A friend of mine suggested I write some thoughts about indulgences. Since the rain is preventing any serious garden work, blogging seemed to be a good rainy day activity.
Before my internal conversion (I’m still waiting for the external, official one) the mere existence of indulgences was proof positive of why a person could not be Catholic and a faithful Christian at the same time. When I read Martin Luther’s biography I saw him as a hero of the true faith. As with much of my conversion I discovered there is a “rest of the story.”
Luther’s problem at the time he tacked his theses on the church door was the sale of indulgences. Most Christian people would agree that he was right about that—even Catholics! When I was Protestant I had an extremely vague and incomplete understanding of what an indulgence was. Let’s take a look at what an indulgence is.
An indulgence is: “The remission of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.” —My Catholic Faith, p. 318. The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus empowered the Apostles to forgive sins. It stands to reason that they could also pardon the temporal punishment which is a lesser power when you stop to consider it. As a Protestant, I didn’t understand the concept of the temporal punishment for sin. I understood that we sinned and that we could be forgiven—completely—by Christ and because of His sacrifice. I had never considered the concept of a temporal punishment, although I had certainly experienced it and had even commented to friends about the “consequences of my sins.” It was described to me this way. Let’s say you hit a baseball through a neighbor’s window. You go to your neighbor and apologize and he forgives you. There’s still a problem, though. No matter how sorry you are, your neighbor still has a broken window. You need to do something to repair the damage you did. That something is the temporal punishment. God’s justice demands that we make reparation for our sins.
It is important to know that in order to receive an indulgence, a person must be in a state of grace. The temporal punishment cannot be pardoned if the sin hasn’t been forgiven and absolved. A person cannot have an indulgence granted for future sins.
In order to be in a state of grace one needs to have confessed his sins and to have had a “broken and contrite heart” about his sins in order for the Confession to have conferred sanctifying grace. (Catholics: don’t think too hard about that one or if you do, resolve to be ever more contrite!) If you make a poor confession, the indulgence thing is all a joke anyway.
The Catholic Church teaches about a spiritual treasury that is made up of the infinite merits obtained by Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, the Blessed Virgin’s superabundant merits obtained by her unjust suffering and the merits of all the saints. Think of these “merits” as currency that is used on your behalf to repair the broken window. (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1477, 1478).
As I write this I can see that many cans of worms can be opened with this topic, among them purgatory, the communion of saints, plenary vs. partial indulgences, who can grant indulgences of which type, etc. I suppose it goes without saying that the concept of indulgences is no longer offensive to me. It’s simply a concrete way of acknowledging God’s justice and separating the concept of the forgiveness of sins from the reparation owed because of the damage sin causes.