Category Archives: Indulgence

Indulgences 2 – The original viral post

-a bronze statue of Martin Luther in Hanover, Germany.

-by Katherine Arcemont, The Washington Post
October 31, 2017

“It was the original viral post.

On Oct. 31, 1517, an obscure German professor of theology named Martin Luther launched an attack on the Roman Catholic Church by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church — a story that has been repeated for hundreds of years. Luther’s act of rebellion led to the Protestant Reformation, which is being marked by millions of Christians around the world Tuesday on its 500th anniversary.

But did that dramatic moment — Luther defiantly hammering his critique to the church door — really happen?

The story was first told by Philipp Melanchthon, a fellow professor at the University of Wittenberg, a close friend of Luther’s and a leader of the Reformation, after Luther’s death in 1546. And the church door did serve as a public bulletin board of sorts.

But Melanchthon was not in Wittenberg on the day he supposedly witnessed the nailing. He didn’t join the university faculty until 1518. And Luther, a prolific writer who published 30 pamphlets in three years and later translated the Bible into German, never recounted the story.

In 1961, Erwin Iserloh, a Catholic Luther researcher, argued that there was no evidence that Luther actually nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door. Indeed, at the 1617 celebration of the Reformation, Luther was depicted as writing the 95 Theses on the church door with a quill.

Iserloh’s assertion set off a debate among Luther historians that remains unresolved.

A decade ago, Martin Treu, who works for the Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt, discovered a handwritten note by Luther’s secretary, Georg Rörer, made in a revised copy of the New Testament before Luther’s death. It reads: “On the evening before All Saints’ Day in the year of our Lord 1517, theses about letters of indulgence were nailed to the doors of the Wittenberg churches by Doctor Martin Luther.”

While Rörer was also not an eyewitness, Treu noted, “he was one of Luther’s closest staff.” Treu’s conclusion: 95 Theses may have been nailed to several church doors in Wittenberg, not just at Castle Church.

What’s not in dispute: Luther mailed his attack on the Catholic sale of indulgences to the archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, Albert of Brandenburg, on Oct. 31, 1517. The indulgences were meant to assure their buyer that their sins would be forgiven — a form of corruption in Luther’s eyes.

“Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” quickly spread across Europe and reached Pope Leo X sometime in 1518. After a series of disputes, Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church on Jan. 3, 1521.

The theologian became a celebrity, and with his celebrity came a following and a new religion: Lutheranism. And the founding symbol of the Protestant Reformation remains the door of Castle Church, now inscribed in bronze with Luther’s 95 Theses.”

-bronze doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany now cast in bronze containing Luther’s 95 theses.

-by Joseph Heschmeyer, a former lawyer and seminarian, he blogs at Shameless Popery.

“On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses against papal indulgences, or the atonement of sins through monetary payment, on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany.” That line from a piece by David B. Morris posted by the Library of Congress on its website (“Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic, and Outlaw”) summarizes the popular view of how the Reformation began. But it’s rife with errors.

To start with the most trivial, the popular image of Luther nailing his theses to the church door is almost certainly a Protestant fiction. Joan Acocella, in a piece for the New Yorker (“How Martin Luther Changed the World,” Oct. 30, 2017), points out that modern scholars

“…differ on many points, but something that most of them agree on is that the hammering episode, so satisfying symbolically—loud, metallic, violent—never occurred. Not only were there no eyewitnesses; Luther himself, ordinarily an enthusiastic self-dramatizer, was vague on what had happened. He remembered drawing up a list of ninety-five theses around the date in question, but, as for what he did with it, all he was sure of was that he sent it to the local archbishop.”

Acocella also points out that the theses were not “a set of non-negotiable demands about how the Church should reform itself in accordance with Brother Martin’s standards,” but rather “like all ‘theses’ in those days, they were points to be thrashed out in public disputations, in the manner of the ecclesiastical scholars of the twelfth century.”

In terms of more serious errors, what was at the heart of the 95 Theses? According to Morris, Luther was protesting “papal indulgences, or the atonement of sins through monetary payment.” Wrong. Luther not only defended papal indulgences, the only anathema in the entirety of the 95 Theses was his Thesis #71: “Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.” In other words, the people that Martin Luther condemned weren’t Catholics but (modern) Protestants. 

