The Return of Indulgences

Christopher Hitchens

In the middle of July, just as I was about to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, I received a call from an Australian radio station asking if I would comment on the Roman Catholic Church’s sponsorship of World Youth Day. I couldn’t at first guess what this bizarre event in Sydney had to do with me, but then it was explained that His Holiness The Pope (Benedict XVI to his fans, but the man who will always be Joseph Ratzinger to me) was offering a “partial or plenary indulgence” as an inducement to any who might not feel sufficiently zealous to attend or participate in the festivities.

I immediately bristled with interest. It was not the first time that the new pope had made such an offer to those willing to attend his Youth Day events: an earlier Catholic jubilee in Germany had also come with an offer of a ticket to heaven. Or, to be more exact, with the opportunity for the remission of sin and a reduction in the temporal punishment, or time spent in Purgatory, for the offender. A merely partial indulgence, which reduces the sentence in Purgatory for a limited time only, was offered by Ratzinger to “all those who, wherever they are, will pray for the spiritual goals of this meeting and its happy outcome.” But also on offer was a full-dress plenary indulgence of considerably greater value, since it promises a remission of all the Purgatory time that has been earned by the sins of one’s entire lifetime up to this point. In order to cop that plea, one actually had to journey to the Antipodes and “devotedly participate at some sacred function or pious exercise taking place during the 23rd World Youth Day, including its solemn conclusion, so that, having received the Sacrament of Reconciliation and being truly repentant, they receive Holy Communion and devoutly pray according to the intentions of His Holiness.”

It was the idea of “indulgences” and especially of their sale (a business so profitable that one of its special offers was enough to finance the building of St. Peter’s in Rome) that sparked the protests of Martin Luther and set in motion what we optimistically call “the Reformation.” The racket was very much de-emphasized following the Second Vatican Council, but now Ratzinger has brought it back, along with much else that used to be considered reactionary and outmoded. In the relatively brief period since his installation as pope, Ratzinger has also taken big steps to reintroduce the Latin or “Tridentine” Mass, with its notorious Easter call for the conversion of the perfidious Jews, and to reassert the claim that the Roman Catholic Church is not one church among many but the “one true” source of spiritual authority.

In a strange way, I find something comforting in this attempt to reinstate ancient dogmas and certainties. Nothing is more bogus and unconvincing than the idea of an “ecumenical” Catholicism pretending to make nice with Protestants and Jews and Muslims and sinking the differences that had once been so doctrinally essential. And nothing could be more banal than attending the service of Mass in the local vernacular language, where all mystery is lost in an attempt to gratify or flatter local feeling. Genuine Catholics are, I think, being honest when they say that this loss of magic, authenticity, and tradition is hollowing out the Church. What they are also admitting—that without ceremony and ritual and a special language for the priesthood there would be no point to the thing—is the important thing to keep one’s eye on from a secular point of view.

We get too used to hearing from the half-baked ecumenical types, “Oh, that stuff about heresy and damnation isn’t supposed to be taken literally.” But now we have a pope who says, in effect, oh, yes, it is supposed to be taken that way. Protestants won’t go to heaven. Time in the afterlife is measured in the same way as real time, and you can clip whole years off your time in Purgatory. (There is a special absurdity to that last idea that I have always cherished.) There is a Last Judgment, and only one church can help you prepare for it. Money lavished on this holy institution while you are still alive is therefore money very well spent.

A friend of mine once wrote that it is reassuring when things turn out the way they are supposed to. He went on to say that he once met a beautiful woman on the Orient Express who was later arrested for espionage, once saw a huge pig dash squealing across the main hall of an Irish castle, and once interviewed a politician who told him a whopping lie in the first two minutes. In rather the same way, it’s comforting to have a pope who offers inducements in the afterlife in return for commitments in the here and now and doesn’t bother himself with any nonsense about all faiths being equal glimpses of the same truth. It restores one’s sense of the fitness of things. I think I shall try and get hold of one of those plenary indulgences myself, just to be on the safe side.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His memoir Hitch-22 is published in paperback by Twelve.


In the middle of July, just as I was about to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, I received a call from an Australian radio station asking if I would comment on the Roman Catholic Church’s sponsorship of World Youth Day. I couldn’t at first guess what this bizarre event in Sydney …

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