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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. Sanity

    “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision.” – Orthodoxy, 1908

    October 12, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  2. John

    What, a misleading headline? Click bait links? No, that never happens....

    October 11, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  3. Liz

    Why didn't I see Jesus at all in this message? Isn't he the one on whom the Catholic Church was built? Works will not get you into Heaven; it's only by grace.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • James

      Totally Liz! 🙂

      October 10, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • Taylor

      Amen!

      October 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  4. Helorik

    I just got paid $6784 working off my laptop this month. Since I started freelancing over this site, with a little effort I easily make $55 – $85 per/h. I started several months ago, and now my monthly income is around $9k. Here’s my source going1.C0M

    October 7, 2013 at 2:35 am |
  5. lamb of dog

    yo mamma

    October 5, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
  6. Cosmos42

    Forget twitter. You could do absolutely NOTHING and get out of Hell, because Hell doesn't exist.

    October 5, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  7. Youtube - The Origin of Religion

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88GTUXvp-50&w=640&h=390]

    October 2, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
  8. Carlos Peralta

    So it's ridiculous to expect getting rid of your sins online...but you can walk them off?

    September 19, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • Spectrophiliac

      Sins include ouijah boards...and bacon

      September 23, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
  9. Bobby Dias

    Try Almighty Obama- give him enough money to get what you want. Many of those that put money in his pocket through campaign contributions are now working as heads of Obamacare departments.

    September 19, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Observer

      The last president talked to God all the time. We ended up losing well over a half million jobs each month and the stock market was plummeting. We are adding jobs each month and the stock market keeps setting all-time highs. And Obama has not started any $2,000,000,000,000 wars for false reasons like Bush and the Republicans did.

      September 19, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
  10. Bryan H

    Was anyone paying attention to the "Plenary Indulgence" part of the article. Any Kevin Smith fans here (maybe not)? Can we now expect the "undoing" of existence by pointing out that God makes mistakes, or doesn't really mean what he says, or that Church law and God's law can't coexist without nullifying each other? Silly old dogmatic piece of Holy Roman Empire leftovers – it's a bribe for showing up. Being a "Youth" day event, and given the bad press of recent years, the Church must've needed extra incentive to coax little ones to attend. Baseball stadiums give ice cream in little plastic helmets; the Catholic Church gives you a "get-out-of-purgatory-free" card. I really like this new Pope Francis; but he could drop some of the Medieval hocus-pocus and let the almighty decide for himself.

    September 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  11. HUMILITY

    What the response stated by KINDNESS is the TRUTH! Anyone who accepts our Lord Jesus Christ as the Mesiah who died for ALL our Sins, will receive the HOLY SPIRIT (the Baptism of the Holy Spirit). If the Holy Spirit lives in ones HEART, he becomes the TEMPLE of GOD, the HOLY GROUND, CHRIST'S LIVING CHURCH, the REAL BODY OF CHRIST, proclaiming the TRUTH, the GOSPEL of HIS SALVATION! Not by man's works but by the GRACE OF GOD, the Loving Faithfulness of our Father in Heaven, so that we can all go back to HIS LOVE from where our first parents ADAM and EVE fell from GRACE... READ the BIBLE and KNOW our LORD and HIS offered SALVATION for all those who FOLLOWS JESUS!

    September 1, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • I've changed

      Adam and Eve.Really?

      September 7, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I think somebody needs to buy a new keyboard. That caps lock keeps sticking.

      September 7, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  12. 7

    Free music download for everyone at... thetreasureofzion.com

    August 25, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
  13. jburger86

    go it w God, read n believe, Lord Willin Lord Forgive, PLGB http://www.Bible.cc

    August 25, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  14. Andy

    Could retweeting the pope get you into hell?

    August 24, 2013 at 8:12 am |
  15. old golfer

    There is no purgatory or hell. Great way to put fear in the masses and tax and control them though.

    August 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  16. marat75

    And here I thought that Jesuits generally did not mind sacrificing truth for the sake of evangelism.

    August 9, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  17. Dwight Stegall

    Retweeing the Pope won't get you out of hell because there is no hell.

    Read "Life In The World Unseen" by Anthony Borgia

    Get this book free through your public library's book borrowing program.

    August 9, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • dillon

      Try reading the bible.

      September 13, 2013 at 11:38 am |
      • Steve

        That's how I became an atheist, too!

        September 22, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  18. WArning Second Coming

    Read the Prophecies on warningsecondcoming.com. They truly come from Jesus Christ. You will find the Truth about what's going on right now in Church and in the world. Jesus Christ SEcond Coming is near. He wants to take you to His Paradise. But you may cleanse your soul from sins only when you are alive. Not after death. He is forgiving, so dont wait. REad His Messages.

    August 6, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
    • Keith

      You people are insane, JC is just a mythical figure designed to scare the bejesus out of lame brains like you. Fortunately a large segment of the population see JC for what it is a contrived boogey man.
      I hear you he is coming, we have heard that for centuries yet he never arrives does he. TRUTH you must be joking the bible is so full of lies that for every quote you and your demeneted ilk find I can find another quote that says the opposite. go back to the hole under a rock you came out of or better still commit yourself to a lunatic asylum.
      Yo poor demented fool, BOO.

      August 6, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
      • InsanityPrevails

        Dude, enough with the Jesus-bashing. Jesus was a real person. He may or may not have been the Son of God, there may or not be a God, but Jesus was a real person. Even Richard Dawkins believes that.

        September 19, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  19. JesusSuperHero

    What exactly do people think hell and heaven are? Is there gold streets and fire in these places? Does this matter if you have no body?

    Or do you magically get your memories transported to a blank body?
    Do you really believe in this? Logically, and scientifically it makes no sense, right?

    In these magical places you are forced to worship and obey one of the two magical rulers (the good cop and the bad cop). Does that sound fun?

    Someone should really try to make a movie with "realistic" representation of heaven or hell, and how you get there. It's really quite silly if you think about it.

    August 5, 2013 at 1:44 am |
    • Keith

      Hoorah, an honest man, I have been asking these questions for over a half century with NO ANSWERS. We hear the sheep constantly bleating about Heaven and Hell and everlasting life. But ask them to tell you about these places and the sheep turn into deer staring into the headlights.

      August 5, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
    • jburger86

      go it w God, read n believe, Lord Willin Lord Forgive, PLGB http://www.Bible.cc

      August 25, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      Heaven is, I believe, a place of continual learning and growth.Our souls have infinit capacity to learn and absorb information. We also may help serve family or friends still on earth with their problems and situations. The purpose of our life on earth is to find our way back to God ,our father,and in doing so show that we seek love,which is the nature of God.

      September 2, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
  20. 4timesayear

    You can't "leave aside the very complicated theology of the plenary indulgence" – nor should you – since it's not the Pope's privilege to grant anything. Grace is freely given to all who repent and trust Christ for salvation. Jesus said "It is finished"; the meaning of the term He used is what was used to pay a debt in full. There is nothing we can do to earn it – it's been "paid in full". We do good works to show we are grateful for what He did, not to earn anything. It's evidence of our salvation. That said, attending any conference isn't "good works". Good works are acts such as feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, etc.

    August 1, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Scott

      While I'm an atheist and I don't follow any religious doctrine, what you say is a more accurate depiction of the story from the bible. I always found it funny growing up roman catholic how the "It is finished" line was skipped over or given a different meaning.

      August 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
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About this blog

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.