Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

22 January 2016

I Beg Your Indulgence

Starting off a post or speech with a dictionary definition is considered a cliché, so I will operate somewhat differently with this treatment of indulgences. They are considered a controversial concern among Catholics and our separated brethren, so much so that one hardly hears of them anymore. But that hasn't stopped the Catholic Church from offering and promoting indulgences, so we would do well to reflect upon their nature and purpose. This is especially the case in view of Pope Francis' declaration of a special "Jubilee Year of Mercy" and the particular indulgences that one can gain "for a limited time only."

I shall offer piecemeal the definition that Pope Paul VI offered in his 1967 (post-Vatican II!) apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina, cited in the second edition (2000) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington: USCCB. §1471).

As you might expect, it starts, "An indulgence is..." My commentary follows each segment, as you also might expect.
Here is the entire definition, posted to minimize scrolling: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the 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." "An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
a remission before God
Before the definition proper, the CCC entry reminds us: "The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of penance." The sacrament of penance is, and forever shall be, the ordinary forum in which the Triune God imparts His mercy to Catholics. Here a duly-authorized priest declares,
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace; and I absolve you of your sins (+) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There'd be no reason for Jesus to declare to the apostles on the night of His resurrection, "Whose sins you forgive shall be forgiven them" (Jn 20:23), if He was not thereby entrusting them with the gift, mystery, and responsibility of mercy. As a hospital chaplain whose daily docket includes many marginal Catholics, I often find myself--I hate to use the word, "defending," but certainly presenting the rationale for sacramental reconciliation. It's a planting of seeds.

of the temporal punishment due to sins
Modern educational movements have moved away from the notion of punishment in favor of "consequences," suggesting that the teacher isn't being a meanie by taking away recess privileges for talking out of line or giving a zero grade for cheating. Rather, teacher and students mutually understand Y is what happens when you do X: it "follows" as a consequence of the disharmony and is not so much doled out as a punishment. Carrying the idea into the theological realm: God isn't displaying cruelty by sending an unrepentant sinner to hell; the descent into hell is the logical next and final step that such a person would take.

Cf. CCC 1472: "To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain." (emphasis mine)

"Temporal": this has not to do not merely with clock time (L tempus; or in Gk, kronos) but with any earthly effects of sin upon the sinner himself or those whom he has wronged. These consequences also can extend beyond the end of this life in "purgatory." When a harm is wrought, the virtue of justice (divine as well as human) demands satisfaction for that harm.

whose guilt has already been forgiven
The classic example is of the boy who breaks a window by throwing a baseball through it. His parents forgive him, but his parents rightly insist he pay for the window. The Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation) forgives our sins, but we are granted the grace of cooperating with our restoration so we can "own" it. As with much else in life, we can't often take full or even partial credit for what we have, except that we were receptive to it. Forgiveness is, by God, "what we have."

There is another dimension of our past sins that may haunt us: in this life we cannot fully know the "ripple effects" of every sinful action or failure to act. Spiritual, emotional, and even physical consequences, extending around us and through generations, can serve to remind us of what we, or others, have done. When the past action is ours, we pray for mercy upon ourselves and for those we may have harmed; when the past action is another's, we pray for the person(s) and for all who have been affected or may yet be affected by them. Here, "it's the thought that counts," really does count for something, when it is united to the Divine Mind and Will.

The Devil is known to capitalize upon our realization of those temporal effects as they unravel, so that they become a source of torment and discouragement. Under the mantle of Our Lady and her Son, we need not be utterly confounded by the effects of our sins upon us and others, though we may shake our head and shed a tear at times. We must know this for certain and be assured of it: what we have confessed with sincere sorrow, God has forgiven and forgotten. When ripple effects unfold, we must persevere in the life of grace, doing the next right thing as promptly and quietly as possible, making interior declarations ("acts") of faith in the Lord's power and mercy toward us.

which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed
The "faithful Christian" does his or her best to observe the "precepts of the Catholic Church": attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist, observing the Church's disciplines regarding fasting and abstinence from meat, contributing to the temporal needs of the Church as generously as circumstances allow. To be "faithful" is not to be "perfect," but to be moving toward perfection by way of persistence, trust, and compassion. Due disposition to the reception of indulgences is nothing less than being "in the state of grace," to the best of one's awareness.

This last matter too can become an occasion of anxiety. Doubtless you've heard the story of Saint Joan of Arc: when her captors tried to torment her by asking whether she was in the state of grace, she famously and pithily replied, "If I am, may God keep me there; if I am not, may He put me there." If we are not aware of an unconfessed grave sin, we are likely in the state of grace.

