Papal indulgence for March for Life

Written by Peter Smith on .



Catholics who attend the annual anti-abortion March for Life in Washington on Jan. 19 can receive indulgences that would spare them or a deceased loved  one in Purgatory, according to Pope Francis, who has authorized the "plenary indulgence" for the event.

As the diagram above shows, participants wanting to qualify for the indulgence would need to prepare their hearts and do various other devotions -- such as prayer for the pope, Mass and confession -- while making the trek. The indulgence was announced by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Bishop Michael Burbidge of neighboring Arlington, Va. The two hierarchs oversee the territory where March for Life-related activities take place, culminating with a rally on the National Mall.

As I noted in this recent article, the medieval sale of indulgences became the ignition switch of the Protestant Reformation, with reformers such as Martin Luther protesting what they saw as the cheap commercialization of piety. Soon after Luther's time, the Catholic Church banned the sale of indulgences but affirmed their legitimacy when conferred based on an act of piety.

The idea behind indulgences is, briefly, that while Catholics can receive immediate forgiveness for confessed sin, they still need to work through the temporal consequences of sin -- such as paying for the window you broke, even after being forgiven for breaking it.

Pope Francis and predecessors have authorized "plenary" indulgences in the past for such things as acts of faith during specially declared years, such as the recent Year of Mercy or the turn of the Millennium. A plenary indulgence, in Catholic teaching, immediately removes all temporal consequences of sin. That means a relative in Purgatory could go straight to heaven via an indulgence sought by a living relative. Or, if a person seeks an indulgence for his or herself and immediately died thereafter, he or she would bypass Purgatory on the way to heaven. But if the person sinned afterward, the temporal consequences would start adding up again.

The March for Life is an ecumenical event, drawing many conservative evangelicals and other Protestants alongside Catholics. Many varieties of conservative Catholics and Protestants have buried the hatchet, or at least put it down, when it comes to common causes such as opposing abortion and euthanasia. Many Protestants still have long historical memories about the roots of the Reformation, but I haven't seen any indication that news of the indulgence would bother them. 

After the inauguration of President Donald Trump, marchers last January sounded optimistic about having momentum and friends in high places. The appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and that of other conservatives to lower courts, have so far proven them correct.


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