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Virtual Indulgences?

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 14, 2020

Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, we went to Mass, celebrated the sacraments, supported the Church with our contributions, and hoped to go to heaven when we died. After the shutdown of the Masses, we entered into the bizarre virtual reality of the internet. Today we have virtual Masses livestreamed on the web, virtual sacraments, and perhaps, one speculates, a virtual heaven. Alas, the Vatican is finding it difficult to reconcile the new virtual reality with the sacramental life of the Church.

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In the real world, it is usually a happy and healthy thing to react against the elites who disparage popular piety. So it’s good news that the Church’s teaching on indulgences seems to be making a comeback after many years of disfavor, following Vatican II, among the elites of the theological profession. In recovering the desire for indulgences, we are beginning to restore a healthy sense of sin and its consequences. So it is worthwhile to enter into the theological weeds to obtain a better understanding as to how indulgences work and what we can expect in our pious pursuit of them.

The consequences of sin are twofold: guilt and temporal punishment. Repentance—usually a sacramental Confession for mortal sins—extinguishes our guilt and immediately remits the dread penalty of damnation. But a remnant of God’s just punishment lingers and is requited by prayer, acts of generosity, and sacrifice in this life—or later in Purgatory.

Under secular law, a man becomes a thief when he holds up a convenience store. He remains guilty (in a moral, not just legal, sense) until he seeks forgiveness. Upon acknowledging his crime and repenting, he is no longer morally blameworthy. But the obligation to suffer just punishment remains; it includes the necessity to make restitution and, in all likelihood, to serve jail time. A reduction (partial indulgence) or complete elimination (plenary indulgence) of jail time illustrates the two concepts involved in indulgences.

Indulgences draw from the treasury of merit of Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. They are dispensed according to the will of Christ. The power to remit the punishment due to sin is implicit in the authority Jesus granted to Saint Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:19)

When we seek an indulgence, we aim to pray with the Church and her intentions. Hence, the requirements typically direct us to traditional formulas of prayer. The remission of punishment is granted under the “usual conditions.” These include a complete detachment from sin, praying for the Pope’s intentions, being in a state of grace after Confession, attending an entire Mass, and receiving Communion.

We can satisfy most of the directive’s components with confidence—except for the ambiguity implied in a “complete detachment from sin.” That’s a tall order under any circumstances. Yet it is necessary for a plenary indulgence (the complete remission of all punishment due to sin. Still we must insist it is possible to despise one’s sin completely, even with the knowledge that a sinful inclination that comes with one’s “predominant fault” will likely result in the commission of the same transgressions in the future. (The example of a struggling alcoholic comes to mind.)

When we fall short in our detachment, a plenary indulgence becomes a partial indulgence, and the Church augments the grace of remission we earn in Christ through our ordinary prayer efforts (“merits”) in cooperation with God’s grace. So seeking a plenary indulgence is always worth the effort even when we are unable to dismiss those pesky sinful attachments. The remission of the punishment due to sin certainly comes with all fervent prayer. Mother Church teaches us how to pray, and she rewards us for our efforts to pray as she directs.

A popular and common plenary indulgence comes with the community recitation of the Rosary: “For those who pray the Rosary, a plenary indulgence is granted under the usual conditions, when the Rosary is prayed in Church, or in a Public Oratory, in a family (family Rosary), Religious Community, or Pious Association. Otherwise, a partial indulgence is granted.”

The Vatican recently promulgated an indulgence on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe to accommodate those at home due to restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, the most recent indulgence opportunity is seriously flawed.

The indulgence required participation in a livestreamed or televised Mass from the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The directives seemed anxious to encourage the pious celebration of live-stream Masses by adding this clause that required: “…actively participating in the Holy Eucharist as you would in person, that is, with devotion and with exclusive attention to the Eucharist.” Unfortunately, this final condition inadvertently sabotaged the devotion.

Witnessing the celebration of a Mass on the internet is not real participation. The live-streamed Eucharist is a mere electronic image. There is no “Real Presence” in the pixels on the screen, so the devotion cannot be the same. It is merely a “virtual presence.” In the haste to promote a greater fervor while watching a virtual Mass on the Internet, the directives rendered the prayer impossible and nullified any possibility of attaining the indulgence.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln from his “House Divided” speech, a Church divided against itself by the demands of virtual reality cannot stand. So why not stick with the real thing? Go to church and join in the community rosary after Mass, and pray for the plenary indulgence “under the usual conditions.”

In any case, virtual church contributions cannot pay the bills (although many good parishioners have continued their contributions even during the shutdown, God bless them). So it may not take Church authorities very long to stop dabbling in virtual reality and return to the real world. But maybe we should take the lead.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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