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On Indulgences

John C. Keenan, T.O.P.


The Catholic Church has preached an awe-inspiring Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is at once promising, yet demanding, for if we wish to know Christ, we must obey Him, and if we wish to be glorified with Him, we must first suffer with Him. "The Gospel is not a promise of easy success. It does not promise a comfortable life to anyone. It makes demands and, at the same time, it is a great promise-the promise of eternal life for man, who is subject to the law of death, and the promise of victory through faith for man, who is subject to many trials and setbacks." When Our Lord gave the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to St. Peter, He gave the power of binding and loosening, and to the Apostles He gave the power to forgive sins. The foundation point of forgiveness is-indeed the ultimate indulgence is-the suffering and death of Our Lord on the Cross, and the abundant mercy that flows to us from His redemptive death on the Cross. Yet, when one sins, there are effects of sin, which includes restitution, punishment and satisfaction for the sin committed.

In the Old Testament, God made it clear He was a merciful and just God, yet he imposed punishments. Indulgences are tied to, bound with, and flow from the Cross. At the Cross is where it all starts.

Indulgences have been a maligned doctrine-inside and outside the Church. The purpose of this paper is to explain the doctrine of the Catholic Church on indulgences. This paper will review the concepts surrounding indulgences, and what it means to the ordinary Catholic to pursue indulgences, and the grace-filled opportunity that the everyday life of each and every Catholic that participates in this wondrous part of Christ's life giving graces.

What is an indulgence?

Pope Paul VI defined an indulgence as 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.

The term was similarly defined in the Code of Canon Law (See, supra, n. xii). It has also been defined as, "a remission of the temporal punishment, or expiation, for sin after absolution in the sacrament of Penance [Reconciliation]." Another definition of "indulgence" is a "removal of some or all of the punishment due to already forgiven sin because of the performance of a good deed or the saying of a prayer." Simply stated, it is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. It has been used to signify the kindness and mercy of God. The term "indulgence" derives from the Latin term, indulgentia, from indulgeo, meaning kind or tender, and "condescension with the various nuances this implies." Others have defined indulgences differently. Protestants have defined it as a "permit to commit sin, given by the Roman church to its members," or "remissions of the penance imposed on confessed and absolved sinners," to Jimmy Swaggart's spurious statement that an indulgence is "a permit for indulging in sin." Other Protestants have been less extreme, while others have been more rhetorical.  

To study this issue carefully, we should define the terms as used by Pope Paul VI in his Indulgentiarum doctrina quoted above. The term "remission" means "forgiveness or pardon granted for sins or offenses against the divine law; or the canceling of, or the deliverance from, the guilt and penalties of sin." The expression "temporal punishment" is used to express the "punishment which is a consequence of" venial sin or forgiven mortal sin; "it is not everlasting and may be remitted in this life by actual suffering and by prayer, the performance of good works, the gaining of indulgences."    

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides excellent instruction with regard to indulgences. It is capsulated below.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: We belong to a Family.

Sin has a double consequence. Grave sin breaks our communion with God and makes us "incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the 'eternal punishment' of sin." Every sin, even venial sin, involves an unhealthy attachment to creation, which must be purified here on earth, or after death "in the state called 'Purgatory'." This purification frees a person from the "temporal punishment of sin."

"The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept the temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and various practices of penance, to put off completely the 'old man' and to put on the 'new man'." A person who seeks holiness-to put on the 'new man'-is "joined in Christ and through Christ" to all other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the "Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person." As it says in Scripture, "so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another." Romans 12: 5.

The Catechism brilliantly summarizes the nature of the communion of Saints when considering indulgences. The "communion of Saints" is one of the concluding fundamentals of the Nicene Creed. In the Catechism, it quotes Pope Paul VI's summary of this communion by saying, "The life of each of God's children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as a single mystical human being." Pope Paul calls this charitable communion a heavenly link with the triumphant saints, with "those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things." This communion or gathering of saints whether militant, suffering, or triumphant is truly a family of brothers and sisters not of the natural order, but of the supernatural order as God as Our Father and Christ as Our Brother. This recourse to Our Lord, and to the "communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin."

We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church's treasury, which is 'not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the 'treasury of the Church' is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ's merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.'

This treasury includes the "prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary," the prayers and good works of all the saints, who are "all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them." The prayers of the Saints are presented to God in Heaven, and Holy David asked that his prayers be like incense before the throne.

Therefore, an "indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins." The faithful departed who have died before us, now being purified and are members of the communion of saints, we may help them "obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted."

The Holy Scriptures.

In one of the finest passages of the Old Testament, the Lord passes before Moses and proclaims who He is:

The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation."

God the Father does not remove punishment for sin, even though His love is so great for the World that He gave His only begotten Son so that those who believe may not perish. He forgives sin but punishment is a part of mercy to restore the violated order for the sake of man's own good. God forgave Adam and Eve, but both were punished. In the book of Numbers, Moses' sister, Miriam, was leprous after speaking against Moses, God's prophet. Yet, after seven days of leprosy, she was returned to the Israeli camp cured. Holy David was forgiven of his sin, but he too was punished for his adulterous affair and murder. St. Paul urges the faithful to avoid the sin of unworthy reception of the Holy Eucharist, as "[t]hat is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died." (I Cor. 11:30). God does impose temporal punishment for sin. He even tests our faith and puts us through many trials.

We are exhorted not to lose courage when God punishes His adopted sons and daughters. This doctrine is brilliantly stated by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?-- "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Hebrews 12:3-11 (emphasis here). God's discipline is like that of a father to his children. When children do wrong, they are justly punished. As adopted children-sons and daughters-of God the Father, we cannot avoid the punishment of sin. The punishment of King David's adultery and murder plagued him in his life, as he laments in Psalm 37:4-6, "For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning." As brethren, we must pray for one another and guard our hearts so that sin does not harden us, as St. Paul says, "[E]xhort one another every day, whilst it is call today, that none of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin." Hebrews 3:13. Punishment for sin exists in this life and in the life to come.

