When Pope Francis announced that Catholics could receive an indulgence for following the activities of World Youth Day online (provided they also attend confession and receive Eucharist and be seriously-minded in their practices of following World Youth Day), friends asked me one of two things:
a) Are we STILL practicing indulgences? That’s so antiquated, it doesn’t quite belong in a social media age….
b) It seems to denigrate Christian faith by allowing something as flighty as social media to be a medium for an indulgence (thus perpetuating peoples’ sense that indulgences – as time off for good behavior after death – are irrational and silly).
On the contrary – I think the announcement of the indulgence for virtual World Youth Day participation is seriously good, and moreover, the church has a long history of such virtual participation in some of its practices. While sacraments cannot (and should not) be made virtual in this sense, there are other kinds of practices for which virtuality makes sense. I don’t think social media participation is an unmitigated good, but I do think there are occasions when social media use makes sense and can enhance Christian practice of the faith. In this case, I think it enhances a long-standing Christian practice of prayer directed toward a person’s relationship with God.
While I know one of the questions about indulgences has often been its focus on a person’s relationship after death, I suppose I have never myself been too concerned with that, given that God is outside time. Indulgences simply expose a long-standing question humans have about their free will as it exists vis a vis God who is their source. Those whose concern is more with the idea of indulgences and less with the particular social media aspect I’m discussing, I’ll just say you’re in good company, and welcome to a theological debate that stretches over a few centuries (at least).
For more on my take on indulgences and social media, see here.