In Philip Pullman's novel The Amber Spyglass, we're told that the Consistorial Court has developed doctrines of "preemptive penance and absolution":

"Father President," said Father Gomez at once, "I have done preemptive penance every day of my adult life. I have studies, I have trained--"

The President held up his hand. Preemptive penance and absolution were doctrines researched and developed by the Consistorial Court, but not known to the wider Church. They involved doing penance for a sin not yet committed, intense and fervent penance accompanied by scourging and flagellation, so as to build up, as it were, a store of credit. When the penance had reached the appropriate level for a particular sin, the penitent was granted absolution in advance, though he might never be called on to commit the sin. It was sometimes necessary to kill people, for example; and it was so much less troubling for the assassin if he could do so in a state of grace.

I have a few questions about these doctrines:

  1. Is this a reference to a real-life doctrine in a real-life religion? Are these doctrines compatible with real-world Christianity?

  2. What does the fact that these doctrines exist tell us about the Consistorial Court and the "wider Church"?

  • I always thought of the Consistorial Court as the "black ops" arm of the Church: it had developed specialized doctrines unknown to the wider Church because it had doctrinal needs unknown to the wider Church, like the need to excuse someone of a Church-ordered murder they might never have to commit. It also illustrates the hypocrisy deep within the bowels of the Church, the sort of hypocrisy that might have developed in the real world if not for the challenges of Protestantism.
    – Torisuda
    Mar 12, 2017 at 20:14

3 Answers 3


Pullman is specifically attacking the Roman Catholic Church (although I don't think that he has any truck with other religions or branches of Christianity). Remember that in the Dark Materials novels, the Reformation never happened, so the Catholic Church reigned supreme, at least in Western Christendom.

I know very little about Catholic doctrine, and my outlook may be distorted by my Protestant upbringing, so I need to tread carefully.

The idea behind penance and indulgences seems to be that you can earn time off from Purgatory by performing penances and/or obtaining indulgences from the Church. Purgatory is a place where believers go to atone for sins committed during their lifetimes before they can be admitted into Heaven. Indulgences are granted by the Church, and can be either partial or plenary. A plenary indulgence wipes out all time served in purgatory for a particular sin (not all sins), whilst a partial indulgence wipes out only part of the time spent there. See Introduction to Indulgences. This is still part of official Catholic doctrine, although I don't think that indulgences are issued today, and it would cause a good deal of controversy if they were.

Of course, if you don't believe in Purgatory, then this is all a load of dingo's kidneys, as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would put it. As an aside, Protestants see no need for Purgatory, since they believe that full atonement for all believers' sins (i.e., all sins of all believers) was obtained by Christ when he was crucified.

The idea of obtaining forgiveness (absolution) for sins not yet committed (a so-called plenary indulgence) harks back to the Crusades. In The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown suggests that plenary indulgences were granted in advance for all sins committed by anyone who joined the Crusades (with certain exceptions, such as for heresy). The truth of this seems to be rather doubtful, and I certainly cannot vouch for it. The idea of performing penance in advance may well be an invention of Pullman (or other writers), and no part of Catholic doctrine either now or in the past, although I can see the appeal of it to someone with a legalistic frame of mind.

The Consistorial Court seems to be pure invention by Pullman. There were (and still are) Consistory Courts, but their remit seems to be rather mundane.

In conclusion, modern Protestants view a lot of Catholic doctrine as legalistic and rather mechanical (i.e., do X and Y will happen). Pullman milks this for all it is worth.

