“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” -Mt 5:28
“Jesus is obsessed with the heart because whoever wins the heart (love or lust, God or the devil) wins the mind, the eyes, the body, and the soul . . . for eternity. Actions flow from the heart and one’s destiny is forged through one’s actions. Jesus is obsessed with the heart because that is where we know and live the spousal meaning of the body. What’s at stake is the meaning of life: living in God’s image and likeness. 108
The human heart has become “a battlefield between love and concupiscence.” 109 The more concupiscence dominates the heart, the less we experience the spousal meaning of the body and the less sensitive we become to the other as a gift. 110 We begin to see others as objects to be used instead of persons to be loved, and we lose sight of the fact that others are created for their own sake, not for ours. 111
The way one person looks upon another matters, because the look expresses what is in the heart. We reveal by our looks who we are. 112 In his letter on the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul stated: “Each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity, as a spouse, has not become in his heart an object of adultery.” 113
The Pope acknowledged that Christ’s words on adultery in the heart are severe, and they require us to assess our interior acts, motives, and impulses. 114 He explained, “The inner man is called by Christ to reach a more mature and complete evaluation that allows him to distinguish and judge the various movements of his own heart. One should add that this task can be carried out and that it is truly worthy of man.” 115
Although Christ’s words about adultery in the heart are demanding, they are not a condemnation but a calling. His words are not only a task but a gift. By restating Christ’s words, the Pope was reminding the Church in the midst of our brokenness, addictions, and weakened wills, that our call to love runs deeper than our urge to use. No matter how weighed down our hearts might be under the burden of sin, an echo of Eden remains within them.
John Paul pointed out that the awareness of our sinfulness is a necessary point of departure in historical man, and a condition for aspiring to virtue, purity of heart, and perfection. 116 A general sense of our shortcomings will not suffice. As John Paul noted, Christ “shows how deep down it is necessary to go, how the innermost recesses of the human heart must be thoroughly revealed, so that this heart might become a place in which the law is ‘fulfilled.’” 117
By fulfilled, the Pope did not mean obeyed flawlessly for the sake of conforming to external religious rules. Rather, love is the fulfillment of the law. When one rediscovers the spousal meaning of the body, one can express this through the “interior freedom of the gift.” 118
If the deepest motives of our heart are ruled by the lack of love, which is sin, we are not free to love or to make a gift of ourselves. Moral laws will seem to be nothing more than external constraints that limit our freedom. But when we become aware that the internal constraints of sin are what limit our freedom to love, we will desire to battle against them and experience true liberation. Although this will require us to be demanding toward our heart and our body, true love is not afraid of sacrifice. 119
-Evert, Jason. Theology of the Body In One Hour (Kindle Locations 624-665). Totus Tuus Press. Kindle Edition.
There’s a BIG diff. Holiness “integrates” the entire human person, as God intended, repairing the wounds of sin in that person and their community; and is achieved ONLY through His most merciful grace. Sin, the rebellion against God and His Holy Will, therefore, “disintegrates” the human person. We can see this now, here, in our lives through greed, lust, envy, pride, divorce, addiction, adultery, even atheism/agnosticism, heresy, and their counterparts all disintegrate the human person from what God intends. Praise His most holy name. Praise Him. Please, please pray for me in my struggles against my own temptations, that I might not be disintegrated in His sight. He has been so good to me! 🙂 1 Cor 9:27. Pray that I may turn from my sin, and LIVE!!!! 🙂
¨Bob is Bob,” and “Dan is Dan;” these statements are tautologically true. Yet we also say that “Bob isn’t himself today,” and this manner of speaking gets at something profound. We can, somehow, be more or less “ourselves.” But what does that mean, exactly?
It doesn’t mean that personhood changes or disappears, or that someone becomes someone else. Rather, it is a statement about wholeness, completeness, and integrity of life; or the lack of integrity and that absence of a proper order in life—being scattered, fragmented. And there is, ultimately, only one thing that can destroy integrity: sin.
Sin wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1849)
Sin is not an offense against an arbitrary standard concocted by a devious divinity. It’s an offense against reason and truth. As such, its effects are not only external, breaking the divine and eternal law, but also internal. It wounds human nature by destroying the proper ordering of life, by twisting nature to perverted counterfeits of the good it seeks. Sin makes us less ourselves.
