What the Pope Really Meant in His Twitter-Indulgences Announcement

It may be quirky and a little bit mysterious, but it could also be the future of faith.
Pope Francis' Twitter account (screenshot)

According to a new Vatican decree, issued last month but reported just about everywhere this week, Pope Francis will be granting indulgences -- or time off terms in purgatory -- to Catholics who closely follow his Twitter or other social media accounts during the World Youth Day event in Rio de Janeiro next week.

The pardons are typically proferred to sinners who, after confession, go out into the world and perform counter-balancing faithful or charitable deeds. The theological concept was sullied, though, in medieval times, when rogue clerics and corrupt popes promised eternal salvation to those who funded luxurious building projects.

The announcement could be interpreted, on its face, as a vain attempt to inflate the Vatican's social media numbers. However, while the pontiff (@Pontifex) hasn't quite catapulted to Lady Gaga levels of Twitter popularity, he doesn't really need much assistance. His nine different accounts -- each in a different language -- command more than seven million followers.

Since he took office in March, Francis's mien and conduct seem to counter any notion that he's aiming for celebrity. According to Father Steven Avella, a papal expert and professor of religious history at Marquette University, Pope Francis has shied away from the cult of personality that other Popes have indulged in. "It sure is a temptation," he wrote The Atlantic in an email. "But ... Francesco has tried to tamp this sort of thing down."

Modesty and humility, in fact, seem to be the defining characteristics of his papacy. He ditched the ostentatious luxury vehicles -- a custom Renault, BMW X5, and a Mercedes -- of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI and opted for a discreet Ford Focus. He's also skipping out on summer down time at the posh papal villa Castel Gandolfo, preferring to remain in his modest Vatican guesthouse (which he selected as an alternative to the papal residence in the Apostolic Palace). He has even refused the standard sartorial splendor, shunning both the fancy Pope cape and shoes. When Francis recently learned that a statue in his likeness had been installed near the Cathedral in Buenos Aires, he phoned a priest there and ordered it immediately removed.

Still, the decision to grant indulgences over the Internet strikes both Avella and Rev. John O'Malley, S.J., an internationally acclaimed scholar on the Vatican and professor at Georgetown University, as peculiar. "This Twitter stuff, I have to admit, all sounds very strange to me," O'Malley wrote in an email. He also stressed that the principle of papal infallibility does not cover such a pronouncement. "The pope is not infallible in everything he says or does but only in a VERY restricted area and under VERY specific circumstances," he wrote. "The Twitter indulgences does not fulfill those criteria in even the slightest way." The scholars also seemed to doubt whether, in a maze of Vatican bureaucracy, the directive was initiated or even directly authorized by the Pope himself. Avella wrote:

I doubt whether Papa Francesco knows about this nonsense...and I would bet that if he does, he'll poo-poo it as the action of some over-zealous Vatican bureaucrat...even Benedict would find indulgenced tweets a bit too much. Francesco does not like this "quantified" grace business or the idea that saying X number of prayers gets you certain results.

Francis does not actually type out his Twitter dispatches -- but he does reportedly "approve" them -- so it's not that far-fetched of a theory. The Vatican press office has not responded to an inquiry about whether he signed off.

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Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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