I linked recently to a piece hostile to Islam, "the saddest and poorest form of theism." (Schopenhauer) I now point out a problem with a rather happier and richer form of theism, that of the Roman Catholic Church. Here:
November is the month the Church especially dedicates to praying for the dead. To encourage this holy practice, the Church offers a daily plenary indulgence for the souls in Purgatory, under the usual conditions (right intention, confession, Communion, prayer for the intentions of the pope) to those who visit a cemetery in the period November 1-8. She offers a partial indulgence at other times.
Essential to anything worthy of the label 'religion' is the belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53.) (See The Essence of Religion for seven essential characteristics of religion.) What worries me, though, are those who claim to possess an exact cartography of the transcendent country beyond the senses and an exact understanding of the mechanics of salvation.
Purgatory is of course a sound and necessary idea within a classically theistic scheme inasmuch as almost none of us are worthy of immediate access to the Beatific Vision. (Besides, how many so-called Catholics would even want it? I suspect many of them believe in something along the lines of 'hillbilly heaven' complete with BBQs, fiddles and banjoes, cousin Jethro, and his old dog Blue.) Except for a few saints we will all need more or less purgation. For many this will take the form of a weaning-away from one's attachments to earthly loves and a gradual re-direction of one's misdirected desires upon the Absolute. Death will detach us physically from our bodies, but it is highly naive to think that it will thereby detach us spiritually from our earthly loves. It is a reasonable speculation that Hugh Hefner, if he survived his bodily death, is still lusting after nubile females; it is just that he no longer has the physical apparatus with which to implement his lust.
Now let's suppose that your child, who committed suicide, is in purgatory and that you are a Catholic. A plenary indulgence is a full or total indulgence: it is a get-out-of-purgatory-right-now card. So you do the things listed above, and your child is sprung from Purgatory.
But isn't this incredible? I at least find it hard to swallow. You could dismiss my misgivings as merely autobiographical remarks, but I suspect they are more.
What bothers me is the presumption on the part of the Church that it possesses exact knowledge of the afterlife and the mechanics of salvation. This pretense to detailed, indeed quantifiable, information about matters far, far beyond the human horizon strikes me as deeply dubious if not mendacious. Of course, there was something 'infinitely' worse, namely, the sale by greedy clerics of indulgences. That outrage, you will recall, was part of what fueled the protest of a certain failed monk by the name of Martin Luther.
How can I formulate my misgiving? What bothers me, I suppose, is the dogmatic over-specification of the Unseen Order. Its 'satellite mapping,' if you will is a sort of secularization of the trans-secular which does not respect the transcendence and mystery of the trans-secular. Appeal to mystery is often made by the Church in defense of doctrines (Trinity, Incarnation, Transubstantiation, et al.) that appear to flout the logical requirements of the discursive intellect; how does that appeal comport with the boringly prosaic 'green eyeshade' quantification and allotment of benefits and allowances pursuant upon so many Pater Nosters, this many Ave Marias, etc?
More later. There are a number of deep issues here.
Now, however, I have to take my wife, a good old-fashioned Catholic girl, God bless her, and an exemplar of the Eternal Feminine that leads us upward, to church. Why do I go to church given how screwed-up the Roman church and its clergy are (especially those of the American Catholic Bishops who are leftists first and Catholics second in emulation of their leader Bergoglio the Benighted?)
The highest human pursuit is the pursuit of the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters. One has to prosecute the pursuit in different ways. One is by working from within one's own tradition, despite its manifold limitations and defects, penetrating into it as deeply as possible, and taking what is good from it.
John B. writes,
I read your two recent posts on indulgences, and I would like to offer a clarification: indulgences obtained for the souls in purgatory operate per modum suffragii. An indulgence obtained for the dead is seen as a prayer that the faithful can have special confidence in, since it is, after a fashion, an intercessory prayer made by the Church itself. But it remains a prayer and not a juridical act. The Church on earth does not claim to have jurisdiction over the souls of the dead.
I doubt that this resolves all of the problems that indulgences present for you. There are still the questions surrounding indulgences for the living, after all. To be honest, I have a hard time with indulgences myself, for a few reasons, and I'm Catholic. But the clarification seemed worth making.
Bernhard Poschmann's Penance and the Anointing of the Sick includes a very good chapter on indulgences if you want to read more on how they are understood and have been understood historically, and how they arose. The whole book is excellent, and at times surprising.
People are generally aware of the importance of good nutrition, physical exercise, and all things health-related. They understand that what they put into their bodies affects their physical health. Underappreciated is a truth just as if not more important: that what one puts into one's mind affects one's mental and spiritual health. The soul has its foods and its poisons just as the body does. This simple truth, known for centuries, goes unheeded while liberals fall all over each other climbing aboard the various environmental bandwagons.
Why are those so concerned with physical toxins so tolerant of cultural toxins? This is another example of what I call misplaced moral enthusiasm. You worry about global warming when you give no thought to the soul, its foods, and its poisons?
You 'liberals' are a strange breed of cat, crouching behind the First Amendment, quick to defend every form of cultural pollution under the rubric 'free speech.' But honest dissent you label as 'hate speech' and you shout down those who disagree with you.
You say you want an example of a cultural polluter? How about the 'comedian' Louis C. K.? I was blissfully unaware of this moral cretin until a few days ago. No, I won't link to any of his garbage. Obama, I understand, considers his stuff 'edgy,' as if it good to violate 'bourgeois' standards of moral decency.
'Liberals' have a strange tendency to conflate dissent with hate. Obviously, if I dissent from what you maintain, it does not follow that I hate you. And if I express my dissent in speech, it does not follow that my speech is 'hate speech.'