Indulgences: The Spiritual Gift Nobody Understands

The discovery that indulgences are still taught by the Catholic Church is one of the more “queasy-making” things a modern Protestant, curious about Rome, can stumble upon. The thought “But… but… I thought Rome repented of this centuries ago!” rises up in the mind and leaves curious Evangelicals with a dark sense of foreboding (as it left me with such a sense before I became Catholic). And the foreboding is not allayed by the fact that most Catholics don’t have a clue that indulgences still exist, much less what they are.

Therefore, (ahem) a reading from the Baltimore Catechism

Q. 839. What is an Indulgence?

A. An Indulgence is the remission in whole or in part of the temporal punishment due to sin.

Great. What does that mean?

To answer that, we have to know what “temporal punishment due to sin” means (and doesn’t mean). What temporal punishment doesn’t mean is “extra punishment to make up for Jesus’ well-meaning but inadequate efforts during his crucifixion.” Rather, temporal punishment means “discipline” or “chastisement leading to holiness.” That is, it refers to the pains we sometimes endure in becoming holy and dying to sin after we have come to faith in Christ, not the pains we endure for not having faith in him nor things we suffer to make him love us. Such pains can consist of consequences for sin which are both internal (such as feelings of shame for sin or frustrating habits) or external (such as bills we have to pay, or apologies we have to make or penances we have to perform).

To illustrate: Suppose I’m an ill-tempered jerk. I come to faith and receive baptism. What does that make me? Usually it makes me an ill-tempered Christian jerk since baptism is grace, not magic. I’ve still got a long row to hoe in order to change my stormy habits. Only now I have the grace of God to help me change–a process that will hurt. I will have to labor to destroy my habits of punching people. I will have to apologize to those I’ve punched. I may have lawsuits yet to endure. I may struggle with backsliding and even despair of changing. I may have to slog through some tough penances. It ain’t easy becoming a saint. But all the suffering is transfigured by grace. It is meant not to damn our souls but to save them. It is for this reason that Hebrews 12:5-11 says we are to accept suffering from God as we accept discipline from our own fathers. It is pain unto life not damnation unto death. Thus, St. Paul says that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3-4).

Suffering, however, has a corporate dimension as well. For as Christians we are “members of one another” (Roman 12:5). Part of our life in Christ involves the privilege and duty to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2) Thus, when we wrestle with a temper or try to break an addiction or amend a past evil, we do not do so in a vacuum. Our life in Christ is bound up with others who pray for us, endure broken windows for us, rebuke us, love us, weep for us and (sometimes) die for us. For we, though many, are cells and organs of His body. This is why, as Paul points out in Romans 12, Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 12, God has gifted the body of Christ with charisms or spiritual gifts for the building up of the whole body. Among such gifts are much-talked-about ones like prophesy, wisdom, knowledge, healing, tongues, etc. And such gifts, as everyone understands, in no way detract from the saving work of Christ or “earn” us his love. Rather they are one of the ways that the saving work of Christ is distributed to the world and the Church via the members of the Body. This is part of the “riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18–and you thought the “treasury of the saints” was a medieval idea!)

So what do indulgences have to do with all this? If we look at Romans 12:8, we find squirreled away in the riches of the saints a more obscure charism than the flashy ones like miracles and prophecy. That charism is the gift of mercy. Indulgences are a formal apostolic enactment of the charism of mercy by the body of Christ to lessen the chastisement we endure in the process of becoming saints.

Indulgences originally appeared centuries ago when penances were vastly harsher than today. In the early church, for instance, a penance for a serious sin could take years. However, with time, the Church began to discover that the charism of mercy could be applied to those who were undergoing these strict penances. The idea was that the Church could draw upon this charism in the “treasury” and bear for the penitent sinner some or all of the burden of chastisement. Thus, the penance could be lessened and the penitent allowed to re-approach the Eucharist sooner. Certain conditions were set for the penitent (much as Jesus set conditions for the rich young man) and, if the sinner met them with a right heart, he was granted the gift of mercy and released from the rest of his penance.

This is still the basic theology of indulgences. However, since that initial insight into the charism of mercy the theology has seen a couple of developments (and, in the late Middle Ages, one spectacular corruption). The developments were basically twofold:

First the Church discerned that indulgences could be applied to the dead in Christ as well as the living (since death does not cut the body of Christ in two). Thus the Church came to recognize that the faithful on earth could, by their prayers, gain indulgences for those who are experiencing the pain of sanctification in Purgatory just as we can help one another by our prayers here.

Second, as penances have become very light, the indulgence has increasingly come to be seen as applying to the spiritual suffering we endure in our struggle with sin. An indulgence cannot shorten a jail sentence if you have killed somebody, but it can be a great source of grace in turning your sufferings for that sin to sanctity.

As to the corruption, the problem is as simple to describe as it was hard to destroy: the idea of giving money as a good work (almsgiving) became tangled up with the idea of buying grace and became a widespread scandal in the late medieval church. This sin, known as “simony” after Simon Magus (Acts 8:18-23) provoked the outrage of the early Protestants and of Catholics as well. Therefore, the practice of selling indulgences was banned by the Council of Trent.

But indulgences themselves have never been repudiated by the Church. For properly understood, they are simply one manifestation of the charisms God gives to the Body to build itself up in love. They do not undermine the grace of Christ but are a gift of that grace: a gift of mercy. They make sense, not dollars.


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