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. theinexperiencedyouth

    Reblogged this on uggggh.

    July 28, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
  2. Smeagel4T

    Yes, stick to the tried and true Catholic traditions. Like donating large sums of money to The Church to get yourself out! :-)

    July 28, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  3. DWN

    CNN seems to be taking the lead in marketing the current pope to the masses. What gives?

    July 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • manangdi22

      Well, its about time that someone call out the people who twist the Catholic Church's dogma and teachings into something else even if they don't know what they're talking about. Why, does the Catholic Church have no right to PR help? The Catholic bashers have them. Your sarcastic comment is disrespectful to a Catholic like me and to those who criticizes the Catholic Church for being exclusive are hypocrites themselves because they discriminate and harass Catholics through the media!

      July 27, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  4. Tim Hurley

    What a gay-ass article.

    July 26, 2013 at 1:10 am |
  5. Johnny Smith

    Hell was invented as a way to scare and control the weak-mind people into doing good and being good.

    July 23, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • Dr. Gene Landrum, PhQ. Quantum Theory

      No matter how much you believe in the Pope, this Pope are any Pope cannot get you into Heaven and in Front of God, Almighty, the one and only God! For Christian's only Jesus Christ can give you passage to the Father, not the Father of the Catholic Church, which are not descendents of Jesus. The Pope the First was a 'Smart Jew' who followed the money, and blood of many other Christians' who followed Jesus' Teaching! Think about if the Churches of the World, had the power of Life and Death, to me that would be intolerable! Its bad enough the US Government has that much power! So, We the People of the World, I would be careful and not worship any Human, cut from any Cloth, just Trust the Holy Spirit or 'worst case; Follow your Gut Feeling, then the decision is entirely yours and yours alone! I'm standing on the Rock of Jesus, My Savior, and Key to eternal life for my Spirits of Energy: One Spirit from God to Man, and the Holy Spirit from Jesus, his only Son! Amen! Man of Science, Spirit of God; Dr. Gene~Landrum, Ph.Q.uantum Theory of Everything Philosopher

      July 27, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
      • Spencer Oyibo

        It is only LOVE for another at all times whether, Black, White, Hispanic or Asian is the universal passport to Heaven, nothing more, nothing less.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      hell is the absence of god in our lives.you create your own hell by rejecting god.God is love and rejecting love leaves us empty and in darkness-hell.

      August 3, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      Because they really wanted to do bad instead?

      September 2, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  6. Palooney

    Hey Jeff, I hear your mother was one too.

    July 22, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
  7. Henryo

    I do NOT belong to any religion, because I DO think.

    However, for all the atheists on these opinion/belief boards that troll, day and night, telling people that they are trying to make the world a better place by knocking down anything that resembles a belief...they are doing NOTHING.

    If you're an atheist and you THINK you want to make a difference consider this: You have this life, and this life ONLY. Live it. get out there and get off your computer and make your ONE life all that it can be, but stop being hypocrites doing nothing but trolling and attacking people. You are making the world a worse place to live; a place that you have to eventually go out into and be greeted by people as nasty as you've made them.

    July 22, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Really? Did you post this on every thread?

      1) How do you know that the atheists on this board aren't also out in the world doing things to make it better?
      2) Just because a person chooses to spend some time on a board discussing things (I use the term "discussing" loosely) does not mean they are incapable of having a job and a family and friends, etc.

      My posting on this board can be at any hour of the day or night, depending on when I find the time to poke my head in. Sometimes I do it from my phone while I'm enroute to the next great adventure. Of course, I'm also not an atheist, so I'm probably not the target of your jab.

      July 22, 2013 at 10:35 am |
      • Akira

        Yes, he posted it on every thread I've looked at, so far.

        July 22, 2013 at 11:41 am |
        • Ummmm

          Which makes them a hypocrite since they are doing the very thing they are condemning. It's hilarious.

          July 22, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  8. Felix Sinclair

    Does this mean "Liking" God and Jesus on Facebook won't work either?

    July 22, 2013 at 12:36 am |
    • Akira

      The very first sentence of this article said that, yes.

      July 22, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  9. Kindness

    This is my experience... Thank you.

    MY personal testimony.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    I Accepted Jesus christ as my lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners. Even once we are saved by christs merciful grace we will still experience adversity to mold us to adhering to the truth.
    We will slip... But not fall of the ship ...carrying us onward to perfection in christs grace.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from some other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith ....above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read romans or corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are by faith above reason in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved

    Last eve I passed beside a blacksmith’s door,
    And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
    The, looking in, I saw upon the floor
    Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
    “How many anvils have you had,” said I,
    “To wear and batter all these hammers so?”
    “Just one,” said he, and then with twinkling eye,
    “The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.”
    And so, thought I, the anvil of God’s Word,
    For ages skeptic blows have beat upon;
    Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
    The anvil is unharmed – the hammers gone.

    Truth is..exclusive

    July 21, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
    • Byrd

      Well, you seem to have convinced yourself anyway. How sad.

      July 22, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
    • Carl Hockney

      I'm a nutjob, too. Self-contentedly assured that I've found the Truth. And you best believe, it is exclusive. For I am The Christ. Not You.

      July 25, 2013 at 4:46 am |
  10. TrustKnow1

    Following Pope Francis won't keep you out of hell. All sheep get sheared for the profit of the shepherd and eventually led to slaughter!

    The truth is out there... Fight the future!

    July 21, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  11. His panic

    I even I may be his Panic, I could be his Panic. Are they still selling indulgences? Those who trust in God and in Jesus Christ will not Panic, all others will Panic and that includes catholics.

    July 21, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • His panic

      They don't buy indulgences either.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  12. ignatzz

    Thank you, sir, for clarifying what has got to be some of the sloppiest "reporting" I've ever seen.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:38 am |
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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.