Is Pope Francis Being Indulgent with Sinners on Twitter?

A headline in the tech blog Mashable a few days ago proclaimed “Pope Francis to Forgive Your Sins via Twitter,” setting off a flurry of other headlines about how following the pontiff via his @pontifex address could get you absolved of sin and put in the priority lane in Purgatory.

That set off another flurry of stories, especially in the Catholic media, about how those headlines were patently untrue and misleading.

But now the headline on the same story reads, “Pope Francis to Offer Plenary Indulgence via Twitter” (with the original title still reflected in the article’s URL). That is marginally better but still misses the mark.

The text of the Mashable story, while imperfect, is better than most, but the bulk of mainstream media reporting on the Roman Catholic Church appears to be as much influenced by “The Omen,” “The Borgias,” “Monty Python” skits on the Spanish Inquisition, and the staggeringly inaccurate (but hey, it’s only fiction!) pulp-thriller author, Dan Brown, as by any actual research.

Clicking the Follow button on the pope’s account won’t get you anything more by itself than an addition to your “Following” list.

The Vatican release of July 9 on the most recent plenary indulgence -- which is attached to World Youth Day, a global gathering of young Catholics, taking place this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from June 23 to 28 -- states, in part:

The faithful who on account of a legitimate impediment cannot attend the aforementioned celebrations may obtain Plenary Indulgence under the usual spiritual, sacramental and prayer conditions, in a spirit of filial submission to the Roman Pontiff, by participation in the sacred functions on the days indicated, following the same rites and spiritual exercises as they occur via television or radio, or, with due devotion, via the new means of social communication.

So what does this all mean?

The Church has a deep history and storehouse of wisdom -- theological, philosophical and regarding human nature -- so some of this stuff is a bit dense and seemingly difficult to understand. Few things exemplify this more than papal indulgences.

An indulgence -- papal or otherwise -- is a way that the Church offers, under specific conditions, satisfied in a reasonable amount of time, a remission of the earthly or Purgatorial penalty for venial (as in not as bad as mortal) sins. The person receiving the indulgence is relieved of most of the burden of penance in this life – and also gets some supernatural help to resist sin – or in the next.

However, this doesn’t mean one is forgiven of sins. Confession and absolution with a priest must come first, along with whatever other subsequent duties are attached to the indulgence in question, which include receiving the Holy Eucharist in a state of grace.

The indulgence can apply to the person receiving it or to a person who has died, since Catholics believe that souls on their way to Heaven endure a time in Purgatory to be purified of whatever remaining un-confessed or un-repented – or insufficiently repented – venial sins existing at death before being admitted to the presence of God. It is the spiritual equivalent of washing off the last bits of accumulated grime in order to be presentable. But indulgences are also non-transferable and cannot be given to another living person.

Once upon a time, back around the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, certain Church clerics did indeed provide indulgences in exchange for money. They were not exactly selling them outright but instead offering them in recompense for financial contributions to charitable funds or foundations (which was not much better, since that gave the rich a distinct advantage).

This rightfully angered a lot of people, especially German Catholic cleric Martin Luther, who penned his “95 Theses” to argue against the practice.

A few years after the Council of Trent, in 1567, Pope Pius V ended the practice of attaching money to indulgences, but that has not stopped Church critics from still complaining about it for the last half-millennium or so.

Today’s indulgences are far less controversial and depend as much on a person’s intent as his or her actions. But the newest one is a way for the Church to acknowledge the evangelical roles of mass and new media, and to broaden the positive spiritual effect of World Youth Day beyond just those able to attend.

Similar papal indulgences have long been available for those who participate by TV or radio in papal audiences and other events.

Whether you are on the ground in Rio or following along at home, if you are not truly contrite and repentant, and if you just go through the motions of satisfying the requirements of the indulgence in a rote, absent-minded or half-hearted manner, you are not going to reap the benefits.

For the authority to offer indulgences (and, indeed, to absolve penitents of sins in general), the Church and her priests rely on Jesus’s charge to Peter as “the Rock” upon which the Church is built and on the statement in Matthew 18:18: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in  heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

In addition to authority, the ability to offer relief from temporal punishment comes from the Church’s founder, when, as stated in the Indulgentiarum Doctrina, “as a minister of redemption (the Church) dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of satisfactions won by Christ and the saints.”

So, an indulgence is not a magic spell, but an invitation to enter more deeply into a relationship with Christ. And with a plenary indulgence in particular, the person must also consciously turn away from sin.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, said:

When we are touching spirituality, the problem resides not in what I do but what is in my heart. It’s not just watching TV and the ceremonies of the Holy Father that I get the indulgence, or because I’m going to Rio, or because I’m reading a tweet of the Holy Father. That’s not the forgiveness of sins.

There are those who disapprove of the pope’s presence in social media, and odds are good they are not happy to have this indulgence extended to the faithful online.

The same AP story quotes the Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University, as saying, “Some might falsely think that ‘Twitterized’ indulgences cheapen access to God’s grace. But they miss the point of the pope’s unprecedented move to social media.

“He is challenging tweeters to return to the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion and to deeply examine their consciences to free themselves from attachment to venial sins.

“The Pope doesn’t miss a beat or an opportunity to evangelize.”


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