On the Pope, Twitter, and Maximalism

The media lately has been delighted to report on the Pope’s alleged decision to grant time off in purgatory for those who follow him on Twitter.  One headline reads, “Cut your time in purgatory by following pope on Twitter”.  From Slate Magazine, the headline reads, “Pope now offering indulgences in exchange for Twitter followers.”   Really?  What’s going on?  Is the Pope really offering time off in purgatory for following him on Twitter?

As it turns out, no. The Jesuit James Martin, writing for CNN, explains that the media is blowing the whole thing out of proportion. What really happened, he said, was simply that the Vatican Office of the Apostolic Penitentiary (those in charge of matters concerning sin) was offering a plenary indulgence to those who piously attended the upcoming World Youth Day in Brazil. (A plenary indulgence, according to Roman Catholic teaching, is the full remission of the temporal punishment in the afterlife due to sin. There is no Orthodox equivalent, and the concepts involved are foreign to Orthodoxy.) Offering such indulgences to those going on pilgrimage is a very old Catholic practice, and not that unusual. Somewhat more unusual is the Vatican’s decision to extend the category of those receiving the indulgence to those who participate “with due devotion, via the new means of social communication”. They didn’t exactly specify Twitter, but the media quickly filled in the blanks. The concern presumably was to throw the net of forgiveness through indulgences very wide and include as many people as possible. Roman Catholic defenders of the Vatican’s decision have applauded it as a commendable example of generous inclusivity.

The real story here has little to do with Twitter or purgatory or papal attempts to incorporate new social media into its time-honoured system of indulgences. The real story concerns the death of maximalism in the Roman Catholic Church and the modern rush to lower the bar for everything.

If one grants the premise (which I do not, just to be clear) that indulgences may be granted for doing heroic ascetic exploits, then surely the historical practice of going on pilgrimage counts as one of them. In the Middle Ages, the western church granted such indulgences for a number of things (going on the Crusades comes to mind), including going on pilgrimage, for pilgrimage in those days was hard, expensive, and dangerous. It involved travel to far-off places in a time when most people never strayed more than a few miles from home, and all travel then was dangerous. One could be way-laid by robbers or pirates, suffer ship-wreck or robbery, or be taken by disease or pestilence. Pilgrims routinely made their wills before they left home, and pilgrims went about in bands, and well-armed. It was a podvig of the highest order, and it is not surprising therefore if the western church thought it merited a full indulgence.

One cannot compare, however, such bravery and effort to booking a flight with a modern airline and flying to Brazil for a well-organized youth event. No doubt some expense is involved, but little effort compared to ancient pilgrimage, and none of the danger. Even less bravery and effort are needed to follow the event “via the new means of social communication”. The bar is being dramatically lowered to the point of trivializing what was once a heroic, one-in-a-lifetime achievement.

This is of a piece with the modern lowering of standards pretty much everywhere. We see this in modern Roman Catholicism, which is why the Vatican’s latest decision should come as no surprise. In the past, Roman Catholics were required to keep Lent, on pain of mortal sin. Now Lenten fasting (in Canada at least) has been declared “optional”. In the past, Roman Catholics were required to fast from midnight if they were to receive the Eucharist on Sunday morning. Now the Eucharistic fast has been shortened to one hour before receiving Communion—which is to say it has been effectively abolished, for most people “fast” for several hours each day. It is called not eating between meals.

Orthodox are not immune to such modern temptations. We are tempted to skip fasting or say that it is “only for monks” (and presumably for parish clergy). We often assume that divorce is simply a part of life in the modern world, so that the divorce rate among North American Orthodox is not dramatically different than it is for the general population. Other examples could be given, but the point is that we also are tempted to lower the historical bar.

Our Tradition bids us keep the bar where it is. Sometimes, of course, the pastoral exercise of economia requires that the rules be dispensed or loosened in certain circumstances, but this is not meant to set precedent, or to lower the bar. We still strive to keep the fasts, and to keep our marriages, and to live by a higher standard than the world requires. This commitment to maximalism, even when tempered by occasional economia, is what makes us different from the world. We lose it at our peril.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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