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July 17th, 2013
07:45 PM ET

Sorry, retweeting the pope won't get you out of hell

Opinion by the Rev. James Martin, SJ, special to CNN

(CNN) –Here were the tantalizingly weird headlines: “Follow pope online, get to heaven sooner - Facebook likes don't count.” “Cut your time in purgatory by following pope on Twitter.” And, worst of all, from Slate: “Pope now offering indulgences in exchange for Twitter followers.”

Similar headlines popped up on more than 190 news sources on Wednesday.

Ha ha. Is the Catholic Church offering time off in hell– or purgatory, depending on the website - just for checking your Twitter feed every few hours? Is the church really that dumb? And here I thought Pope Francis was cool, or as Esquire recently termed him, “awesome.”

This is (another) case of how the media misunderstands and misreports a story from “The Vatican.”

Here’s how it seemed to have happened.

On June 24, the Apostolic Penitentiary (the Vatican office that deals with matters concerning sin,) issued a document that said the faithful who attend the upcoming World Youth Day in Brazil would receive a “plenary indulgence” for their efforts during pilgrimage.

That’s a traditional Catholic term for the full remission of the “temporal punishment” in the afterlife due to sin. The theological idea is that by doing good works on earth, or by engaging in pious practices like a pilgrimage, you can help “work off” some of the temporal punishments that may await you after death.

But just from checking Twitter every few hours? Let’s leave aside the very complicated theology of the plenary indulgence for a moment, and see how this story got out of hand.

The Vatican’s original document offered an indulgence for those who complete a pilgrimage. That’s fairly common. A few years ago, when I made a pilgrimage to the French shrine of Lourdes, one could work towards an indulgence by visiting certain holy sites and praying there.

Once again, the idea is making reparation in penance for your sins. To take a homey example, if you’re a student who talks too much in class, your teacher might ask you to clean the blackboards instead of failing you. To avoid a big punishment you make amends for your mistakes.

But there’s more: the Vatican document noted that the faithful at World Youth Day must be “truly repentant and contrite.” In other words, they must undertake the pilgrimage in a true spirit of repentance. Be sorry for their sins. That’s common, too.

At the end of the document, the Vatican noted that it was not just pilgrims to whom this applied, but another, newer, group: those who might participate “with due devotion, via the new means of social communication.”

Why did the Vatican include that category? As I see it, to be inclusive, something people often accuse the church of not being.

For those who cannot travel to Brazil, because of financial limitations or health restrictions, it's a way of welcoming them.

To my mind, it’s a generous way of inviting people into the Masses, prayers and liturgies during the World Youth Day. Why wouldn’t you want to include the sick, the poor and the elderly in the community of pilgrims? And why wouldn’t you want to help them participate via the web?

So how did this get so focused on Twitter?

Well, it would seem that The Guardian got hold of “a source” in the Vatican who said, “That includes following Twitter.”

Now, who was the source? We are not told. But that was enough for the headline writers at the Guardian to write: “Vatican offers `time off purgatory' to followers of Pope Francis tweets.”

That’s already doubly inaccurate. Because, first of all, even the “source” said it’s not enough to just follow the pope on Twitter (as the headline misleadingly stated).

"But you must be following the events live,” he told the Guardian, “It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the Internet.”

Second, in that same article Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, was quoted as telling the Italian daily Corriere della Sera: "You can't obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine."

In other words: the original document, the “source” and Archbishop Celli all said the opposite of what the headlines said.

That is, it’s not enough simply to follow the pope on Twitter. It’s not even enough to check his Twitter feed frequently. You need to be (a) contrite, (b) trying to follow the events at World Youth Day live and (c) performing these acts with “due devotion.”

In other words, the Vatican is clearly referring to prayerful participation in these events by men and women who could not otherwise go, through the various “new means of social communication.”

An example: A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. After I told her that I would pray for her, I mentioned that the shrine of Lourdes had a 24-hour webcam in the famous Grotto, where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared in 1858.

