Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Why Indulgences are a Good Thing (With Hints on How to Buy Some)

Recently at a Church event one of the best priests (in terms of reliability in giving good sermons) poked fun at the recent papal statement that indulgences can be earned in the forth-coming holy year. Indulgences were, it seemed, something old fashioned and funny.

I suggest, however, when one actually studies the history of indulgences, one finds a much healthier and more holistic view of the Christian community, than in the pop therapeutic psychobabble that constantly flows from so many pulpits.

First, let's clarify what an Indulgence is, since many people simply don't know, and seem to think it is a "forgiveness for sin".

There are three aspects to the Catholic teaching on indulgences:

  • The belief that human sin calls forth both guilt and punishment. In other words, without the mercy of God, the structure of the universe demands that human sins deserve punishment.

Catholic writers have argued that "guilt" and "punishment" are not the same thing. This was a reflection on pastoral reality - confessors discovered that many penitents were indeed "sorry" for their sins, but not necessarily sorry because they had offended God. [For example, a sinner might be sorry that the sin would send him/her to hell, but simply not have enough sorrow
or awareness to be fully sorry.] The question was, does this limited sorrow (called "imperfect contrition" or "attrition") represent a movement of grace or not? And more, if a penitent asks for forgiveness in confession, is the sacrament dependent on the "reality" of the penitent's perfect contrition? If it were, there would be no need for confession, since it has always been church teaching t hat perfect contrition represents a movement of grace, and remits guilt and punishment. The Church chose the laxer path - and began to teach that anyone who confessed sins, even if with imperfect contrition, was nevertheless, through the infinite mercy of God and the atonement of Christ, forgiven the guilt incurred by the sin. But, the belief was, such a person, if he or she died, would still need some "purgation" of the sinful character incurred by sin before he or she could stand to see the face of God. Eventually this developed into the theory of a "waiting room for Heaven" or purgatory. Purgatory is a place, or state of mind, in which those who die in a state of imperfect sorrow are purified.

And indulgence, very simply, is considered as another movement of grace which either hurries up (a "partial indulgence") or remits (a "plenary" indulgence) the "time "in purgatory.

  • But where then does this "indulgence" come from? It's certainly not Biblical (although the Bible does have a story about prayers helping those who are dead - see II Maccabees].

It comes from the VERY catholic idea that grace is tangible. This idea is the single most important marker of Catholicism as compared to Protestantism. That is, Catholic believe that grace (the goodness of God) flows through the universe in tangible material ways. The World is Charged with the grandeur of God" as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. Grace works tangibly through the Incarnation, through the saints, through the *physical* elements of the Eucharist and other sacraments, and through sacramentals.

In my opinion, many of the more new agey Catholic preachers, simply do not believe in this tangibility of grace. They seem to be embarrassed by the bodilyness of it all. Frankly I glory in it - its why I became and stay a Catholic. No Protestant spirit could ever understand why bringing candles in front of an image of Our Lady of Guadeloupe is an authentic presentation of a the love of God, and no Catholic spirit can see it as anything other. [Am I being "judgmental"? You betcha.]

With indulgences, the important idea of tangibility relates to the theory of the "treasury of merit". This means, quite concretely, that all the good deed of Christ, his Mother, all the saints, have created a sort of "reserve" of overflowing grace, grace that wipes out, washes away, and
demolishes, the punishments that law and justice may demand. [The "justice" of God after all is God's mercy].

And indulgence then, applies some of the "merit" from the treasury of merit to a given person, to help get over the punishment that their soul will demand for imperfectly repented sins. An indulgence does not forgive guilt {only confession and contrition does that], but it does remit just
punishment.

  • But how is this "merit" dispensed.

Here the teaching on indulgences, states that the Christian faith is about the Christian community, not about the selfish soul. The Christian community, or Church, can "bind and loose" its members, and the Christian community, and the incarnate reality of Gods overflowing bounty, can remit just punishment for sins. The Church itself is, in this perspective, the
great sacrament.

Catholic history has associated this power of the Church with the power of the keys possessed by the leaders of the community, and especially the bishop of Rome.

In sum: an indulgence is a remission of the punishment due for imperfectly repented sins, representing an overflow of God's grace, mediated though the Christian community.

There is nothing more Catholic.


Now, probably because of the effects of Protestant history, and the really bad teaching that goes on in seminaries (or perhaps because priests keep taking easy psych classes?), the idea continues that indulgences were in fact a papal money-making invention.

The popes, in fact, had little to do with the spread and popularity of indulgences., although they always played an important role in the practice.

The theology was outlined by Aquinas and those who came after him. That theology was adopted wholesale at the Council of Trent [which also curbed some abuses]. But it is important to realize that the whole theory represents the ideas of some of the most important Catholic thinkers, not some papal invention.

The spread of indulgences was brought about by the demand side. No one was ever forced to go on pilgrimages, say rosaries, etc. It was the Catholic people who wanted them, and it was an insight of the Catholic people that once might gain indulgences not only for oneself, but for dead
people. In other words, the living could help the already saved dead (nothing could help the damned) on their process of purification. The Church, the people realized, in not only composed of those on earth (The Church Militant), but those in purgation (the Church Suffering), and those in Heaven (The Church Triumphant). There was nothing wrong, and everything right in the entire church trying to get everyone to Heaven!

As I present it the, the doctrine of indulgences reflects the Catholic ideas of grace, overflowing grace, tangible grace, the community of the church, the intellectual effort of the church, and the urging of the Catholic people to develop doctrine in this area. I think it is kind of sad for priests to make fun of this from the pulpit.

PS: Because grace is free, indulgences have long been easy [And yes I know about Bonhoeffer's thoughts on this]. Smoking and drinking are not sinful, so giving up a pleasure for day for the sake of grace, is a quite acceptable thing to do [although American puritans - among whom number many Catholics - seem now to accept the psychobabble notion that smoking and
drinking are wrong in some way. I can just imagine them complaining about Christ as he got everyone merrier at Cana!]

But, there is nothing to stop anyone getting an indulgence, if that is part of their spiritual reflection on their own faults, though many other methods, such as saying a rosary in church, doing the stations of the cross, and so forth.

The Roman Catholic Church publishes a useful guide on how to acquire indulgences, why not indulge.


1 comment:

James R. said...

I have always wondered about the nature of Purgatory. If it is an eternal place, like Heaven or Hell, then time should be meaningless there. Therefore, indulgences that shave off five minutes of the time or five thousand years should be equally meaningless.