The best thing about this medieval idea of penance is that it can now be repackaged as politically correct "offsets." During the last few decades, the return of these modern indulgences has caught on in a variety of ways.
Liberal presidential candidate John Edwards, for example, lives in a 30,000-square-foot home, gets $400 haircuts and recently made a lot of cash by working for a profit-driven, cutthroat hedge fund. How's he supposed to alleviate his guilt over this? Presto! He can lecture others about the inequity of an American system that unfairly created two unequal societies -- his rich nation and many others' poor one.
Don Imus was serially warned that his foul and sometimes racist banter would eventually get him into big trouble. Still, as he kept up his trash talking aimed at Jews, women and blacks, Imus also generously donated to, and even set up charities for, wounded veterans and poor children.
Thus, when his slurs inevitably crossed the line one too many times, Imus not only confessed and apologized, but, inevitably, claimed his indulgences of past good deeds in hopes of offsetting the present bad ones.
These varieties of contemporary offsets could be expanded. But you get the picture of the moral ambiguity. Penance, ancient and modern, was thought corrupt because it was not sincere apology nor genuine in its promise to stop the sin.
Thanks to carbon offsets, Al Gore keeps his mansion -- and still feels good while warning others we all can't live as he does.
John Edwards chooses to offset his own privileges by sermonizing about unfairness in America.
And who can forget George Soros? The billionaire can lavishly fund liberal causes such as left-wing think tanks, Web sites and ballot initiatives -- and thereby offset his millions made speculating on exchange rates and bankrupting small depositors. He's become a hero to those who ordinarily demonize such financial piracy.
In other words, "offsets" is merely a euphemism for words like cynicism and hypocrisy. So by all means help save the planet, worry about the poor, establish charities. Just spare us the medieval idea that such penance ever excuses your own excess.