Nor are indulgences “the atonement of sins through monetary payment.” Not only do indulgences not bring about our atonement, “an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Pope Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, norm. 1). Our atonement is won not by monetary payment but by Jesus on Calvary. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race” (Summa Theologica III:48:2).

So, if the popular theory of Luther’s protest is almost entirely wrong, what’s the truth of it? Luther’s argument was multipronged (there’s a reason there were 95 theses) and a mix of good and bad. Part of his dispute was over the nature and extent of indulgences: where the pope derived the power to grant indulgences and the kinds of penalties that could be remitted through an indulgence.

Luther, who still believed in purgatory at that point, argued that the “power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish” (Thesis 25). Luther’s views here are idiosyncratic, and neither Protestants (who quickly gave up on indulgences and purgatory) nor Catholics have attempted seriously to defend them.

More significant was Luther’s critique not of indulgences as such but of the sale of indulgences. He rejected the teachings of indulgence preachers (Johann Tetzel, O.P. and others) who “say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory,” countering that “it is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone” (Theses 27-28).

Luther was largely correct on this point. After all, while indulgences don’t bring about our atonement (as Luther well knew), they are a spiritual good. And the sale of spiritual goods is anathema to Christianity, the sin of simony, named after the unhappy Simon Magus: 

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:18-20).

There’s a long history in the Church both of simony popping up and of the Church condemning it. The second canon of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) ordered that “if any bishop performs an ordination for money and puts the unsaleable grace on sale,” he was upon conviction to “lose his personal rank,” while the ordained lost “the dignity or responsibility” he had attempted to purchase. A cleric found to have served as a go-between was likewise “demoted from his personal rank,” or, in the case of laymen and monks, anathematized.

So Luther stood in a long (and holy) tradition of rejecting simony, and the Council of Trent vindicated him on this point. The Council, desiring that “the abuses which have crept therein, and by occasion of which this honorable name of indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, be amended and corrected,” explicitly outlawed “all evil gains” for the obtaining of indulgences (“Decree on Indulgences”).

But that still leaves a question: how did these abuses happen in the first place? How hard is it to simply not sell spiritual goods? Well, a bit harder than it seems. One way of answering would be to trace the precise history: canon 2 of the Council of Clermont (1095 AD) decreed that “whoever for devotion alone, and not for the purpose of gaining honor or money, heads for Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God, that expedition is to be imputed to him [as satisfaction] for all penance.” That makes sense: what’s more worthy of an indulgence than risking your life to defend the Church?

Later Crusades expanded beyond the careful nuance of the Council of Clermont, offering indulgences through what became known as “vow redemption.” In short, those unable (due to age or illness) to go on crusade were given the opportunity to receive an indulgence by paying for someone else to go. And again, the expansion makes a sort of sense: it seems unfair to deprive someone of an indulgence when they were ready and willing but physically unable to go on crusade. 

But this expansion was controversial in its day. In the thirteenth century, Thomas of Cantimpré, O.P., complained that indulgences were being acquired for relatively trivial amounts, amounting to as little as one percent of a person’s moveable wealth (Christoph T. Maier, Preaching the Crusades, 155-56). And it was only a short step from this point to the Church in Luther’s day, when preachers such as Tetzel made indulgences sound like purchasable get-out-of-purgatory-free tickets.

But tracing the history of the sale of indulgences is incomplete if we don’t also recognize the spiritual tightrope walked by the medieval Church and by all of us today. All Christians (whether they believe in indulgences or not) need to grapple with two core Christian ideas: first, that God really does reward generosity; and second, that it’s impossible to bribe God and evil to try. How we understand (and even “balance”) these two ideas makes a world of difference, since they sit in what seems like an uneasy, even paradoxical, relationship with one another.

This paradox is captured in the thirty-fifth chapter of the book of Sirach. In verses 10-11, the goodness of giving back to God is proclaimed: “Give to the Most High as He has given, and as generously as your hand has found. For the Lord is the One Who repays, and He will repay you sevenfold.” But in the next verse, there’s immediately a warning against transactional spirituality: “Do not offer Him a bribe, for He will not accept it; and do not trust to an unrighteous sacrifice; for the Lord is the judge, and with Him is no partiality.” In other words, give generously to God, Who will reward your generosity, but don’t think that you bribe Him or buy heaven.

