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Indulgences meet tax exemptions: Fly with us to purge your sins Indulgences meet tax exemptions: Fly with us to purge your sins

Although the Vatican has stopped selling indulgences directly, it still profits from offering this type of penance for one’s sins. The pilgrimage for an indulgence may be booked through the Vatican’s own travel agency which offers flights with the Vatican airline and hotel accomodation in tax-exempt convents. Use the Vatican travel agency, or risk being turned away from the pope’s audiences for pilgrims. 

 The Vatican pilgrimage industry combines two financially brilliant ideas. The first was the “indulgence”, the notion that the punishment for sin meted put in another world could be lessened by penances, often in the form of pilgrimages. The second idea was the conversion of convents into hotels in order to exploit an Italian tax exemptions for the lodgings of the clergy. Combining these, the Church sends sinners to do penance in its own tax exempt hotels — a seamless web of theology and profit.


In 1343 Pope Clement VI came up with an idea which was to prove highly profitable for the Church: that the blood of Christ provided the pope with an inexhaustible Treasury of Merit which he could use to mitigate the penalties for sin. Clement claimed that this Treasury was meant for the “remission of the temporal punishment due to sin” [1] — “temporal” because it was intended to reduce or eliminate the tortures of Purgatory, as opposed to those of Hell, which are, of course, “eternal”. 

Without further ado Clement drew in person upon this inexhaustible Treasury of Merit, to issue pardons as he pleased — but naturally the rest of Christendom lacked his direct access. If you weren’t the pope, you had to earn your share by saying prayers or performing other acts of penance such as going on a pilgrimage. Luckily, however, another option was available: the payment of money. You calculated the cost of the pilgrimage prescribed for penance and then bought an indulgence from the Church to cover it. The receipt you got for the performance of the penance or for the payment accepted as a substitute was called a “letter of indulgence”.

These were so popular that after William Caxton had learned the art of printing in Germany, the very first item he printed on his return to England in 1476 was a letter of indulgence. It was sold by John, Abbot of Abingdon, who authenticated it with his red wax seal. The proceeds, after the abbot’s commission, were to go “for promoting the war against the Turks”. [2] However, although the Turks had taken Constantinople more than twenty years before, no war had yet been launched, nor would it be, and the gold flowed instead into the coffers of the pope. 

Printed letters of indulgence took the form of ready-made receipts with a space left for the name of the purchasers. Printing, rather than writing out these certificates, meant savings for the Church. It’s been estimated that a printer with a single press could produce nearly a thousand indulgences a day. Yet, although the new printing presses cut Church costs initially, in the long run they weakened clerical power by taking the production of books out of the hands of the monks and making them cheap enough for laymen to own. This, in turn, encouraged laymen to learn to read, and then could see for themselves what the Bible said, which lesssened their dependency on priests..

Furtthermore, the indulgences themselves had a boomerang effect. They shocked Martin Luther, who rebelled against the idea that your stay in Purgatory could be circumvented by cash. After the Reformation, the Church hastened to remove the direct payment option and downplayed indulgences for several centuries. However, it didn’t last. In 1960 an inscription appeared in a papal basilica in Rome which once again publically offered indulgences. It solicited prayers for Pope John XXIII and income for the church. 

The practical rehabilitation of indulgences was effected by his successor, John Paul II. Citing Paul VI’s theological endorsement of indulgences and undaunted by any reservations on the part of liberal Catholics, the pope proceeded to proclaim a full indulgence for the Jubilee Year of 2000. The first destination listed in the Conditions for gaining the Jubilee Indulgence is not the Holy Land (which only comes in second), but Rome. [3]

 Tax exemptions

This is an act of financial Providence for the Vatican, which has been building up a new network of (tax-exempt) luxury hotels in convents, beginning with the Eternal City. For example, St. Brigit’s convent in Rome (Casa di Santa Brigida). It is centrally located in a splendid 15th-century building with 22 elegantly decorated rooms off marble halls, with private baths, telephones, central heating, air conditioning and needle-pointed Madonnas over the beds. There is also a library, a TV room, sitting rooms full of antiques and a roof terrace for guests to sit overlooking the fountains and Renaissance palaces of the Piazza Farnese. A Church website on “Convents in Italy” praises these as “by far the best accommodation value”. And travellers agree: “We spent less than half what we would have in a comparable hotel”. [4]

Not all guests are enthusiatic, however. For many visitors who have stayed at another convent-hotel in Rome, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the “very spiritual ambience” doesn’t fully compensates for thin walls, mould in bathrooms, broken appliances, hard beds and sparse food. One guest protested, “I know it is an old monastery, but I am not a monk!” [5]

And apparently the monks themselves thought likewise. The abbot, a flamboyant former fashion designer, organised religious dances by the nuns. However, the Psalms notwithstanding, this form of worship (scroll to 4:30) diverged too much from the Pope’s favourite Latin Mass. [6] Finally in May 2011, citing (among other “abuses”) problems with liturgy, the Vatican had the monastery closed down. [7] However,the attached church remains open, which guarantees continued tax rebates for the “holy hotel”. 

