Grasp the gift of indulgences

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Pope Francis opens the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica to inaugurate the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the Vatican in December 2015. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout

Arguably no doctrine of the Catholic Church is more misunderstood than the doctrine of indulgences. Most every book or article on the subject begins by claiming that Catholics are generally confused or at least hazy about exactly what the Church teaches.

Martin Luther. Public Domain

Examining the subject is like discovering a beautiful gift. Our merciful God, through the Church and the doctrine of indulgences, offers us the grace to reduce and even remove the period of purification we each will otherwise spend in purgatory.

The term indulgence often conjures up thoughts of Martin Luther and the 95 complaints he posted to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years ago (1517). Some people believe that the Church ended the indulgences in the 16th century. Not so.

The Council of Trent (1545-63) responded to Luther and the Protestant Reformation, but did not abolish indulgences; in fact, during session XXV, the bishops directed: “Since the power of granting indulgences was conferred by Christ on the Church … it is to be retained in the Church, and it [the Council] condemns with anathema those who assert that they are useless or deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them.” Bishops were directed to eliminate any misuse associated with indulgences. The Council decrees were approved by Pope Pius IV (r. 1559-65) and thus the Doctrine of Indulgences is to be believed by all Catholics. To comprehend this doctrine, it is important to review the consequence of sin.

Results of sin

The Church teaches that every sin has two consequences: guilt and debt. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we confess our sins, receive forgiveness and accomplish the assigned penance. Through this sacrament, the guilt of our sin(s) is removed and we avoid eternal damnation — saved from spending eternity in hell. However, a debt to God, a temporal punishment after forgiveness, remains. If you accidently break your neighbor’s window, you may be very contrite (and upset); your neighbor may forgive you, but the window still has to be repaired. A debt is owed.

And so it is with our sins that are forgiven, a debt to God remains.

Definition of an Indulgence
Canon Law (can. 992) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1471) define indulgences this way: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”

We can satisfy this debt after sacramental confession and forgiveness either in this world or in purgatory. The Baltimore Catechism (1879 version, Lesson 14) says about punishment from sin:

“What punishments are due actual sins? Answer: Two punishments are due to actual sins: one, called the eternal, is inflicted in hell; and the other, called temporal, is inflicted in this world or in purgatory. The Sacrament of Penance remits or frees us from the eternal punishment and generally only from part of the temporal. Prayer, good works and indulgences in this world and the sufferings of purgatory in the next remit the remainder of temporal punishment.”

The Catechism today reads: “To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. On the other hand, every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin” (No. 1472). Thus, grave sin results in eternal punishment unless it is forgiven in sacramental confession. But even after forgiveness, there is temporal punishment to be “purified” now or in purgatory.

Treasury of satisfactions

What the Catechism calls “the treasury of satisfactions” (or “treasury of merits”) is a spiritual bank, made up of the overabundant or excess merits obtained by Our Lord Jesus, the Blessed Mother and the saints. When Jesus died suffering on the cross, he gained for us both our salvation and merits without end.

Added to the merits of Jesus are those of the saints — people who lived a life of heroic virtue and by their holiness accumulated credit or merits in such excess that they are stored up by the Church for dispensation to other Christians through the doctrine of indulgences. This treasure is provided by our Church to those who make up the Body of Christ, those who form the Communion of Saints. These merits, the Church teaches, are clear evidence of God’s mercy.

One may gain a partial indulgence through devotions such as praying the Rosary. Shutterstock

In his papal bull, Unigentius (1343), Pope Clement VI (r. 1342-52) wrote: “This treasure [treasury of satisfactions] … [Christ] committed to the care of St. Peter who holds the keys to heaven, and to his successors, his own vicars on earth, who are to distribute it to the faithful for their salvation. And they are to apply it with compassion … that it may benefit those who are truly contrite and who have confessed, at times for the complete remission of temporal punishment due to sin, at times for the partial remission.”

Different indulgences

Indulgences are either plenary or partial; they only apply to past sins; we don’t pay ahead. If we sin again, then we either seek another indulgence or satisfy the debt in purgatory. We can gain an indulgence for ourselves or for those in purgatory; we cannot gain an indulgence for another living person.

Certain actions, works, prayers and devotions, called concessions, have been indulged by the Church and are prescribed in the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum issued by the Vatican in 1999 and translated in the Manual of Indulgences (USCCB, 3rd printing, 2013). Completing these works, etc., and satisfying other required conditions, can result in either a partial or plenary indulgence. There are both general and specific works identified in the handbook as having been indulged.

A partial indulgence is granted under these general actions: during our daily living if we offer thoughts and prayers to God; if we care for and share our goods with those in need; if we abstain from something pleasing to us; or if we witness our faith to others. In addition, partial indulgences are obtained from specific prayers, actions and devotions; for example, devout recitation of the Apostles or Nicene Creed, saying the Magnificat, the Memorare, the Angelus or teaching Christian doctrine.

For years there was a misunderstanding about a partial indulgence. Completing certain acts, like saying specific prayers, could result in a partial indulgence of so many days or years. Many Catholics thought those days or years meant that an amount of time was taken away from our time in purgatory. Such was never the case, because there is no concept of time in purgatory; thus to eliminate the confusion, in 1968 the Holy See discontinued days, weeks and years, all time attachment to a partial indulgence. The Church does not try to determine how much debt is removed through a partial indulgence, choosing to leave that to God.

