Tuesday, February 24, 2009

And speaking of immortality...

According to a report in the New York Times (and elsewhere), the Roman Catholic Church is reintroducing indulgences, those officially-issued tickets of exchange (so to speak) that can shorten one's time in purgatory. Next thing you know, we'll be bringing Johann Tetzel out of retirement.

Many younger Catholics today have never heard of indulgences, which we thought had gone the way of many other medievalisms during the brief enlightenment of Vatican II. Indulgences were very much with us when I was a child. By saying certain sanctioned "ejaculations" one could tote up time off in the next world. Say "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," for example, and you got 500 days indulgence (or something to that effect), 500 days off the time of torment I'd spend as punishment for whatever sins an eight-year-old boy might commit. We rattled off our ejaculations and watched the number of days roll up on the remission meter. Presumably, my eight-year-old understanding of indulgences was flawed; time works differently in eternity, and days in purgatory are not to be understood literally. But our teachers -- good Irish nuns -- didn't grasp the theological subtleties either, so we all lived in a kind of semi-fear of the hereafter, spitting out the ejaculations, whirling the dial of the remission meter, trying to keep our credits above our debits.

It's easy to be cynical about all this, and I don't mean to sound smug or cutsey, but surely the very notion of purgatory and indulgences suggests that for all its protestations to the contrary, the Church has not made its peace with modernity -- or with science. One waits in vain for Church leaders who are ready to come to grips with the post-Galilean universe.