I saw this very curious article this week in the NY Times: For Catholics, A Door to Absolution is Reopened. You might want to check it out.
Indulgences, in case you've forgotten your high school Medieval History 101, are priest-prescribed acts of penance that you perform to avoid jail time in Purgatory (and I'm not talking about Purgatory, Colorado). Back in the Middle Ages, indulgences included gifts of money to the church--meaning a priest could absolve you of punishment in the afterlife if you gave a tidy sum to the church coffers. This became a great source of corruption in the church, and was a central issue in Luther's split from the Pope. Nowadays indulgences can't be "bought" with money, but still can be secured through acts of service or contrition--acts that can vary widely depending on the person's sin (for which he's getting an indulgence) and the inclination of the priest prescribing it.
If all this "indulgence" stuff sounds confusing, it's because it is. The article does a pretty good job of trying to explain it. But my real question is this:
What is this really all about?
I seriously doubt this move has anything to do with Indulgences themselves. They are a symptom or signal of some deeper dynamic happening in the Vatican right now. What is it?