Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Logic of Indulgences

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.

Peasants torturing indulgence seller

Peasants Torturing an Indulgence Peddler

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.

Technology and the Common Good

I went to a restaurant in Birmingham a few months ago and saw a family at lunch. Parents and children sat at the same table and ate in each other’s presence, but they were not together.  Each one was immersed in his own computer, smart phone, or tablet.  Communications technology, which promises to connect everyone, was disconnecting those who ought to be closest.  Now, I am a big fan of technology, including communications technology, but I tell the story because it illustrates a danger central to Scripture’s story and as old as mankind.

Tower of Babel

One passage that speaks directly to this danger is Genesis 11: the story of the Tower of Babel.  As a child, I read this passage as an etiology. That is to say, I thought its main point was to describe the origin of human languages. It was many years before I began to grasp the real, theological meaning of the text.  Man will achieve neither social harmony nor significance if he ignores God and relies exclusively on technology and material progress.

The key to Genesis 11 is to read the passage in context. It immediately precedes the call of Abraham (in Genesis 12), and is set in deliberate contrast to that passage. Consider the words of Genesis 11:

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Note their goal and their method. The men of Babel apply technology (bricks, mortar, and architecture) in order to make a name for themselves (significance) and to achieve a measure of social cohesion (not to be scattered over the earth). Obviously, God does not approve their plan and metes out to them exactly the consequences they meant to avoid. He scatters them across the world and divides them.

The contrast with Abraham is stark and obvious. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to leave the security of land and family and to “go to the Land I will show you.”  What Babel meant to achieve through technology and development (a name, a family), God promises to Abraham through faith and obedience:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

The rest of the Bible and all of salvation history is the unfolding of that promise. The people of God are often strangers and sojourners, sometimes excluded from the world of political, economic, and technological might, and yet they are salt and light. They point others to their origin and destiny in God and to their common humanity.

The Second Vatican Council embraced this vision of the Church and her mission. In the constitution Lumen Gentium, the Fathers described the Church this way:

The Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.

The Council fathers did not reject technology, but they warned of its insufficiency:

All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm [man’s] anxiety; for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast. (Gaudium et spes)


Pope Francis has recently sounded a similar note. Technological and economic progress are insufficient to achieve the full, human good. We are spiritual creatures and find our good and the good of our neighbor only when seen in this light:

Growth in justice requires more than economic growth . . . I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society. (Evangelii Gaudium)


Abraham obeyed the call of God. He left Haran and lived as a stranger and a wanderer. He never saw the material promises fulfilled in his lifetime. Rather, he was looking forward (Hebrews 11 tells us), “to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”  “Do not be afraid,” God told Abraham, “I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Genesis 15:1)

The place of technology in human flourishing is critical to the story of Scripture.  In the opening chapters of the Bible, man attempts to achieve the human good without reference to his transcendent nature. The result is that he loses relationship both with God and with his fellow man.  In contrast, the Gospel promises that our good is to be found wholly in God and in the dignity of our neighbor, whatever our access to technology.  Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little.” (Jesus of Nazareth)