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. ignatzz

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

    July 20, 2013 at 9:37 am |
  2. l


    July 19, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  3. EX catholic

    Hell as well as Heaven is FOREVER. IDOLATRY is a SIN that will take you to the other place that IS NOT Heaven for all Eternity

    July 19, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
    • He's obviosly from the Bible Belt

      Be sure the nurse knows where you are so she can give you your evening pills.

      July 19, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
      • EX catholic

        I think you are self-medicating. Are you sure you did not take the wrong kind of "medicine"?

        July 20, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  4. Billy G

    "Full disclosure I'm Catholic too"...LOVE IT!!!

    July 19, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • EX catholic

      Is better to have been and not being, love it even more!! Idolatry is a SIN

      July 19, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
      • azalea17

        What in the world are you referring to as idolatry? the Pope for pete's sake? Or are you on about Jesus poor mother again? Seems to me you folks who parade around yapping about the infallibility of THE WORD and insist that it is all literally true, etc., etc., have got a pretty severe case of idol-worship yourselves centered in the adoration of whatever version of the Bible you subscribe to! God is not limited by our crummy books and stories or our little pathetic minds. Seems to me you didn't learn to much while you WERE a Catholic!

        July 21, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
        • EX catholic

          If you have to ask so many questions is because you too are an IDOLATER.

          July 21, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  5. Thought Purification

    in plain English, Catholics are lowering their standards to get out of hell.

    July 19, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • EX catholic

      Not quite! Their "Standards" as you call them, are and have always been the lowest. They can't go any lower.

      July 19, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
      • jim

        So......EX catholic....what are you now?
        You seem to have it out for anything Catholic. Please tell me where you have found "The Truth"?

        July 22, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  6. boredofceleb

    LOL!!! This article takes the cake–tweeting yourself into the afterlife! Thanks, CNN, for making my day by starting out with a great laugh!

    July 19, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Lycidas

      What even more funny is that you obviously didn't read the article.

      July 19, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  7. Jeff

    Jesus's mother was a wh ore. Jesus was a byproduct of her business.

    Retweet that!

    July 19, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • mzh

      Thats a huge statement you made J... i wouldn't do that...

      Do you know that some culture call a child bustard who comes out of good luck of a man and woman? i think you would know what i am saying...

      Peace be upon you...

      July 19, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • Bippy the new lesser to medium level squirrel god

      Prove it.

      July 19, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • Pavloosh

      Hey Jeff, I hear your mother is one too.

      July 22, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  8. Jim

    They use the threat of hell to get people in to church physically, why not use it to get people on Twitter?

    July 19, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  9. meg

    ...but my Bible specifically say that you can't earn salvation? "For it is by GRACE you have been saved, through FAITH — and this is NOT FROM YOURSELVES, it is the GIFT of God— NOT BY WORKS, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Ephesians 2:8-10

    July 19, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Saul's enemy James, the (supposed) brother of the Lord, who actually would have known him, unlike Saul, who never met him, and was given his gospel by a "vision" (right) said :
      James 2:14 -What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works ? Can that faith save him ?"

      Just proof they all just made up whatever was they wanted to say.

      July 19, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Tim

      You bible also specifically says a lot of other things that you seem to want to ignore. As far as fundamentalist Christians are concerned, two or three verses of the Bible are all you need to believe in order to be "saved"–the rest of the Bible might as well not exist. At least the Catholics seem to contemplate the entire book.

      July 19, 2013 at 10:53 am |
      • Lawrence

        Yeah, fundamentalist Christianity has always seemed pretty intellectually lazy compared to Catholicism.

        July 19, 2013 at 10:57 am |
      • john

        Most "Catholics" fail to use the old testament. Catholics also fail to at many levels to include the most recent pedophile cases in the church.

        July 21, 2013 at 11:19 am |
        • Jules

          You're not saying the fundies use the Old Testament more, are you?

          July 27, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      To me, fundamentalist Christianity is the distillation and reduction of Christian thought into some of the elementary tenets of the faith. This is why Catholics say Protestants are our brothers but they do not share in the fullness of the faith. Personally, I don't think Martin Luther foresaw the all consequences of his thesis but I do know that, in his lifetime, he came to regret some of them.

      July 19, 2013 at 11:48 am |
      • Janica


        July 19, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Janica

      Do you think you can be the worst human in the world and because you're "saved" you will get into the Kingdom of Heaven? Nice to have a "get out of free card" to be the most vile person alive.