  • 3
    The Catholic church does still issue indulgences today. The issue pre-reformation was that indulgences were in some cases being sold for cash. That practice was, of course, condemned and is no longer practiced. But indulgences can still be obtained for a variety of acts of piety and penance. Do X and Y will happen gives mankind agency, which is surely consistent with mercy. If we had not agency, how could we sin? But in grace as in law, intention matters. Pulman's contumely ignores this. There is no indulgence without repentance and one cannot repent of a deed and then commit it.
    – user406
    Mar 12, 2017 at 17:06
  • @MarkBaker I would not argue about Pullman's spleen, and thank you for the correction re indulgences. I would like to know, however, if the Church ever issued plenary indulgences as described by Dan Brown during the time of the Crusades, or was this just a perversion of official doctrine, or perhaps just black propaganda. If the latter, and I suspect that it is, who started it and when?
    – Mick
    Mar 12, 2017 at 17:29
  • I don't know the history well enough, but again I think the matter of intent is crucial here. An indulgence is promised for performing an act. Any sin committed between the promise and the performance of the act would be covered by the indulgence. But an indulgence obtained for the purpose of covering you for an intent to sin would not be valid because of the defect of intent. But that is a modern understanding, and I am not enough of a theologian or historian to say how those promising or those receiving indulgences then would have understood the matter. Nor, I suspect, is Dan Brown.
    – user406
    Mar 12, 2017 at 17:36
  • @MarkBaker Thanks. This would make a good question for Christianity.SE. Maybe I'll cast a line and see if I hook a fish.
    – Mick
    Mar 12, 2017 at 17:41
  • BTW, re legalism, I tend think of it like this: Catholicism is to protestantism as quantum theory is to classical theory. Particle or wave? Yes. Immanent or transcendent? Yes. Grace or works? Yes. Mystical or rational? Yes. I think this goes a long way to explain much Catholic literature and the calumnies of much anti-catholic literature. (On topic or off? Yes.)
    – user406
    Mar 12, 2017 at 17:55

This is a reference to the Catholic belief that sin can be atoned for through confession and the acceptance of a self-imposed punishment, called a penance. This atones for the sin, and wipes away some of the time the sinner will have to spend waiting to enter heaven.

Even in the early days of Christianity, this concept proved problematic. Acts of penance tend to involve privations such as fasting, self-flagellation or undertaking pilgrimage. They thus have little to do with the actual sin committed, which means a person can absolve themselves of a sin without taking any personal responsibility for the results of that sin. For example, if you steal something and commit penance, why do you then have to accept an earthly punishment for your crime, seeing as God trumps any earthy authority who tries to hold you to account?

It's an interesting choice for Pullman to highlight, because penance became one of the most-hated aspects of the Catholic church during the middle ages. It began to sell Indulgences, which were essentially automatic forgiveness of sins in exchange for money. The idea the rich could almost literally buy their way into heaven was widely seen as unjust. To make matters worse they Church employed Pardoners, individuals who went out and aggressively sold Indulgences, often with the aim of raising money for specific church projects. This was a direct contributor to the Protestant reformation, as Martin Luther decided to write his famous Ninety-Five Theses after hearing his parishioners say they no longer needed to change their sinful behavior after purchasing Indulgences.

"Preemptive" penance has never been official dogma, and indeed it does not stand up to logical scrutiny. If one wishes to obtain forgiveness of a sin in advance, one clearly has the intention of sinning and, therefore, cannot truly be repentant. However, it's a clever way of both setting up a plot point and highlighting the inherent problems in the very concept of penance, especially the one of personal responsibility. And it's very close indeed to the idea of Indulgences which, in Britain at least, are widely learned about at school and understood as an unfair abuse of power on the part of the church.

This is, then, a key plank in a central theme of the trilogy, which is the inherent oppression that results when organised religion rigidly applies doctrine and dogma. Preemptive absolution is not merely unfair: it is illogical and is deliberately used as a tool of subjugation. That it is secret - not widely known outside the church - speaks volumes about the inherent hypocrisy of a supposedly benevolent organisation trying to protect its wealth and power. Dogma, Pullman is saying, will always lead to corruption.

So to answer your specific questions:

1. Yes, it is a reference to a real-life doctrine, although no specific parallel exists and it is not directly compatible with actual Christianity.

2. That it is a corrupt and hypocritical organisation as a result of its strict adherence to dogma.

  • Can you cite any sources?
    – user111
    Mar 16, 2017 at 15:37
  • @Hamlet on what, exactly? It took me a while to compile this answer, and being asked for further elucidation is pretty dispiriting. Mar 16, 2017 at 15:42
  • on everything. You make a lot of claims here, but as far as I can tell not a single one of them is backed up. If you're done with this answer, then it's OK to leave it as is -- maybe it will be helpful to others -- but know that I don't see this answer as particularly helpful.
    – user111
    Mar 16, 2017 at 16:06

There is no established exact parallel AFAIK in any mainstream religion. I can't comment on any personal promises made by a corrupt priest.

We might compare the SF story 'Time In Advance' by William Tenn. "In the far future a law is passed enabling citizens to serve out sentences for crimes they intend to commit, serving the full term, but with a 50% pre-criminal discount." This story of secular preemptive absolution reaches a tidily moral conclusion, perhaps more so than Pullman would have allowed!

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