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. Reality

    Christian Economics and Greed 101:

    The Baptizer drew crowds and charged for the "dunking". The historical Jesus saw a good thing and continued dunking and preaching the good word but added "healing" as an added charge to include free room and board. Sure was better than being a poor peasant but he got a bit too zealous and they nailed him to a tree. But still no greed there.

    Paul picked up the money scent on the road to Damascus. He added some letters and a prophecy of the imminent second coming for a fee for salvation and "Gentilized" the good word to the "big buck" world. i.e. Paul was the first media evangelist!!! And he and the other Apostles forgot to pay their Roman taxes and the legendary actions by the Romans made them martyrs for future greed. Paul was guilty of minor greed?

    Along comes Constantine. He saw the growing rich Christian community and recognized a new tax base so he set them "free". Major greed on his part!!

    The Holy Roman "Empirers"/Popes/Kings/Queens/Evangelicals et al continued the money grab selling access to JC (e.g. indulgences) and heaven resulting in some of today's richest organizations on the globe i.e. the Christian churches (including the Mormon Church) and related aristocracies. Obvious greed!!!

    July 18, 2013 at 7:38 am |
  2. Christof

    still I'm on the side of the critics, Rev. Martin. If I said: to receive forgiveness, one has to
    (a) be a contrite
    (b) donate 1000 bucks to my private account and
    (c) perform these acts with due devotion
    it is theoretically correct – except that point (b) is not necessary for God – and neither is your point (b): "trying to follow the events at World Youth Day live"
    That is the problem of your church for centuries: they are always trying to squeeze themselves in between men and God – or in other words: they are truthfully in the way.

    July 18, 2013 at 5:40 am |
    • Matt

      This is the same as saying that teachers are trying to squeeze themselves between man and education. They study philosophy and theology for years, and provide their services to the public.

      Most services they provide for free, and the bulk of the money received is in the form of donations only.

      July 18, 2013 at 6:32 am |
    • William Demuth

      They also have a tendency to try and squeeze themselves into altar boys.

      July 18, 2013 at 7:56 am |
  3. prophet

    we are praying for them

    July 18, 2013 at 3:53 am |
    • OTOH


      Sure... and they are praying for you to come over to their beliefs. If a god existed, he'd be saying, "What to do? What to do?"

      July 18, 2013 at 3:59 am |
    • Sane Person

      And we are thinking for you.

      July 18, 2013 at 4:54 am |
  4. prophet

    just some info to help the christians, don 't belong to any religion that calls Our Saviour by the hellenistic name jsus as this is Blasphemy and an attempt to de-judaise Our Salvation. Why are the greeks and spanish and italians having so many problems now because they have misled people via christianity and tried to de-judaise Our Saviour.

    July 18, 2013 at 3:51 am |
    • William Demuth


      For real? I have read some ridiculous postings, but yours may take the prize!

      Stop living in the dark ages, it's nothing but a story, and a lousy one at that.

      You claim to be a prophet?? HAHAHAHAAHAHAAHA

      July 18, 2013 at 7:58 am |
    • Dark Itch


      Is that a condiment of some sort? It sounds like something that might be used in a cooking show.

      July 18, 2013 at 8:55 am |
  5. prophet

    i have to tell you that God is also against what the vatican and its clergy does. Not surprising really and quite obvious. St Paul says that any religion that does not allow its clergy to marry should be avoided. What god do the catholics believe in, it seems that they don't do what they preach.

    July 18, 2013 at 3:45 am |
  6. prophet

    the problem is that the reason the vatican exists is because the governements are supporting them to keep people controled. After the roman empire just changed tactics and became the catholics. It was easier to take over the world as a religion than doing all than with a military and we see that this is so and this is why the vatican will be allowed to remain as it is except when God arrives He will destroy them all as it says in the bible.

    July 18, 2013 at 3:40 am |
  7. prophet

    Vatican to make child abuse cover up a saint

    July 18, 2013 at 3:34 am |
  8. EX catholic

    IDOLATRY IS NOT Religion IDOLATRY is a grave and very serious SIN. Flee from IDOLATRY the Scriptures say. Idolatry is the worship of demons.

    July 18, 2013 at 12:51 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Where exactly do they say that ?

      July 18, 2013 at 1:00 am |
      • Kindness

        Trust self, and lose all; trust God, and win all.
        I pray you observe whats needed for you to win all.
        In love kindness,

        July 18, 2013 at 1:06 am |
        • Elise

          Being such a good believer, why couldn't you answer realbuckyball's question?

          July 18, 2013 at 1:26 am |
      • EX catholic


        The Apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians, in his first letter told them as follows: 1Co. 10:14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.

        July 18, 2013 at 1:35 am |
        • Dark Itch

          The problem of course, is the source from which you quote. We all know that the source is fiction. Can you provide a valid source of information instead? Thanks.

          July 18, 2013 at 8:59 am |
        • realbuckyball

          Now all you have to do id define the difference between "idolatry" and belief in the 40th son of the Babylonian head (El Elyon), of the council of gods, (Yahweh).
          My god is better than your god. Na-na, na-na, na, na.

          July 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
        • realbuckyball

          Then please explain how letters, non-unanimously VOTED by humans, into a set of texts carries any more weight than anything else "written". "Scripture" = "that which is written". (Oh, you meant "sacred scripture' ? Oh .. well still answer the question).

          July 18, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Elise

      Catholics don't worship idols, either, so I am unsure why you even posted.

      July 18, 2013 at 1:04 am |
      • EX catholic


        You fool no one with that but yourself. All of the roman-catholic practices are grossly idolatrous. Read the Bible before you let the whole wide world see you your ignorance on the subject matter.

