From the NY Times:
The announcement in church bulletins and on Web sites has been greeted with enthusiasm by some and wariness by others. But mainly, it has gone over the heads of a vast generation of Roman Catholics who have no idea what it means: â€œBishop Announces Plenary Indulgences.â€
In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago â€” the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife â€” and reminding them of the churchâ€™s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.
The fact that many Catholics under 50 have never sought one, and never heard of indulgences except in high school European history (where Martin Luther denounces the selling of them in 1517 and ignites the Protestant Reformation) simply makes their reintroduction more urgent among church leaders bent on restoring fading traditions of penance in what they see as a self-satisfied world.
â€œWhy are we bringing it back?â€ asked Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who has embraced the move. â€œBecause there is sin in the world.â€
Like the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the indulgence was one of the traditions decoupled from mainstream Catholic practice in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops that set a new tone of simplicity and informality for the church. Its revival has been viewed as part of a conservative resurgence that has brought some quiet changes and some highly controversial ones, like Pope Benedict XVIâ€™s recent decision to lift the excommunications of four schismatic bishops who reject the councilâ€™s reforms.
The indulgence is among the less-noticed, less-disputed traditions to be restored. But with a thousand-year history and volumes of church law devoted to its intricacies, it is one of the most complicated to explain.