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.