Monday, 14 May 2012

Indulgences . . . a thorny issue

Amongst the most controversial topics both for those not raised in the Catholic faith as well as for many Western Catholics is the Church's teaching with regard to indulgences. 

As promised in my posting last June on Relics (see the listed postings to the right) we will have a look at this controverted topic, the historical abuses associated with indulgences and the current teaching of the Church - which many neglect to refer to when condemning a practice which has been a source of both comfort and misunderstanding since antiquity.

The very word "indulgence" can raise the hackles of those raised as Protestants or the large majority in Western culture who have been given a biased view of the history of the Christianity, the Middle Ages and the Reformation by secular historians and journalists who express a vehement and often uninformed animus towards the Church.  

Let us begin with the current definition of  'Indulgence' from the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH which links the teaching about and the practice of granting various kinds of indulgences to our Baptism, to the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation and to the Communion of Saints:

"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 . . . " (Indulgentarium Doctrina norm 1). 

This teaching has several elements which we need to explore to get at the healing intention of the doctrine. 

Dante meets Beatrice in Purgatory - Alineri

1.  Remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven

The Church teaches that the Sacrament of Penance assures and conveys forgiveness for sins both mortal and venial but, as we all know, actions have consequences and the consequences of sin may be permanent and so have implications for us as incarnate beings in time and space (temporal) even though we are forgiven.

Think of the killing of a person in an armed robbery. The criminal may truly repent and through the Sacrament of Penance receive forgiveness for a mortal sin. He may even have the forgiveness of the families affected. He might, and this has happened to those forgiven mortal sins, become a saint. The effects of the killing, however, are permanent and continue through time and beyond.

Or, if I steal something it may have an effect upon multiple people and may lead to all sorts of consequences both intended and unintended.  A good contemporary example of this concept of the interconnectedness of human sin is illustrated in the 2002 move Changing Lanes.  Two men involved in a relatively minor car accident have their lives and the lives of their families profoundly and permanently changed as a result of their actions and sins against one another. They ultimately forgive one another, but the effects of their sins continue. 

The Church holds that justice demands that there be responsibility for actions and that there is a 'punishment' or consequence due for sinful actions. This is balanced with the teaching that there is 'merit' for good and loving actions.  I hasten to add that the latter does not mean that we 'merit' salvation by our good deeds - quite the contrary, our good deeds flow from the grace we receive from  the sacrifice of Jesus for us and our incorporation into his eternal life at Baptism.

The consequence or punishment is not something applied by a vengeful God but rather the requirement of Justice which must be served by a just but merciful God.  So it is that our merciful God, who is also just, provides both forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus and a remedy for the temporal (as related to time and the created order) punishment due for sin.  As the Letter to the Hebrews has it: "the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives" .(Heb. 12:6).

Physics and human experience both teach us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If sin has consequences, and it manifestly does, then how does the forgiven sinner avail himself of the means to deal with the consequences of sin?

The merit that accrues through the loving actions of saints i.e. baptized sinners who are united to the sacrifice of Christ as part of His Body manifest heroic sanctity and participate in sharing the grace available to all who seek to unite themselves in acts of devotion and service to God and others. St Paul puts it this way in the Epistle to the Colossians:
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the Church;" (Co.l 1:24)
The basic reality of this connection is clear to us from our experience of the self-sacrifice of those who love us.  We share in the benefits of what others do for us and for others in love.  The Church teaches that there is no limit to the power of this goodness which may be applied along with Christ's grace through time and into eternity.

 2.  The faithful Christian who is duly disposed
Though we are forgiven by our merciful God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross the actual consequences of our actions have a continuing effect for good or ill because we are linked to one another and to the society in which we live.  Mercifully, we are also linked, by virtue of our Baptism, to the Communion of Saints and so we share in the profound grace of the Sacrifice of Christ as manifested in the lives of the saints and their merits of grace.

This leads us to a consideration of the means that effect remission of the consequences or the penalty due for our sins. The teaching of the Church here draws us deeply into the heart of the Catholic doctrine of the Communion of Saints. As in a loving family, individual members benefit from the work and good actions of other members of the family. Often sacrifices are made by a parent or sibling for the benefit of others.

The Church teaches that we are intimately linked to the love and grace of others in the Body of Christ. By virtue of our Baptism we are united to all other Christians living and dead - the Communion of Saints. This is a real communion or sharing at the deepest level both spiritual and physical. Indeed the effects of our own sins can be and are mitigated by the actions of others who are united in the Body of Christ, crucified and risen. 

Contrary to the individualism of Protestantism, the Catholic teaching provides that through the ministry of the Church, the due penalty for sin is covered by Christ who has united himself to his saints in order that love may be conveyed to all as they are in need.