All sin and vice lead us to lose ourselves, but some kinds more than others. This depends not only on the gravity of the offense, but also on the role that each virtue and vice plays in human life. One virtue is particularly important, and particularly neglected in our era: that of chastity. Chastity is especially important not because Christians are obsessed with controlling a particular, and personal, aspect of people’s lives, but because it reflects and informs integrity and self-possession throughout all facets of life.
The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift … Charity is the form of all the virtues. Under its influence, chastity appears as a school of the gift of the person. Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self. (CCC 2337, 2346) (Ed. Since when I was in novitiate and missioned to St John’s food pantry in Cincinnatti, where I heard the true, true maxim, oft since reheard, “You cannot give what you do not have!”)
The proper ordering of life is, ultimately, one of self-mastery and self-gift, for “man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). Chastity is a virtue exemplifying both self-mastery and self-gift. Self-mastery, since “the alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (CCC 2338). Self-gift, since “some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner,” and some profess vows “in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman” (CCC 2349, 2337). Chastity, thus, is worth our special concern.
In today’s age, in a culture of explicit and unbridled and almost unavoidable unchastity, sin has harmed each of us, distorted your integrity and mine, in a drastic way. It is no surprise that so many people are “not themselves” and are unable to gather the scattered fragments of life. It may tempt us to despair, but we are comforted by our Savior and the confidence that “where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Rom. 5:20). It is by grace, purchased at great price, that sin is expelled, virtue gained, and our selves made whole.”
Catholic theology, in contrast to Lutheran, holds that salvation by Jesus Christ involves a healing to whole, an intrinsic renewal towards completeness from the injury of Original Sin, our Fallen State.
Martin Luther (words in bold) was a preacher and a writer given over to strong hyperbole. No one, neither Catholic nor Protestant, debates this assertion, and so…
-by Dave Armstrong, raised as a Methodist in Detroit, Michigan, Armstrong converted to non-denominational, Arminian evangelicalism in 1977, with strong affinities to the Jesus Movement and Messianic Judaism, and then to Catholicism in 1990, largely as a result of reading Bl John Henry Cardinal Newman, CO,’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. He was received into the Catholic Church in February 1991 by Rev. John Hardon, SJ. Armstrong’s conversion story was one of eleven in Patrick Madrid’s Surprised by Truth.
“Conceived in sorrow and corruption, the child sins in his mother’s womb. As he grows older, the innate element of corruption develops. Man has said to sin: ‘Thou art my father’—and every act he performs is an offense against God; and to the worms: ‘You are my brothers’—and he crawls like them in mire and corruption. He is a bad tree and cannot produce good fruit; a dunghill, and can only exhale foul odors. He is so thoroughly corrupted that it is absolutely impossible for him to produce good actions. Sin is his nature; he cannot help committing it. Man may do his best to be good, still his every action is unavoidably bad; he commits a sin as often as he draws his breath.-Martin Luther, #8: “Werke (Wittenberg Edition), Vol. III, p. 518.” This refers to the edition of Luther’s works, published in Wittenberg: 12 volumes in German (1539-1559) and seven volumes in Latin (1545-1558).
-from Rev John Hardon, SJ, “St. Peter Canisius on Christmas Joy”, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Vol. 48 – #3, December 1947, pp. 167-172)
“The Catholic Church teaches man is made in God’s image, and though he is fallen, he is not worthless excrement. This was one of the novel, peculiar contributions of the so-called “Reformation,” to introduce this non-biblical motif into Christian theology (sadly one of several such unbiblical themes). Luther himself picked up on this passage in his Lectures on Galatians, from 1535:
“And with Paul let us confess that all our works and righteousness . . . are nothing but loss and refuse (Phil. 3:8). And let us tread underfoot and utterly abhor, as a polluted garment (Is. 64:6) and the deadly poison of the devil, all the power of free will, all the wisdom and righteousness of the world, all religious orders, all Masses, ceremonies, vows, fasts, hair shirts, and the like.”-Luther Werks, vol. 26, p. 41; translated by Jaroslav Pelikan
“It is not enough that this sin is forgiven through grace, for through our infirmity we fall right back into sin . . . the thing itself, which is truly sin and is remitted and forgiven by God, still remains in the flesh and is not completely dead . . . in the justified there are still remnants of sin, like lust and other vices. These the prophet sees in himself as dung or seed plots . . .
. . . God wants to wipe out the sins as far as the forgiveness of their guilt and their power are concerned, but not as far as the thing itself or the nature of the sin is concerned . . . Therefore, both statements are true: “No Christian has sin”; and “Every Christian has sin.”
