My blog contains a large number of posts. A few are included in various other publications, or as attached stories and chronicles in my emails; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blank spaces of my notebooks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments. Enjoy responsibly.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is Paying for Indulgences Wrong?

I am the first to admit that I am not Martin Luther. I can say this with all certainty because I am in no way religious and because I am not sure that paying for some modern-day indulgences is wrong. As we all work to deal with things like global warming and fair trade, certain moral negotiations are going to have to be made and simply paying our share may be the most inclusive solution.

A simple case in point is air travel. As of right now, there is no practical alternative to flight, but flying spews lots of CO2 into the atmosphere. To try and make up for the environmental damage, a growing number of travelers purchase carbon offsets, which goes towards worthwhile things like reforestation and alternative energy projects. It’s the 21st-century way of paying indulgences and it helps people travel with clearer consciences, but I’m not sure that we are dealing with the underlying issue. Instead, we are doing exactly what Martin Luther had a problem with: buying our way out of serious moral obligations or personal sin.

According to the Catholic Church there are two different types of sins: A mortal sin and a venial sin. “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it” ( Or in simpler terms, a mortal sin is one that was done with the knowledge of why it was wrong and a venial sin is one that was done without.

As you can imagine, the punishment for a premeditated sin is worse than one committed without full knowledge of the offense. Even once the sin has been paid the sinner still must "strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the 'old man' and to put on the 'new man’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1473).

Which brings us back to purchasing carbon offsets to make up for the environmental damage of flying and other modern-day indulgences. If you have to keep repurchasing the same indulgence, are you really sorry for what you are doing? (Surely there are better paths that have a more immediate and specific impact) So our purchasing of indulgences are doing nothing more than justifying our premeditated behavior and delaying the choices that we will eventually have to make.

Which again brings us back to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Luther did not deny the Pope’s right to grant pardons for penance imposed by the Catholic Church; he made it clear that preachers who claimed indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation was wrong. And while the Council of Trent did away with the sale of the types of indulgences that sparked his door defacing act, the sale of indulgences for certain sins still remains in the Catholic Church to this day.

So is this simply a matter of something is better than nothing? Is it a deliverance from our wrongs because the alternative is individually unrealistic? A collective shrug and a hope that we’re doing a little, even if it is just a very little? The dance of the gray area between the lines of black and white? Does anyone actually feel absolved? Or do we all just wish that someone else would come up with a solution that we can all get behind? You know, someone who doesn’t have a plane to catch…

Over the next few years the number things like offsets and other modern indulgences will substantially increase, with some being voluntary and some being mandatory. Their money will go to important, needed things that will help work towards solutions to fix the underlying problem. My concern, as with Luther’s, is that we may be granting people moral salvation instead of actually asking people to take an active role to fix the problems that they helped caused.

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