Halloween, Indulgences, and Luther

Luther Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels

This year we get an extra hour on Halloween night. If you go trick-or-treating, make sure you wear a mask. 🙂 Might be better to spend the extra hour praying.

On Halloween 1517, Martin Luther criticized the pope for selling indulgences. This led to a debate that clarified some Catholic teachings. Not everyone who dies goes straight to heaven or hell. If you’re going to hell, you go straight there. But if you’re going to heaven, you probably need some purification first. All the souls in purgatory will go to heaven eventually, once they have made up for all their sins.

Going to college costs a lot of money. But if the government or a foundation gives you a tuition grant, you pay less. The pope can authorize grants for the souls in purgatory, to shorten their time of purification. The grant comes from the goodness of Christ, our Lady, and all the saints. It’s like a huge bank of holiness, from which the pope can authorize withdrawals, to serve as “scholarships” for souls to get out of purgatory. The pope can award those grants because he holds the office of St. Peter, the visible head of the Church on earth.

A “plenary” indulgence is a full-ride scholarship to get a soul out of purgatory. Usually we have one day in November to obtain the full-ride scholarship for a deceased loved one, by going to pray in church. Which day? El Dia de Los Muertos, of course–All Souls Day, November 2. And we would normally have the following week to obtain a plenary indulgence by visiting a cemetery.

jackolanternThis year, though, things are a little different. People wear masks every day, not just on Halloween. It’s harder to go to church this year, because it’s harder to go anywhere. Plus, a lot of people are sick.

So His Holiness has extended the period of time when we can get full-ride scholarships for the dead. We have the entire month of November. Plus, we can do so from home.

When praying at home, it’s good to have an image of the Lord Jesus or the Blessed Mother. To obtain the indulgence, you can read the Beatitudes, or John 14, or any gospel passage that we use at funerals. Or you can say a Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet. You need to say a prayer for the dead, like Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. Then say an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the pope’s intentions.

The Holy Father also allows us to obtain a plenary indulgence this year by visiting a cemetery “mentally.” Again, this does not mean watching a movie like Pet Cemetery. It means thinking about the people in the graves in a real cemetery, and praying for them. Also, the pope says we can obtain a full-ride indulgence this year by offering to God all our difficulties and sufferings.

Five hundred years ago, the debate that Martin Luther started forced everyone to recognize something about indulgences. Namely: you have to renounce sin, with the intention of going to confession and Holy Communion, in order to obtain an indulgence. This year, that means planning to receive these sacraments as soon as you safely can, whenever that may be.

tombstone crossPope Leo X recognized that Martin Luther had done everyone a favor by initiating a debate that clarified Church teaching. Before Luther started the debate, Catholics were widely confused about whether or not you could obtain an indulgence in lieu of going to confession. In other words, some people thought you could buy your way out of purgatory, without repenting of all your sins.

Pope Leo sent his top theologian, Thomas Cajetan, to debate with Luther. When the Church found some of Luther’s teachings heretical, Luther appealed from one authority to another. He appealed to a panel of university professors, then to an ecumenical Council, then to the Holy Roman Emperor. Each time, they held an open debate. Luther had the chance to explain himself in full, and there were many opportunities for compromise.

The Catholic Church benefitted from the debates. Luther was a prolific writer who understood the power of a new invention, the printing press. Church officials did not question Luther’s right to publish his ideas. To the contrary, everyone took for granted that he did have that right, at least until a final judgment of heresy. Cajetan and other theologians argued with Luther, in order to convince him, using clear evidence, that he had published untrue doctrines.

My point is: We have gone backwards, when it comes to having this kind of open theological debate among Catholics. Pope Leo hoped to convince Luther by offering good answers to Luther’s objections. The pope never assumed that Luther should fall in line simply because the pope told him to. The questions at hand were serious, and a lot of faithful Catholics were genuinely confused. Insisting on blind obedience wasn’t going to work.

I’m almost done with my first book. I think my second might be about this, about the kind of arguments that occurred in the Church in the first part of the sixteenth century, and about how having debates like that could help us now.

Happy Samhain 🙂

4 thoughts on “Halloween, Indulgences, and Luther

  1. Wonderful homily… the indulgences are today so misunderstood… what counts and when and who does it apply to etc … its a shame its not taught more in religious ed…. hopefully it will become more so because it is important… God bless.

  2. About Luther knowing the importance of the printing press: he used it for everyone’s knowledge. He wrote his ideas in Latin for the scholars and the hierarchy, and in German for ordinary folk. The ordinary folk read for themselves or read aloud to those who couldn’t read. So — ideas and debate available to all, as with the internet today, which your blog’s author understands, though the hierarchy apparently does not.
    Ann White

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