Why Catholics should defend indulgences

Luther posting his 95 theses in 1517 by Ferdinand Pauwels

October 31st this year marks half a millennium since an Augustinian Monk called Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. This action wasn’t actually, as it is frequently presented, a ‘protest’ of any kind, but a challenge to other theologians to debate him on the ideas he was asserting, ideas which criticised the concept of ‘Purgatory’ and most directly, the practice of ‘Indulgences’.

An ‘Indulgence’, as the Catechism tells us, 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 prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.

Some of the criticisms Luther made about these remissions were quite right: in his time, they were blasphemously sold to raise funds for Church projects, an abuse that constituted the very grave sin of ‘Simony’ (the selling of sacred things). This was corrected later on in the 16th century.

Protestantism, however, historically rejects the idea that the Church has authority to make such a remission, or more basically that temporal punishments accrue to the faithful Christian believer. In fact, it remains one of the Catholic practices that our separated brethren find the most extraordinary, if not radically objectionable, often due to radical misapprehensions they possess.

Sadly, many Catholics after years of minimal (if not actively misleading) catechesis, are unable to provide the proper explanation, and correct the misconceptions, that would allow every Christian to see the beauty and importance of this teaching. Indeed, many are either profoundly ignorant of this reality, or else labour under the same confusion or distortions as a number of non-Catholics.

Especially in light of the upcoming commemoration then, it not only behoves us to know and defend indulgences, but to incorporate them into our spiritual lives. We can do so if we understand two things: the consequences of sin, and role of the Church as Minister of Christ’s redemption.

The Church has historically recognised that, for a Christian, there are two different forms of sin: Mortal and Venial. ‘Mortal’ sin is a deliberately intended act that is so serious in its nature, that it constitutes a radical rejection of Christ and His sacrifice for us, and ruptures our relationship with God. ‘Venial’ sin, on the other hand, is an act that, whilst sinful, is not so serious that it formally entails destroying our union with God. This is confessed by St John in Holy Scripture, when he tells us that “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” (1 John 5:17).

Sin entails a twofold punishment. On the one hand, there is the eternal punishment of Hell, which is suffered by anyone who does not repent of Mortal sin (through an immediate act of contrition to God, and then the Sacrament of Confession thereafter). On the other, however, there is temporal punishment. This is the punishment that we go through in life due to our wicked actions. It might be correction by our elders when we are children, or the consequences of our own foolishness or immorality throughout life which will vary in gravity according to the nature of our sin.

If we commit fraud or rob a bank and go to prison, or commit adultery and go through divorce, or maliciously gossip and suffer humiliation when we are found out, or get into drugs or pornography and suffer the debilitating effects of either, then these are examples of temporal punishment. All form part of the cosmic justice that God has, by His providence, incorporated into human existence.

The Scriptural example of King David illustrates t
hat these punishments are separate to eternal punishment, and our repentance. After the Patriarch sends Bathsheba’s husband Uriah the Hittite to die in war so as to cover up his own adultery with her, and then marries her, even after repenting of his sin in light of the Lord’s reproof through the Prophet Nathan, he is punished with the death of the child he conceived with Bathsheba in their adultery (2 Samuel 12:13-18).

Temporal punishment accrues to every sin, so whilst venial sin (of which any faithful Christian should, and does, nevertheless repent) does not lead to Hell, it does have that consequence. A fact of life, however, is that we often do not experience the temporal punishment of our sins on Earth, and our even our penances after the fact do not correspond to the punishment we are owed.

This is why the Church has also historically confessed that at our death, if we are Christians in a ‘state of grace’ (that is, a state of saving friendship with God) when we die, any outstanding temporal punishment we did not endure on Earth we will go through in a state called ‘Purgatory’, before we enter Heaven. This state involves the cleansing of our souls of any venial sins we had committed before we die.

We see this in the references that St Paul makes to the cleansing of those Christian clergy who build the Church poorly during their lives, in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Using the imagery of a purifying fire, the Apostle relates that after we have died, our earthly works are ‘tested’. Our good works will survive the fire, purified as precious metals and stones, whereas any bad works will be consumed like flammable straw, and though we will ‘suffer loss’ we will be saved, “but only as through fire”.

We see then that since this state involves punishment it also involves suffering, as we are purified of the last vestiges of sin and its malign effects. It is for that reason that we pray for the dead that they be released from the consequence of their sins, a practice that was began by the Jewish people before the coming of Christ (see the actions of Judas Maccabeus in 2 Maccabees 12:43–45), and which continues in all Apostolic Churches today in the East and the West, whether Catholic or non-Catholic.

God has not left us, however, without a way of dealing with the temporal punishments due to our sin, and avoiding purgative suffering after death. When Our Lord established the Church, He gave St Peter the power of the Keys of His Kingdom (Matthew 16:18-19, cf. Isaiah 22:20-22). This authority, possessed by the Church today through St Peter’s successors, the popes, extends to the temporal punishment due to sin. Just as the Church may absolve sin itself through the power given to her by Christ (John 20:21-23), so she may remit the temporal punishment due to sin.

When the Church remits temporal punishment, this is called an ‘indulgence’, which in the Latin root was used in the sense of being a ‘remission’. In her wisdom, the Church makes this remission conditional on the performance of pious actions, through what are known as ‘concessions’. These exist to help the Body of Christ grow in holiness and virtue. Some of these are ‘plenary’ (they remit all temporal punishment), most are ‘partial’ (they remit some punishment) according to the devotion of the individual believer. These need not be gained for the person doing the pious action, but may be heroically offered up in loving solidarity for others, such as those holy souls in Purgatory who by their condition have no ability to gain any indulgence themselves.

None of this contradicts the historic Christian truths regarding Grace, or the impossibility of earning salvation through works. Enjoying the benefits of the ultimate sacrifice Our Lord made for us on the Cross does not exclude our suffering temporal punishment, and so gaining indulgences does not ‘compete’ with His perfect salvific act. Purgatory is not about salvation: we must be saved in order to go through it.

Meanwhile, any pious action we do to avoid it can only happen through our receiving the undeserved Grace of God – that divine life He shares with us that makes us holy. Only through this through faith, including prayer and the Sacraments, are we enabled to live a Christian life, including those actions to which the Church has attached the remission of the temporal punishment for our sin.

When we appreciate the full dire truths about the consequences of our sin, and the nature of what God has done for us so that we might be rid of them, we may not only defend but rejoice in the reality of indulgences, and joyously endeavour to incorporate them into our spiritual lives. In doing so, we bless not just ourselves, but each other, and especially those whose sufferings in the purifying ‘fire’ after death we have the ability to alleviate.

It was because he wanted to challenge the doctrine and practice of indulgences that Luther posted his challenge to debate. In commemorating the ‘Reformation’, let us rise to this challenge in defending this glorious Christian teaching, but also commemorate our brothers and sisters in the ‘Church suffering’ by being sure to gain indulgences on their behalf, as we would wish others to do so after we pass in the hope of joining the Lord ourselves.