On Indulgences

Saints can be so old-fashioned.  In a retreat leading up to his priestly ordination, the 20th Century saint Maximilian Kolbe plotted out his spiritual strategy that included what seems like 15th Century advice—“[T]ry to gain as many indulgences as possible, and you will become a saint.”  For many of us, Indulgences remain an untapped source of sanctification that Christ offers us through the Church.  What little we do know about them usually centers around their abuse prior to the Reformation.  The danger today however is not their abuse, but their disuse.  While the Church corrected the abuses in the 16th Century, Indulgences have fallen out of use, mainly because of ignorance about these beautiful gifts.

In his 1967 Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum doctrina¸ Blessed Paul VI invited the Church to “ponder and meditate well on how the use of indulgences benefits their lives and indeed all Christian society.”  With the approach of the Year of Mercy, this seems an excellent time to accept the Blessed Pontiff’s invitation.

Certainly one need not understand the theology behind the doctrine of Indulgences to use them.  But without an understanding of why there are useful, they will quickly fall into dis-use.  To begin to understand, it is helpful to begin by clearing up some confusion surrounding justification.  The word justification is one of those loaded theological terms that is used by Catholics and Protestants alike, but not really understood.  Most simply equate it with forgiveness, but that is not the only way that it is used in the New Testament.  St. Paul devotes a significant amount of time in his letter to the Romans clarifying this important term.  While emphasizing that justification is a free gift (Romans 5:17), he also emphasizes that it is “not hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the word who will be justified” (Romans 2:13).

What this means is that the term is used to represent both an action and a process.  As an action it marks the moment when God makes a man righteous and invites (or re-invites if the case may be) him into His family.  As a process it is the ongoing sanctification by God of one who has embraced the demands of the Gospel.  Both of these aspects are necessary because personal sin always has two effects—guilt and punishment.  This punishment can be both eternal and temporal (see 2Cor 2:6).   In other words, justification involves both the removal of the guilt of sin (forgiveness) and also the purging of its effects (satisfaction).  The Decree on Justification from the Council of Trent (1547) summarizes justification as “a translation from the state in which a person is born a son of the first Adam into a state of grace and adoption as sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ…advancing from virtue to virtue,  they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day, that is, mortifying the members of their flesh, and presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified…” (Decree on Justification, Chapters IV, X).

Once we are able to see the two dimensions of justification, we must then address the role of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice in our justification.  In an earlier essay, it was mentioned how necessary it is to see Christ’s sacrifice as “vicarious representation” to have a proper view of God’s “wrath.”  The gist is that Christ died on the Cross as the representative of mankind so that we must participate in order to share in its fruit.  This means that His sacrifice was both necessary and sufficient to remove our guilt and pay the debt of our eternal punishment.  While the sacrifice on Calvary is also necessary for us to pay the temporal punishment for sin, it was not sufficient.  St. Paul says that there is something lacking in the sacrifice of Christ (Col 1:24) and that thing was his (and our) participation.  It is through our participation in the Cross that we are given the currency by which we are able to pay to Divine Justice our temporal debts.

Many think of only of “offering it up” as our participating in the Cross of Christ.  But that is not the only way.  In fact it is probably not even the primary way.  When Christ died on the Cross, His death exceeded the debt of sin.  This created a treasury of merit that was deposited in the Church.  The Church, as the Body of Christ, is now the dispenser of the means of salvation (not its cause).  It is from this treasury that all sources of sanctification flow, including the remission of the temporal punishment for sin.  This is where the doctrine of Indulgences comes in.

Handbook of Indulgences

Blessed Paul VI defined an indulgence as “An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints.”  In other words, an indulgence properly understood is the Church’s application of Christ’s merits toward the debt of punishment we owe God.  St. Thomas says the one who gains an indulgence is not excused from paying the debt of punishment but is given the means to pay it.

There is a tendency within the Church today for many people to be satisfied with reaching Purgatory.  Personally I find this rather sad.  Obviously for one whose love of God is pure, they would not want to spend any time there because it represents a separation from Him.  And, while it is certainly true that those who require Purgatory avoid Hell and will eventually reach Heaven, it trivializes the intensity of the sufferings of Purgatory.  The sufferings of Purgatory are more intense than we can possibly imagine.  It is called the Church Suffering for a reason and that reason is because suffering is all they do.  Much of this suffering can be avoided however by actively seeking indulgences.

Once we accept that Indulgences are an effective part of a healthy spiritual life, we can ask how they are obtained.  First it is worth mentioning that indulgences can only apply to those sins which have been forgiven.  The debt of guilt must first be paid before the debt of punishment can be.

Traditionally, there has been the distinction between plenary and partial indulgences. “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due sin” (Indulgentiarum doctrina (ID) n. 2).  What did change with Blessed Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution is that any particularities with respect to days or years attached to a partial indulgence were removed.  It is now simply referred to as a “Partial Indulgence” (n. 4).

To obtain a partial indulgence there are four conditions:

  • be baptized
  • be in state of grace
  • have the intention to obtain the indulgence
  • perform the works or prayers prescribed correctly

For a plenary indulgence all the conditions of a partial indulgence apply (so that if we fail to obtain the plenary we might still obtain the plenary) plus

  • not be excommunicated
  • have no affection for sin, even venial
  • receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Communion (in the prescribed period of time)
  • offer prayers for the pope’s intentions (in the prescribed period of time)

While we must have the intention to gain a particular indulgence, this can be done through a habitual intention represented by a sincere expression to gain every indulgence the Lord ever offers us.  It is a good idea to renew that intention frequently so as to be aware of God’s great mercy through the Indulgences the Church offers.  Personally I have added the following to my morning offering:

Lord Jesus Christ, my Redeemer, You suffered upon the Cross for me and in Your great mercy have given to Peter and his successors the power to remove temporal punishment for sin.  In great sorrow for those sins which You have forgiven, I wish to obtain the indulgences You now offer me.

It is worth pointing out that by no longer referring to the amount of time that is removed in Purgatory, the measure of how efficacious an indulged work is in removing punishment will depend on the intensity of the love with which the act is performed and the perfection of the task itself (i.e. how well we do it).  This is why Blessed Paul VI greatly reduced the number of indulgences so that the faithful could focus on doing them well—“the greater the proliferation of indulgences, the less attention is given to them; what is offered in abundance is not greatly appreciated.”

It cannot be encouraged enough to get a copy of the Handbook of Indulgences and see the specific indulged acts.  Worth pointing out are the “Three General Grants” at the beginning of the Handbook.  These represent a class of partial indulgences that are given so that “Christ’s faithful might, as it were, weave their daily life with the Christian spirit and, according to their state, grow in the perfection of charity.”   Specifically, a partial indulgence is granted to any of Christ’s faithful, who:

  • in the performance of his duties and bearing the trials of life, raises his mind to God in humble confidence and adds, even mentally, some pious invocation
  • in a spirit of faith and mercy give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need
  • in a spirit of penance voluntarily deprive themselves of what is licit and pleasing to them

Now it becomes clear what St. Maximillian Kolbe meant when he said what he did about indulgences.  It wasn’t just the juridical nature of Indulgences that he was interested in.  Instead he was saying that these works were all worthy of doing because they were things that those on the path to sanctity should be doing.  In other words, they act as trustworthy guides of the prayers and works saints do.  Judging by his own personal witness, I would say he was right.

Facebook Comments