While those verses from Sirach aren’t in Protestant Bibles, the underlying ideas are. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians to give generously since “God loves a cheerful giver” and “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6-7). He continues:

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God (2 Cor. 9:10-12).

St. Paul hints at the fact that God may give us rewards in this life, saying that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). But God’s generosity is no less true in terms of heavenly rewards. As Jesus says to the rich young man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).

Tobit 12:8-9 (also not in Protestant Bibles) says that “prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin.”

Jesus describes this as a sort of spiritual fortune-building: “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34). And “give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38).

The idea that giving generously ensures spiritual riches in heaven isn’t some medieval corruption of the gospel: the Bible actually teaches it. And yet we have, alongside this message, warnings such as Sirach 35:12 and Acts 8:18-20 telling us not to try to buy the spiritual gifts of God.

The easy—and hard—answer is to love God for His own sake and before all else. Those rewards aren’t bad: it’s good that God blesses generous givers, and that He answers prayers, and that He considers our meager almsgiving seriously. But the spiritual life was never about the rewards and must never become about the rewards. The gifts God gives are to draw us to Him and to reveal something about His generous and loving nature, not to replace Him. After all, God wants to give us not merely some reward but Himself.

Jesus is happy to multiply loaves to feed the hungry crowds. But He’s also quick to warn them not to follow Him for that reason. A day after the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-14), Jesus rebuked His followers, saying, “you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (v. 26). It’s easy for us to judge His hungry followers, just as it’s easy to judge the medieval Christians giving money to try to get indulgences for their loved ones. But before we do that, it’s worth asking: are we so different today?”

Love & truth,

Are indulgences a scam?

Christ’s sacrifice in no way is lacking. The Lord, in His glorious mercy, permits, gifts, provides the grace to participate with Him, albeit unnecessary in the strictest sense, to join His redemption of ourselves/others. Catholicism has a very “group” view, as opposed to an individualistic view. Catholics do not interpret the Holy Scriptures definitively themselves. The Church does and always has done so, which it is incumbent upon the faithful to assent as part of being Catholic. The entirety of Scripture definitively being defined about the 4th century AD.

The money allusions are a poor one, but the closest to the definition we have, and in so using, takes on the negative inferences of the limping analogy. We must imitate the Master in EVERY way!!! Praise Him.

NO ONE is counting!!!! We trust in the promises of the Lord. But, it gives the Catholic a salutory meaning to suffering, either for their own need or that of others, communal Treasury of Merit. It belongs to all of us. The value of suffering is never meaningless, pointless, or wasted.

Love, pray for me,

Nov 2020 – Indulgences

-by Rembrandt (van Rijn), The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669. 262 cm × 205 cm. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

-by Br John Bernard Church, O.P., English Province

Indulgences occupy a curious place in the Catholic world. While readily appreciated by some, to many they are simply a peculiar oddity, a relic of a medieval imagination. So, when the Apostolic Penitentiary announced that, due to COVID, it was extending plenary indulgences for November throughout the whole month, unsurprisingly the news didn’t make the morning newspaper splash.

I would certainly count myself among those who have hesitated to find a fitting place for indulgences in the spiritual life. But they are a part of the faith we profess, so there is every reason to try to understand what they’re about and why they matter. A good starting point is to turn to the Apostles’ Creed, and the two articles that form the basis of a theology of indulgences: “I believe in…the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins…”.

To take the latter first, the primary means of forgiving our sins lies in the confessional. But when sins are forgiven, they still leave a trace: an attachment to vice remains even when the life of grace has been renewed. Thus at their simplest, indulgences extend the logic of the Sacrament of Penance, by addressing the residue of sin. Hence the formal definition of an indulgence is the “temporal remission of the penalties due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven (CCC 1471)”.

