October 31st this year marked 500 years since an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, nailed 95 theses to the chapel door of Wittenberg Castle (the town bulletin board). This action wasn’t (as it is frequently presented) so much a ‘protest’ of any kind, but rather a challenge to other theologians to debate him on the ideas he was asserting which criticized faulty concepts of ‘Purgatory’ and the practice of ‘Indulgences.’ Our Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us an indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which a 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.
Some of the criticisms Luther made on indulgences were quite right at that time. Some clerics wrongly and blasphemously sold them to raise funds for Church projects, an abuse that constituted the very grave sin of ‘Simony’ (the buying/selling of sacred things). Thank God, this was corrected later in the 16th century.
Protestants reject the idea that the Church has authority to make such remissions, or that temporal punishment can accrue to the faithful Christian believer. In fact, it remains one of the Catholic practices that non-Catholics find most objectionable, due to their misunderstanding of the teachings. Likewise, many Catholics, after years of minimal and misleading catechesis, are also unable to provide the proper explanation that would allow every Christian to see the beauty and importance of this teaching. They’re either profoundly ignorant of this reality, or else they labor under the same confusion or distortions as a number of non-Catholics. We should not only know and defend indulgences, but also incorporate them into our spiritual lives. We can do so if we understand two things: the consequences of sin, and role of the Church as Minister of Christ’s redemption. Let me try to explain this to you.
The Church has historically recognized that, for a Christian, there are two different forms of sin: mortal and venial. ‘Mortal’ sin is a deliberately intended act that is so serious in its nature, that it constitutes a radical rejection of Christ and His sacrifice for us, and ruptures our relationship with God. ‘Venial’ sin, on the other hand, is an act that, while sinful, isn’t so serious that it formally destroys our union with God. St John tells us “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.” (1 Jn 5:17)
Sin entails a two-fold punishment. On one hand, there is the eternal punishment of Hell, which is suffered by anyone who does not repent of Mortal sin (through an immediate act of contrition to God, and then the Sacrament of Penance thereafter). On the other, there is temporal punishment. This is the one that we go through in life due to our evil actions. It might be correction by our elders when we are children, or the consequences of our own foolishness or immorality throughout life, which will vary in gravity according to the nature of our sin.
If we commit fraud or rob a bank and go to prison, or commit adultery and go thru divorce, or get into drugs or pornography and suffer the debilitating effects of either, these are examples of temporal punishment. All form part of the justice that God, by His providence, has incorporated into human existence. The Biblical example of King David illustrates that these punishments are separate from eternal punishment, and our repentance. Even after repenting of his sins (in light God’s reproof through the Prophet Nathan), he is punished with the death of the child he conceived in adultery (2 Sam 12:13-18). So, temporal punishment accrues to every sin. So while venial sin (of which any faithful Christian should repent) does not lead to Hell, it does have consequences. A fact of life, however, is that we often don’t experience the temporal punishment of our sins on Earth; and our penances ‘after the fact’ do not correspond to the punishment we are owed. This is why the Church has historically confessed that at our death, (if we are in a ‘state of grace’ when we die – i.e., a state of saving friendship with God), any outstanding temporal punishment we didn’t endure on Earth we will endure before we enter Heaven, in ‘Purgatory.’ This state involves the cleansing of our souls of any venial sins we had committed before we die.
We see this in the references that St Paul makes in 1 Cor. 3:10-15. Using the imagery of a purifying fire, Paul relates that after we have died, our earthly works are ‘tested.’ Our good works will survive the fire, purified as precious metals and stones, whereas any bad works will be consumed like flammable straw, and though we will ‘suffer loss,’ we will be saved – “but only as through fire.” Since this state involves punishment it also involves suffering, as we are purified of the last vestiges of sin and its malign effects. For that reason, we pray for the dead that they be released from the consequence of their sins, a practice that was began by the Jewish people before the coming of Christ (read of Judas Maccabeus in 2 Maccabees 12:43–45), and which continues in all Apostolic Churches today in the East and the West, whether Catholic or non-Catholic. God has not left us, however, without a way of dealing with the temporal punishments due to our sin, and avoiding purgative suffering after death. When Our Lord established the Church, He gave St. Peter the power of the Keys of His Kingdom (Matthew 16:18-19, cf. Isaiah 22:20-22). This authority, possessed by the Church today through Peter’s successors, the popes, extends to the temporal punishment due to sin. Just as the Church may absolve sin itself through the power given to her by Christ (John 20:21-23), so she may remit the temporal punishment due to sin. When the Church remits temporal punishment, this is called an ‘indulgence,’ which in its Latin root was used in the sense of being a ‘remission.’ In her wisdom, the Church makes this remission conditional on the performance of pious actions, through what are known as ‘concessions.’ These exist to help the Body of Christ grow in holiness and virtue. Some of these are ‘plenary’ (they remit all temporal punishment); most are ‘partial’ (remit some punishment) according to the devotion of the individual believer. These may be heroically offered up in loving solidarity for others, such as those holy souls in Purgatory who have no ability to gain any indulgence themselves. During November, we pray for such souls.
None of this contradicts the Christian truths regarding Grace, or the impossibility of earning salvation through works. Enjoying the benefits of the ultimate sacrifice Our Lord made for us on the Cross does not exclude our suffering temporal punishment, and so gaining indulgences does not ‘compete’ with His perfect saving act. Purgatory isn’t about salvation: we already must be saved in order to go through it. The divine life God shares with us is what makes us holy. Only thru faith, including prayer and the Sacraments, are we enabled to live a Christian life, including those actions to which the Church has attached the remission of the temporal punishment for sin. It was because Luther wanted to challenge the doctrine and practice of indulgences that he posted his challenge to debate. May we rise to the challenge of defending this glorious Christian teaching, and help our brothers and sisters in the Church Suffering by being sure to gain indulgences on their behalf.