June 21, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: What are indulgences?

John F. FinkWhen was the last time you heard about indulgences? Does the Church still grant them? After all, Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation because of them. Shouldn’t we just forget about them?

Yes, the Catholic Church does still grant indulgences. And we have to admit that they are widely misunderstood by both Catholics and those of other faiths.

An indulgence is not the forgiveness of sins, either past or future. In the simplest terms, an indulgence is the remission of the temporal punishment due for sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.

It can be either partial or plenary, depending on whether it does away with either part or all of the punishment due for sins. One gains indulgences through prayers, penance and good works in atonement, or reparation, for the sins that were forgiven.

The American legal system has something similar. Sometimes a judge will sentence someone who has committed a crime to so many hours of community service. The good work the criminal does helps atone for the evil that he or she committed.

Of course, for indulgences to make sense, you have to accept the Catholic concept of sin. The Catholic Church teaches that sin has a double consequence—an eternal punishment that, for grave sin, deprives us of communion with God, and a temporal punishment that must be purified either here on Earth or after death in the state of purification known as purgatory.

The forgiveness of sin in the sacrament of penance, or confession, remits the eternal punishment and restores our communion with God, but the temporal punishment remains. Indulgences, which the Church attaches to works of mercy and various prayers and forms of penance, remit the temporal punishment.

The Catholic Church also teaches that indulgences can be gained both for oneself and for those who have died and who might still be in a state of purification before they can enter heaven. Of course, the disposition of indulgences applied to the dead rests with God.

How can the Church decide that a certain practice—say, a visit to a church and prayers for the intentions of the pope—will remit temporal punishments due to sin? The Church believes that it can do that by virtue of its power of binding and loosing granted by Jesus. It can open for Christians what is known as the Church’s treasury—not material goods, but the infinite value which Christ’s merits have before God.

Speaking of treasure and material goods, indulgences cannot be bought. No one can buy his or her, or a departed loved one’s, way into heaven. Unfortunately, that’s not what was being taught by Father Johann Tetzel, a German priest during Martin Luther’s time, and Luther was correct in calling it an abuse.

Father Tetzel was raising money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by telling people that they could obtain indulgences by making a contribution. This abuse is what prompted Luther to nail his 95 theses to the church door of Wittenburg on Oct. 31, 1517, never thinking that he was starting the Protestant Reformation. †

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