        July 18, 2013 at 1:31 am |
        • Dark Itch

          Yes, read the bible. The Hebrew war-god does not like competition. In Exodus it claims that it will punish the gods of Egypt. The bible on multiple accounts states that other gods exist.

          July 18, 2013 at 9:03 am |
      • William Demuth


        Please watch "The Life Of Brian", and get back to us. You will have a few laughs at your own expense, and might even learn a bit about your own religion.

        July 18, 2013 at 8:17 am |
      • Anabel

        Thank you,Elise. I was getting bored.

        July 18, 2013 at 9:41 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 18, 2013 at 12:41 am |
    • Doobs

      Yadda, yadda, yadda.

      July 18, 2013 at 1:07 am |
    • mdsmithson


      July 18, 2013 at 1:26 am |
    • Now Let Me Get This Right

      There were many of Catholic & Lutheran Nazi Soldiers in Germany that believed in Jesus. Nice to know that they are in Heaven with him but All of the Millions of Men, Women & Jewish Children are in Hell. Correct?

      July 18, 2013 at 2:09 am |
      • William Demuth

        No, they are not in hell

        They are in the West Bank and Gaza, reincarnated as Muslims and doomed to eternally suffer at the hands of their own children.

        July 18, 2013 at 8:08 am |
    • Avery

      X2 on the AMEN. Bless you kindness. You truly are a son of God. I feel you on the earthly presence. So many others would wish to never abandon such a presence. It is why because of this I feel so distant from so many people who still hold on to this world. Scripture is all we have. Bless you a second time.

      July 18, 2013 at 2:55 am |
      • William Demuth

        If scripture is all you have then throw in the towel, because the basis of your existence is absurd

        July 18, 2013 at 8:16 am |
      • Dark Itch

        MMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmm. Tasty confirmation bias.

        July 18, 2013 at 9:06 am |
      • Anabel

        Well said. I understand the way you feel...God bless.

        July 18, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • Dark Itch

      I got to the part where you said "lord and savior" and stopped reading because it is a myth.

      July 18, 2013 at 9:05 am |
  10. realbuckyball


    When I was in second grade I asked the nun, how, if the spiritual realm has no space or time, can you "go" anywhere, and how can you "transition" from Purgatory to heaven ? She told me to be quite.
    Basically it's when I realized all the Catholic bs is just made up crapola. An imbecile can see what's wrong with this "temporal" remission nonsense.
    BTW, the Hebrews in the oT did not believe in an afterlife, so neither did Jesus. Neither did St. Paul.
    Time to give up this Medieval infantile junk, Father.
    BTW, you CAN buy indulgences on eBay.

    July 18, 2013 at 12:03 am |
    • realbuckyball

      oops , "be quiet".

      July 18, 2013 at 12:04 am |
      • Youtube - The Origin of Religion


        October 2, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
    • ignatzz

      [Basically it's when I realized all the Catholic bs is just made up crapola.]

      Because a nun wasn't up to explaining complex theology to a seven year old?

      What a bizarre criterion.

      July 20, 2013 at 9:39 am |
    • azalea17

      Jesus belonged to a sect of the Hebrews that DID believe in the afterlife. The Saducees did not; the Pharisees were split.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  11. Dr Jesus Christ Son of God

    I made myself a doctor. I used to be a carpenter, but after getting nailed to the cross, I've lost my joy of working with wood.

    July 17, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
  12. Jesus Christ Son of God

    I didn't bother reading the article, because religion was created to control the masses, however, the catholic priests extened that to include little boys. Sheeple, wake up. Live your life. Don't waste any of the weekend going to church.

    July 17, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      What I hear you saying is that you are willing to draw conclusions without the data.

      July 18, 2013 at 9:11 am |
    • God wears panties

      Ah Bill, defending the organization that protects and promotes child r@pe

      July 18, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  13. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

    "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."

    I am disappointed to read the words from Fr Jim Martin. It sounds like he believes in indulgences. Many, maybe most, Jesuits in my experience, see indulgences as relics from the past of something that was church created to gain more power and control over the lives of people. No one can control God's grace. God's grace is a free gift. To think that church leaders have the arrogance to act like they are brokers of grace, is really sad and misleading and even shameful, in my view.

    July 17, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • Dr. Jade Lia Jiao

      Come off your high horse. He knows better than any layperson what the theology behind Catholicism is. Faith plus good works. Simple.

      The arrogance of your whole post is a stunning example of the pot calling the kettle black.

      July 17, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
    • Jesus Christ Son of God

      I am disappointed to read your words. You sound like a nun in your 80's.

      July 17, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
    • Reality

      Now moving to the 21st century:

      The Apostles' Creed 2013 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
      ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      (References used are available upon request.)

      July 17, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • Isa

      What is really sad is that you do not research and study Church teaching on indulgences.You are a Dr with a narrow view of Catholic Teaching. Please study and learn .

      July 17, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
      • George

        No. What is sad is people (I mean men) go into the seminary and come out slightly brainwashed by the church's teachings. The teachings are not all correct.

        July 17, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
        • Elise

          Have you gome through a Cathic seminary, George?

          July 18, 2013 at 1:02 am |
        • Elise


          July 18, 2013 at 1:07 am |
    • Beth

      I hate to tell you, but indulgences are still an official Catholic doctrine. If you believe that God's grace is a free gift, and that Jesus took on the full punishment for our sins, you are in essence a Protestant, so welcome to the fold!

      July 18, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
      • He's obviosly from the Bible Belt

        If there is such a commodity as "full punishment" then it means that the god is subject to the nature of Reality, and cannot be it's creator. A god who is subject to anything, is no god.

        July 19, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
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.