Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Indulgences and Intentions

The first week of November brings with it the opportunity of gaining plenary indulgences for the faithful departed, and, as with all such indulgences, these require prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father. A quick Pater Noster and Ave Maria for these intentions are easy to rattle off, and the benefits are undeniably great. But once the Catholic layman begins looking into the popes' published prayer intentions he is often left scratching his head in moral confusion.

Everything from the condemnation of human trafficking to the desire for openness to personal encounters of dialogue are expressed in the monthly papal intentions, and one is left with the unenviable task of vetting them from month to month to discern their morality, not to mention their rationality. (Next January's published intention is that "Christians and other religious minorities in Asian countries may be able to practice their faith in full freedom," so good luck deciding whether that's worth cooperation to gain an indulgence.) Mr. Bear's commentary tracks are cathartic but otherwise there is precious little commentary on this ongoing scandal.

Nearly two years ago P.F. Hawkins published an article on One Peter Five entitled, "What We Pray For When We Pray For the Intentions of the Holy Father." Mr. Hawkins argues that there four unchanging intentions that are always included with the pope's variable monthly published intentions, based on the outdated Raccolta: the triumph of the Faith, peace and union among Christian rulers, the conversion of sinners, and the uprooting of heresy. The new Enchiridion Indulgentiarum does not include any such niceties.

Fr. Zuhl has written something similar just the other day about people who "don't like the pope or his intentions." He argues from an old moral manual which itself references an outdated code of canon law about the supposedly fixed intentions of the pope at all times. Mostly, though, he simply insults those who have a real grievance with the abuse of papal power for the purposes of the pontiff's not-so-secret agendas and arguing that anyone who complains is clearly impious to one degree or another.

There is no easy solution to this problem, and it is hardly restricted to the current papacy. The intentions published for the last year of Benedict's reign were equally bland and confusing. Most Catholics take the Fr. Zuhl route to shut up and assume everything is fine, because indulgences are important to the spiritual life, and those especially concerned with the wages of sin desire the outpouring of plenary grace. Centuries ago, churchmen scandalized the world by selling indulgences for money; now they sell them for moral cooperation with the aggiornamento. Partial indulgences are still free from such requirements, but their efficacy is so poorly-defined today that nobody is certain how useful they will be.

None of this should stop us from praying for release from the punishments of sin, whether for ourselves or for the dead. Justice exacts a terrible price, and it behooves us at all times to plead for mercy. Perhaps the Pope of Mercy will eventually show some to his subjects.


  1. Dear J.,
    Thanks for the interesting post! I have a couple of observations, though. First, I didn't detect any disdain in Fr. Z's post;rather, he seemed to be distinguishing the office from its occupant. Certainly, from conversations we've had , I know Fr. is aware of the grave problems with this pontificate.

    Second, the manual Fr. Z refers to is the excellent work of Prummer's. The section in question doesn't cite the 1917 Code as such but rather an authentic decree, as they're called, of the S.C. Rituum. Such decrees were not automatically rendered null by the new Code, but I suppose an argument could be made.

    (Pruemmer's manual is available on the internet in .pdf form. The text in question is on p. 387 of volume 3.)

    1. There's a great deal of condescension in Fr. Z's post, especially inasmuch as he treats the complaints as coming from a place of personal dislike of the pope and not from a place of serious and thoughtful concern. He ignores the real concerns for most of the post while he wags his finger at people he thinks don't love the pope enough. Most of the post is a magic trick with a bunch of distraction and ending with a flourish of (in my opinion irrelevant) manualism.

      Nothing against Prümmer as such. Maybe there's a case to be made that the decrees about the pope's persistent intentions are still in force, but none of the sources I've read make that argument so much as they simply assume they would be.

  2. I have always prayed simply for the intentions of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, "insofar as they are pleasing to Our Lord"; I trust that such will suffice.