Vatican Decree on Plenary Indulgence For World Youth Day Mentions “Social Communication”, Prompts Silly Headlines

From the Guardian‘s Rome correspondent Tom Kington:

Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets

Papal court handling pardons for sins says contrite Catholics may win ‘indulgences’ by following World Youth Day on Twitter.

…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”.

One can see why journalists would be struck by the juxtaposition of 21st century technology with a theological concept that many people (and especially Guardian readers) associate with the Middle Ages, but one expects something a bit better than this sniggering, vulgarized approach to the subject from a serious newspaper.

The Guardian article is derived from a piece in Corriere della SeraThat article was entitled “Plenary Indulgence with a Tweet”, which was apparently justified by a quote from a priest who appears to have some kind of relationship with the paper:

…In the end, we turned to Fr Paolo Padrini, a respected scholar of the Church’s relations with digital communications who has earned the nickname “iPriest” from his students for his obsession with always being connected. It was Fr Padrini who coordinated the soon-to-be-launched project which will enable users of the Corriere della Sera’s website to obtain images and original contributions from Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day. Fr Padrini says: “Imagine your computer is a well-laden table where you can find tweets from Pope Francis, videos on YouTube, clips on and Facebook postings from your friend in Brazil. That is the dinner that will nourish your spirit. Sharing, acting in unison, despite the obstacle of distance. But it will still be real participation and that is why you will obtain the indulgence. Above all because your click will have come from the heart”.

Current Catholic teaching on indulgences is to be found in Indulgentiarum Doctrina, which was issued by Pope Paul VI in 1967. It includes the following:

An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due sin.

…A partial indulgence will henceforth be designated only with the words “partial indulgence” without any determination of days or years.

This makes the Guardian’s reference to climbing the Sacred Steps to earn “seven years off” as a comparison doubly inappropriate. It should be noted that the phrase “time off purgatory” in the Guardian headline does not appear in Vatican decree or anywhere else, despite being in quotation marks.

Indulgences are also discussed in Pope John Paul II’s Incarnationis Mysterium (1998); it includes references to the “state of Purgatory” and to “temporal punishment due”, but the emphasis is on the expiation of “whatever impedes full communion with God and with one’s brothers and sisters” rather than on mechanistically seeking “time off”.

According to the Vatican decree itself concerning World Youth Day:

The faithful who are legitimately impeded, will be able to obtain the Plenary Indulgence provided that, complying with the usual spiritual, sacramental and prayerful conditions, with the intention of filial submission to the Roman Pontiff, participate spiritually in the sacred functions during the specified days, provided that they follow the same rites and pious exercises while they are taking place, through television and radio or, always with the due devotion, through the new means of social communication…

similar decree issued last year in relation the “Year of Faith” also mentions “television or radio”; the passing addition of “new means of social communication” is merely an obvious extension of the general principle, and journalistic interest is disproportionate.

The Guardian is not the only paper to have botched its reporting; the Australian Daily Telegraph has the following:

Pope Francis to forgive Twitter followers’ sins online

POPE Francis will offer pardons for sins over Twitter next week as part of World Youth Day celebrations, to be held in Rio de Janeiro.

The Vatican has issued a decree, announcing that the Pope would give ‘plenary indulgences’, which reduce the time spent in purgatory for sins committed.

This is again misleading, asking us to imagine the Pope firing off indulgences via Twitter. On Twitter itself, the story has opened a floodgate of snark, the suggestion being that “time off purgatory” is being offered to anyone who RTs a @pontifex Tweet.

One doesn’t have to believe in, or even respect, the idea of “indulgences”; but if you’re going to write seriously about the subject, at least attempt some proper understanding of what they mean to insiders.

2 Responses

  1. Despite this explanation the notion is bizarre

  2. Thank you Richard for exposing some willfully ignorant anti-catholic sneers.

    In mitigation, I suppose many Catholics are also ignorant of what indulgences are. Here is a brief explanation

    which might help Julie deal with some common misunderstandings.

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