A plenary indulgence takes away temporal punishment from sin. We satisfy all debt owed to God now instead of in purgatory, providing we complete all the prescribed conditions (USCCB, Manual of Indulgences, Norms of Indulgences, No. 20): sacramental confession, be in a state of grace, free from even venial sin, receive holy Communion, pray for the pope, and complete the indulged act, a good work or devotion prescribed by the Church.

Plenary indulgences, according to the Manual of Indulgences (pp. 41, 153-154), include the following:

— Adoring the Blessed Sacrament for at least 30 minutes

— Reciting the Rosary, either privately with family, or publicly in a church with several of the faithful

— Devout reading or listening to Sacred Scripture for at least 30 minutes

— Making the Way of the Cross.

Papal/Church Authority
In the Gospel of Matthew (16:19) Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The term “loosing” here is regarded to include releasing or loosening the bands of temporal punishment through an indulgence. Given his apostolic authority, handed down from St. Peter, the pope can authorize indulgences.

Gift of God through the Church

So, through the mercy and charity of God, the Church grants indulgences from the treasury of satisfactions or the superabundant merits of Jesus and the saints. We can receive a plenary indulgence, be released from the temporal punishment of purgatory when we, through our ardent desire, satisfy the conditions prescribed by the Church. An indulgence is not forgiveness of sin but of the punishment due sin; forgiveness comes first and is a necessary prerequisite for an indulgence. Clearly, of the conditions required, being free from all sin is the greatest challenge.

A partial indulgence does not require satisfying all the conditions of a plenary indulgence, but we must be in a state of grace. Whether plenary or partial, the debtor must have the purpose of gaining the indulgence, be contrite and sincere in every action and detached from sin. Our disposition is neither routine nor mechanical; instead, motivated by sorrow and love we piously, indeed prayerfully, seek to repay our Creator for the temporal punishment we garnered by our transgressions.

Indulgences are not received directly from a priest; no special words are said over us, no hands laid on us. We humble ourselves before our infinitely compassionate God who, through the Church, offers us this gift.

In a general audience of Sept. 29, 1999, Pope St. John Paul II reflected that the distribution of the Church treasury through indulgences is “the expression of the church’s full confidence of being heard by the father when — in view of Christ’s merits and by his gift, those of our Lady and the saints — she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspects of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace.”

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.

Background and History
In the first centuries of Church history, penance resulting from mortal sin was public, embarrassing, arduous and lengthy. Bishops, recognizing that a penitent was sincere and contrite, might reduce the length of penance or substitute a lesser penalty, especially if the individual was ill or near death. This act by a bishop in that era was an indulgence, a pardon, commuting the penance.
This 19th-century painting by Konstantin Dmitriyevich Flavitsky depicts Christian martyrs in the Colosseum. Public domain

A kind of indulgence surfaced in the third century when Christians were being aggressively persecuted by the Romans. Emperor Decius (249-51) demanded that all people in countries occupied by the Romans make allegiance to the Roman false idols and the emperor himself. Failure to comply meant incarceration, torture and likely death. Any Christian agreeing to Roman demands was in essence denying Christ, and while many refused, many others conceded.

The treatment of Christians in those centuries differed, depending on the Roman emperor, so there were periods when the Christians were more or less tolerated. During those times, the individuals who had denied Christ often wanted to rejoin their Christian brothers and sisters. This was a problem for Church leadership on how to deal with these individuals, these lapsed Christians, who were dubbed the Lapsi.

In this wall fresco by Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1524), a Catholic bishop is granting plenary indulgences for the public during times of calamity. Public domain

Some Church leaders claimed that only God and not the Church could forgive the sin of apostasy, of denying Christ. Other leaders disagreed, claiming that like God, the Church should be merciful and that the Lapsi could return, but only after completing an arduous penance. The Christians jailed by the Romans and awaiting martyrdom wrote letters, sometimes called peace letters, to the bishops asking them to pardon the Lapsi. In the letters, those expecting martyrdom offered up the excess merits gained from the torture and suffering they had experienced in exchange for the Lapsi being accepted back into the Church. This was an early example of an indulgence, substituting the sufferings of these confessors to take away the sin punishment of another.

In the 11th century Blessed Pope Urban II (r. 1088-99) encouraged the first crusade to the Holy Land, and in order to recruit crusaders he offered to remit any penance a volunteer had received from a confessed sin. Additionally, if a crusader died in combat, all their sins would be pardoned and they would attain eternal life.

“A Question to a Mintmaker,” woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg (c. 1530), presents the pope and indulgences as one of three causes of inflation, the others being minting of debased coinage and cheating by merchants. Public domain

Beginning in the 13th century, indulgences were increasingly sought by the laity, and there were significant numbers of works and devotions indulged by the Church. Growing, too, was the idea of giving alms as a good work to gain an indulgence. Often the voluntary alms or funds donated went to support building projects such as churches, hospitals, schools, bridges and roads. By the 16th century, there were some perceived and limited abuses of indulgences in regards to financial contributions. This in part sparked the Protestant Reformation, the actions of the Council of Trent and, from that council, today’s doctrine of indulgences evolved.

D.D. Emmons

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.