She e-mailed me a few days later to say that “visiting” the Grotto, via the web, had helped her to pray. It brought her a great sense of peace. This is the kind of “due devotion” that the Vatican has in mind, despite what the headlines might say.

The worst headline came from the normally careful Slate: Pope Francis is not offering indulgences “in exchange for Twitter followers.” He has plenty of Twitter followers. But he’d probably exchange a few hundred of them for headline writers who actually read the story.

James Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large at America magazine and author of "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything." He tweets, but won't promise to get you out of purgatory, at @JamesMartinSJ .

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Internet • News media • Pope Francis • Prayer

soundoff (481 Responses)
  1. No one

    Forgive them father for they have tweeted?

    July 17, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
  2. Robert

    Wow I am amazed at how many "Catholics" don't know the biblical basis for indulgences! I guess it is true what protestants say about us – "we never read the Bible". Here is a quick summary of how Biblical indulgences are:

    [1] Principle – When a person sins, he acquires certain liabilities: the liability of guilt and the liability of punishment

    Biblical Reference: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool" (Is. 1:18). This idea of guilt clinging to our souls appears in texts that picture forgiveness as a cleansing or washing and the state of our forgiven souls as clean and white (cf. Ps. 51:4, 9).

    [2] Principle – Punishments are Both Temporal and Eternal

    Biblical Reference – The Bible indicates some punishments are eternal, lasting forever, but others are temporal. Eternal punishment is mentioned in Daniel 12:2: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt." Also, we normally focus on the eternal penalties of sin, because they are the most important, but Scripture indicates temporal penalties are real and go back to the first sin humans committed: "To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children (Gen. 3:16).

    [3] Principle – Temporal Penalties May Remain When a Sin is Forgiven

    Biblical Reference –
    When someone repents, God removes his guilt (Is. 1:18) and any eternal punishment (Rom. 5:9), but temporal penalties may remain. One passage demonstrating this is 2 Samuel 12, in which Nathan the prophet confronts David over his adultery:
    "Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan answered David: ‘The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin; you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die’" (2 Sam. 12:13-14). God forgave David but David still had to suffer the loss of his son as well as other temporal punishments (2 Sam. 12:7-12). (For other examples, see: Numbers 14:13-23; 20:12; 27:12-14.)

    [4] Principle – God Blesses Some People As a Reward to Others

    Biblical reference – In Matthew 9:1-8, Jesus heals a paralytic and forgives his sins after seeing the faith of his friends. Paul also tells us that "as regards election [the Jews] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers" (Rom. 11:28).

    When God blesses one person as a reward to someone else, sometimes the specific blessing he gives is a reduction of the temporal penalties to which the first person is subject. For example, God promised Abraham that, if he could find a certain number of righteous men in Sodom, he was willing to defer the city’s temporal destruction for the sake of the righteous (Gen. 18:16-33; cf. 1 Kgs. 11:11-13; Rom. 11:28-29).

    [5] – Principle – The Church also recognized the duration of temporal punishments could be lessened through the involvement of other persons who had pleased God. Scripture tells us God gave the authority to forgive sins "to men" (Matt. 9:8) and to Christ’s ministers in particular. Jesus told them, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:21-23).

    If Christ gave his ministers the ability to forgive the eternal penalty of sin, how much more would they be able to remit the temporal penalties of sin! Christ also promised his Church the power to bind and loose on earth, saying, "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" (Matt. 18:18). As the context makes clear, binding and loosing cover Church discipline, and Church discipline involves administering and removing temporal penalties (such as barring from and readmitting to the sacraments). Therefore, the power of binding and loosing includes the administration of temporal penalties.

    Hope this helps with the understanding. It is so important to understand what you read when it comes to anything – especially the Bible!

    July 17, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      These notions are obviously entrenched, Robert. You have certainly made a case for that. Any idea how we can put an end to this strange industry of improving the relationship of souls (imaginary) to an imaginary God?

