Removal of the temporal punishment from sin can be earned, but not bought
by Graham Osborne
Photo Caption: King David in Prayer, a 17th century painting by Pieter de Grebber, shows David repenting for sinning with Bathsheba. However, his actions still had consequences. ( wikipedia.org )
Indulgences are probably one of the Catholic Church’s most misunderstood and controversial teachings.
Many associate indulgences with the buying and selling of forgiveness of sins – even with "buying” entrance into heaven or out of hell. But nothing could be further from the truth. Let me explain.
Every sin we commit has a just consequence or punishment attached to it. And while we may in fact be truly sorry for a particular sin, and perhaps go to confession and have it forgiven, there can still be an effect of that forgiven sin that remains.
Sin injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbour. Absolution in confession forgives sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin can cause [CCC 1459].
When King David sinned with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan condemned David for this [2 Samuel 12:13-14]. David truly repented of this sin, and Nathan said that God had indeed forgiven him, but there were punishments that would remain: the child from the union would die, David’s wives would be publicly “shamed,” and “the sword would never leave his house.”
Another example. Your son carelessly throws a rock through the neighbour’s window. Afterwards, he is truly sorry and confesses to your neighbour, who forgives him. Nevertheless, the restoration of the damaged window remains, and that comes out of your son’s own pocket.
Indulgences have nothing to do with forgiving sins, but they have everything to do with the removal of a particular punishment or consequence attached to a forgiven sin. The Church’s term for this consequence is “temporal punishment.”
The Church teaches that sin can have both eternal and temporal punishment attached to it, depending on how serious the sin is –whether it is grave/mortal or venial. The eternal punishment attached to mortal sin can normally only be forgiven in sacramental confession [there are exceptions, see Catechism 1451-1452].
But the temporal punishment remaining after any sin is forgiven can only be removed or purified either here on earth, or after death in the purifying state called Purgatory [see my previous column on Purgatory].
This is where indulgences fit in. God, in his mercy, has made it possible for this temporal punishment to be removed by an “indulgence”, a remission or removal before Him of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.
The Church teaches that this “remission” is done by the authority that Jesus Himself gave to it in Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven … whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven … whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” [also Mat 18:18]. By this authority to “bind and loose,” the Church is able to draw on the great treasury of rewards/merits that have been won for us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross [and by the merits gained by the saints as well, united with Jesus’ sacrifice, CCC 1475-77].
It then makes this treasury available to those who desire to avail themselves of it, allowing it to be mercifully accessed and applied to them to help make satisfaction or expiation for the “damage” or temporal punishment that can still remain after their sins are forgiven.
The format for an indulgence usually includes prayer, the performance of specified acts, sacrifices and good works, along with the reception of the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist, all with a proper intention of repentance and detachment from sin.
It’s interesting that some have such an issue with this teaching, as most Christians wouldn’t even question the idea of the effect of sin being removed through prayer. The concept of an indulgence is essentially the same – asking God for the remitting of just consequences to sin. Indulgences are simply an incredible, merciful gift of God, made available through his Church.
Have there been abuses of this teaching? Yes, particularly around the time of the Reformation. Good things can sometimes be abused and there were people who had warped the understanding and proper application of indulgences. Even some clergy were “selling” indulgences and misrepresenting their benefits.
So was Martin Luther right in condemning the abuse of indulgences by some? Certainly. If his work to reform the practice of certain individuals in the Church had ended there, his efforts may have ultimately been praiseworthy.
But in the end, where he erred grievously was attacking the Church’s actual teachings and authority – first rejecting the specific doctrine of indulgences, rather than just their abuse, and then denying other teachings after that.
Eventually, he would radically and completely reject the authority of the Catholic Church, and in its place, adopt the novel idea of the authority of the “Bible alone” in guiding the believer. It would be this fatal error that would result in the greatest fracturing of Christianity that the world has ever seen.
We are still reeling from its effects today. “There are as many beliefs as there are heads,” Luther would ultimately lament in his old age. And it all started with indulgences.