. . . He is righteous and holy by an alien or foreign holiness – I call it this for the sake of instruction – that is, he is righteous by the mercy and grace of God.’-ibid, pp. 327-328
. . . it is great wisdom to know that we are nothing but sin . . . From such a root nothing good before God can come forth . . the whole nature corrupted by sin . . . -ibid,p. 307; Althaus – see source below – renders this as “there is simply nothing in us that is not sinful” – , p. 153
We say that the natural powers are corrupt in the extreme.-ibid,p. 308. . . it is a fictitious expression to speak of a “holy man,” just as it is a fictitious expression to speak of God’s falling into sin; for by the nature of things, this cannot be.
For this reason we must reject those very ancient and deep-rooted errors by which in monastic fashion we speak of Jerome or Paul as “holy.” In themselves they are sinners, and only God is holy, as the church sings. Those whom we call “holy” are made holy by an alien holiness, through Christ, by the holiness of free mercy. In this holiness the whole church of the faithful is the same, there is no difference . . . It does not matter that Peter and Paul did greater things than you or I . . . So you see nothing holy, nothing good in man, as the psalm says (Ps. 53:2,3), “God looks down from heaven upon the sons of men . . . There is none that does good, no, not one.” . . . Therefore let us keep quiet about holiness and holy people . . . everything that is ours is evil before God . . .-ibid, p. 325
. . . it is clear how we become righteous, namely, by the mere imputation of righteousness . . .-ibid, p. 326
. . . neither the tree nor the fruit of human nature is good, but that everything has been so deformed and destroyed by sin that there is nothing sound left in all of human nature. [expanding upon David’s statement of 51:4] “. . . I am completely evil. Before Thee this is my name, that I do evil, that I have sinned, that I am sinning, that I shall sin forever.”-ibid, p. 337
This glory of righteousness must be left to God alone.-ibid, p. 338
. . . that constant and innate sin in which we live and die.-ibid, p. 339
He [Paul} is talking [in 51:5] about the unformed seed itself and declaring that it is full of sin and a mass of perdition.-ibid, p. 348
(Luther thinks that procreation is intrinsically sinful (apparently because of universal lust): “. . . the sin there is in procreation . . . in this respect how is our nature better than that of the beasts? In this action there is no knowledge of God and no faith . . . God puts up with this sinful begetting for the sake of His creation . . . the procreation of children . . . cannot be without sin . . .” – p. 349 (This makes sense within his framework, since he thinks everything we do is tainted by sin.)
. . . we acknowledge that we are completely sinful, indeed that it was sin even when we were conceived and formed in our mother’s womb.-ibid, p. 352″
Luther scholar Paul Althaus (The Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schultz, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), provides more examples of similar sentiments from Luther:
No one can be certain that he is not continually committing mortal sin, because of the most secret vice of pride.-ibid, p. 149
[Althaus writes: “The pope condemned this statement in his bull excommunicating Luther, and Luther states it even more sharply in his defense in 1521”]
I say now that no one should doubt that all our good works are mortal sins, if they are judged according to God’s judgment and severity and not accepted as good by grace alone.-ibid, p. 149; LW 32, 91
[Althaus: “This is due not to the character of good works as specific individual acts but to man’s pride which stains them all.”] A righteous man sins in all his good works. -ibid, p. 149; LW 32,83
A good work, even though well performed is a venial sin according to God’s merciful judgment, and a mortal sin according to God’s strict judgment.-ibid, p. 149; LW 32,86
Every good work is a sin unless it is forgiven by mercy.-ibid, p. 149; LW 32,209
. . . he never does good without its being corrupted . . . we always sin even when we do what is right; sometimes we sin more and sometimes we sin less, depending on how much our flesh assails us with its impure desires.-ibid, p. 152; LW 31,61
[Althaus writes on the same page: “This is true not only of man without Christ but also of the Christian man. For, although he has received the Spirit of God, he still remains ‘flesh’ which resists God’s will. For this reason he still sins even when he does what is right.”]
[possibly offensive language warning]
Moreover, Luther called himself “dung”:
Luther frequently called himself a piece of shit and in a part of his table talk of 1542-43 that fascinated Erickson, he said, “I am the ripe shit; so also is the world a wide asshole; then shall we soon part.”-in Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 20; primary source, TR 5, no. 5537 — footnote on p. 491. Elsewhere I found further documentation: TR 5:222.14-15.19-20. LW 54:448. See Erickson’s alternate rendering, on p. 206 of his famous work, “Young Man Luther”.
