MARTIN LUTHER: Is So Not Amused, circa 1529
BY AMY Z QUINN There’s a scene from The Sopranos a couple of seasons back when Paulie Gaultieri storms out of his pastor’s office in indignation after learning that all the cash he’d given the parish over the years wouldn’t keep him out of Hell when he died (God forbid). I’m reminded of that this week after learning that in recognition of its 200th birthday, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is offering its flock a gift — plenary indulgences, designed to shorten the time a sinner spends in Satan’s Waiting Room, aka purgatory. But lest you think this is your chance to go out and get laid with impunity, it’s important to remember that the indulgence is only good for a past sin (meaning it might shave off some of the purgatory time you earned during that Lohan Weekend, if you know what I’m saying) and it’s one per customer, with no implied plus-one.
Between now and the final bicentennial Mass of April 13, local Catholics seeking an indulgence must make a pilgrimage to an area shrine or special bicentennial Mass, make an act of sacramental confession and receive communion around the time of a pilgrimage, and pray for the intentions of the pope. [Inquirer ]
In case you’re a heathen unfamiliar with arcane Church practices, plenary indulgences are a centuries-old method of pay-to-play repentance in which the faithful could redeem their mortal souls with cash. It was one of the main abuses of Church power which set Martin Luther off; many of those 95 Theses dealt heavily with Luther’s assertion that “sacramental confession” does not absolve sin, and a priest cannot “forgive” sin, only prayerfully intercede on a sinner’s behalf to God.
21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;
27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].
28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.
36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
Indeed, Luther went so far as to suggest that if sin can truly be paid off, the Pope would then be right to use every bit of the Church’s riches to pay off the spiritual debts of the faithful, even if it meant going bankrupt. So you can see why he was so popular in Rome.
Over the years, Catholics and Lutherans came closer together, agreeing a few years back that faith, not good works, were the path to heaven. Still, the notion that a fellow human, whether it be a priest in the confessional or the Pope himself granting a worldwide indulgence, has the power to forgive sin — even a past one — is an issue most Catholics struggle with at some point. For my own part, it’s why I stopped going to Confession about 20 years ago. And if good works are the path to heaven, wouldn’t an act of service to others, and not a trip to a shrine, be a better means of attaining grace?