3.  Indulgences are granted under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church 

Properly disposed i.e. penitent and absolved, the forgiven sinner may avail himself or herself of the infinite merits of Christ and all those united in love with him. This is necessary, as we have seen, in order to balance the need for just consequences which flow from sin.  

Our experience shows us that we as individuals are clearly unable to rectify the effects of mortal or even venial sins on our own. We may be penitent and forgiven but we need the grace of the merits of Christ and his saints.

We are linked to the Communion of Saints and through the mercy of God may avail ourselves of the 'treasury of merits' not for forgiveness of our sins (as is often mistakenly assumed) but to balance the need for justice in the temporal punishment due to us. This linkage to the grace flowing through the Body of Christ means that the Church has a duty and responsibility to encourage the penitent to grow in grace by participating in the gracious sharing of the remission of the temporal consequences of our sin.

Common Misconceptions

A)  A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences.

This charge is without foundation. Since indulgences remit only temporal penalties, they are not about forgiveness. No indulgence will ever forgive sin. That is a matter for Penance, the reconciliation of the sinner through the blood of Christ which is accomplished in this life.
B)  A person can "buy forgiveness" with indulgences.
The definition of Indulgence presupposes that forgiveness has already taken place. Indulgences in no way forgive sins. They deal only with punishments left after sins have been forgiven. 
C)  Indulgences were invented as a means for the Church to raise money.
Indulgences developed as a means of building upon the sacrament of reconciliation (Penance) and to encourage sanctification of the faithful. They are a way of shortening the penance of sacramental discipline and were in use centuries before money-related problems appeared. The Council of Trent instituted strict reforms in the practice of granting indulgences and, because of prior abuses, "in 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions" (Catholic Encyclopedia).  So, since the Council of Trent no money transactions are allowed to be directly connected with the granting of Indulgences -- that is almost 500 years ago. As the kids say "Get over it".

 D)  An indulgence will shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days. 
A person can buy indulgences for the number of days they think are needed.
The number of days which used to be attached to indulgences were references to the period of penance one might undergo during life on earth. This was a relative measure or benchmark which is no longer used and certainly one does not buy nor obtain an indulgence to cover a period of time. The Catholic Church does not teach anything about how long or short Purgatory may be for anyone.
E)  A person used to be able to buy indulgences.
As previously stated indulgences were never sold. The financial scandal surrounding indulgences which  Martin Luther and others criticized related to the giving of alms (money for charity). Indulgences were sometimes granted for the giving of alms to some charitable fund or good work. This was at times badly abused and poorly administered. There was no outright selling of indulgences allowed or encouraged by the Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains how abuses occurred: "[I]t is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded." 

Current Church Teaching on Indulgences

The current 'Manual of Indulgences' mandates in practices to be associated with the grace of Indulgences a "greater zeal for the exercise of charity."

Prescribed prayers along with Mass and Holy Communion and pilgrimages have traditionally been part of the granting of the various types of Indulgences. A new emphasis on such volunteer activities as helping at a soup kitchen, working to resettle refugees or donations to a worthy cause are being engaged as a means for the faithful to participate in what is meant to be a sharing of grace.

Much like how many youth learn in school to fulfill a community service requirement, Catholics are urged to link their faith with action. The Church's teaching has evolved. Indulgences are devotional but are also meant to engage the whole person. Redemption involves body and soul.

By what amount are penalties lessened by an Indulgence?
Before Vatican II each indulgence was said to remove a certain number of days as a means of measuring the significance of the acts associated with obtaining the indulgence.  An act might gain '200 days’ indulgence for example. The use of the term "days" confused people, giving them the mistaken impression that in Purgatory time as we know it still exists.  
The number of days associated with indulgences actually never meant that a certain amount of time would be taken off one’s stay in purgatory. Instead, it meant that a partial (not complete) amount of remission would be granted, proportionate to what  Christians in the early centuries would have received for performing a penance for a certain number of days. So, gaining 200 days’ indulgence gained roughly what an early Christian would have received, for example, by reciting the Our Father upon waking for 200 days. 

To overcome the confusion Pope Paul VI issued a revision of the handbook (Enchiridion) of indulgences. Numbers of days are no longer associated with indulgences. They are either plenary (full) or partial depending upon the particular actions and prayers specified following confession and absolution of sin in a separate, though related, act of reconciliation.

Finally, it is important to note that this teaching along with the other related teachings of the Church with regard to relics, Purgatory and the Communion of Saints emphasizes the communal nature of the Christian faith. Baptism and its meaning for the individual as part of the Church Catholic is at the heart of all these doctrines. By virtue of our incorporation into Christ, we share in the manifold graces of his Body which aid us in our pilgrimage to the eternal city of God. It is a wonderful consolation to know that even the effects of our sins can be overcome once we have accepted the forgiveness and absolution won for us once and for all by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

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