      Lawrence, you are right. Most people prefer to remain ignorant of Catholicism and condemn it rather than to actually find out what it's all about.

      July 19, 2013 at 11:52 am |
      • Rodents for Romney

        Then there are those of us who know too much about it.
        I found out my archbiship was an active practicing gay man, which was well known by almost the entire diocese.
        There is such a thing as too much information, Janica.
        Benedict quit because of all the gays in the Vatican curia.
        Get real. And keep your children away from the priests.

        July 19, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
        • Janica

          While I understand your angst at the behavior of some of the men, it doesn't take away from the actual doctrine on the RCC. I am a religious student, but I don't ascribe to any Christian faith. Get it?

          In other words, I'm not Catholic. And my children are just fine, thanks for your concern.

          July 19, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
        • Bill Deacon

          Thank you Janica for showing me that there are some people who can understand what you so eloquently just voiced.

          July 19, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
        • Janica

          Why, you're welcome, Bill.

          July 19, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
      • Bippy the new lesser to medium level squirrel god

        Are you are religious student, or a student of religion ?
        So are many others here.
        Maybe you should take some English instead, Janica.

        July 19, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
        • Janica

          I study religion.
          I see you study semantics. Was my meaning not perfectly clear?
          Oh. Yes. It was. But you felt the need to be a dick anyway.
          Choke on your nuts, squirrel boy.
          And grow up. Your criticism, along with your silly user name, speaks volumes about you.

          July 20, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
        • Anna Playpus

          Hey, Bippy, are you a religious scholar, or a scholar of religion?

          July 20, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      "my" bible says kill you son if he worships another god!

      i hate "my" bible

      July 19, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • canonmr

        your god can't take your son's life by his power? what kind of god there? god give life but can't take it back? check again your bible. 🙂

        July 21, 2013 at 2:50 am |
    • azalea17

      Um, Meg read Matthew chap 25. Very clear what Jesus himself had to say there. And James offered up that works were evidence that his faith was living, not dead (that's what JAMES said, I am *NOT* casting aspersions on your faith! Fortunately for us, God doesn't expect any of us to get it right, only to try hard 🙂 ) So it seems to me that some sort of action is required of us? But as Francis pointed out, you have to be sincerely joined to the spiritual effort and direction of WYD, not just playing with your phone!

      July 21, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • Chris

      The Catholic Church would agree with you Meg, that we don't earn our way to heaven – it is a grace freely given and must be sincerely accepted... and "earning" our way to heavan is not what indulgences or purgatory is about. They are simply a recognition by the Church that by reforming our ways now on earth, our need for purification after death and before entering heaven (see 1 Corinthians 3:12-15) will be lessened. They (the opportunity for indulgences) remind us that we need to replace the straw of our insencere and tepid response to God's love with the gold, silver, and precious stones of good works that truly build up His kingdom.

      And offering indulgences for "virtual" pilgrimages is not a new concept... for many years those who (with a disposition similar to what is described in the article) meditate on Christ's suffering in the Way of the Cross are offered a similar indulgence - recognizing that not everyone can visit Jerusalem personally.

      July 22, 2013 at 9:25 am |
  10. nelson jones

    World Youth Day:

    A glorious opportunity to indoctrinate mythical, fairy tales, tied directly to the Roman Catholic Cult, into the minds of the young. In doing so it serves as a conduit to manipulate these malleable minds into believing that, which it is not, such as:

    * The Papacy is of the Petrine line

    * The Church of Rome is not a Cult, but a legitimate church; the true "Christian" church.

    * Former Popes can and do perform miracles when alive or dead.

    * Polish Pauly and Bennie the Rat-zinger, knew nothing about the scope of child molestation within their cult or of the questionable ethics of the Vatican's Bank.

    * That this "new" Pope... Francis is more honest and genuine, than any of the predecessors who held Office before him.

    So yes, Francis, go to South America and pretend to be that which you are not...present your Cult as something it is not. The young, the poorly educated, the overly-compliant, will happily swallow your snake-oil showmanship.

    July 18, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      "The young, the poorly educated, the overly-compliant, will happily swallow your snake-oil showmanship."

      Like they've been doing for centuries.

      I wonder if they're bummed they can't just invade and convert or kill off those who won't?

      July 18, 2013 at 5:41 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.