Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Voodoo! It's back.

You may have gotten the impression that I have some passing familiarity with the Catholic church. (How else would you explain the hostility, right?) Well, it's true. Like everybody else, I was born an atheist, but then turned over to Mother Church to get the real story. I can still recite snippets of the Baltimore Catechism (although, as far as I recall, neither Brooks Robinson nor Cal Ripken is mentioned even once) and the Latin mass, but beyond that I've ditched all that stuff.

It's good to know about, though, because, like just about every other religion, Catholicism is chock full with these bizarre little ideas that you would never believe unless you heard it from the horse's mouth. For example, we had a nun at our school who taught us all that Jesus Christ was the only person who was ever exactly six feet tall. How could she possibly know that, you might wonder? Well, it's quite simple, really. You see, six feet is the perfect height for a man, and obviously there has only been one perfect human, so who else could possibly be precisely six feet tall except for one Middle Eastern guy who may or may not have existed centuries before this particular system of measurement was devised.

Or, and it was commonly repeated by the nuns at our school, that the Virgin Mary sheds a tear whenever a girl whistles.

Stop, I know what you're going to say: there are always superstitious people, even among the sincerely religious; you can't tag the whole religion with a few crackpot ideas.

Okay, even if I give you that, here's something you can't dismiss: indulgences.

You know what they are? Under Catholic mythology, after you die, even if you've led a good life, you are bound to have committed some sins, and you still have to be punished for them. Yes, even if you're not bad enough to go to hell, you're pretty much guaranteed to be bad enough to deserve punishment in Purgatory. The nuns told us that it was even worse than hell, although it was only temporary; once you were all done you'd get to go to Heaven. We could never know how long our stint in Purgatory would be, but we knew one thing: you could do various things to cut time off your sentence by getting indulgences. An indulgence is, quite simply, time off your sentence in Purgatory. They got kind of a bad image back in the Middle Ages, back when the priests and bishops would go around selling indulgences, with the slogan that your sins would be wiped out as soon as your coins were heard to clink in the box.

Even though you're dead, and beyond the count of human time, apparently time in Purgatory is measured in human time. On occasion you could get a plenary indulgence, which is a total get out of Purgatory free card; if you get a plenary indulgence and then die, you rocket straight up to Heaven, no sweating it out in Purgatory. But usually, you would get partial indulgences. We had prayer books in our school and church that would tell us the value of various things. For instance, you might get a year's indulgence for saying a rosary, or maybe a month's indulgence for going to Mass when you don't have to, but they also had these little short prayers, called "ejaculations" (stop that, I am not making this up!) that might only be worth three days, or even one day. Not much of a reward, but how much effort did you have to put out to get it?

Well, guess what. Indulgences are back. Its revival has been viewed as part of a conservative resurgence that has brought some quiet changes and some highly controversial ones, like Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to lift the excommunications of four schismatic bishops who reject the council’s reforms.

Yes, they're back, along with the tables that enable you to compute your good time and everything. And, what about this: You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that sounds like buying them to me.

So that's the story for the day. Don't want to undergo excruciating agony after you die (and really, who does?)? Then get your hands on the prayer book and start racking up those indulgences.

Your future, deceased self will thank you for it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every time Pope Benedict the XVI reverses some of the progress made by John XXIII, the baby Jesus sheds a tiny tear.

February 11, 2009 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every time Pope Benedict the XVI reverses some of the progress made by John XXIII, the baby Jesus sheds a tiny tear.

February 11, 2009 11:34 AM  
Blogger Stevem said...

I'm not tight with any Catholics these days, although my colleague is one. I would be surprised if the percentage of American Catholics who believed in indulgences exceeded 20%. That leaves a lot of people who chose not to buy into this nutty idea.

I don't intend to be a Catholic apologist. I guess my thought is to put this idea in perspective. All faiths have nutty ideas, and there's a believer for each one, I'm sure. But most of us choose a more temperate faith. Most of us also part company with those who believe in the radical stuff that is associated with terrorism and holy wars. I'll bet most Christians in the U.S. believe Darwain was right (happy 200th tomorrow, Chuck!).

By the way, each time a school board outlaws the teaching of evolution, Darwin sheds a tear.


February 11, 2009 3:34 PM  
Blogger Jack McCullough said...

I think that's a reasonable supposition, Steve, but there is this article that was published in Science that said that public acceptance of evolution in the United States is lower than anywhere in the world, except for Turkey.

I think it's a remarkable fact of history that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day.

February 11, 2009 8:37 PM  
Blogger Jack McCullough said...

Another point, Steve, is that for years I've thought the management of the Catholic church had a concern for not appearing like cultists. They don't seem to push the bizarre and palpably fraudulent aspects of the religion, like the Shroud of Turin or the people who parade themselves as stigmatic, and they don't seem to encourage people who claim to see Mary in an oil slick. That's why this seems a bit away from their recent positions.

February 11, 2009 8:45 PM  
Blogger Jack McCullough said...

By the way, Steve, do you have a guess of the percentage of American Catholics who actually believe in transubstantiation? Higher or lower than the 20% you guess would believe in indulgences?

February 11, 2009 8:47 PM  
Blogger Stevem said...

John, I may have to eat my words. I asked a practicing Catholic yesterday about indulgences, and she "buys into" the idea, so to speak. The first one out of the box!

It is concerning that this pope is making such strides. Even JP II, whom people thought was so conservative, didn't seem to lean this way. Perhaps this guy is showing his true colors.

I will not go out on the same limb regarding transubstantiation. I was in a Christian gift shop some time in the last two years, and the woman working there engaged me in a conversation about Catholicism vs. other forms of Chritianity. Her comment was something like, "Well, we're the only ones who really celebrate the Eucharist." Her reasoning was that since only the Catholic church, through the papacy, has a direct line back to Christ, so only their priests can perform this miracle. I chose not to argue what I see as a small point - I'm not big on Communion anyway. But recalling these two conversations, in the context of our current one, has restored my humility, aka recognition of my ignorance.

February 12, 2009 11:16 AM  

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