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Catholic “Inventions”: Indulgences

April 28, 2012

Let him be anathema and accursed who denies the apostolic character of the indulgences.” 

95 Thesis of Martin Luther, #71

A big part of the concept of indulgences is the misunderstanding of what they are.

  • Indulgences cannot now, nor have they ever been available to be bought or sold.  The Church has never taught the selling of indulgences.
  • They cannot and do not have the power to excuse or forgive sins either current or future ones.
  • They cannot get one out of Hell.
  • It does not secure one’s salvation.
  • It cannot release another’s soul from Purgatory.¹

So what are indulgences of the Catholic Church and how do they work?  Very simply put, once a person’s sins have been forgiven there still remains the residual effects of sin within that person’s life and on their soul.  In other words, one way or another, you will bear the burden of the sin you committed.  Forgiveness of your sins is not the same as having the effects of your sin wiped away from your life.  It’s similar to the concept of ‘forgiveness isn’t forgetting’.   Pope Paul VI says in his Apostlic Constitution on Indulgences (Indulgentiarum Doctrina – which I highly encourage the faithful to read),

2. It is a divinely revealed truth that sins bring punishments inflicted by God’s sanctity and justice.  These must be expiated either on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and calamities of this life and above all through death, or else in the life beyond through fire and torments or “purifying” punishments.  Therefore it has always been the conviction of the faithful that the paths of evil are fraught with many stumbling blocks and bring adversities, bitterness and harm to those who follow them.

There are several ways that a person can atone for the sin they’ve committed.  Just like in life between two people, an individual can atone, or make up to, another individual for the mistakes or wrong doings they’ve committed against that person by doing something good.  If a man cheats on his wife he may, in turn, be forgiven, but that does not erase the effects his sin had on their marriage.  Thus, the man, in reparation to his wife for his infidelity, will remove the effects of sin on their relationship by doing things to alleviate the cost of committing adultery… coming home on time every day, not going out with his friends as much, allowing her to check his cell phone, etc.

This is exactly the frame in which an indulgence works, except that it’s not about the effects the sin had on another individual (as per our example) but the effect on the individual’s soul that perpetuated the sin in the first place.  In the spiritual sense the effect sin has on those around us can be the burden – or in Church terms, the temporal punishment due – of sin.  (This is not always true, but almost never does a sin only affect the individual and no one else around them.)  An indulgence is reparation, on a spiritual level, of the effects that sin had on a person’s soul.  In crude, blunt terms, ‘you have to pay for that.’  An indulgence – a good act – keeps a soul from having to ‘pay for it’.

The purpose of an indulgence is to create in a soul the inclination toward holiness and a separation from sin.  While the indulgence itself is a remission of the effects or punishments due to sin on us in two varying forms, its ultimate end is to transmit to the soul a closer development of the relationship to God and a more holy life.  Like all Sacraments and sacramentals in the Church, one only receives the amount of grace and favor as ones efforts create.  Meaning that, for example, you partake of the Eucharist without contemplation for what you are receiving and thus do something like walk out of Church before Mass is ended, and go grab a bite to eat without giving it another thought, you haven’t gained a single grace.  Another example is the sacramental devotions like the Brown Scapular or the Holy Rosary.  Partaking of these things just to “get something”, as if it is merely a transaction, doesn’t impart a thing to your soul.  Remember what the Church says about God’s grace,

“We are not to treat God’s divine power as the automatic servant of calculated acts.”

Only reverent contemplation of your reparations with the intent of growing closer to God in holiness can have the effect of having remitting grace applied to our souls.  In other words, you can’t just perform the act of gaining an indulgence like it’s a formulaic cure for your ills in the attempt to gain a remission of punishment for your sins.  You have to approach it (as with everything you do in the Church) with a sincerity of heart.

Okay, but who came up with the idea that we have to ‘pay for our sins’?  Isn’t that what Christ did on the Cross?  Aren’t we negating the saving work of Christ on the Cross and His redeeming Blood by trying to ‘pay for our sins’?  If we have to ‘pay for it’ doesn’t that mean that Christ’s work wasn’t sufficient?

“Indulgences apply only to temporal penalties, not to eternal ones.  The Bible indicates that these penalties may remain after a sin has been forgiven and that God lessens these penalties as rewards to those who have pleased him (sic).  Since the Bible indicates this, Christ’s work cannot be said to have been supplanted by indulgences.

The merits of Christ, since they are infinite, comprise most of those in the treasury of merits.  By applying these to believers, the Church acts as Christ’s servant in the application of what he has done for us, and we know from Scripture that Christ’s work is applied to us over time and not in one big lump (Phil. 2:12, 1 Pet. 1:9).

If we ignore the fact of indulgences, we neglect what Christ does through us, and we fail to recognize the value of what he has done in us. Paul used this very sort of language: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).

