The pursuit of indulgences is far from being a major preoccupation of Catholics in the Western world today. Our current lack of interest in indulgences is a curious phenomenon given that the 400 years following the Council of Trent's purification of the church's understanding and use of indulgences saw the fullest flowering of this practice in church history.
After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI launched another major reform of indulgences intended to clarify their nature, benefits and proper use still more. If papal pronouncements were as keenly followed by Catholics as some non-Catholics assume, we might well be in the glory days of indulgences. Instead, indulgences are pretty much ignored except perhaps as a source of humor when Catholics and Lutherans get together.
Still, those aspects of church teaching which we ignore can often make as loud a statement about where we are at as those church teachings which we choose to emphasize.
A balanced and catholic spirituality will give every aspect of church teaching its due. An imbalanced spirituality will not only be over-weighted in some areas, it will also be under-weighted in others. Today, if we are under-using indulgences and the sacrament of Penance, it would seem to indicate that our sense of sin has shrivelled and we have a less than adequate yearning for eternal life.
Indulgences are sometimes misunderstood as an attempt to "buy" our way into heaven with prayers and good works. However, one is not even eligible to earn an indulgence unless he is already bound for heaven. What indulgences do is lessen or even eliminate the purgation of one's earthly attachments which one will have to undergo before entering heaven.
One can gain an indulgence only if one was already repented one's sins and received forgiveness. But although one has been forgiven, the natural consequences of sin remain. If you do the crime, you've got to do the time.
Our tendency is to believe that if one has been forgiven, that's the end of it. But that doesn't hold in nature, in the legal system or in eternal life. If one is wildly promiscuous over a period of years and then begins to live a chaste life, the effects of promiscuity do not disappear. One may be left with lasting diseases or emotional instability that continue for many years.
Likewise, the spiritual effects of sin remain even after the sin has been forgiven and one's relationship with God is restored. These lasting effects are not God's vengeance, they are the natural consequences of sin. If one has not overcome these effects by the time of death, he will remain in a state known as purgatory until he has been cleansed from these effects.
The church has always held, however, that it is possible to undergo this time of purgation in this life. One does not have to die before entering a form of purgatory. During the Middle Ages, the church prescribed specific canonical penances for a wide variety of sins. For example, if a layman "defiled" his neighbor's wife or virgin daughter, he had to do penance for a year, living on bread and water and not having sex with his own wife.
These canonical penances were generally quite severe and often hard to implement. But the church came to understand that the reparation did not need to be so severe because penitents are able to draw on the church's "treasury of merits."
This "treasury" is established by the holy actions of Jesus and the saints. The prayers and good works of the whole church, both in heaven and on earth, can be an effective reparation for the penalty due for one's sins that have been forgiven. This treasury has infinite value which can never be exhausted because of the value Christ's actions have in the eyes of God.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others" (no. 1475).
An indulgence is, in effect, a withdrawal from this treasury. It sets a person free, either partially or totally, from the time of purgation.
Indulgences can be partial or plenary. To gain a plenary indulgence -- a total remission of the effects of one's sins -- several conditions must be met. One must perform an action or say a prayer specified by the church. The person seeking the indulgence must be a member of the church and in a state of grace. He or she must be free of any attachment to sin. As well, one must make a sacramental Confession, receive the Eucharist and say prayers for the intentions of the pope within a few days of doing the action which is to win the indulgence.
This may seem like legalistic rigamarole. What it should be, in fact, is a reminder of our own radical inability to make up for sin, an increase in our solidarity with Jesus and the saints, and an acknowledgement of the church's authority to bind and loose.
The pursuit of indulgences today can actually be a radical, counter-cultural act. It can grow out of an awareness of my own sinfulness and my radical dependence on God for salvation.
Our society esteems the independent person who is not a drain on others, and has goals and the determination to achieve them. The person who seeks indulgences is one who leans on others and who knows that there is no hope whatsoever of achieving the most important goal of all -- eternal salvation -- on the basis of one's own merits. Indulgences are one element in a spirituality which is both radical and balanced.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.