Keeping all this in mind, as Luther’s conception of the total depravity of man and how he “frequently” described himself, let’s now look at how he comments upon Psalm 51:7, which refers to snow cleansing our sins:
How can we become “purer than snow” even though the remnants of sin always cling to us? I answer: I have always said that man is divided into spirit and flesh. Therefore, as far as the total man is concerned, there remains remnants of sin or, as Paul calls them (2 Cor. 7:1), “defilements of body and spirit.” . . . Still we have obtained Baptism, which is most pure; we have obtained the Word, which is most pure; and in the Word and Baptism we have by faith obtained the blood of Christ, which is surely most pure. According to this purity, which in spirit and faith we have from Christ and from the Sacraments that He instituted, the Christian is rightly said to be purer than snow . . . even though the defilements of spirit and flesh cling to him. These are concealed and covered by the cleanness and purity of Christ . . .
. . . if you look at a Christian without the righteousness and purity of Christ, as he is in himself, even though he be most holy, you will find not only no cleanness, but what I might call diabolical blackness. . . . Therefore if they ask: “Sin always clings to man; how, then, can he be washed so as to make him whiter than snow?” you reply: “We should look at a man, not as he is in himself, but as he is in Christ.-ibid, pp. 366-367
Thus we virtually have all the elements of the alleged “saying”: “snow-covered dunghill” in this one work alone: the commentary on Psalms 51. This is all the more so if we realize that Luther often equates “the flesh” with fallen man in and of himself (as Althaus elaborates at length, on pp. 153-155). On p. 327 Luther refers to “remnants of sin” in the flesh as “dung.” His treatment of man’s nature generally lends itself to the description of dung, as it is worthless, totally corrupt, and evil. Luther also pits man’s uncleanness and “diabolical blackness” over against the “cleanness” of baptism and justification; impurity to purity (with perhaps the Old Testament ritual cleanliness concerning dirt, dead bodies, menstruation, etc. in the back of his mind). This readily lends itself to the same interpretation. His comments on “snow” immediately above clearly fulfill the second component of the “saying”.
If we also add the direct reference to man as a “dunghill” (which I documented from Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.), then we have the entire conception, directly expressed in one place or another, if not one concise instance of a saying which encapsulates the thought.
As a clarification, to be fair to Luther (who is often pilloried, slandered, and misrepresented by Catholics, especially non-scholars on the Internet), and to accurately present his entire teaching, it is to be emphasized that, despite all this bad theology above (according to Catholic orthodoxy), Luther does accept the notion of progressive sanctification. He is not an antinomian; he does not condone or sanction sin on the grounds that it is absolutely unavoidable, or rendered ineffectual due to justification, or some sort of bogus “eternal security” based on a one-time justification. He only denies that such works play any role in justification or salvation, or that they can remove all sin before death. He denies entire sanctification. But then so do Catholics, in most cases (which is precisely why we believe in purgatory). Hence Luther wrote, in the same commentary:
Let us take care to be washed daily, to become purer day by day, so that daily the new man may arise and the old man may be crushed, not only for his death but also for our sanctification.-ibid, p. 330
. . . as long as we live, we all ask to be washed thoroughly. These are the two parts of justification . . . the second part is the conferring of the Holy Spirit with His gifts, who enlightens us against the defilements of spirit and flesh (2 Cor. 7:1) . . . Thus the true knowledge of God grows daily, together with other gifts. like chastity, obedience, and patience. Thus our body and its lusts are broken so that we do not obey them. Those who do not have this gift or do not use it this way, but fall into the uncleanness of either the flesh or the spirit, so that they approve of all doctrines without discrimination – they are dominated by the flesh, and they do not know the bath of the Holy Spirit for which David is asking here.-ibid, p. 331
In true theology, therefore, this is the first concern, that a man become good through the regeneration of the Spirit . . . Then it comes to pass that, as from a good tree, good fruits are also born . . . his own works, which ought to follow in regeneration. . . . These are the main works which testify that a tree has been changed from a barren tree to a fruitful one . . .-ibid, p. 385
Interestingly enough, I even managed to come across a “snow over refuse” analogy by Luther which has more to do with his belief in sanctification, than his Lutheran imputed justification doctrine:
We see grain sowed in the ground. Reason now asks: What happens to the grain in winter that has been sowed in the ground? Is it not a dead, moldy, decayed thing, covered with frost and snow? But in its own time it grows from that dead, moldy, decayed grain into a beautiful green stalk, which flourishes like a forest and produces a full, fat ear on which there are 20, 30, 40 kernels, and thereby finds life where only death existed earlier. Thus God has done with heaven, earth, sun and moon, and does every year with the grain in the field. He calls to that which is nothing that it should become something and does this contrary to all reason. Can He not also do something which serves to glorify the children of God, even though it is contrary to all reason? -Sermon on Our Blessed Hope, St. Louis Edition of Luther’s writings, IX: 930-957″
p.s. above is Dave’s official Amazon avatar. However, I also fancy the below, obviously by a not overly zealous Catholic admirer. Flattery will get you everywhere!!! 🙂 It’s flattery, right? :/
“Christian, remember your dignity, and the price which was paid to purchase your salvation!” -cf Pope St Leo the Great, Sermo 22 in nat. Dom., 3:PL 54,192C.
“Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember Who is your head and of Whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.” -CCC 1691, St. Leo the Great, Sermo 22 in nat. Dom., 3:PL 54,192C.
At its most basic level, custody of the eyes simply means controlling what you allow yourself to see. It means guarding your sense of sight carefully, realizing that what you view will leave an indelible mark on your soul.
Many of the saints, in their zeal for purity, would never look anyone in the face. “To avoid the sight of dangerous objects, the saints were accustomed to keep their eyes almost continually fixed on the earth, and to abstain even from looking at innocent objects,” says St. Alphonsus de Liguori.
Now, staring at the floor at all times is a bit extreme for most of us, but it does demonstrate the seriousness with which the saints viewed the importance of purity. They teach us that is simply impossible to allow hundreds of immodest images into our minds, however innocently, and remain pure.
Of course, to the modern mind, this guarding of the eyes is rather quaint and even ridiculous. How prudish, many would think, to think that we should exercise any control over what we see. And yet, if we care about our souls, we have no other option.
HOW TO PRACTICE IT
The best place to begin practicing custody of the eyes is in the things which we can control, such as movies, magazines, or television shows. If your favorite TV show has a sex scene every 5 minutes, you need to cut it out of your life. It’s not worth the temptation. In short, don’t consume things that are occasions of sin. Carelessly putting yourself in spiritual danger in this way is a grave sin itself, so take it seriously.
It’s actually rather easy to edit what you consume. But what about the things we can’t control, such as the immodestly dressed person walking past you? This takes far more prayer-fueled discipline and practice. That said, here are some suggestions.
First, if you’re struggling with the way someone else is dressed, immediately look elsewhere, perhaps their face. I don’t care how beautiful anyone is, it is essentially impossible to lust after someone’s face. The face is the icon of each person’s humanity, and it is far easier to respect a person’s dignity when you’re looking at their face and not her body.
Second, it may just be appropriate to stare at the floor sometimes, especially if there’s no other way to avoid temptation. This doesn’t have to be the norm, but if the situation warrants it, it is foolish not to do so. (Ed. better to appear foolish, or daft, in the eyes of man, than guilty before the eyes of Jesus at our particular judgment.)
Third, avoid places you know are especially problematic for you. For most, the beach can be a problem. Dozens of people in tiny bikinis is just too much. If that’s the case for you, avoid the beach.
Finally, fast and pray. This should go without saying, and yet I am always amazed that people think they can control themselves without God’s help. (Ed. Grace. It’s ALL ABOUT GRACE!!!! Jn 15:5) It simply isn’t possible. (Ed. PRAY!!!! And it will be given to you! I promise! Mt 7:7-8)We always need grace in the battle against concupiscence, and if we trust in ourselves and our own willpower, we will do nothing but fail. (Ed. We are powerless. He is ALL-POWERFUL!!!)
Yes, temptation is everywhere, but we are not helpless victims. (Ed. We have THE GREATEST ALLY in our battle with sin!!! We do!!! We do!!! Praise Him, Church!!! Praise Him!!!) We must take the need for purity seriously, and that means guarding carefully what we allow ourselves to see. Through prayer, fasting, and practice, we can learn to take control of our eyes and avoid temptation. This isn’t quaint and archaic—it’s basic to spiritual survival.
Let us call upon our most pure Lady and her chaste husband St. Joseph, begging their intercession for our purity.”
