Holy Doors, Plenary Indulgences, and Challenge Grants

As I mentioned in my earlier post, there is a special blessing available to those who pass through a holy door during the Jubilee Year under certain conditions. This blessing is called a plenary indulgence; in colloquial terms, it takes away all the time that one would otherwise spend in Purgatory. In order to obtain this plenary indulgence, one must on the same day pass through the holy door, go to confession, receive communion, and pray for the intentions of the Pope. This blessing can be obtained either for oneself or for someone else.

My initial exposure to the concept of indulgences was in the context of learning about the Protestant Reformation. One of the things that justifiably outraged Martin Luther was that indulgences were being sold in order to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. So I was quite taken aback when I first encountered indulgences in contemporary use! I hadn’t realized it was only the sale of indulgences that had been reprobated by the Council of Trent, as part of what is traditionally called the Counter-Reformation but is arguably more aptly called the Catholic Reformation: basically, this was a period during which the Catholic church enacted a number of reforms in response to many of the critiques made by the Protestant Reformers.

I like to use the practice of selling indulgences as an example of what occasionally happens when you take several well-grounded but distinct teachings or traditions, and follow them out to their logical conclusions.

The following are all, independently, uncontroversial Catholic teaching:
– prayers can be offered for specific intentions and on behalf of other people
– one can pray for the souls of the dead
– giving money can be an act of prayer
– we routinely receive God’s grace through the church

It’s only when these are combined that one reaches the logical but repugnant conclusion that it is possible to buy people out of Purgatory, which contradicts another well-grounded teaching that God’s gifts cannot be purchased.

(Interestingly, this sort of thing was a not uncommon problem in the development of Christian theology. The development of Christology during the third and fourth centuries is full of people who were declared to be heretical after they took one Christological or anthropological claim to a logical conclusion that conflicted with another, equally weighty Christological claim.)

Luther made another, more general critique of indulgences: if the Pope did have the power to free people from Purgatory, why didn’t he just do so? for everyone?

Thinking about this, and about the additional contemporary requirements for obtaining this indulgence, reminded me of the matching challenge grant: a fundraising technique in which a wealthy donor puts up a large gift that is used to encourage a multiplicity of smaller gifts by matching them dollar for dollar for the benefit of the charity. One occasionally hears a similar criticism: Why don’t they just give the money outright? Why attach strings to it? But it’s generally understood that this is a way to make the large gift more productive, by attracting a number of donors that might not otherwise give.

So the church offers the spiritual gift of a plenary indulgence for a loved one in order to encourage me to pass through a Holy Door, go to confession, receive communion, and pray for the intentions of the pope? Those are all good things for me to do anyway, both for my own good and for the good of the church. And honestly? I’m okay with that.

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2 Responses to Holy Doors, Plenary Indulgences, and Challenge Grants

  1. Thank you – you have helped me to reframe the idea of indulgences. Excellent post!

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