According to the current Code of Canon Law, an indulgence can obtain for us “the remission in the sight of God of the temporal punishment due for sins, the guilt of which has already been forgiven” (CIC 992). Perhaps this is the first common misunderstanding. There is a difference between original forgiveness of guilt and the temporal punishment due for sins.
But to be honest, the very idea of indulgences throws some people off. Does the idea of indulgences undermine the doctrine of grace? If God has already forgiven you, why is there still an extra step?
The difference between forgiveness and the necessity of temporal punishment can be illustrated from real life. If I toss a brick through someone’s window, they may forgive me, but justice demands that I also make restitution for the debt I now owe to this individual. I need to at least offer to buy them a new window. The temporal punishment for my sin remains and requires restitution. Forgiveness of past guilt is not the same as the satisfaction or punishment due to the sin.
Yes, our sins are forgiven, but the effects of our sins remain in our soul. If a person breaks their arm and then undergoes medical treatment to be healed, they may have the full use of their arm restored but their injury leaves their arm with a new internal weakness. Their arm is healed but now weaker than it was before. An analogous situation exists in the spiritual life.
Our sins leave an effect on our soul, a type of spiritual weakness, which is not removed by divine forgiveness. As the Catechism notes, “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused [Council of Trent (1551) DS: 1712]. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance’” (CCC 1459). Sin has the power to deform our souls and the forgiveness of our guilt does not automatically remove this deformity.
We can work on this debit through our own penance, but we can also receive special grace from the Church in the form of an indulgence. While our own penance can be applied to the temporal debit of our sins, we also believe that this penance can be stored up and applied to others, both the living and the dead in Christ through means of an indulgence.
The ‘spiritual goods’ found in the communion of saints are called the Church’s treasury (CCC 1476). This treasury includes the merits of Christ which ‘can never be exhausted’ (CCC 1476). In addition to the satisfactions and merits of Christ’s Redemption, we also have the spiritual goods of the communion of saints. By virtue of the power of ‘binding and loosing’ the Church intervenes for the sinner and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints (CCC 1478). Through the Mystical Body of Christ, the merits of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints are stored up as a treasury which the Church can apply to the temporal punishment due for our sins and also for those who have died in Christ.
Our union with Christ connects us to the Mystical Body of Christ. This connection is both positive and negative. There are no private sins, as our offences against God effect the whole body of Christ. The good news is that the graces we receive are also shared and these outweigh the burden of sin. We call this connection the Communion of Saints (CCC 1474-1477). As the Apostle Paul writes; “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). By our cooperation with the work of God’s grace we become part of his ongoing work of redemption.
But hasn’t the Church abandon this practice as outdated? Aren’t indulgences something the Church reformed and abandoned after the council of Trent, or at least after Second Vatican Council? Although there is certainly a colorful history to indulgences, the Church has continued to affirm its belief in this practice.
Sparking the fire of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, in his famous ‘95 Theses,’ complained about the abuse of indulgences. Similar abuses were condemned already at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and then again at the Council of Trent (1551). Finally, echoing Trent, Pope St. Pius V banned all indulgences that involved any kind of collection (1567). In effect the Church banned the sale of indulgences and emphasized instead indulgences as spiritual acts of piety.
The question of the legitimacy of indulgences came up again at Second Vatican Council. The Austrian and German bishops feared that this doctrine would harm future ecumenical relations. After enduring a lively debate on the subject, Pope Paul VI, issued an Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina (1967) which affirmed the theological foundations for indulgences and reformed the titles and classifications of indulgences. He also called for the creation of a Manual of Indulgences (1999) by the Apostolic Penitentiary. These regulations are still in effect today.
As far as concerns about future ecumenical relations, who could have predicted that in 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation would have signed a document known as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification affirming a common understanding of the doctrine of grace.
Pope Francis has noted that he wishes this coming year’s Jubilee Indulgence to be a genuine experience of God’s mercy. To obtain the Indulgence, the faithful are called to make a brief pilgrimage to a shrine in which the Holy Door of Mercy is opened.
The conditions necessary to obtain this indulgence include the work of pilgrimage to a shrine, being in a state of grace at least at the time the indulgenced work is completed; having the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin; having sacramentally confessed their sins; receiving the Holy Eucharist (preferably while participating in Holy Mass); and offering some prayer for the intentions of the Pope. Preferably these acts would be performed on the same day as the pilgrimage, but it is sufficient that these sacred rites and prayers be carried out within several days (about 20) before or after the indulgenced act. The indulgence can be earned for oneself or for the deceased.
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.