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What Is an Indult?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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In Roman Catholic law, an indult is special permission to engage in an activity that is normally not permitted under church law. It typically offers an exception for specific individuals or circumstances, and holds other members of the church to the original law. Most commonly, the church grants it for a compassionate reason. The church maintains records on the granting of such dispensations, including all dispensations currently active.

Typically the Holy See or a diocesan bishop must issue an indult. Exceptions to church law require careful evaluation, discussion, and consultation with religious legal scholars. While lower church officials are capable of offering advice and assistance, they are not qualified in the church hierarchy to grant dispensations. Those who wish to promote the cases of parties seeking indults can do so through letters of support and other measures, like attending hearings with open attendance.

One example of a situation where an indult is necessary is when a priest wishes to leave the church to become a layman, often for the purpose of marriage. Under normal circumstances, religious vows last for life and the priest would need to remain in the church. However, he might be able to receive an indult in his case as a recognition that the situation is special and he has given devout service to the church.

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Another situation came up in the 20th century when the church transitioned from an old form of mass known as the Tridentine Mass in the late 1960s. The Pope granted an indult allowing older priests to continue using this form of mass in recognition of the fact that many might find it difficult to learn a new form. In addition, special dispensation was granted in England and Wales in recognition of the cultural and historic role of this form of mass. This was known as the “Agatha Christie indult,” after a famous supporter of the measure who supposedly swayed the Pope's mind when he was considering the dispensation.

This papal dispensation led to the rise of the term “indult Catholic” as a pejorative to refer to Catholics who preferred the older mass and chose to attend services with this mass whenever possible. A later decision from Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the right to use this mass without needing to receive special permission from the church. The reversal of the original decision made this term somewhat out of date, but it can still be seen in some texts and discussions of expressions of Catholic faith.

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