The Vatican is able to undercut the competition through a law passed in 1992. True, the concordat of 1984, allows the commercial activities of religious institutions to be taxed (Article 7.3), but the 1992 law extends the exemption to all buildings “not exclusively of commercial use”. [8] Oddly enough the Church does not invoke the concordat in this case. Concordats seem to be there to enforce minimum demands — but whenever it becomes politically possible, national legislation can quietly extend the privileges even further.

Since John Paul II’s resumption of papal indulgences his successor, Benedict XVI, has already issued three more. Unlike the Jubilee Indulgence, whose main destination was in Italy, the latest one, announced in November 2007, is focussed on a shrine in France: “the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI has generously decreed that the gift of a Plenary Indulgence be granted” to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin at Lourdes. [9] In other words, make a pilgrimage to Lourdes this year and you should get enough Merit to keep you out of Purgatory — at least, if you expire before committing any further sins.

The Vatican has also built up a tourism company with 2500 agents, called ORP, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi or the “Roman Pilgrimage Office”.  In 2007 ORP set up its own airline for the “quest to find God on exclusively-low-cost flights”. The first destination for the ORP pilgrimage flights was the busy route from Rome to Lourdes. ORP has also announced that this will be followed in 2008 by other routes such as to Fatima in Portugal, Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Czestochowa in Poland, as well as the Holy Land and eventually to Guadalupe in Mexico. (Anyone want to hazard a guess as to which pilgrimages might possibly figure in upcoming indulgences?)

Nor are pilgrimages the only market for the Vatican travel agency. In 2011 the beatification ceremony for John Paul II was also tapped, with ORP offering accommodation ranging from four-star hotels in Rome to communal tents for young people set up outside the city. [10]

And finally, not only is ORP taking advantage of the network of tax-exempt hotels for booking tours, it also appears to be exerting pressure on the faithful increase profits by booking through it. A German priest recounts how he made his own travel arrangments for his parishioners to vist Rome. When his group tried to join the other German pilgrims, who had travelled with ORP, for a papal audience, they found themselves turned away. [11]


Tax crusade marches on the holy hotels  

Since 1992 the Catholic Church has been able to exploit a tax exemption and hostels, colleges and convents into modern hotels. “Churches are emptying while religious hotels are filling up.” The nuns who staff them are paid through the “church tax”, and the profits from these enterprises contribute to the 4 billion Euros, much of  which “disappears into a power machine which influences and grooms the economy, politics, democracy and sometimes the exercise of constitutional rights, amongst which is freedom of the press”.  (Italian original in La Repubblica, 25 October 2007)

God's tourists: 5 billion Euros a year

With religious tourism growing by 20% a year, the Catholic Church is now offering flights in through ORP, the “Roman Pilgrimage Office”. ORP is based in the Vatican City and therefore “enjoys off-shore tax status, which in practice means that they don't have to submit accounts and can bypass Italian tax, hygiene and safety laws, to name but a few.” (La Repubblica, 10 November 2007)

Property tax relief for the Church: EU takes Italy to court

Italian tax laws to allow exemption to non-profit organisations were given an “intentional loophole” to favour the Church. Anything “not exclusively commercial” escapes taxation. A little shrine within the walls of a cinema, holiday resort, shop, restaurant or hotel confers exemption, allowing the Catholic Church to escape paying 90% of what it owes to the state for its commercial activities. (La Repubblica, 25 June 2007)


Latin translation of the plaque in Santa Maria Maggiore by Dr. David Holohan

1. Pope Clement VI, “Unigenitus Dei Filius”, (27 January 1343), in Carter Lindberg, The European reformations sourcebook, 2000, p. 11. Google reprint

2. “The first page printed in England”, [Caxton's Printed Indulgence, 1476].

3. Pope John Paul II, “Bull of indiction of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000”.

4. Jane Margolies, “Monastic Doors Open for Travelers”, New York Times, 19 October 2008. 

5. “Domus Sessoriana”, [Santa Croce in Gerusalemme], [Click on “Reviews” on the upper right.]

6. Sister Anna Nobili dancing in the video, “Gesù ti chiama (Jesus is calling you): a beautiful love story between Jesus and a girl”.

“‘Lap-dancing nun’ performs for Church”, BBC, 7 April 2009.

In the comments section, an Italian reader quotes the beginning of Psalm 92.1-4. Others  are  praise worship through dancing: Psalm 30.11 and Psalm 149.3.

7. “Pope shuts down famous monastery that liked to party”, AFP, 24 May 2011. 

“Pope ousts ‘loose living’ monks of Rome's Santa Croce monastery”, Guardian, 25 May 2011.

“We’ll have nun of that! Pope shuts down monastery where dancing sisters were order of the day”, Daily Mail, 26 May 2011.

8. “Decree according to which is granted a daily Plenary Indulgence on the 150th Anniversary of the Apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes”, 21 November 2007.

9. “Number drop good news for visitors ahead of JPII beatification”, AFP, 30 March 2011.

10. “Tax crusade marches on the holy hotels”, La Repubblica, 25 October 2007.

11. Stacy Meichtry, “The Pope's Travel Agent Makes Sure That All Routes Lead to Rome”, Wall Street Journal, 21 September 2009.


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