Get your free indulgences here!

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!

In the good old days, when the pope worked hand in glove with a divinely-appointed ruler, he sold indulgence. Now, in these desperate times of dwindling flocks, the pope is giving away indulgences. It’s a loss leader to generate store traffic.

On the same day that Pope Francis declared abortion to be “a horrendous crime” and “a grave sin” (here), he authorized priests to absolve all those horrendous criminals of their grave sins (here). He’s a one man good cop-bad cop team, and a bit of a carnival barker as well.


Pope Francis knows the Church needs dramatic reform. But the Church is conservative by design. Standard means of change like synods and councils not only take time, but need the approval of conservative cardinals. Pope Francis recognizes that the encyclical Humanae Vitae with its positions on birth control and marriage has done enormous damage to the Church, but he can’t simply reverse it.

Since Pope Pius XII, papal encyclicals are considered virtually infallible. Pius said: “if the Supreme Pontiffs in their acts, after due consideration, express an opinion on a hitherto controversial matter, it is clear to all that this matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot any longer be considered a question of free discussion among theologians.” Furthermore, Humanae Vitae was upheld and reinforced by all subsequent popes. A pope just can’t admit that all his fellow popes were wrong. That would blow the whole game.

Pope Francis tried to get around this with his encyclical Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia). He upheld the doctrines of Humanae Vitae, but tried to create a back door through which individual bishops could elect to ignore them. Few bishops did. Furthermore, a group of cardinals openly challenged the pope’s position, and he refused to justify it.

Now Pope Francis has created a new way to reject Humanae Vitae. While still upholding its doctrines regarding the sin of birth control, he has essentially granted blanket amnesty for those sins. He chose the worst of those sins – abortion – and said it had no consequences: “I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion.”

That is, Pope Francis effectively ordered God to ignore abortions -- which he still considers a form of murder. He’s hoping the rubes believe that God will obey him. (On a more technical note, Francis’ doctrine suggests that the Catholic Church holds that birth control, which was not mentioned, is more likely to lead to eternal damnation than abortion.) Pope Francis raised many other doctrinal issues, some of which I will later address.

Pope Francis is ruling exclusively by executive order, ignoring the channels of synods and councils. In the United States and most other countries, executive orders are constrained by both the legislature and the courts. President Obama had several reversed. The Catholic Church lacks such checks and balances. Pope Francis has taken desperate measures, presumably reflecting his perception of desperate times. Might he forgive the sin of priests marrying? Or committing pederasty? Stay tuned.

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