Friday, April 21, 2023

Indulgences: Taking Advantage of God’s Mercy

Christ Healing the Sick, by Washington Allston, 1813
Many Catholics are unaware of a treasure at their disposal: they view indulgences as an embarrassing relic of a corrupt medieval past, one from which the Church since Vatican II has wisely distanced herself. Their ignorance and suspicion is in turn shared by other Christians, not only anti-intellectual fundamentalists but even the well-educated. In March of 2010, several representatives of Reformation communities visited Rome for the Pauline year and waxed critical of a recent indulgence granted to those who went on pilgrimage to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Their reaction prompted a helpful clarification from Walter Cardinal Kasper. [1]

One of the problems about discussing indulgences, the Cardinal pointed out, is that we must first grasp the deeper Catholic understanding of grace and sin. That understanding emanates from one conviction: that every sinner can become a saint. “Justification” for a Catholic does not simply mean believing that Jesus Christ is one’s personal Lord and Savior; it means becoming a living icon of Christ inside and out, a luminous reflection of the glory of God, a full restoration of the divine image and likeness in which we are made.
In the words of Dietrich von Hildebrand, “We should not forget that the Church’s doctrine of justification insists on the possibility of men being fully transformed in Christ, of their becoming saints. It is here that the deepest differences between the Catholic Church and Luther’s doctrine of sola fides is to be found.” [2] Catholics believe that the grace bought for us through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ does not simply “impute” the divine charges against us in an external, forensic, or legalist manner so that we can slip into heaven without being internally changed, like a letter processed in the mail. Rather, grace not only forgives but washes away, heals, restores, and transforms.
Further, Catholics understand sin to be not just a transgression against God but a self-laceration or self-mutilation. Saint Augustine said it best: “For so you have ordained it, O Lord, and so it is: that every disorder of the soul is its own punishment.” [3] Every sin is a disorder of the soul, and every disorder reaps an effect, both on myself and on others around me. Specifically, my sins pollute and corrupt myself and the rest of the world.
Consequently, the complete triumph over sin requires not only forgiveness but a healing of the wounds that sin has inflicted. Note that there is a difference between forgiveness and healing, just as there is a difference between your being saved on the operating table (which the surgeon wrought without your cooperation) and then spending the next several weeks in rehab, cooperating with the physician in your recovery. Forgiveness removes the bullet of sin, but the effects of this spiritual gunshot wound are still there and still in need of healing. This is why in the sacrament of Confession our sins our completely forgiven, but we are still given penance by the priest. Penance does not “ratify” our being forgiven or substitute for forgiveness or forgive us a second or third time; it is there to aid in the healing process, to remedy the effects of sin after the sin itself has been removed.
All of which brings us to indulgences. Like the penance we do after receiving absolution in Confession, indulgences are there to help us remedy the effects that our sins have had on our souls. According to Canon Law, 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 (992).
This fulsome definition requires some explanation. First, “an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.” As we have explained, indulgences concern healing, not forgiving. The wounds of sin are their own punishment, yet even this punishment, when it is temporal rather than eternal, is remedial, ordered towards our healing and recovery. An indulgence, then, is the substitution of one form of God’s healing (remedial punishment) with another that is less painful.
Second, a Christian gains an indulgence “through the action of the Church.” Spiritual healing does not happen simply by dint of our own efforts: it is dependent on the store of graces that Christ’s victory and the merits of the saints make available. This store is called the thesaurus Ecclesiae, the treasury of the Church, and by the authority of Saint Peter’s successor, who has been given the keys to this treasure trove (Matthew 16:19), the Church dispenses it through indulgences. By performing indulgenced acts or reciting indulgenced prayers, we cooperate with the Divine Physician in accelerating the healing process of our souls. A “plenary” indulgence grants complete healing or full remission of temporal punishment, whereas a “partial” indulgence remits only some temporal punishment and confers only partial healing.
The Misers in Gustave Dore’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatory XIX; 1857
Third, a Christian must be “duly disposed” and fulfill “certain prescribed conditions.” Such qualifications remind us that indulgences are not a “Get Out of Purgatory Free” card, where the lucky winner gets into Heaven on a technicality while remaining the same warped and deviant sinner. Their purpose is the same as that of the Christian life in general: the complete transformation of the believer into a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. It is for this reason that Canon Law speaks of the believer needing to be duly disposed and fulfilling certain conditions. To obtain a plenary indulgence, for example, four conditions must be met:
  1. The sacrament of confession (a single confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences; one may go to confession within a period of about twenty days before or after doing the indulgenced act);
  2. Holy Communion (a separate Holy Communion is required for each plenary indulgence; the Church recommends but does not require that this be done on the same day as the indulgenced act);
  3. Prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father (usually by means of an Our Father and a Hail Mary; a separate act of praying for the Holy Father is required for each plenary indulgence, and it is likewise recommended that this be done on the same day);
  4. The interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin.
Confession, by Johann Anton Riedel, 1754
Note the pervasive focus on transformation. Confession and Communion are healing sacraments, meant to aid in our spiritual conversion, to increase our charity and our unity with Christ. Similarly, for an indulgence to be plenary, the penitent must not only be free from sin but free from any attachment to sin. Granted, it is a tall order: Saint Philip Neri (d. 1595) was once allowed a vision in a crowded church that revealed who was receiving the plenary indulgence being offered. There were only two: himself and an old charwoman! Fortunately, one can still receive a partial indulgence if one falls short of a plenary.
It is not necessary to fulfill all these conditions for a partial indulgence. To obtain any kind of indulgence, however, one must have a general intention to do so. Consequently, many “Morning Offerings” include statements such as, “I have the intention to gain all the indulgences attached to the prayers I shall say and to the good works I shall perform this day,” and “I resolve to gain all the indulgences I can in favor of the souls in Purgatory.” [4]
