Pardon My Indulgence

After a roughly forty-year period of downplay following Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church is beginning to actively promote plenary indulgences again.  

The topic of indulgences is one that stretches back at least a thousand years in Catholic history, but which perhaps gained the most notoriety in the early 16th century as one of the key issues that spurred Martin Luther to call for a discussion via his 95 Theses.  
The basic idea is that sins are forgiven by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Indulgences do not forgive sins.  However, since even devout Christians have a nasty habit of continuing to sin, yet are exhorted not to do so, there are consequences that must be reckoned with.  The consequences or punishments for continued sin need to be paid in full either in this life or the first part of the afterlife, in the Catholic conceptualization of Purgatory.  It is there that the justified must wait until they have adequately sanctified themselves through prayer and penitence.  However, they can be sped along on this path by others interceding on their behalf.  It’s not exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card, since they aren’t in jail, but it does assist them in reaching paradise a little bit sooner.  
The Catholic Church has promoted the idea of indulgences primarily as a means to motivate the living to greater lives of daily piety and devotion.  Indulgences are obtained by a variety of means.  Plenary indulgences eliminate all of the consequences for sins, while partial indulgences remit only – you guessed it – part of the consequences for sins.  Again, the indulgences aren’t forgiving the sins – Jesus has already done that.  But, according to Catholic teaching, that doesn’t mean that you still don’t have punishment due for your sins.  
By performing the prescribed good deeds, an individual can earn an indulgence.  The indulgence is granted by the Catholic Church, which draws on a ‘treasury of merit’ accumulated first and foremost through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also by the pius prayers and lives of the saints.  The Church is able to dispense these blessings to those who conduct themselves properly, and the indulgences can be obtained on behalf of those who have already died, as an act of intercession.  The sale of indulgences was forbidden in the late 16th century, in response to the huge ruckus that official and unofficial representatives of the Church had generated through heavy-handed or theologically-poor sales techniques.  
Now, after 40 years or so, the Church is moving indulgences back into the limelight as a means of drawing the faithful back into more Catholic activities.  Confess and be absolved, receive communion, pray the rosary, adore the Host, or any of the other basic requirements for an indulgence.  The emphasis is on acting Catholic, and on being generous and loving to others.  
I’m all for Christians acting like Christians.  I’d love to see a heck of a lot more of that, frankly.  But I hold with Luther on this issue.  If the Church has this amazing power to deliver people from Purgatory up to heaven at any time, why the heck doesn’t it use that power equilaterally and immediately?  Why essentially hold people as metaphysical hostages in order to elicit a particular desired behavior by others?  It doesn’t add up to me.  At all.  If payment still needs to be made for our sins, then doesn’t that imply that Jesus’ work on the cross and in the open tomb wasn’t really adequate?  Doesn’t this implication lead us down the path towards the classic heresy of semipelagianism?   
It will be interesting to see how American Catholics respond to this renewed emphasis.   

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