Perhaps a helpful analogy would be the physio that follows an operation. If I break my arm in a bicycle accident and do some serious damage, the primary means of healing is the necessary operation that restores functionality to my arm. And although this operation may be sufficient for getting me back on my bike, some physio exercises will aid the healing process and strengthen my arm. Indulgences are similar, in that they work to accompany the restorative healing we receive in the Sacrament of Penance.

The analogy is of course imperfect, but there is another aspect of it worth considering. If you want a healthy arm, physio and strengthening exercises are good to do anyway, even if you haven’t just fallen off your bike. And the same is true of indulgences: the sorts of acts to which the Church attaches them are those which are good to do anyway.

Spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, reading scripture, praying a rosary, saying the Divine Office, or even something as simple as making the Sign of the Cross, are all means by which divine charity grows within us. The indulgences attached to these acts simply encourage their practice. Healing the wounds in our relationship with God comes about through an openness to His grace, enabling His love to grow within us. Making room for that love to grow is always a worthy pursuit, no matter the circumstances.

There is further aspect to indulgences that relates to the other article of the creed, the one we are yet to consider: the communion of Saints. Our incorporation through Baptism into that supernatural community which is the Mystical Body of Christ means our actions are efficacious well beyond the narrow circle of our own lives. As we grow in charity, that divine currency of our sanctification, we can apply the gifts we receive to those who have gone before us. The bond of love that ties together the entire Christian community (Ed. the Church is ONE, militant, suffering, Triumphant). empowers us wayfarers on earth to cooperate in the salvation of the souls in purgatory.

This is especially worth considering given the Vatican’s extension for indulgences for November is for those that apply to the deceased. Such is the power of the Cross that our salvation is both deeply personal and fundamentally communal: each can be the beneficiary of the charity of the other.

As we reach the halfway point for November, it is perhaps worth considering whether there is time in the latter half of the month to obtain a plenary indulgence for the souls in purgatory. After all, surely Confession, Communion, prayers in a cemetery, and prayers for the Pope are all good to do anyway…”

Love, & His mercy,

Sin: temporal & eternal punishment, infallible teaching

Many in our culture today understand Jesus as “Jesus, the kind and friendly 1st century version of Mr. Rogers; the warm and fuzzy nice guy who can give you a hug if your self esteem is low, but cannot conquer death.” If that is Jesus, why come to earth? Why be born? Why teach? Why proclaim the Good News? Why be tempted by the devil?  Why put up with the goofball and sinful apostles? Why eat with sinners and tax collectors? Why piss off those who can have you killed? Why the agony in the garden? Why betrayal? Why the scourging at the pillar? Why the crown of thorns? Why carry the cross and fall? Why be stripped? (They crucified the condemned naked you know. This was to further the humiliation and suffering of the condemned and warning to others about Roman tyranny. Don’t believe all those nice strategically placed loin cloths. How about looking up in church at a truly naked man on the cross?) Why the agonizing death? Why the grief? Why the scandal? Why the suffering of his mother? Why the disillusionment? Why the fear?  Why? Why? Why?

God is both merciful and just. And, His justice is a mercy to the offended.

“It would not be out of place at this point to recall the relationship between justice and mercy. These are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love.” -Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, §20

“Will the saved rejoice in the sufferings of the damned?” – ST., Suppl., Q. 94

“The claim that indulgences are not part of Church teaching today is false. This is proved by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states, “An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishment due for their sins.” The Church does this not just to aid Christians, “but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity” (CCC 1478).

Indulgences are part of the Church’s infallible teaching. This means that no Catholic is at liberty to disbelieve in them. The Council of Trent stated that it “condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them”(Trent, session 25, Decree on Indulgences). Trent’s anathema places indulgences in the realm of infallibly defined teaching.

The pious use of indulgences dates back into the early days of the Church, and the principles underlying indulgences extend back into the Bible itself. The principles behind indulgences are as clear in Scripture as those behind more familiar doctrines, such as the Trinity.

Before looking at those principles more closely, we should define indulgences. In his apostolic constitution on indulgences, Pope Paul VI said: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 1).

This technical definition can be phrased more simply as, “An indulgence is what we receive when the Church lessens the temporal (lasting only for a short time) penalties to which we may be subject even though our sins have been forgiven.” To understand this definition, we need to look at the biblical principles behind indulgences.