      July 17, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
    • Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

      Robert, As you study church history, you will come to learn that we cannot take the words of scripture as literal words that Jesus said. The words were written many years after the events and they are not the literal words of Jesus, but the beliefs of the men who wrote about what they had heard from others something of what they think Jesus may have said.

      July 17, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
      • James M.

        Ms. McHugh, you should really come off your high horse as suggested above. A practical way of doing that is by dropping the "Dr" in your name. Your M.D. gives as much credibility as my J.D. in the area of Catholic theology. I, however, having been raised Baptist for over 20 years and then deciding to convert to the Catholic faith after taking several formal classes in theology, philosophy, and history, at least have the benefit of seeing both sides of the Catholic-Protestant split. The "democratic" Christianity you speak of is nothing more than the product of your modern understanding of history. It also disguises a more serious problem- the lack of obedience, which has resulted in the fracturing of Christendom and 30K different denominations. For my part, I will go with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And, when I hear something that I intellectually or emotionally disagree with promulgated from the Chair, I will submit. I do this because the Church remains the anchor for moral guidance when your 30K denominations lose sight and become unsure of their purpose.

        July 18, 2013 at 12:56 am |
    • George

      Impressive reply, Robert. But I think one can find some rational for almost anything in the Old Testament, or even the Quaran. Next you'll be mentioning that Eve came from Adam's rib. Puh-lease! Stick to the New Testament and follow in Jesus' steps of service and humility, as in the washing of his disciple's feet. Now try to fit indulgences into that picture. Not remotely possible.

      July 17, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • stopabortion

      What a great explanation....thanks.

      July 17, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Complete and utter nonsense by someone projecting, ignorantly, his own opinions on ancient culture. No Biblical scholar would agree with one word of that crap. Not one.

      If gods live in space-time, then for their existence they REQUIRE space-time. Oops.
      That means they can't CREATE the conditions necessary for their own existence.

      I challenge any theist here to define existence, (and NOT using any sort of Special Pleading), define "existence", and NOT use one word that references space-time. You can't. That makes any god(s) Philosophical, (and scientific) nonsense.

      July 18, 2013 at 12:10 am |
    • realbuckyball

      BTW, why would you be "surprised" ?
      According to the Pew center 50 % of Catholics cannot state what is meant by "transubstantiation".

      July 18, 2013 at 12:13 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Thank you Robert. I'm sharing this with others.

      July 18, 2013 at 9:47 am |
  3. Bootyfunk

    no tweets? why not? you used to be able to buy your way into heaven via indulgences. maybe if people tweeted money...?

    July 17, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  4. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    Well, all right. We can set up virtual environments with God, heaven, hell, a complicated but consistent legend of how we came to be entirely creatures of God. And this God and its love we will get to know personally. We can have sin, shame, repentance, penance, redemption, salvation and sanctification, damnation too. It will seem real and we can find comfort and (virtual) meaning there. No need to go to Lourdes or even to St. Anne's down the street.

    July 17, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      almost everything you said is wrong.

      July 17, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Darn!

      July 17, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
  5. Bill Gilman

    plenary indulgence isnt a complicated theology. It's wrong. It's a false teaching period. There is absolutely nothing Biblical about it.

    July 17, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      What does the Bible have to do with Catholicism?

      July 17, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
      • John

        Where do you think the bible came from? It was the Catholic church that preserved the Bible from the time the final canon of books became the Bible. Go to search and type: "Where We Got the Bible."

        July 17, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
      • azalea17

        Hee hee, as a card carrying RC for almost 50 years now, that was FUN! Thanks for the giggle!

        July 21, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • Elise

      There is nothing Biblical in a lot of things that Christians use against other people.

