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.

3 thoughts on “The Logic of Indulgences

  1. Ron Zell

    Hi Dr. Anders,

    Can you recommend a resourse on actually gaining an indulgence? I do believe in this doctrine, but still can’t figure out how to do it.

    Thanks,

    Ron

    Reply
  2. tony

    As a lifelong Catholic I have yet to see a coherent explanation of temporal punishment and why indulgences are even necessary if the sacrifice of the Blood of Christ is sufficient to atone and Justify. Too often, Old Testament scriptures are referenced without regard for the reality that many Old Testament ideas undergo a real change in terms of having been fulfilled in the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross (such as tithing for example). For me the resolution of the matter is really found in Romans, chapter 7, and possibly 8. :

    “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.c For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful natured a slave to the law of sin.” (end verse quote)

    Paul nicely lays out the case that even though under Grace we essentially have the deck stacked in our favor vs. under the law, the sad reality is that our gift of free will still gives us the ability to do what we ought not do, or rather, continue sinning in presumably minor ways. If this propensity to still screw up (even sometimes without fully knowing we are screwing up), and the effects thereof, is what as referred to as “temporal punishment” then it all makes sense. I think Catholics are afraid of Romans for some reason. I have heard fellow Catholics even disparage it as overused by protestants. However, Based on Paul, we have to assume that in this life we cannot attain such a perfect state that we stop sinning altogether, even as a saint or an apostle…hence his own personal evolution in how he referred to himself: early on he was the least of the Apostles, then later he was the “least of all the saints” and then finally as he fully matured in faith he became “chief of all sinners. ” I think this is the best explanation for why indulgences and temporal punishment make sense.
    In all, the Church has done a very poor job of communicating and expounding on indulgences and temporal punishment. Even Paul VI did not do a very good job.

    Reply

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