Principle 1: Sin Results in Guilt and Punishment

When a person sins, he acquires certain liabilities: the liability of guilt and the liability of punishment. Scripture speaks of the former when it pictures guilt as clinging to our souls, making them discolored and unclean before God: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18).

We incur not just guilt, but liability for punishment when we sin: “I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless” (Is. 13:11). Judgment pertains even to the smallest sins: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:14).

Principle 2: Punishments are Both Temporal and Eternal

The Bible indicates some punishments are eternal, lasting forever, but others are temporal. Eternal punishment is mentioned in Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

We normally focus on the eternal penalties of sin, because they are the most important, but Scripture indicates that temporal penalties are real and go back to the first sin humans committed: “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen. 3:16).

Principle 3: Temporal Penalties May Remain When a Sin is Forgiven

When someone repents, God removes his guilt (Isa. 1:18) and any eternal punishment (Rom. 5:9), but temporal penalties may remain. One passage demonstrating this is 2 Samuel 12, in which Nathan the prophet confronts David over his adultery:

“Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan answered David: ‘The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin; you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die’” (2 Sam. 12:13-14). God forgave David but David still had to suffer the loss of his son as well as other temporal punishments (2 Sam. 12:7-12).

Protestants realize that, although Jesus paid the price for our sins before God, he did not relieve our obligation to repair what we have done. They acknowledge that if you steal someone’s car, you have to give it back; it isn’t enough just to repent.

Protestants also admit the principle of temporal penalties for sin, in practice, when discussing death. Scripture says death entered the world through original sin (Gen. 3:22-24; Rom. 5:12). When we first come to God we are forgiven, and when we sin later we are able to be forgiven, yet that does not free us from the penalty of physical death. Even the forgiven die; a penalty remains after our sins are forgiven. This is a temporal penalty since physical death is temporary and we will be resurrected (Dan. 12:2).

Principle 4: God Blesses Some People as a Reward to Others

In Matthew 9:1-8, Jesus heals a paralytic and forgives his sins after seeing the faith of his friends. Paul also tells us that “as regards election [the Jews] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Rom. 11:28).

When God blesses one person as a reward to someone else, sometimes the specific blessing he gives is a reduction of the temporal penalties to which the first person is subject. For example, God promised Abraham that, if he could find a certain number of righteous men in Sodom, he was willing to defer the city’s temporal destruction for the sake of the righteous (Gen. 18:16-33).

Principle 5: God Remits Temporal Punishments through the Church

God uses the Church when he removes temporal penalties. This is the essence of the doctrine of indulgences. Earlier we defined indulgences as “what we receive when the Church lessens the temporal penalties to which we may be subject even though our sins have been forgiven.” The members of the Church became aware of this principle through the sacrament of penance. From the beginning, acts of penance were assigned as part of the sacrament because the Church recognized that Christians must deal with temporal penalties, such as God’s discipline and the need to compensate those our sins have injured.

In the early Church, penances were sometimes severe. But the Church recognized that repentant sinners could shorten their penances by pleasing God through pious or charitable acts that expressed sorrow and a desire to make up for one’s sin.

The Church also recognized the duration of temporal punishments could be lessened through the involvement of other persons who had pleased God. Scripture tells us God gave the authority to forgive sins “to men” (Matt. 9:8) and to Christ’s ministers in particular. Jesus told them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21-23).

Christ also promised his Church the power to bind and loose on earth, saying, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). As the context makes clear, binding and loosing cover Church discipline, and Church discipline involves administering and removing temporal penalties (such as barring from and readmitting to the sacraments).

Principle 6: God Blesses Dead Christians as a Reward to Living Christians

From the beginning the Church recognized the validity of praying for the dead so that their transition into heaven (via purgatory) might be swift and smooth. This meant praying for the lessening or removal of temporal penalties holding them back from the full glory of heaven. For this reason the Church teaches that “indulgences can always be applied to the dead by way of prayer” (Indulgentarium Doctrina 3).

