As you may have heard, the Vatican recently offered indulgences for Twitter and Facebook users along with other virtual participants of last months World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro.

Indulgences are a historical tradition in which the church grants the faithful remission from sins and relief from penitence. In an effort to get hip to the times, the Holy See launched a smartphone application and Facebook page, and then rebranded indulgences for fans of social networking.

But there was a catch. You cant obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, explained in an Italian daily. The flock had to tweet and blog about World Youth Day with pious intent. The Catholic scholar Paolo Padrini, known as the iPriest for his frequent online presence, insisted that your click will have come from the heart if you expected any papally endorsed payoffs.

In other words, no lulz. You couldnt expect a slashed sentence in purgatory for reposting that jpeg of a pimped-out Benedict XVI with a clutch of cardinals carrying the train of his gown, and bearing the caption: The Pope Emeritus, wearing a fabulous vintage chiffon-lined Dior gold lame gown over a silk Vera Wang empire waist tulle cocktail dress, accessorized with a three-foot House of Whoville hat and the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the Wizard of Oz, on his way to tell us its Wrong to be Gay.

I understand the need for any organization to keep up with the times, especially one that took 359 years to formally apologize for the Galileo Case you know, the one involving the persecution of a  astronomer for his stubborn insistence that the earth revolves around the sun, in defiance of scripture. But the papacy has been burned before by trafficking in indulgences. Why play with fire all over again?

In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV proclaimed that indulgences applied to souls suffering in purgatory. This celestial confidence trick was an immediate success peasants starved their families and themselves to buy relief for departed relatives, observed historian William Manchester in his 1992 book, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.

In 1517, Pope Leo X announced a special sale of indulgences. As an inducement, donors would receive, not only complete absolution and remission of all sins, but also preferential treatment for their future sins. This otherworldy protection racket, along with the buffoonery of an indulgence-flogging Dominican who denounced Wittenberg professor Martin Luther, led directly to the holy wars of the Reformation.

Back to the present day. As if the Vaticans public relations backfire with digital indulgences wasnt enough, Catholic Church leaders in Brazil chopped down 334 centuries-old trees at the edge of Serra da Tiririca State Park to prepare grounds for Pope Franciss appearance at World Youth Day, according to a report in The Daily Mail. (An ironic greeting for a pontiff who chose his papal name Francis in honour of the nature-loving St. Francis of Assisi.)

Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Freudianism, communism, capitalism, materialism, libertarianism, and almost every other ism and have all had their belief-begging moments, courtesy of ideologically blinkered leaders and followers. As the self-described stand-up philosopher Robert Anton Wilson once observed, the abbreviation for belief system is BS.

The words of Vatican social media maven Maria Celli, that indulgences cant be dispensed like coffee from a vending machine, brought to mind some alternative BS from Wilson. In his essay collection, Coincidance, the late author highlighted the Javacrucians, a possibly apocryphal sect who have selected caffeine as their sacrament.

Javacrucianism also has the simplest theology in history, teaching one thing only is necessary for salvation, the American Coffee Ceremony a variation on the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This is performed at dawn, and you must face towards the rising sun, as you raise the cup to your lips. When you take the first sip, you must cry out with intense fervour, GOD, I needed that! If this is performed religiously every morning, Javacrucians say, you will face all lifes challenges with a clear mind and a tranquil spirit, Wilson enthused.

Sounds like the kind of BS tailor-made for caffeine-addled, sun-worshipping Vancouverites. Coffee is the one indulgence most of us cant go without, and as an added bonus, theres no threat of excommunication for ordering decaf.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 2


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