Even though Christ’s sufferings were superabundant (far more than needed to pay for anything), Paul spoke of completing what was “lacking” in Christ’s sufferings. If this mode of speech was permissible for Paul, it is permissible for us, even though the Catholic language about indulgences is far less shocking than was Paul’s language about his own role in salvation.”²

The history of indulgences really grew up out of the penances assigned to sinners in the early Church.  Severe and strict were these penances given to sinners.  So much so that sometimes the act of penance for reparation of sins like murder or apostasy could last for years… “but the Church recognized that repentant sinners could shorten their penances by pleasing God through pious or charitable acts that expressed sorrow and a desire to make up for one’s sin.  If Christ gave his ministers the ability to forgive the eternal penalty of sin, how much more would they be able to remit the temporal penalties of sin!  Christ also promised his Church the power to bind and loose on earth (Matt. 18:18)… Binding and loosing cover Church discipline, and Church discipline involves administering and removing temporal penalties.  Therefore, the power of binding and loosing includes the administration of temporal penalties.”³

 7. The conviction existing in the Church that the pastors of the flock of the Lord could set the individual free from the vestiges of sins by applying the merits of Christ and of the saints led gradually, in the course of the centuries and under the influence of the Holy Spirit’scontinuous inspiration of the people of God, to the usage of indulgences which represented a progression in the doctrine and discipline of the Church rather than a change. 4

So how does one obtain an indulgence?

First of all, there are two types of indulgences one may receive: plenary and partial.  A partial indulgences removes part of the temporal punishment due for sins.  A plenary indulgence removes all of it.  If the soul performs the act to gain a plenary indulgence yet fails to meet the requirements of such, a partial indulgence is bestowed instead.  In order to receive an indulgence you must be a Catholic under the Church’s jurisdiction.  You must also be in a state of grace, which means the sin with which you are guilty of must first be absolved by the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  In the case of plenary indulgences an act of Reconciliation is usually a required norm within about two weeks of receiving the plenary indulgence as a requirement.

For a plenary indulgence to be gained, in most cases it requires that one partake in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (usually within a two week period of the time one plans to receive the plenary indulgence).  It usually also requires the partaking of the Sacrament of Communion and a prayer for the intentions of the Pope.  It also requires one to be free of all attachment to sin meaning that one cannot still wish to abide in sin of any sort.  Then the act itself with the intention of gaining a plenary indulgence.  The Handbook of Indulgences is where one can find the list and the indulgence granted, but usually an online search will suffice.

For a partial indulgence  you have to recite the prayer or do the act of charity assigned.  You have to be in the state of grace at least by the completion of the prescribed work.  The rule says” at the completion” because often part of the prescribed work is going to confession, and you might not be in the state of grace before you do that.  The other thing required is having a general intention to gain the indulgence.

Indulgences is a tough thing to grasp for non-Catholics (and even Catholics alike) and it’s something that many non-Catholic Christians, while understanding (even if not agreeing with) the doctrines of Catholic Christianity, still cannot make the leap of seeing the theological belief in indulgences.  I think that complicating the explanation of indulgences to someone who doesn’t understand them – as well as the events of history which have complicated their meaning (ie – Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis and errant priests trying to sell them) and make understanding them difficult to convey.

However, before completely denouncing the concept of indulgences, certain sects of anti-Catholic Evangelicals around seem to be doing the same exact thing Catholics have been accused of doing: selling blessings for a price.  What I’ve most seen are called ‘prayer handkerchiefs’ that are “blessed” and for a small donation to said ministry, you can have one which will bless you and your household.  A ‘blessing’ = ‘relief from suffering’ and some Evangelicals teach that you should avoid suffering since it is from the Devil and that if you’re spiritually blessed you are not separated from God.5

Simply put, I would ask the reader to first start with the idea that with almost every sin there is a fallout from it which must be endured by the sinner and those around them in one degree or another.  Throw a rock into a lake and you’re never without ripples.  This is how it is with sin.  The consequences of which will affect life and ripple through it in one small manner or another.  I would ask the reader to reflect on their own life and look at moments when mortal (serious) sin occurred and tell me that they did not feel the effect of that sin in their lives in one way or another.  Even after they asked God for forgiveness.  All the Church is saying with indulgences is that the harm on the soul caused by sin can be removed by doing pious acts to draw one closer to God.

Again, this is a difficult concept to grasp for non-Catholics since their theology teaches that all one needs is to ask God for forgiveness and, by the rule of spirituality, that’s all there is to it.  However, for Catholics it is a matter of doctrine and Catholics cannot choose to deny indulgences although many could stand to learn more about what they mean and it is a theologically complex doctrine that is admittedly hard to express in explanations.

For all men who walk this earth daily commit at least venial sins; thus all need the mercy of God to be set free from the penal consequences of sin.4

1. For more information about what Indulgences are not see the Catholic Encyclopedia
2. Catholic Answers Myths About Indulgences
3. Catholic Answers Primer on Indulgences
4. Indulgentiarum Doctrina (Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences, Pope Paul VI
5. For a chart on “Comparing the Evangelical “Blessing” concept to the concept of Indulgences”, please see Catholic (near the bottom of the page)

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