      July 17, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
    • Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

      Thankyou, Bill. I agree that there is nothing biblical about indulgences. I believe that it is part of the desire to have power and control over the lives of people, that the church has had the arrogance to act like they have power and control over God's grace. In truth, God's grace is a free gift from God alone. The RCC would be wise to close that office in the Vatican and the Pope would be wise to stop talking about indulgences for the health of the future of the RCC, in my view.

      July 17, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
      • Dark Itch

        Nothing biblical is of any value or importance. If you really wanted to believe in it, then you'd know that animal sacrifice was to be reinstated FOREVER. Not my words, it's in the bible.

        July 18, 2013 at 8:25 am |
  6. Gina

    As a committed Catholic who was raised in the seventies and taught that indulgences were a relic of the past, I struggle with the church and Pope even invoking the term "plenary indulgence." Only God truly knows my heart and it is to him that I turn to find the right path. If watching World Youth Day were to deepen my faith life, then I have received my reward her. The Sisters of St. Louis taught me that my actions mattered to God not merely so he could determine my path to heaven (in fact they rarely mentioned heaven and NEVER purgatory) but because he had called me to follow his son's example. Isn't desire for a deeper relationship enough? Indulgences? Oh please!!!

    July 17, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
    • George

      I think you speak for most Catholics. And although Catholicisms is not a democracy (and shouldn't be), I hope that these comments, being a response to Rev. Martin's article, will sound the wake-up alarm in Rome.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
      • Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

        George, If you have the opportunity to read about the early church. You will find that the early church was a democracy with both women and men taking important roles. I believe that it has been since the 4th century, that the church became a monarchy instead of a democracy. It started when Constantine made Christianity a state religion and priests became princes instead of following Jesus as servant-leaders. So, even though the church wants us to believe that it is not a democracy and never was, that is not true. The church did start out as a democracy.

        July 17, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
        • Dark Itch

          Democracy isn't biblical. You like to use that excuse, so here it is. According to the bible, women have no voice. How democratic.

          July 18, 2013 at 8:26 am |
        • He's obviosly from the Bible Belt

          The misogynist Saul of Tarsus told women to cover their heads, and shut up, "according to the law". He used the old law when it was convenient, and said they were freed from it when that was convenient. Sorry mame. Your replies are intelligent, but there is nothing to defend here any more. It's all been exposed.

          July 19, 2013 at 4:08 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Gina, it appears you were instructed poorly on more than one count. As with many traditions of the church, and more so than most, indulgences have waxed and waned in prominence. But, while they are a relic of the past, they are still canonical today, just as purgatory is. Our friends who followed Luther out the door may despair the commerce of them, but theologically, the Church never abandoned them.

      July 18, 2013 at 9:42 am |
  7. Matthew Kilburn

    " Also just good works doesn't cut it either. Jesus said "I am the way, the truth and the life...."."

    Correct. Catholic Doctrine teaches the value of faith AND good works.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
    • John

      You misunderstand the concept of faith. If you have faith you will do good works. You can't help it. The Holy Spirit will lead you to perform works.

      July 17, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
      • Dark Itch

        I do good works not because I have to, but because I want to. No faith required. No motivation of rewards in a made-up afterlife. Go figure.

        Also, the bible contradicts itself on the works versus faith salvation claims. Just like it contradicts itself on various other occasions.

        July 18, 2013 at 8:28 am |
        • Bill Deacon

          DI, you are closer to a Catholic than you may realize. We do good works because we want to also. We do them out of love and devotion to our God and our fellow man. Just like you receive intangible benefits from doing good works, so do we. WE call those intangibles plenary indulgences.

          July 18, 2013 at 9:31 am |
  8. Scott f.

    Hell is on earth.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
  9. Chasalz

    The entire concept of indulgences went out when Martin Luther rebelled because of the corruption the Catholic Church was involved in by selling indulgences. One doesn't buy their way into heaven. Also just good works doesn't cut it either. Jesus said "I am the way, the truth and the life....".

