Note: Please don't send e-mail complaining that the links to the Vatican web site are wrong. We corrected them twice, but the Vatican webmasters keep moving their web pages to prevent us from linking directly to them.
It seems like only a few months ago that the Pope was said to be considering whether maybe, just maybe, it might be a good idea to apologize for the Crusades. Some would say that it's a bit late, but the Catholic church is not an organization which acts impulsively. After all, it took them until the 1980s to decide that maybe Galileo had been right all along, and that maybe the Earth really did revolve around the Sun.
It was beginning to look as though the Catholic church couldn't get any funnier; but on the first Sunday of Advent, the Pope issued his Papal Bull for the Millennium. Unfortunately he appears to be confused as to which millennium, because the document describes in detail how Catholics can earn Indulgences.
In case you don't know, Indulgences were quite the craze in the Middle Ages. The idea is simple: Catholics believe that when you die, you go to Purgatory; there you must atone for your sins. An Indulgence simply allows you to buy atonement for a sin in advance. An ingenious, popular and highly lucrative idea -- because it wasn't long before the Church began selling Indulgences. If you were a rich nobleman who wanted to sin, it was a simple matter to make a charitable donation to the Catholic Church and be given an Indulgence. You could then sin with a clear conscience, and the Church could add some more gold leaf to the walls of the Vatican.
Geoffrey Chaucer satirized the practice of granting indulgences in The Canterbury Tales; Martin Luther took the more direct route and nailed his objections to the doors of his local church. And now Indulgences are available again, for a limited time only. The Electronic Telegraph quotes the assistant general secretary to the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference in England and Wales. As he puts it, "My initial reaction is one of embarrassment." You don't say? I bet intelligent Catholics everywhere are cringing in embarrassment, and deservedly so.
Still, let's look at the positive aspects of this announcement: Firstly, maybe a few more Catholics will be driven to question the wisdom of Catholic doctrine and Papal Infallibility. And secondly, it's likely that the revival of Indulgences will put a halt to the recent moves by Catholic and Lutheran churches to settle their differences and work together.
In the mean time, ex-Catholic atheists may like to save themselves further embarrassment and seek excommunication...mathew
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