When I was a lad I had a missal that I very much liked.  At the back of the missal were prayers you could say, presumably during the boring parts of Mass.  Next to each prayer was the indulgence you would get for saying the prayer–that is, the number of days that would be reduced from the time you’d have to spend in purgatory for your sins. (Here is way more than you want to know about indulgences.)

I could never figure out the rating system — why was one prayer worth more than another?  And some prayers gave you a plenary indulgence — full time off.  Why would you bother saying a prayer that only gave you 100 days off, if you could say one that would get you out of purgatory for good?  I was a very literal-minded kid.

Now we hear that you can get a plenary indulgence for following Pope Francis’s Twitter feed. This has generated snark from the usual suspects.  And I can’t really disagree with the snark.  Shouldn’t indulgences have disappeared like 500 years ago?  The Wikipedia article shows that, as with most theological issues, the modern Catholic church has tried to become more sophisticated, which is to say, vaguer, with respect to the meaning of indulgences.  But it can’t seem to quit them.

What I tend to focus on, though, are the people whose job it is to come up with the rules for indulgences.  The classification of prayers by years and days has been done away with, but somebody has to figure out exactly what the rules are for indulgences.  For example, Wikipedia says reading Sacred Scripture for half an hour can get you a plenary indulgence on any day, but only once a day.  Who came up with half an hour, as opposed to, I dunno, an hour?  Who decided you could only get a plenary indulgence once a day, as opposed to once a week?  As with the Vatican office that determines who is suitable for canonization, smart people are spending their lives going to work each day and figuring this stuff out.  Such a waste.

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