    July 17, 2013 at 9:23 pm |
    • George

      Thank you. 100% in agreement.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
    • Elise

      Does this mean one can a truly despicable individual, including rape and murder, but as long as he gets saved, all is forgiven?
      Or he gets saved, does all those things, and can ask for forgiveness, and still go to heaven?
      Do you see why Catholics (who are CHRISTIAN, btw) might have as hard of a time accepting your premise as you do accepting theirs? Can you see why people might have a problem with the different factions of Christianity?
      Elite-style snobbery. "Mine is better than yours" mentality.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
      • George

        Wait a sec. You are replying to Chasalz but you're in agreement. What are you disputing?

        July 17, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
        • Elise

          Where did I ever indicate agreement? I didn't.

          July 17, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
      • Aaron

        Simply – yes. I might not think it fair, I might dislike it, but in the end, if the person is TRULY repentant, asks for forgiveness, and accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, they are covered by His blood.

        People call 'elite-style snobbery", but then claim to have the "truth" themselves, even if that truth is that everything is all good and you get to live in "heaven" as long as you pick what's right for you and do good things. In the end, there has to be 1 truth. I'm sorry that we all can't be right. Yes, it sounds like snobbery, and yes, there are disagreements over doctrine, but we're human. Mistakes are made, but in the end, there is truth. I truly pity you if you believe that anyone deserves INFINITE and ETERNAL punishment.

        July 17, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Luther wasn't against the practice of indulgences. He was against the selling of them. The Church is scrupulously vigilant these days that they are offered only for the practice of religious devotion.

      July 18, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  10. George

    The cause of this affair is that the Vatican should not be in the business of offering indulgences. I understand the example in the article and the similarities, but seriously, Catholics have come a long way and this concept is just way outdated and reminds me of why Protestantism took hold in Europe in the first place. There is nothing that Jesus did that even remotely relates to the notion of indulgence. Let's not confuse this with forgiveness. It's time the Vatican truly comes around to the Twitter age it so wants to be part of and put this doctrine behind.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
  11. Oh the belief blog

    Where everybody's most personal sentiments, the good, the bad and the embarrassing are all there in a national news forum. Always interesting.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
  12. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    An irresponsible teaser headline from theguardian apparently.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "grauniad" is appropriate in this context

      July 17, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
  13. Akira

    I truly cannot stand the MSM at times. They are inflammatory, divisive, and total rumormongers.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • CNN Belief Blog Co-EditorCNN

      Thanks, @Akira. The point of this article was to debunk rumors, as I'm sure you know!

      July 17, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
      • Akira

        That wasn't lost on me; and I thank you for posting the story. It was needed.

        July 17, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
      • someone had to

        Wow! A comment from a Co-Editor! I haven't seen one of those in a while.

        I really enjoyed this article. I think it is a good example of how misconceptions and at times intentional misrepresentations in the media can be problematic. Some people see nothing more than the headline and even though it is a small thing it creates a misconception that creates divisions and contention in our society. Perhaps we need a little more understanding and a little less sensational headlines.

        Because "someone had to" say it.

        July 18, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  14. Age of Reason

    ....To believe that this jesus christ is divine is to believe in the absurd!
    President John Adams

    ..."jesus christ" was a mythical, political construct who NEVER existed and DO NOT believe in him!

    July 17, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • Lycidas

      I think you are a bit confused. Johnny wasn't referring to the historical Jesus but he divinity. You took his quote, and a partial one at that, and applied it to the historical Jesus. You are in error.

      Your factless theory about politics is also incorrect. I mean...maybe if Christianity had a political force that became relevant within the Roman Empire before Constantine I came about you might have something to work with.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
      • Elise

        Oh, so Constantine and Justinian didn't use Christianity to achieve their political goals?
        And if Jesus isn't divine, why would one worship him?

        July 17, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  15. The fear of death

    We are all just scared psychotic aren't we? Or at least most of us.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  16. Lycidas

    Oy vey.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.