St Philip Neri, by Sebastiano Conca, 1740
Further, as this second statement implies, an indulgence may not be applied to another living person, but it can be applied to the deceased. Applying an indulgence to the souls in Purgatory makes sense because they are in the process of being purged or healed of the effects of their sins that have been forgiven; like us, they are undergoing temporal punishment that indulgences have the power to remit. And the fact that indulgences can be applied to the departed is a beautiful illustration of a central Christian teaching, that death has no sway over the mystical Body of Christ. After the Resurrection, Christ’s Body is never to be sundered again, and that Body includes us, His baptized faithful. The Church on earth therefore has the capacity to help the faithful in Purgatory every bit as much as she can help the faithful on earth, for death is nothing to those who live in Christ.
Finally, one may gain several partial indulgences in the course of a day but only one plenary indulgence. Putting all of these facts together, it is theoretically possible to receive a plenary indulgence, either for oneself or for the dead, once a day if one is a daily communicant who goes to Confession every two or three weeks.
The Enduring Myth
There are several myths about indulgences, the most enduring of which is the notion that the Church used to sell indulgences and that this corrupt practice was one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation. This claim, solemnly reported in secular history books, is a distortion of the facts.
The Church has never sold spiritual graces for money; what it did allow in the Middle Ages was an indulgence to be attached to charitable donations. There is obviously nothing wrong with donating to a charity or church. In the late Middle Ages, however, this practice was scandalously abused for clerical profit, especially in Luther’s Germany where a real-life monk named John Tetzel rivaled in odiousness Chaucer’s fictional Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales. It was because the theoretically sound practice of indulgencing charitable donations was so vulnerable to abuse that the Council of Trent decided that it was best to discontinue it. But it is inaccurate to say that the Church “stopped selling indulgences,” for it never sold them to begin with.
Another myth is that the Church “dropped” indulgences after Vatican II. The New York Times, with its typical grasp of Catholic subtleties, ran an article under the title “For Catholics, a Door to Absolution Is Reopened.” The internet version has an additional title: “Indulgences Return, and Heaven Moves a Step Closer for Catholics.” [5] Note the numerous flaws in the titles alone: no door was re-opened, nothing returned, and indulgences, as we have already seen, are not a form of absolution. The NYT’s mélange of facts and falsehoods went on to inspire a number of shrill editorial harrumphing across the country about the Church’s alleged slide back into the “Dark Ages.”
The truth is that in 1968 Pope Paul VI issued a new Enchiridion of Indulgences. [6] His decision marked a change for the Church, for it replaced the Raccolta or Manual of Indulgences familiar still to many traditional Catholics. [7] The Raccolta is a gem, containing over 600 pages of prayers and invocations for virtually every occasion or devotion. Though the indulgences attached to it are now outdated, it is still a must-have for every traditional family.
Two changes in Paul VI’s Enchiridion are immediately noticeable. First, it omits any temporal reference to partial indulgences. Under the older arrangement, one would see statements such as “300 days” or “five years” attached to a partial indulgence. These figures, based on the stringent penitential sentences of the early Church, were used to provide some measurement of the efficacy of a partial indulgence. Unfortunately, however, many took the numbers to indicate how much one’s stay in Purgatory was being shortened, a misconception not only about indulgences but about Purgatory, which as a reality outside of time has no days or years. Although the loss of some sort of ruler is lamentable, one can understand the Pope’s desire to avoid such confusion.
Second, the new Enchiridion is far shorter: the 781 previously indulgenced prayers and works were reduced to 73. The disadvantage of this change is that many beautiful prayers have essentially been forgotten, but this does not necessarily mean that Paul VI was an enemy of these prayers or of indulgences as a whole. His intention can be seen in the Enchiridion’s unprecedented three “general grants” preceding the seventy particular indulgences. The first grants a partial indulgence to those who “in the performance of their duties and bearing the trials of life, raise their mind with humble confidence to God, adding, even if only mentally, some pious invocation.” [8] The second grants a partial indulgence to those who “in a spirit of faith and mercy, give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need.” [9] The third grants a partial indulgence to those who “in a spirit of penance, voluntarily deprive themselves of what is licit and pleasing to them.” [10]
Rather than limit indulgences, it can be argued that Paul VI expanded them through these general grants to virtually any prayer, good work, or abstinence, including those in the old Raccolta. [11] Contrary to the widespread impression that the Church after Vatican II wished to “get away” from indulgences, she may have actually increased their availability.
Indulgences Per Annum
It is also helpful to recall that throughout the year one can obtain a partial indulgence for reciting the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed (16), the litanies of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Most Precious Blood of Jesus, Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and all Saints (29, the Magnificat (30), Memorare (32), and “Miserere Mei,” that is, Psalm 50/51 (33), the Collect of the saint whose feast day it is (54), and for using any article of devotion (crucifix, cross, rosary, scapular, etc.) properly blessed by a priest (35). There is even a partial indulgence for making the sign of the cross (55).
There are also plenary indulgences for a family recitation of the rosary (48), a public recitation of the rosary in a church (48), and a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or a private reading of Sacred Scripture for at least half an hour (3, 50, resp.).
We began with the observation that Catholics believe that every sinner, no matter how depraved, can become a saint. We also intimated that the transformation from one to another is a fairly extensive endeavor, which is why we should be grateful for spiritual salves like indulgences that the Church continues to make abundantly available. Indulgences are outstanding instances of God’s great generosity, a special means by which we can cooperate with our Lord in the emotional, psychological, and spiritual reformation of our souls. Catholics should not hesitate to be positively avaricious in their desire to take advantage of this gracious cure.

