Saturday, February 28, 2009
The Lariat, Baylor school newspaper, says "indulgences are outdated practice."
You can read the Lariat editorial here.
The following is my reply, which I just submitted to the Lariat to be considered for publication.
February 28, 2009
To the Editor:
The Lariat’s February 27 editorial on the Catholic Church and its doctrine of indulgences is flawed in a variety of ways.
1. Poor Timing. The Lariat published its opinion during the week of Ash Wednesday on the First Friday in the Season of Lent. I cannot imagine the Lariat doing something similar with the beliefs and practices of our Jewish and Muslim friends. Imagine the visceral outrage if the Lariat had opined during the first week of Ramadan that its required fasting is “so 7th century” or had instructed Jews at the onset of Rosh Hashanah that eating Kosher food is not a good answer to the question “What would Jesus do?”
2. Poor Taste. The op-ed piece included a cartoon mocking Pope Benedict XVI. It has the pontiff saying, “12th time’s a charm.” Imagine a Lariat cartoon mocking a Jewish rabbi about to perform a Bris, with the male infant saying to the rabbi, “Just a little off the top.” At a school like Baylor, we should, of course, encourage robust and informed debate on theological questions over which intelligent and thoughtful Christians disagree. Childish mockery, however, is out of place and inconsistent with this ideal. That being said, there are two temptations we must resist: politically correct timidity (“You have your truth and I have mine, so don’t offend my fragile faith”) and mindless fundamentalism (“Criswell said it, I believe it, that settles it”).
3. Questionable Source. The Lariat editorial relied exclusively on an article published in the New York Times. Whatever journalistic virtues possessed by the Times, one of them is not clarity or charity on matters theological. If the Lariat editors had only performed a modest Google search, they would have discovered that the Times article on which they relied has been subject to withering critiques by a variety of Catholic writers. In fact, I am confident that if the editors had read these critiques, they would have been embarrassed to publish their editorial in the first place.
4. Bad History. The Lariat editorial is replete with historical errors. First, it mistakenly suggests that indulgences had disappeared and are just now returning to Catholicism. The editors seem to not know that the doctrine is taught in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church and that in 1967 Pope Paul VI issued an apostolic constitution on indulgences (Indulgentiarum Doctrina). Second, the editorial bizarrely weds indulgences to “medieval Catholicism,” the Spanish Inquisition, and the Crusades, implying that to embrace the doctrine is somehow inexorably tied to the latter two historical events. Setting aside the editors’ apparent ignorance of the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, indulgences predate the Middle Ages by centuries. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia points out that in the late second and early third centuries “during the persecutions, those Christians who had fallen away but desired to be restored to the communion of the Church often obtained from the martyrs a memorial (libellus pacis) to be presented to the bishop, that he, in consideration of the martyrs' sufferings, might admit the penitents to absolution, thereby releasing them from the punishment they had incurred.” It then cites the work of Tertullian (A.D. 197), Ad Martyras, which states: “Some, not able to find this peace in the Church, have been used to seek it from the imprisoned martyrs. And so you ought to have it dwelling with you, and to cherish it, and to guard it, that you may be able perhaps to bestow it upon others.” Not surprisingly, other Early Church Fathers, such as St. Cyprian (d. A.D. 258) in his Epistles, have offered similar understandings. As for the biblical and theological basis for indulgences, I highly recommend the essay by Jimmy Akin, “A Primer on Indulgences,” which one can find here.
5. Bad Theological Reasoning. The editors do not seem to grasp the theological reasoning on which the idea of indulgences is grounded. As numerous Catholic authors including Mr. Akin (in the essay to which I refer above) ably argue, there is good reason why one finds indulgences deep in Church History: there are Scriptural, ecclesiastical, and liturgical grounds to believe in the doctrine. Of course, the adequacy of these grounds is another issue all together. But whether or not one finds these grounds persuasive, one cannot reject them because one believes that the doctrine they are employed to support is “outdated.”
Thus, the mere fact that the paper thinks that one settles a matter of theology by looking at the calendar (it’s “outdated”) reveals that it does not even know what it means for a faith community to believe that its theology is true. For truth, by its very nature, does not depend on what year, day, or hour it is. It is, for example, either true or false that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead in the third decade of the first millennium. So, if it is true that Jesus rose, belief in his resurrection cannot be “outdated.” But if it is false, there is no date on which it was ever or will become true. The same is the case with indulgences. If the Catholic Church believes it has good grounds to hold this belief and its critics disagree on the adequacy of those grounds, then it would seem beside the point for the editors of a student newspaper at a Baptist university in Central Texas to suggest that the Catholic Church should abandon its belief because it is unfashionable.
The Lariat is a publication of Baylor University, which means that its opinions and stories cannot be isolated from the common good of the institution that publishes it. Consequently, the next time the Lariat’s editors choose to offer a theological critique, they should at least consult those within their midst who embrace the tradition they have targeted. Anything less than that is uncharitable and unchristian.
Francis J. Beckwith
Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University