July 10, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Belief in indulgences

John F. Fink(Twenty-second in a series)

Readers might be surprised that I’m including a column about indulgences in this series. I can imagine some people thinking, “Indulgences? I thought the Catholic Church ended them a long time ago.”

It’s true that many Catholics haven’t heard much about indulgences in recent decades, although they do come up at times. And it’s also true that Martin Luther started his reformation because of them. Perhaps I should have just ignored them for this series because they’re too divisive. But at least I can explain what the Catholic Church still teaches about them.

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 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 might still be in a state of purification before they can enter heaven. This is part of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints that Christians profess to believe when they recite the Creed. Of course, the actual 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. That is what was happening during Martin Luther’s time, and he was correct in calling it an abuse. †

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