If any newspaper can afford a professional religion writer, surely it is the New York Times.  There is no excuse for such shabby history as is represented by Paul Vitello’s article, Indulgences Return, a Door to Absolution Is Reopened (hat tip, Paul McCain).

Like the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the indulgence was one of the traditions decoupled from mainstream Catholic practice in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops that set a new tone of simplicity and informality for the church. Its revival has been viewed as part of a conservative resurgence that has brought some quiet changes and some highly controversial ones, like Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to lift the excommunications of four schismatic bishops who reject the council’s reforms. …

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day. …

The return of indulgences began with Pope John Paul II, who authorized bishops to offer them in 2000 as part of the celebration of the church’s third millennium. But the offers have increased markedly under his successor, Pope Benedict, who has made plenary indulgences part of church anniversary celebrations nine times in the last three years. The current offer is tied to the yearlong celebration of St. Paul, which continues through June.

First thing: did Indulgences disappear after Vatican 2? Did that council say they were irrelevant? Not at all! Instead, it was in the wake of that council that Pope Paul VI restated (and revised) Catholic teaching in his 1967 Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum doctrina. One of the things it got rid of was referring to partial indulgences in terms of days or years (it appears the reporter didn’t bother to read this).

The other normative text is the Enchiridion indulgentiarum released the following year (the current, 4th edition, is only in Latin).

So if Vatican 2 did not get rid of them, and if they were not eliminated by post-conciliar legislation (but in fact encouraged), why all the big deal? Well, obviously some Catholics imagined things had changed when they hadn’t. Wishful thinking or ignorance.

John Paul II brought them back to prominence in his 1998 bull, Incarnationis mysterium, on the jubilee in the year 2000. But no one should have been surprised–they were spelled out plainly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), which quoted both Indulgentiarum doctrina and the Council of Trent.

Indulgentiarum doctrina, in turn, quotes as authority Leo X’s bull, Exsurge domine, condemning Martin Luther.

Two years ago Lutherans in Philadelphia were shocked when that archdiocese promoted indulgences to honor the archdiocese’s bicentennial. They couldn’t see how this was compatible with the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” They should have known better. Catholic teaching on justification did not change in 1999, or in 1965. It has always been the same, and indulgences have been a part of it for centuries.

See my article, Indulgences and Satisfaction.

(BTW, Vatican 2 didn’t get rid of the “Latin Mass” or “meatless Fridays,” either. The normative mass has always been Latin; Vatican 2 revised the Latin Mass, and said it could be said in the vernacular. Catholics have always been required to abstain from meat on Fridays. Here’s from the current Code of Canon Law:

Can.  1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Can.  1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Yet again, someone hasn’t been reading what Vatican 2 and subsequent legislation actually say).