To Stay Out of Purgatory, Read the Bible

While out and about on holiday earlier this week, I purchased at an antique store a copy of a family Catholic Bible from the early 1950’s.  In addition to translations that have fallen out of favour (even in the RCC) it contains several fascinating aspects that you don’t see any more.

First, it gives an overview of Roman Catholicism in that era, which I found interesting since I didn’t convert until 1972.

Second, it used for its illustrations the paintings of J.-J. Tissot.  These also were used by the very non-Catholic author William Simmons (well, he used to be Catholic) in his book Peoples of the New Testament World, which I reviewed a few weeks back.

Third, at the very start it quotes from the Enchiridion (Handbook) of Indulgences (694) as follows:

To the faithful who read the books of Sacred Scripture for at least a quarter of an hour, with the great reverence due to the divine word and after the manner of spiritual reading:

an indulgence of three years is granted.

In the Catholic encyclopaedia in the back, indulgences are defined as follows:

The remission granted by the Church for the temporal punishment due to sin that has already been forgiven.

Protestants tend to equate “temporal punishment” with the blowback that comes from a sinful life.  But in Catholicism that punishment involves the penance that believers are required to do as part of the absolution obtained via the sacrament of Penance.  The penance needs to be done either in this life or the next, i.e. Purgatory.

So what about the time granted in an indulgence?  The Catholic Church, before and after Vatican II (when the rules were revised somewhat) has always hedged on this, speaking about the change in the penitential system relative to the Roman Empire church, when people put off baptism to avoid the harsh penitential system.  Let’s assume for this study that all of the penance is being carried forward into Purgatory (sounds like the U.S. tax code!)  The Church has taught that the time granted in an indulgence isn’t equivalent to actual time saved in Purgatory.  But for those of us of a Dantean mindset, Purgatory is a place for penance, penance takes time, so why shouldn’t the time of the indulgence be equivalent to time saved in Purgatory?

Back to Bible reading…let’s see.  If a Catholic, keeping up with the system of absolution laid out by the Church, read his or her Bible fifteen minutes a day, over a year’s time they would obtain an indulgence of 3 x 365 = 1,095 years.  As a manner of comparison, Dante had the near-pagan Statius out of Purgatory in ±1,300 years, so that’s not bad.  (Obviously we could extrapolate the increase in indulgence over, say, ten or more years, but then again that’s just more opportunity for sin, so that cancels itself out.)  So Bible reading alone would move someone up the mount of Purgatory at a brisk clip.

While rolling up indulgences, a Catholic who read the Bible would be absorbing the content.  If they got stuck, they might ask the priest, who would probably give them an explanation they would not understand.  If push really came to shove, they might ask their Baptist friend, a supreme act of desperation for Catholic and Pentecostal alike.  But in the long run one of two things would happen.

The first is that they would adopt a very Scriptural type of Catholicism like a Jaques-Bénigne Bossuet.

The second is that they would leave the Catholic Church, in which case the need for indulgence would become moot.

Students of the Reformation obviously recognise that it was the sale of indulgences that lead to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the break with Rome.  The Bible reading indulgence would have been another way to counter Tetzel’s money making scheme.  In addition to his advancement of Augustinian theology, Luther had one other major obstacle in the Bible reading indulgence: most people in his era were illiterate, something that the Protestant propagation of the Scriptures helped to counter.

Leave a Reply