

In its decree, the penitentiary said that getting an indulgence would hinge on the beneficiary having previously confessed and being “truly penitent and contrite”.

Praying while following events in Rio online would need to be carried out with “requisite devotion”, it suggested.

Now, I’m not a Roman Catholic, don’t believe in Purgatory, don’t think that Jesus gave the bishops of Rome any special power to bind or loose people in this world or the next, and so have a hard time getting too worked up about the idea of an e-indulgence. Perhaps Luther is — unless I’m completely wrong about how to interpret Matthew 16, in which case the hero of the Reformation was cut off from the channels of grace in 1521 and his soul likely has bigger things to worry about.

But I suspect that history’s most famous critic of indulgences would question whether it’s possible to make them available via the Twitter account of the bishop of Rome while still requiring “requisite devotion”:

It is very difficult, even for the most learned theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the bounty of indulgences and the need of true contrition. (Martin Luther, Thesis #39, 1517)

Cranach image of the pope selling indulgences
The pope signing letters of indulgence for immediate sale, one of the images in Lucas Cranach’s 1521 series, “Passion of Christ and the Antichrist” – Wikimedia

The church council that belatedly addressed Luther’s challenge did take up the indulgence controversy in its last session. While it reaffirmed the Church’s power to grant remission of sins in this way, it acknowledged that monetizing indulgences had led to abuses. And it even seemed to take Luther’s concerns seriously enough that it advised that indulgences ought to be granted in moderation, rather than with “too great facility”:

Since the power of granting indulgences was conferred by Christ on the Church, and she has even in the earliest times made use of that power divinely given to her, the holy council teaches and commands that the use of indulgences, most salutary to the Christian people and approved by the authority of the holy councils, is to be retained in the Church, and it condemns with anathema those who assert that they are useless or deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them. In granting them, however, it desires that in accordance with the ancient and approved custom in the Church moderation be observed, lest by too great facility ecclesiastical discipline be weakened. But desiring that the abuses which have become connected with them, and by reason of which this excellent name of indulgences is blasphemed by the heretics, be amended and corrected it ordains in a general way by the present decree that all evil traffic in them, which has been a most prolific source of abuses among the Christian people, be absolutely abolished. (The Council of Trent, “Decree Concerning Indulgences,” 1563)

But moving back into the present day and the notion of e-indulgences… While I don’t believe in indulgences, they are intimately connected to a spiritual practice whose value I do recognize: pilgrimage. And I understand that for most of those Christians who have sojourned in this world throughout history, it’s not been feasible to actually uproot themselves and make long, dangerous, costly journeys across great distances.

So the Church has often found alternatives. I’m no expert, but my understanding has been that, in their medieval origins, walking labyrinths or the Stations of the Cross permitted a kind of interior journey for those unable to undertake actual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. I suppose that encouraging the faithful to participate vicariously in an event like the one coming up in Brazil could be seen as a similar kind of accommodation.

Except that the medieval accommodations left your body sore and tired; they continued to fuse spiritual practice and emotional experience with physical exertion.

The lack of which in the case of indulgence-by-Twitter doesn’t seem to trouble The Guardian‘s Andrew Brown, who asked (not out of any particular reverence for Catholicism or any other form of Christianity):

…let’s suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the pope does have an informed opinion on what behaviour pleases God and benefits the soul. Does it then matter at all what technology he uses to spread his opinions? Is there anything intrinsically more ridiculous in following a devotion on Twitter than in the flesh, or on television?

The answer has to be no. The whole point of electronic communication is that it has effects in the physical world. That makes it real so far as I am concerned. If a love affair can be nourished in letters, it can be nourished, too, in email, or even, for very time-pressed lovers, in tweets.

When evangelical churches put their prayers up on PowerPoint displays, they don’t lose their spiritual effects through not being printed in books, or on service sheets. What matters is that the congregations say them and mean them. What might make them pointless is the sentiment, not the means of transmission.

1502 letter of indulgence
Letter of indulgence from 1502, one of the untold number produced thanks to another technological innovation: the printing press – Deutsches Historisches Museum

To a point, I can agree. Christians have been using technology to nourish the love affair between Christ and his Bride, the Church, since the Apostle Paul wrote epistles that were then copied and passed on to others — a social medium of the ancient world.

But he wrote those letters to people whom knew personally, in the flesh — women and men like those from Philippi whom he carried “in his heart” and longed for “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phi 1:7-8). And they were originally read not by private individuals carrying Bible apps on smartphones, but in worshiping communities.

For that matter… When Pope Paul VI issued an apostolic constitution on the doctrine of indulgences in 1967, he placed them in the context of the Church working out how to follow New Testament injunctions like James 5:16: “…confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (NRSV Catholic Edition). He underscored the communal nature of such actions: “It was not believed, however, that the individual faithful by their own merits alone worked for the remission of sins of their brothers, but that the entire Church as a single body united to Christ its Head was bringing about satisfaction.”

So it’s important to note that, in his second analogy (to evangelical use of PowerPoint), Brown contends that such worship doesn’t lose its effectiveness for being technology-assisted because “What matters is that the congregations say them and mean them.” Congregations: the gathered communities of persons worshiping God not just in spirit, but with their bodies.

So I’m less exorcised about e-indulgences (and whether they constitute another of the abuses of the doctrine “by which,” Paul VI admitted, “the power of the keys was humiliated and penitential satisfaction weakened”) than about the ways that Christians of all traditions, as they accommodate digital innovation, risk replacing such gatherings with disembodied counterfeits that leave us increasingly isolated from, rather than reconciled to, each other.

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