Male saints holding lilies symbolize their purity of life, St Joseph, Most Chaste Spouse, pray for us!!!!
“It is a common doctrine of the Saints that one of the principal means of leading a good and exemplary life is modesty and custody of the eyes. For, as there is nothing so adapted to preserve devotion in a soul, and to cause compunction and edification in others, as this modesty, so there is nothing which so much exposes a person to relaxation and scandals as its opposite.”—-St. Alphonsus Rodriguez
Catechism of the Catholic Church – Modesty
(CCC 2521) “Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.”
(CCC 2522) “Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love… Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy
curiosity. It is discreet.”
(CCC2523) “There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.”
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.
“Although they rarely get the respect they deserve, our tongues really should be numbered among our most prized bodily members. With them we sing of love, we broker peace, we passionately preach, and we attempt to express our very selves. They are nothing less than the tools that build up humanity and the kingdom of God. The psalmist sees the tongue as the instrument of God’s praise: “my tongue shall tell of thy righteousness and of thy praise all day long” (Ps 35:28). Our tongues, as a part of our human bodies, are destined for eternal glory, for union with God. At the Resurrection of the body, the whole of the human person will be united with God, and our tongues will perform their part in the eternal worship of God.
However, while we are still journeying toward our final rest and joy, our instrument of praise can be turned away from its purpose. Our current culture does not make many allowances for the virtues of the tongue; According to many, the tongue is for the advancement of man, by any means necessary. Lies are permitted, even practically encouraged, among certain professions and having the wit to spin the truth is even considered a virtue.
In addition to the temptation to violate the truth, directly or indirectly, we also face the temptation to use the truth as a weapon at the wrong time. St. Thomas sums up these sins of the tongue: “the railer intends to injure the honor of the person he rails, the backbiter to depreciate a good name, and the tale-bearer to destroy friendship, so too the derider intends to shame the person he derides” (ST II-II q. 75, art. 1).
The first, reviling, uses the truth as a direct and open attack upon another. One of your coworkers is receiving praise for her great performance at her job and you openly decry her drinking problem. When we revile another, we cast down the excellences of a person’s life by revealing embarrassing and unnecessary information in his or her presence.
Backbiting also kills a person’s reputation, but it does so in secret, undermining his or her position in the eyes of others. This is the person who pretends to be friends while secretly detesting us or hoping to make himself greater by climbing over our fallen name.
Tale-bearing is telling something bad about someone in order to disrupt relationships. This includes telling old stories about someone so that a couple will break up or telling the boss some unflattering details of a coworker’s past mistakes so that they will get passed over for a promotion. It can express itself as a refusal to allow the “old you” die or to prevent the flourishing of good relationships.
The last, what St. Thomas calls deriding, can be good or bad. In its good aspect, derision can be directed at the evil actions of another. Mocking the evil someone has done in order to show them it is shameful could be helpful in some situations, but usually it isn’t. On the other hand, derision is always evil when it is employed in the mockery of what is good. This occurs when people are made to feel ashamed for doing good, such as when they defend the faith or refuse to participate in immoral activities. Derision can also be aimed at people themselves, so that they feel they should be ashamed for existing and that they aren’t worthy of our care or love. This is always evil.
One can find examples of these sins or privations of the tongue by scanning almost any Internet article or comment box. But more illuminating than any example is the penance given by St. Philip Neri to a gossip. For her penance, St. Philip Neri told the woman to pluck a chicken outside of the church and bring him the plucked chicken. Puzzled, she obeyed. He then sent her back out to collect the feathers, but the wind had scattered most of them, so she only returned with a handful. “Sins of the tongue are like the feathers,” he said, “once uttered they cannot be recaptured.”
What can help us to be aware and stop these sins of the tongue? Silence. If we do not spend time in silence, how can we know the value of words? In silence, we come to greater awareness of the presence of God. We spend our mental words on the Lord and He shows us His peace. When we are with someone we love very much, words are unnecessary. They know what we think with a glance. In coming to deeper knowledge of God through this prayer of silence, we come to greater love of Him who will tame our tongues through His grace.
In the words of St. Augustine: “Your God, your Redeemer, your Tamer, your Chastiser, your Father, instructs you [and your ungovernable tongue.] For what purpose? In order that you may receive an inheritance where you will not have to bear your father to the grave, but where you shall have your Father Himself for your inheritance. In view of this hope, you are being instructed. Do you therefore murmur?””
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP