Externals of the Catholic Church – Indulgences

The Catholic doctrine and practice of Indulgences deserve and need a thorough explanation. Few points in our religion are so little understood. Many of the devotions performed by the faithful have been enriched by the Church with these spiritual favors; we find that certain prayers or pious works procure an indulgence of forty days, or seven years, or in some cases a plenary indulgence – and a large proportion of Catholics will fulfill the prescribed conditions and gain the indulgence without having a very clear idea of what they are gaining.

There is no Catholic teaching which has been so persistently misrepresented by non-Catholic writers. The average essayist who attempts to treat of the events which led up to the so-called Reformation generally assails this matter of indulgences with much vehemence. According to such authorities, the strenuous and whole-souled Luther rose in his might against papal decrees which gave a full forgiveness of sin to those who paid for it. The indulgences granted by Leo X were even, they say, “a license to commit sin.” The Roman power in the sixteenth century is alleged to have been so degraded that it publicly proclaimed that the giving of money for the building of Saint Peter’s Church would ensure “the pardon of all past sins and the condoning of all future offences,” no matter how grievous they might be. Such are the statements gravely set forth by “historians” – and every word of them is a falsehood.

The Meaning of an Indulgence

What is an indulgence? It is not a forgiving of sins already committed. It is not a license or permission to commit sin, nor a pardon for sins that may be committed in the future. It is not a pardon for sin at all.

It is a remission of the punishment which is still due to sin after its guilt has been taken away by the sacrament of Penance. This remission is made by applying to the repentant sinner’s soul the “treasure of merit” which the Church possesses.

Now this definition requires some explanation, and of an accurate kind; for the matter is somewhat abstruse, and misunderstanding is easy.

An indulgence never forgives sin. The guilt and the eternal punishment of sin must be taken away by other means, chiefly by the sacraments of Baptism and Penance; and, as we know, these cannot be of any avail to the soul in actual sin unless it is aroused to sincere and supernatural sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment. Before an indulgence can be gained, the soul must be free from mortal sin; that is, the guilt must be washed away and the eternal penalty which is deserved must be remitted – and until this is done there can be no question of an indulgence.

An indulgence cannot give a permission for future sins. The very thought of any such license is abominable and blasphemous. The Church strives to overcome evil, to inculcate virtue; and if she should countenance or connive at vice in any form she would be an agent of the devil, not the “mystical Body of Christ.”

We see, then, that an indulgence cannot be “an encouragement to sin,” or “a license or permission to sin,” as some of our non-Catholic critics have asserted. It is rather a very salutary and powerful motive to repentance and to virtue.

Temporal Punishment

An indulgence takes away temporal punishment. The teaching of our faith is that after God through His Church’s sacraments has forgiven our sins, after the eternal punishment has been remitted, a temporal punishment often remains. It docs not remain after sins have been remitted through Baptism; this first of the sacraments annuls both guilt and penalty entirely. If a sinner received Baptism validly and worthily, and died before sinning again, there would be for him no Purgatory, no delay in entering Heaven.

But the forgiveness imparted in the sacrament of Penance is less efficacious. After the guilt of mortal sin has been washed away by it, although there is no longer any fear of eternal punishment for the sins forgiven, there may remain a temporal penalty which (unless it be remitted) must be expiated before Heaven can be attained. It may be “worked out” wholly or partially in this world – by penances, mortifications, devotions, almsdeeds and other good works. If it remains on the soul at death it necessitates a stay in Purgatory – how long, in any particular case, we do not know; or it may be remitted by the Church through indulgences – and this remission may be accomplished while we are living in this world, or (through the charity of others) after we have been sentenced by Divine Justice to purgatorial pains.

The Treasury of Merit

When the Catholic Church grants indulgences, she is able to do so because she has access to an infinite store of merit, gained by our Blessed Saviour and the saints. Our Redeemer’s merits were sufficient, of course, to satisfy for all guilt and all penalty due to sin; His Church dispenses them to us. The Blessed Virgin Mary lived a life of perfect holiness; she did not need the abundant merits which she acquired, for she had no sins to atone for – and the Church can use her merits also for us. Many of the saints (not only the great and famous ones, but the multitudes concerning whose names or histories we know nothing) acquired far more merit before God than was needed for their own salvation. Now these merits have not ceased to exist. They are not lost. They are stored up, as it were, by Almighty God, and the Church makes use of them for those who need them, since those who gained them do not require them – just as if in some Utopian commonwealth all the surplus wealth of the successful citizens should be set apart for the poor and needy, and portioned out to them according to their necessities.

Two Kinds of Indulgences

Indulgences may be either plenary (Latin “plenus,” full, entire), which remit all the temporal punishment; or partial, which take away only a part of it. For the gaining of a plenary indulgence especially, it is necessary that it should be proclaimed by the Church and that the required conditions be fulfilled – one of these being the detestation of all sin and the purpose of avoiding even the least venial sin. Thus we can seldom be certain that we have gained the whole of a plenary indulgence, as we cannot be usually sure that we have thoroughly complied with these conditions.

Indulgences may be also considered as temporal and perpetual, personal, local, etc., but these divisions refer merely to their duration and extent, and need not interest us now. Nor can we explain in detail the almost innumerable particular indulgences which the Church has granted in the course of centuries.

Who Can Grant Indulgences?

The principal legislative power in the Church, the centre of her authority, is the Roman See; and to it primarily belongs the power of granting indulgences. This is shared, however, by other rulers in the Church to a limited extent. Plenary indulgences are usually granted by the Pope alone, though he may permit others to do so. Cardinals, certain Roman Congregations, papal delegates, primates, archbishops and bishops who are in charge of a diocese have a restricted power of granting partial indulgences.

How Indulgences are Gained

A person desiring to obtain any indulgence must, of course, be a member of the Church. He must perform the work enjoined exactly as it is prescribed. He must be in the state of grace at least before he finishes that work. For the gaining of plenary indulgences, as stated above, there must be also an earnest detestation of all sin and a firm purpose of avoiding it; and for these indulgences, in most cases, the Church insists on confession, Holy Communion and prayer for the Pope’s intention. The nature and amount of this prayer is not specified, but usually five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys are deemed sufficient.

The History of Indulgences

The present practice of the Church regarding indulgences is the evolution of twenty centuries. Changes have been introduced, but they are changes of circumstances, not of principles.

In primitive times the discipline of the Church towards sinners was very severe. Heavy penalties, known as “canonical penances,” were exacted for grave sins; but if the penitent manifested extraordinary signs of contrition, these penalties were shortened and lessened, and this was done especially when persecutions were going on. It frequently happened in those days that thousands of Christians were in prison, suffering much and awaiting death. Their martyrdom was sure to effect their eternal salvation. They often wrote to the Pope or bishops a “letter of peace,” offering their merits and sufferings as a substitute for the canonical penances demanded of some other Christians who were being disciplined for sins. The penalties imposed upon these latter were then remitted, and they were not only restored to full membership in the Church, but they received remission of their temporal punishment in the sight of God. Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, tells us: “God can set down to the sinner’s account whatever the martyrs have asked and the bishops have done for them.”

Later on, as the law of canonical penances was made less rigorous, the Church often allowed a lesser work in place of a greater. Alms to the poor, the endowing of churches and monasteries, pilgrimages to holy places, and even short prayers – all of these were considered equivalent to many days or even years of severe penance; and here we find the reason why indulgences are entitled “of forty days,” “of one year,” etc. These words do not imply, as some might think, that by a certain prayer or good work we take away forty days or a year of Purgatory for ourselves or another. They mean that we get as much benefit (for ourselves or for a soul in Purgatory) as we would if we performed the severe canonical penances of former times for forty days or one year.

Plenary indulgences seem to have been granted only from about the eleventh century, and they were probably first given to the Crusaders. Pope Urban II decreed that “their journey would take the place of all penance,” and later Pontiffs gave similar spiritual privileges to those who went to fight for the Holy Sepulchre or gave money for these expeditions.

From that epoch the history of indulgences becomes better known. They were given very freely by many Popes and for various reasons – for the dedication of churches, the canonization of saints, etc. Later on, certain great and popular devotions were enriched with indulgences, so that now they are attached to almost every pious practice. Even articles of devotion, such as crucifixes, medals, etc., may have these spiritual benefits annexed to them, for the advantage of the faithful who use them devoutly.

Indulgences for the Souls

The application of indulgences to departed souls which are in a state of penitential suffering is of rather ancient date. We find a mention of it in the ninth century, when Popes Pascal I and John VIII bestowed such indulgences on the souls of those who had died in defence of the Church or Christian civilization; and in succeeding ages it became customary to proclaim nearly all indulgences as applicable not only to the living person who performed the prescribed work, but also to such departed ones as he wished to aid.

How does the Church possess such power? These souls in Purgatory are no longer subjects of the Church on earth; how, then, can she legislate in their favor? The answer is not difficult. She has no actual power over these souls. She cannot help them directly nor by any law-making authority. She only entreats God to accept the superabundant merits of Christ and His saints, and to dispense these merits for the entire or partial relief of those who are in Purgatory. She leaves the giving of these merits to God, trusting to His infinite mercy for the relief of His friends who are suffering in penitential fires.

This beautiful doctrine and practice of our Church shows us the loving maternal spirit which animates her. Penance is necessary for us, her children; for even when God’s mercy has extended forgiveness to us, we still have reparation to make and a penalty to pay. But the Church wishes to make our penalty small, and she can do so because we are members of a great spiritual society which not only has been heaping up a vast treasure of merit for nearly two thousand years, but has access also to the infinite merits of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are a part of the great corporation which controls that spiritual treasure; and as we are needy, as we ourselves deserve little from God’s hands except punishment, the Church gives us a share in this accumulated merit. And even after our earthly life is over, if we need God’s mercy, we receive it by the prayers of His Church, of which we shall still be members. He will lessen or totally remit our deserved punishment because of the indulgences gained for us by those who are still on earth and still able to merit.