If punishment is temporal as well as eternal, then indulgences are "the remission or relaxation of [the] temporal penalties" of sin ultimately by virtue of the sufferings of Christ and secondarily by the saints who followed have Him. Indulgences are part of His divine mercy to forgive sins. Catholics believe that indulgences are a way for each sinner to act in response to the free grace of Christ. "Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to response to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life." "The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to use of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification" "Grace means being known and permeated by the Spirit of Jesus and the Father." The Catholic Church's view diverges with Martin Luther's tradition, because Grace is not a "cloak" that covers your sins with Christ's righteousness, but it is an infused grace that purifies the soul in Christ as a new creation, that allows the soul to "escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature." (II Peter 1:4).

Penance is also a grace-filled response. "Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused." If grace actually permeates and glorifies our soul, then Penance is a source of grace toward perfection that He commanded us to achieve. Penance is encouraged in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. In Ezekiel 18:21, we are urged, "But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die." And, in Jeremiah, it says, "Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: 'Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.'" (Jeremiah 18:11; see, also, 25:5). The Book of Joel warns, "Yet even now," says the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments." (Joel 2:12). This sampling is also true in the New Testament. In the holy Gospel of Matthew at chapter 3, St. John the Baptist says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (St. Matthew 3:2, see, also 4:17 where Christ exhorts the same). Peter preaches the same in the Acts of the Apostles. "Jesus told his disciples, 'If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:24). Catholics believe that penance can and is a source of grace as each Christian picks up his or her cross and follows Christ.

In the Book of Romans, St. Paul says, "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him."

(Romans 15:1,2). As members of Christ's body, the Church, He has "so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together." (I Cor. 12:24-26). In this way, we are able to join in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for the good of others in the Communion of Saints.

It is here where indulgences are a vital part of the Church's mission to the World. As Christ is the answer, the Alpha and the Omega, we are His brothers, as His Father is our adopted Father as well. And, as a family, we indulge one another, and give to each other in charity the love and yield to grace. An indulgence is like a father's love when a child is repentant of a wrong doing, the father grants him not only forgiveness, but withholds the lawful punishment due because the father sees the child's penitent heart.

Like a father, the Church was given this authority. In Matthew 16: 19, Jesus says to St. Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven," and again, at Matthew 18:18, "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." He also grants to the Apostles the power to forgive sin in the name of God at John 20: 22, 23, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." In these verses, and based upon the Mosaic law "fulfilled" in the New Testament, the Church derives it governing authority descended from the Apostles to the bishops in union with the pope today.

The authority granted by Christ was used the Holy Scriptures. For instance, St. Paul is binding and loosening in I Cor. 5:3-5 and in II Cor. 1: 6-10, respectively. In First Corinthians, Chapter 5, St. Paul exclaims that it is "actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans, for a man is living with his father's wife." I Corinthians 5:1. (emphasis added). St. Paul enters judgment against the incestuous man (and against the arrogant people of the church of Corinth) when he turns the man out of the Church, and says, " are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." I Corinthians 5:3-5 (emphasis added). St. Paul binds the sin of the incestuous man and submits him to Satan to be disciplined for his salvation. In the Second Book of Corinthians, St. Paul loosens the sin when he admonishes the church in Corinth to forgive the man if he has repented, "or he may be overwhelmed with excessive sorrow." St. Paul forgave or "loosened" the sins of the man and remits the penance. II Corinthians 2: 10,11.

This authority to grant indulgences was known in early Church history as well.

The Early Church Fathers.

The situation in the early Church is brilliantly stated by James Cardinal Gibbons in his historical and expositional text, The Faith of Our Fathers, when he says:

No one disputes the right, which they [the bishops] claimed from the very first ages, of inflicting canonical penances on grievous criminals, who were subjected to long fasts, severe abstinences and other mortifications for a period extending from a few days to five or ten years and even to a lifetime, according to the gravity of the offense. These penalties were, in several instances, mitigated or cancelled by the Church, according to her discretion; for a society that can inflict a punishment can also remit it. Our Lord gave His Church power not only to bind but also to loose. This discretionary prerogative was often exercised by the Church at the intercession of those who were condemned to martyrdom, when the penitents themselves gave strong marks of fervent sorrow, as we learn from the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian.

The Council of Nicea (325 AD), among others, authorized local bishops, in their judgment, to mitigate or to remit public penances when the penitent evidenced his or her contrition by deed and not by outward show.

Indulgences are a part of God's economy of salvation for the sanctification of souls. He died so that all of mankind is presented with the opportunity to be saved. He is the glorious Redeemer. At His death on the Cross, the gates of Heaven were let open, the Holy Ones of the Old Covenant were allowed in, and the new saints, including the Good Thief entered and are--even now--entering into Paradise. Indulgences are an orthodox and biblical gift from God granted from the superabundant merits of Jesus Christ for the remission of temporal punishment due God on account of sin "after the guilt and eternal punishment have been"absolved."

As adopted brothers and sisters of Christ, we enjoy His mercy and forgiveness. We enjoy His Holy Name, His Holy Face, His Word, His spiritual abundance, His grace, His Light, and His plenteous spiritual gifts. As part of these wonderful attributes, we are infused with His grace and are able to partake of the divine nature through grace. The indulgences are a vital part of God's mercy, forgiveness, forbearance, and a share in the Eternal joy. Blessed is the man who endures trial, for the crown of life is his for he has shown his love of God.




Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved