The topic of indulgences is an incredibly complicated subject to speak of due to the nearly countless distortions having evolved over the years regarding this doctrine.Furthermore, restricting my type-space (originally printed in church bulletin) to one page only makes this challenge more, well, challenging! Nonetheless, I believe this article will help clear up misconceptions, display the logical structure, and illustrate the biblical foundations of indulgences rather convincingly.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “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 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” (CCC, 1427; emphasis mine). In other words, an indulgence can be likened to a child who inadvertently or deliberately throws a baseball through a neighbor’s window. The neighbor may very well forgive the child, restoring the relationship to its original status, but that does not change the fact that a window is in pieces. The temporal effects of the transgression remains and must be fixed. The child may have to dip into his allowance to restore the window.However, the father or mother may step in and pay for the broken window on behalf of their son. This is where the analogy of indulgences comes into focus. While it would have been fine for the child to pay for the window, the family stepped in graciously to fix the window on behalf of their child. In the case of indulgences, the child is you and I, and the gracious family is the Church: the family of God!
At this point in the discussion with a non-Catholic many objections would begin to manifest themselves in the form of questions: 1) Where is eternal punishment and temporal punishment distinguished in the Bible? 2) Doesn’t such a doctrine diminish the merits of Christ? 3) If Christ’s merits are sufficient then why add the inadequate “merits” of saints to the “treasury of merits”? 4) Where does Scripture give authority to the Church to give such indulgences? Many of these questions may seem cryptic to you, but they will become clearer as they are addressed.
The distinction between temporal and eternal punishment begins at the very beginning of time.Due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, they lost their relationship with God (i.e. their eternal reward) and they received temporal punishments befitting their crime (cf. Gen. 3: 16-19): Eve was to experience the pangs of childbirth, and Adam was to work tirelessly with little reward.This example from Scripture illustrates the fact that being eternally redeemed in Christ does not necessarily remove the temporal punishment that accompanied the crime. While I know many married women who have been baptized, their childbearing has been far from painless! Another great example is the story of David being caught in adultery. While his sins were forgiven, God still punished David for his actions through the death of the child from adultery (cf. 2 Sam. 12.7-12). There is a clear distinction between eternal and temporal punishment in Scripture, and there is clear Scriptural support that such temporal punishments may remain after forgiveness/redemption.
From this quick reflection of Scripture we can begin to see why indulgences do not diminish the merits of Christ. Indulgences have nothing to do with eternal punishment and reward, for that is Christ’s victory! Scripture is clear that temporal punishment may remain after forgiveness which often times comes in the form of a continued distorted desire to commit the transgression again (i.e. pornography, masturbation, premarital/extramarital sex, etc.). It is in God’s loving kindness that such a disciplinary action is given us. We do not discipline a child for punishment’s sake, but so that the child may know the gravity of his offense, and so that his will may be strengthened not to commit it again. So it is with God!
The third question ought to be broken into a number of sub-questions but space limits such a desire. We know that the cross of Christ was more than sufficient for our salvation. Thus, rather than diminishing the merits of Christ, the belief in indulgences actually magnifies our Lord’s salvific act by acknowledging its “benefits” well beyond our own eternal salvation. This truth is what is behind the Church’s teaching of the “treasury of merits.” The work of the cross was not something that was barely efficacious enough to squeeze us into heaven. Rather, the cross was and is overflowing with graces beyond our salvation. These graces are not wasted but are entrusted to the Church to be distributed to those who may need it. These graces are dispensed in the form of indulgences.
All this being said, we are still not any closer in our understanding of why our own merits would be considered as contributing to the treasury of merits if Christ’s merits are enough. In the same way our imperfect faith is made perfect through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, so to are our imperfect works made perfect by the perfect work of Jesus Christ. These imperfect works of ours are united to the perfect work of Christ to be used for the good of others. In other words, our God ensures that everything we do and everything we are is supernaturalized so that it may be used as a gift for another! What a beautiful reality!
St. Paul articulates this truth quite profoundly in his letter to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, this is, the church…” (Col. 1.24). The Apostle uses language that is much more shocking than anything the Catholic Church has ever articulated. What St. Paul acknowledges is the fact that there are many things that we undergo in life that may not be necessary for our own salvation but are beautiful things nonetheless. Our God does not allow them to be wasted but rather unites them to the merits of the Cross for the sake of the kingdom. What a great God who both saves us and allows us to participate in His mission of salvation not by necessity, but out of His loving kindness and His desire to be close to us!
I am reminded of a childhood experience of my youth that may help make since of why God would bring our own works of charity into the equation if they are not necessary. My father took me with him to work when I was a child so I could see what he did. Looking back, I think this may have been one of the highlights of my youth. I remember sitting in his desk pretending I was him, and helping him with his work which in hindsight only made his day longer. I know my father could have done his work much more efficiently without me since he clearly did not need me, but he allowed me to be a part of his day because he loved me. I can only imagine how many corrections had to be made by my father so as to perfect my small little works. My father never looked down at me for my “imperfect performance” nor did he ever think I was a threat to his position or stealing his “glory.” Rather, he affirmed me in all the little things I did not because I did them, but because of the love behind them. So it is with our heavenly Father! God has given us the opportunity to “work” with Him to build His kingdom not out of necessity but simply out of love for us and because of his desire to have a relationship with us!
A serious question still remains: Who gave the authority to the Church to be the dispenser of this treasury of merits? The answer is quite simple: Jesus Christ. Jesus handed over His own authority in a unique way to St. Peter who was the first pope (cf. Mat. 16.13-20). Christ made St. Peter the new ambassador to the New Israel which was and is the Church. While the ambassador of the Old Testament governed the treasury among other responsibilities in the Old Covenant, it is now St. Peter and his successors who govern the new treasury of the New Covenant, which is spiritual rather than physical! For a more thorough explanation of the Church’s authority, I refer you to my column entitled, “Why I am Catholic".
In the end, a belief in indulgences simply confesses the nature of our faith, which is familial! We are the family of God that is rich in mercy and full of compassion. God disciplines us for our actions because he loves us and He also showers his mercy upon us in that very discipline through indulgences which has for its source the cross of Jesus Christ. The Church has been given that honor and responsibility to be the distributer of such gifts. It is up to the receiver to receive them with genuine hearts, repentant hearts, and faith-filled hearts that are restless until they rest completely and unconditionally with God, for grace is received according to the capacity one is able to receive it. The gift of an indulgence is not a free ticket but rather an invitation to reexamine our lives in light of Jesus Christ, and to seek Him more faithfully than we had in the past. I encourage each of you this week to look up the types of indulgences the Church has to offer and take advantage of such a great gift! May God be Praised!