One of The Economist.com's bloggers opines:
THE meme starting the rounds of the conservative half off the blogosphere?ironically, one ripped off from the far left?is that Al Gore's carbon offsets are the equivalent of papal indulgences.
That doesn't strike me as a particularly compelling argument. Assuming that indulgences actually worked, which seems very unlikely, poor people unable to afford them ended up burning in hell for eternity. On the other hand, poor people unable to purchase carbon offsets end up . . . using just as much electricity as they would otherwise. ...
Before deciding The Economist decides whether a particular theological principle actually works or not, it might be helpful if they understood the principle. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
... an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.
To facilitate explanation, it may be well to state what an indulgence is not. It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin .... Least of all is an indulgence the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer's salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory.
What do we learn from this? First, poor people never faced the choice between buying an indulgence and "burning in hell for eternity." The sacrament of reconciliation was always available at no cost. (Granted, during the pre-Reformation period when the abuse of indulgences was at its worst, some of those hawking indulgences made outrageous claims to the contrary, but these falsehoods were never doctrine.) Second, persons granted an indulgence were not receiving an exemption from "burning in hell for eternity," as the grant of an indulgence presupposes "that the sin has already been forgiven." (Ditto.) Instead, an indulgence simply relieves the recipient of temporal punishment for sin, which otherwise "must be fulfilled either in the present life or in the world to come, i.e., in Purgatory." For example, an indulgence may obviate the need for acts of penance.
Finally, although the sale of indulgences famously was one of the abuses triggering the Reformation, it should be noted that modern Catholic theology emphasizes indulgences obtained through acts of devotion. For example, a plenary indulgence is granted to those who recite the Rosary in a church or a family group.
Having said all that, however, I agree with The Economist.com's anonymous blogger that indulgences make a lousy analogy for carbon offsets.