An earlier version of this article, since modified, first appeared as “Indulgences: Taking Advantage of God’s Mercy,”
The Latin Mass magazine 19:1 (Winter 2010), pp. 44-47. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its inclusion here.

[1] For a good explanation of the theology of indulgences, see Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Enchiridion of Indulgences (1968) and the 2000 document Gift of the Indulgence from the Apostolic Penitentiary, the branch of the Vatican that deals with indulgences. The FSSP also has a nice summary in their Liturgical Ordo
[2] Trojan Horse in the City of God (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Press, 1993), p. 259.
[3] St. Augustine’s Confessions 2.12.19, trans. Frank Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 2005).
[4] Taken from Rev. F.X. Lasance, My Prayer-Book: Happiness in Goodness (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1908), 209.
[5] By Paul Vitello, 2/10/09.
[6] Copies of this are easy to obtain. A word search of “Enchiridion of Indulgences” can find versions of it online (the Vatican website has it in Latin only); it can also be purchased in book form under the titles Manual of Indulgences (USCCB and Apostolic Penitentiary, 2006) or Handbook of Indulgences (Catholic Book Publishing, 1992).
[7] The last English edition was published by Benziger Bros. in 1957. It has been since reprinted by Marian House.
[8] This grant is intended to “serve as an incentive to the faithful to practice the commandment of Christ that ‘they must always pray and not lose heart’". (Luke 18.1)
[9] This grant is intended to “serve as an incentive to the faithful to perform more frequent acts of charity and mercy.” (John 13.15; Acts 10.38)
[10] This grant is intended to “the faithful to bridle their passions and thus to bring their bodies into subjection and to conform themselves to Christ in his poverty and suffering.” (Matthew 8.20, 16.24)
[11] This is also confirmed in Indulgence no. 38: “A partial indulgence [is granted] to those spend some time in pious mental prayer.”

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