The custom of praying for the dead is not restricted to the Catholic faith. In the Old Testament, Judah Maccabee finds the bodies of soldiers who died wearing superstitious amulets during one of the Lord’s battles. Judah and his men “turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out” (2 Macc. 12:42). Judah also “took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this . . . he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc. 12:43, 46).

Thus, Judah not only prayed for the dead, but provided for them the then-appropriate ecclesial action for lessening temporal penalties: a sin offering. Accordingly, we may take the now-appropriate ecclesial action for lessening temporal penalties— indulgences—and apply them to the dead by way of prayer.

These six principles, which we have seen to be thoroughly biblical, are the underpinnings of indulgences. But, the question of expiation often remains. Can we expiate our sins—and what does “expiate” mean anyway?

Some criticize indulgences by saying they involve our making “expiation” for our sins, something that only Christ can do. This criticism is unfounded, and most who make it do not know what the word “expiation” means or how indulgences work.

Protestant Scripture scholar Leon Morris comments on the confusion around the word “expiate”: “[M]ost of us . . . don’t understand ‘expiation’ very well. . . . [E]xpiation is . . . making amends for a wrong.” (The Atonement [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983], 151). The Wycliff Bible Encyclopedia gives a similar definition: “The basic idea of expiation has to do with reparation for a wrong, the satisfaction of the demands of justice through paying a penalty.”

Certainly when it comes to the eternal effects of our sins, only Christ can make amends or reparation. We are completely unable to do so, not only because we are finite creatures incapable of making an infinite satisfaction, but because everything we have was given to us by God. For us to try to satisfy God’s eternal justice would be like using money we had borrowed from someone to repay what we had stolen from him. This does not mean we can’t make amends or reparation for the temporal effects of our sins. If someone steals an item, he can return it. If someone damages another’s reputation, he can publicly correct the slander. These are ways in which one can make at least partial amends (expiation) for what he has done.

An excellent biblical illustration of this principle is given in Proverbs 16:6, which states: “By loving kindness and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil” (cf. Lev. 6:1-7; Num. 5:5-8). Here we are told that a person makes temporal atonement (though never eternal atonement, of which only Christ is capable) for his sins through acts of loving kindness and faithfulness.

NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004

IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004″

Love & His mercy,

Indulgences: Enchiridion Indulgentiarum & Mt 5:26

-inscription on the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome: Indulgentia plenaria perpetua quotidiana toties quoties pro vivis et defunctis (“Perpetual everyday plenary indulgence on every occasion for the living and the dead”), please click on the image for greater detail.

“Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” -Mt 5:26

-by Br Hyacinth Grubb

“You probably don’t have the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum—the Manual of Indulgences—sitting on your bookshelf. But you should.

The Enchiridion is the official declaration of the indulgences available to the faithful, and it’s beautiful to read. It’s short, the decrees themselves are only about 60 pages long and come with another 60 pages of appendices. But in those short pages you find an account of the treasury of the Church’s riches. Reading it is like pouring over the manifest bill of a hidden treasure, and finding the map where “X” marks the spot.

But first, a brief note on indulgences. When we sin, we harm or destroy our friendship with God, a friendship restored in the Sacrament of Confession. But at the same time, sin damages the good ordering and justice of creation. It damages the good ordering within ourselves, distorting the relationship between our reason and our emotions. It damages the good ordering of our family and society, distorting the relationships between people. And it damages the good ordering of creation as a whole, distorting our relationship to the natural world beneath and the angelic world above. Out of sin comes chaos. So it’s necessary that personal, social, and cosmic order be reestablished to heal the wounds of sin.

We accomplish the reintegration of order, the expiation of the chaos of sin, by submitting ourselves to order and justice in voluntary reparation. This is called the temporal punishment due to sin. In the light of God’s forgiveness, it is a medicinal and purificating punishment, restoring order and justice within ourselves, within family and society, and within creation itself. Temporal punishments are paid either in this world through a patient bearing of the sorrows, miseries, and calamities of life (and above all through a holy death), or else in the life to come through the purifying punishments of purgatory.