Modern catechesis has eschewed that last phrase, perhaps objecting to a static understanding of spirituality as a "condition" or to sacraments as "things." Although the sacraments have a necessary, constitutive material dimension, they are expressions of our living relationship with the Triune God.

gains under certain prescribed conditions
These conditions traditionally include: being in the state of grace, going to Confession within a reasonable time period before or after the indulgenced prayer or action, and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father (see the website of the Apostleship of Prayer for details). Intentionally desiring the indulgence seems necessary, too; if I wanted to stretch the possibilities, I would say that a habitual interest in gaining indulgences, together with a regular reception of Confession, suffices. Here as elsewhere, the more mindful we are, the better.

through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority
Just as sacramental absolution occurs "through the ministry of the Church" (see above), so does the Church carry out the activity of indulgences by Our Lord's directive. If you were to ask, "By His explicit directive?" meaning, "Is that in the Bible? Huh?" I would have to answer, "There are many words not explicitly found in the Bible, but there are many concepts that the Church's Tradition and Magisterium have given flesh to through 2,000 years of experience and reflection." Purgation of our temporal attachment to and punishment for sin is one of these realities. Sure, we can mention "Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny" (Mt 5:26) as a reference to the thorough fulfillment of just sentences. And we can get into the atonement sacrifice offered in 2 Maccabees, but it wouldn't much matter if you don't admit that book as canonized Scripture. We might as well pack up our marbles and go home, because I've lost my chops for argumentation. I'm liable to just stick out my tongue at you and walk away, thereby meriting more purgation.

Who would dare to affirm that he or she is fully prepared to participate in the Life of the Trinity? If I were to die today, I wouldn't be so prepared; but (Thou knowest, O Lord!) I believe, hope, pray that I would be disposed to that Life. God knows how I need to be cleansed of my many and profound attachments to sin.

Much of the contention about indulgences centers on this phrase the Church...minister of redemption. "Do you affirm that Jesus formed, instituted, and authorized the Apostles, their successors, coworkers, and followers as the very Church that continues the saving work of His Kingdom in the world?" That is the crucial question; if it sounds legalese, that's how I write. An affirmative answer will render indulgences not merely palatable, but rather worthwhile and helpful in our personal participation in the redemptive endeavor.

the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.
This clause follows the "crucial question" posed just above. If "Jesus formed...the Church that continues the saving work of His Kingdom in the world," then how exactly does the Church do that? Each person's daily perseverance in holiness and mission is like a coin in the pot of "satisfactions of Christ and the saints." Head and members are all in on it. Naturally (Grace-fully) Jesus' contribution--His life, Passion and atoning Death--is primary. A close second is the life and com-passion of Our Lady. But the bond of Baptism unites all the baptized to the Head in such a way that our moral and sacramental lives, including our repentances, form the significant contribution of redeemed humanity.

We gain indulgences by offering works of prayer and/or charity that we intentionally unite to the work of Christ and the Saints in cooperation with the salvation of the world. Prayers and other good actions share in the eternal merit of God's action for us. All goodness comes from God. And yet, nobody forces us to do what we do. We experience our free will in the very exercise of it; we are not in fact being moved about like a marionette as we go about doing good (or evil!). Therefore our participation in the world's goodness is actual...and "satisfactual," precisely because God, the Source and Motive of all Goodness, is at work in us as we work.

While not every act of virtue is an indulgence per se, it is a participation in Christ's action that is of some use to the execution of His redemptive plan for humanity. Indulgences are what one might call the "blue-light specials" of the already-great savings offered by our commerce in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. They are specially offered opportunities to intentionally unite our prayers and sacrifices to Christ for the good of ourselves and others.

An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.
Unresolved temporal punishment due to sin is the stuff that God purifies from the soul through our acceptance of the trials of this life and through the residual, mysterious work of Purgatory. The power of Confession is such that all sin is forgiven, except in the case where a person intentionally withholds a sin out of shame or pride, which invalidates the whole confession. We traditionally say that such an unworthy Confession is sacrilegious, because it defies the purpose of Confession and flouts the proper exercise of it (i.e. honest thoroughness).

It is a good practice to have in mind as a habitual intention the forgiveness of all forgotten sins. In this matter we simply ask God's help and do the best we can at the moment. It is unnecessary and unhelpful to re-confess particular sins, except in the context of discussion with a priest-spiritual director when you are unpacking the previously unrecognized crevices of the past. And even there, a good confessor will urge caution, because the line between conscientiousness and scrupulosity is wafer-thin.
Would that people become more conscientious without descending into scrupulosity! The latter is not a sin, but rather a mental wound, a species of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which more than errs on the side of conscientiousness in favor of a debilitating level of attention. Our addiction-prone world might more quickly favor casualness or laxity in some matters--though this suggestion may itself reflect the "all-or-nothing" thinking so familiar to addicts. Most well-meaning people, I suppose, fall somewhere along the spectrum of laxity-to-scrupulosity. And even there you will find inconsistencies in how individuals demonstrate along the spectrum, depending on what interests them. Such is life.
The textbook (Enchiridion, Greek for "item in the hand") on Indulgences was revised a few decades ago, establishing two categories of indulgences. "Plenary," the full remission of temporal punishment, was already around. "Partial" was the umbrella term that took in previous values such as days, years, and "quarantines" (forty-day stints) that had been assigned to prayers and actions. Certain prayers (e.g., "My Jesus, Mercy!"), known as ejaculations (because you kinda just "threw them out there"--Latin e, out of + jacere, to throw), might have received "300 days, once a day," or "300 days, each time [said]", or "7 years and 7 quarantines," depending on how the Church had classified them.

Numeric values could lead to a legalistic notion of gaining indulgences akin to that national debt clock that just keeps on increasing. Of course we want to pray regularly and mindfully; St. Paul urged us to pray "without ceasing" (1Th 5:16). That exhortation provides the background for the Desert Dwellers' famous "Jesus Prayer," which people to this day are known to recite, sometimes with the aid of knotted prayer ropes not unlike rosaries.

But if you thought the numbers were supposed to be "time off Purgatory," as if praying 30 "My Jesus, Mercy"s would rack up 3,000 fewer days you or the intended recipient would spend in Purgatory, you're wrong.

In the early centuries of the Church, "they" say that sacramental reconciliation tended to be reserved for graver sins (e.g. adultery), and graver sinners celebrated it on relatively few occasions in comparison to the ideal current practice. Penances were assigned and conducted publicly. They were exercises in humility: you might have stood outside where the community gathered for worship and asked their prayers.

Numerical values previously assigned to indulgenced prayers had some connection to the sentence-penances levied in the early Church. As the sacrament developed into the "auricular" (by ear) form we use today, some person or committee or whoever--probably over the course of time--attached numerical values to prayers. I guess there was a relative increase in value according to the content of the prayer or the action. I don't believe Confessors or ecclesiastical tribunals wrote up any kind of "invoice" for sins with corresponding penances, but it would not surprise me if such were the case, somewhere.

Charitable contributions are numerical in nature, especially when they deal with "legal tender." Can you see, then, what might give rise to the practice of promoting charitable contribution on the basis that it would relieve one's post-mortem purgation? Can you see how Dominican friar Johannes Tetzel's infamous alleged line, "When a penny in the coffer rings, another soul from Purgatory springs" could be subject to diverse, usually unfavorable interpretations throughout the vagaries of history (not unlike modern-day soundbites)? [It was originally in German, so it must have sounded even more curious.] Now we can surmise that there was some grace-graft going on, perhaps a lot of it; but we affirm that it definitely was a corruption of a good thing.

The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
And so, we must keep in mind the big picture: every prayer, every self-denial, and every offering participates in the goodness and mercy of God. Baptized Christians are granted the special privilege (and isn't every privilege a responsibility and a summons?) of "participating in the goodness and mercy of God" by intentional, profound repentance and regular Confession, by faithful reception of the Eucharist, and by prayer/service for the Church/world to whom they belong--in other words, by being a Catholic.

We can intend that the merits of Christ and the saints be applied to ourselves. It sounds like "banking" against the day of the Lord. Be extremely careful of the legalism of which this smacks. God is not mocked. Conscious and free participation in vice doesn't just get wiped away by mouthing prayers and doing good things for show. Can people benefit from those prayers and works? Sure, but "the Lord sees into the heart" (1 Sam 16:7, cf. Mt 6:6), and He is well known for bringing good out of evil even as the perpetrator of evil deserves--and the evil itself demands--redress.

It would seem to me that every prayer, self-denial, and offering of ours benefits us in some fashion. "The measure with which you measure will in turn be measured out to you" (Mt 7:2, one of the closest articulations to karma we have). Or again, "Wisdom is vindicated by her works" (Mt 11:19). Wouldn't it be best to think of others in need first, even if it suffices to give to "Father's Discretionary Fund," for God to distribute to whom He wills? If we need it, we can trust that we'll get it. After all, it is God's own life and love--Grace--which is not a thing anyhow, but a love-relationship.

The dead in-process-of-purification are the primary intended recipients of indulgences. We who still have legitimate control over our actions and affections want to express unto the dead the solidarity that for thousands of years has galvanized the Communion of Saints to do that thing they do. If we had any say in it, we'd hope that the intensity and duration of their mysterious post-mortem purification be no more than necessary. Of course, we should figure that our just God would want it that way, too; but the unification of our desire with God's is, after all, the aim of all prayer and charity.

Post-mortem purification is, at depth, a mystery. Nevertheless it contains within itself the seed and promise of life with the Trinity. The Being-Purified are being purified for something--the something which turns out to be everything. The dogma of purgatory is a corollary to the reality and relevance of sin. It further speaks to the justice that God and sin demand of sin's practitioners. But it pertains most of all to the mercy of God, who "desires that no one perish, but that all be saved and come to the knowledge of truth" (1 Tim 2:4).

Here is a splendid reflection on this subject matter, to which is attached another helpful primer on indulgences.