-by A. David Anders, PhD, David was raised in the Presbyterian Church of America. He and his wife completed their undergraduate degrees at Wheaton College in 1992. He subsequently earned an M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1995, and a Ph.D. from The University of Iowa in 2002, in Reformation history and historical theology. He wrote his dissertation on John Calvin. His dissertation is titled “Prophets from the ranks of shepherds: John Calvin and the challenge of popular religion (1532–1555).” He has taught history and religion in Iowa and Alabama. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. He currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and five home-schooled children (ages 1-14). Dr. Anders is a principal author of “Called to Communion” a blog of 23 formerly Protestant authors and academics who have converted to Catholicism and seek to foster the dialogue of unity. “We believe that genuine unity comes through truth and never by forsaking or compromising the truth.”
“Probably no part of the Catholic tradition has been more maligned than indulgences. The controversies of the sixteenth century have forever marred this tradition in the popular imagination. Most people cannot get over the hackneyed cliché that Catholics think they can buy their way into Heaven. But this is a gross distortion of Catholic teaching. The tradition of indulgences is venerable, ancient, biblical, and logical. To understand why is to go deeply into the most beautiful, gracious, and sublime teachings of our faith.
The roots of indulgences can be found in the biblical teaching on penance. Jesus instructed the disciples to exclude the impenitent from the fellowship of the Church, but to forgive those who seek forgiveness. (Matthew 18:15ff) St. Paul likewise told the Corinthians to expel the immoral brother, but to readmit him after due penance. (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11) Many other passages of Scripture command the Church to correct, admonish, and punish the immoral, the disobedient, and the factious. (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; Tit. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:20; Galatians 6:1-2)
The ancient Church kept up this practice. Penance and absolution were a public affair, sometimes lasting for years. Disputes raged, however, over how long penance should last and under what circumstances it should be reduced. Would a quick “I’m sorry” do for a murderer, apostate, or adulterer? “Hard liners” (like Tertullian and Novatian) argued that some sins were so severe they should never be forgiven. (They appealed to Hebrews 6:4-8 in defense of their views.) Others, like Pope Calixtus (d. 222) were more lenient, and extended absolution to everyone.
Under St. Cyprian (210-258), the North African Church offered another perspective. Christians had long valued the intercession of the saints and martyrs. Through Christ, their merits and prayers were of extraordinary value. (James 5:16; Revelation 5:8; Revelation 7:14-15) What if those saints, martyrs, and confessors (those in prison for their faith or on their way to martyrdom), offered their sufferings on behalf of the penitent?
It’s very important to grasp what was being suggested. No one thought that Christ’s sufferings were insufficient. No one thought that the penitent or the martyrs could buy their way into heaven. They were concerned simply with the temporal punishments due to sin, not the eternal consequences of unremitted guilt. It was a matter of the disciplinary action of the Church, excluding and admitting from communion, and the conditions for that readmission. The question was whether the merits of the saints could be applied towards remitting only the temporal punishments.
This is where things get complicated for non-Catholic Christians. They are not accustomed to distinguishing between the guilt of sin and its temporal consequences. Nor are they used to thinking in terms of vicarious merit. And yet, both ideas are deeply biblical. 2 Samuel 12 and 2 Samuel 24 both teach that God demands satisfaction for sin even when the guilt has been previously remitted. Likewise, we find vicarious merit and suffering throughout Scripture. (Genesis 18:32; Colossians 1:24).
In Cyprian’s day, some of the confessors began handing out indulgences in their own names, or on their own authority. Sometimes, they gave them out as “blank checks” on which penitents could write their own names. St. Cyprian’s response was truly astonishing. He did not deny that these libellus (as they were called) had value. Rather, he demanded that the granting of indulgences should be subject to the authority of the bishop.
In Cyprian’s day, the Church recognized that sin has a temporal consequence, to which the Church’s authority and intercessions apply. The Church fathers also believed deeply in the communion of saints, and that the weaker members can share in the merits and gifts of the stronger. They applied this biblical logic to the problem of penances. It was a small step to apply it as well to the sufferings of those in purgatory.
The details of purgatory are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the Church, following the Jewish practice, has always offered prayers for the dead. (2 Maccabees 12: 38-46) From this, and from what we know about penance, purity, and some suggestive scriptures (Matthew 5:25-26; 1 Cor. 3:11-15), the fathers inferred the doctrine of purgatory. The important thing to remember is that purgatory is a temporal punishment. As such, it is subject to the merits and intercessory prayers of the Church. These can be directed through the practice of indulgences.
Indulgences are not a “get out of hell free card.” They are not a license to sin. Rather, they are how the Church can direct the prayers and merits of the faithful to the spiritual benefit of poor souls. They are grounded in the biblical teaching on Church discipline and the communion of saints. They emerged in the earliest years of the Church with the approbation of her holiest doctors and saints. Rightly understood, they are a beautiful testament to the solidarity of all Christians, to our union in Christ.”
Myth 1: A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences.
False. Repentance and sacramental confession—not indulgences—are the way to avoid going to hell when one has committed mortal sin. As we will see, indulgences remit only temporal penalties of sins that have already been forgiven, so they cannot stop an unrepentant, unforgiven person from going to hell. Once a person is in hell, no number of indulgences will get him out. The way to avoid hell is by appealing to and accepting God’s mercy while still alive. After death, one’s eternal fate is set (cf. Heb. 9:27).
Myth 2: A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed.
Again, false. The Church has always taught that indulgences do not apply to sins not yet committed. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that an indulgence “is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power” (1910 ed., s.v. “Indulgences”).
Myth 3: A person can buy forgiveness with indulgences.
The definition of indulgences presupposes that forgiveness has already taken place: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina, norm 1). Indulgences in no way forgive sins. They deal only with temporal consequences that may be left after sins have been forgiven.
Myth 4: Indulgences were invented to make money for the Church.
Indulgences developed from reflection on the sacrament of reconciliation. They are a way of encouraging spiritual growth and lessening the temporal consequences that may remain when sins are forgiven. The roots of the practice go back centuries before money-related problems appeared.
Myth 5: An indulgence will shorten one’s time in purgatory by a fixed number of days.
The Catholic Church does not teach anything about how long or short purgatory is. Indeed, from a temporal perspective, purgatory may be accomplished instantaneously, “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:51–52). In such a case, indulgences could affect its intensity but not its temporal duration.
The origin of this myth is the fact that, in the past, a certain number of “days” were attached to many indulgences. These were not days off in purgatory. Instead, they expressed the value of an indulgence by analogizing it to the number of days’ penance one would have done on Earth under the penitential practices of the early Church. Moderns had lost touch with the ancient system, which made the reckoning of such “days” confusing. The practice was abolished in 1967 in Pope Paul VI’s constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina.
Myth 6: A person formerly could buy indulgences.
One never could buy indulgences. The financial scandal surrounding indulgences involved alms-indulgences, in which the giving of alms to a charitable fund was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. The practice was the same in principle as modern nonprofit organizations’ granting premium gifts in thank-yous for donations. That is not the same as selling. The purpose of granting indulgences was to encourage people to do good things and to grow spiritually. Only one kind of indulgence involved alms, and giving alms in itself is a good thing. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes in its article on indulgences: “Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded.” The Council of Trent instituted major reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and because of prior abuses, “in 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions” (Catholic Encyclopedia, loc. cit.). This act proved the Church’s seriousness about removing abuses from indulgences.