And that is where indulgences come in. For there is among men a supernatural solidarity where the holiness of one benefits all the rest. “If one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). This is the foundation of the treasury of the Church, a treasury consisting of the infinite and inexhaustible holiness of Christ our Lord, who offered himself to free all mankind from sin and its chaos. The Blessed Virgin Mary and all of the saints have followed in the footsteps of Christ and, by his grace, have sanctified their lives and united themselves to his holiness, multiplying his holiness in their own lives. The Church, in Christ her head and in her glorified members, possesses an unfathomable wealth of grace and holiness. She opens her treasury and offers that wealth to us through indulgences, given on the occasion of some work of charity or prayer.

There are almost certainly indulgences for things that you’ve already made a regular part of your life. There is an indulgence for reciting the Angelus, and another for the Guardian Angel prayer. There is a plenary indulgence for reciting the Rosary together in a church or family, and a plenary indulgence for adoring the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour. There is a plenary indulgence for attending the first Mass of a newly ordained priest. There is an indulgence for those who listen “with attention and devotion” to preaching, which I offer as a consolation if the homily is subpar. And there’s even an indulgence for making the Sign of the Cross!

The Church is very generous with her great treasury of holiness, and there are occasions for indulgences everywhere. But to receive an indulgence, you must want it. To quote the Enchiridion, “to gain an indulgence, one must have at least the general intention of doing so.” A general intention is a choice you make to habitually gain an indulgence, even if in the moment it isn’t at the forefront of your mind. You can kneel before the tabernacle and make a promise that every time you make the Sign of the Cross for the rest of your life you intend to avail yourself of that indulgence, and your life will be enriched.

But in order to gain these indulgences, you have to know about them. You’re almost certainly walking by treasures lying on the ground beside your path, waiting to be picked up if you could just see them. So go to Amazon and buy the Enchiridion, and perhaps make reading it a part of your Lenten practice this year. You never know what treasures you will find.”

Love & His mercy,

Sin (Part 4 of 4)

Grace and good works affect others not only in natural, but in mystical ways

Reading Exodus 20, the Torah, again:

Exodus 20:5-6

“…I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments.”

The good we do, by the grace of Christ, ripples out into the universe and builds up His Body:

Colossians 1:23-24

“If so ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard, which is preached in all the creation that is under heaven: whereof I Paul am made a minister. Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body, which is the church…”

When we cooperate with grace — when we pray, give alms, fast, offer up our sufferings, etc. — we literally strengthen the Body of Christ in a mystical way! Christ Himself and all the Saints of 2,000 years (by the grace of Christ) have built up His Mystical Body (the Catholic Church) and laid up a “treasury of merit” or “spiritual treasury,” as it is also called. In the same way we or others detract from the Body of Christ through sin, we and others add to this treasury — and receive the fruits thereof when we receive an indulgence, for we are one in the Body of Christ:

Romans 7:5

“We being many, are one body in Christ, and every one, members one of another.”

And read once again I Corinthians 12:26:

“And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.”

The Church was given the power to bind and loose

To Peter was given the Keys to the Kingdom (Matthew 16) and the power of binding and loosing (forbidding/permitting, condemning/acquitting). In exercising this power of the Keys, the Church has the authority to determine certain practices which help us to to benefit from the treasury of merit and alleviate the temporal effects of sins we’ve confessed and are already forgiven for. This is an indulgence.

That the Church was given the power to forgive the eternal effects of sin through the Sacrament of Penance makes it easier to understand how the Church also has the power to alleviate the lesser, temporal effects of sin. The Church whose priests were given the authority by Christ to forgive the guilt of sin and thereby, by the Blood of Christ, eliminate the eternal punishments for sin, surely also has the authority to pardon the temporal punishments of sin.



-Oct 26 1948, Most Holy Father, Della Mora Antonietta, humbly prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness, begs the Apostolic Benediction and a Plenary Indulgence at the hour of death, even if incapable to confess or receive Holy Communion, if she is penitent and invokes, with mouth or heart, the Most Holy Name of Jesus.  Please click on the image for greater detail.

Growing up, it was common to see in Catholic homes or for newly married couples to receive a benediction (blessing) from the Apostolic See (the Pope) similar to such a document framed and hanging on the wall in Catholic homes. I have seen many such documents myself. See Papal Almoner.

-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.