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What does indulgence mean?
It is from the Latin word indulgentia, meaning ‘mercy’.
What is an indulgence?
Perhaps it might be clearer if it is laid out what an indulgence is not. An indulgence is not a permission to sin, nor is it a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power. It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it presupposes that sin has already been forgiven. It is not an exemption from any law or duty, much less an obligation consequent on certain kinds of sin, e.g. restoring stolen goods. It does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of future sin. It cannot be purchased, nor can it buy a person release from hell. It is not the Church’s version of a ‘Get-Out-of-Jail-Free’ card.
Once a sin is forgiven, there's nothing left. Surely God's work is done?
Imagine a Catholic called Fred goes to confession. Among his sins is the theft of £5000. That is quite a serious sin, and Fred is truly sorry for what he has done, and for the injury caused to the Jones family, bereft of their £5000. Fred confesses, and is sorry. The priest grants him absolution and gives him a penance. Frank, forgiven, once more a friend of God and filled with the Holy Spirit, goes home, has a nice cup of tea, and plans to spend his £5000 on a sunny holiday in the Mediterranean. Or is there something wrong here? Another Catholic, Hazel, goes to confession. Hazel has spread rumours that her neighbour Doris is having a torrid affair with the milkman. Doris has never been unfaithful, and Hazel knows it, yet she has done her best to ruin Doris’s reputation. Hazel is sorry and confesses. The priest grants her God’s forgiveness and gives her a penance. Hazel, once more at peace with God, goes home. Her friend Eileen rings to tell her that Doris has been having a torrid affair. ‘Oh dear,’ replies Hazel, and she says nothing more. Or is there something wrong here? It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that the work of the Holy Spirit is finished with absolution, once God’s forgiveness has been granted. Fred has been forgiven his heinous theft, and Hazel her salacious gossip. The Spirit has done his work. So the matter is finished. Or is it?
What else needs to be done?
A lot of damage has been caused by their sins. Fred has damaged the Joneses, and the effects of his theft may continue to have repercussions. Hazel has ruined Doris’s reputation. It is not enough for them to say, ‘God forgives’, and do nothing. Both of them ought to do something about it, and the work of the Holy Spirit is not over with the end of confession. Fred, forgiven by God, cannot spend the money on himself. He ought to give it back. This giving back is what we call ‘restitution’. It is a recognition that one’s sins, apart from separating one from God, do damage in the world. By her sin, Hazel not only separated herself from God’s friendship, she objectively damaged Doris’s reputation. God’s forgiveness undoes the damage of Fed and Hazel having separated themselves from God. But even after God’s forgiveness has been granted, the damage done to the Joneses, Doris, and others remains out in the world. So the Holy Spirit does not only bring about the forgiveness of sins, the restoration of Fred and Hazel to communion with God. The Holy Spirit also prompts Fred to restore the money he has taken, and prompts Hazel to restore the good reputation she has taken away from Doris. Even after our sins are forgiven, the Holy Spirit prompts us to our duty to undo and repair the damage our sins have caused.
Do our sins cause any other damage?
Our sins damage other people. They also damage ourselves. Apart from assailing or destroying God’s friendship with us, our sins change the sort of person we are. Fred was making himself more and more into an unjust kind of man who takes from others what rightly belongs to them. Hazel was making herself into a liar and a gossip, someone who disregards the truth. Fred and Hazel need to undo the damage they have done to the Joneses and Doris, and they also need to undo the damage they have done to themselves. Even after our sins have been forgiven, they leave behind damage to others and to ourselves, so the Holy Spirit’s work is not finished with forgiveness. When we sin, we make ourselves that bit more selfish, that bit more turned in on ourselves, that bit more lacking in virtue, that bit more attached to the things we ought not be attached to, as well as separating ourselves from God. As well as interrupting our friendship with God, sin leaves a certain lack of order in ourselves, a certain lack of spiritual health. But when the Spirit of God brings us forgiveness and restores us to friendship with God, he also begins the work of repairing the damage we have done to ourselves. The Spirit prompts us to selflessness, to turn away from ourselves and towards God, to grow in virtue and holiness, to detach ourselves from sinful ways, to be attached more firmly to God. The things we do at the Spirit’s prompting to undo the damage of our sins to others we call ‘restitution’. And the things he prompts us to do to repair the damage caused by our sins to ourselves we call ‘penance’. Penances are ways we turn back to God; penances are ways God moves us to repair the damage done to us by our sins, to heal us of the lack of spiritual health left behind by our sins.
What then are the consequences of sin?
in damages others and ourselves. In terms of ourselves, sin has a two-fold consequence. First, it affects our friendship with God, and if the sin is serious, it loses that friendship with God altogether, and God’s forgiveness restores that friendship. Secondly, sin has an effect on us, that residual lack of spiritual health. The Church calls both these effects ‘punishments’. By this term, the Church does not mean that they are some kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, as though God saw us sin and capriciously sent us some punishment to undergo. Instead, the ‘punishment’ follows from the nature of the sin. If Fred should go and get hideously drunk on Saturday night, on Sunday he will probably have a hangover—the natural effect of getting hideously drunk. God does not look on drunkards and think, ‘I will send them hangovers’. Rather, a hangover is a natural punishment from abusing alcohol. It is not an extrinsic vengeance imposed by God from without. It is the same with the two consequences of sin, the punishments we have mentioned. Should I commit a serious sin, the separation of myself from God, the fact that I cease to be God’s friend, follows on naturally from the sin, just as surely as a hangover follows on from getting hideously drunk. The ‘punishment’ is the natural consequence of the sin. The same applies to the second kind of punishment. God does not see my sin and decide, ‘I will make him that bit more selfish and spiritually unhealthy.’ My lack of spiritual health and order are natural consequences of my sinning.
Is there a difference betwen these punishments?
The punishment affecting our eternal relationship with God, the punishment which follows on from a serious sin which disrupts our friendship with God, is called ‘eternal punishment’. God’s forgiveness, imparted to us especially in the sacrament of confession, undoes this punishment completely. The other punishment, the damage my sin does to me, that lack of spiritual health caused by sin, is called ‘temporal punishment’. It is not something which immediately affects my eternal relationship with God, but it is something which needs to be dealt with in time. Once I have been forgiven any eternal punishment has been remitted with me restored to God’s friendship. Yet there is still temporal punishment to undergo, which is to say, there is still damage done to me by my sins and that damage needs to be repaired and healed, even though the sins have already been forgiven. Undergoing one’s temporal punishment or doing penance is a very positive thing for Christians. It helps to correct us, restore us, put us back on the right track with God. An old technical term for doing penance was ‘making satisfaction’, which may give the false impression of a smug God who forgives grudgingly and demands penance to satisfy him. The term actually means ‘making complete’. Penance is restorative, a radical reorientation of our whole life to God, a conversion of all our heart, a turning away from sin and evil, a resolution to change one’s life, hoping in God’s mercy and trusting in the grace of his Holy Spirit. Penance is thus an interior renewal expressed in outward actions, outward actions which themselves nurture our interior renewal.
What if one is too weak to do Penance?
In the early Church penance could be very hard and severe. This was especially the case with the three big sins: adultery, murder, and apostasy. Penitents often did penance for many years, and sometimes were only reconciled at their death-beds. Not everyone was up to this. Here we encounter the doctrine of the Body of Christ, the fact that Christians are not isolated individuals, but are saved together in one body, they are members one of another, and in Christ they depend on one another in many ways. St Paul tells us to ‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’. For one who is unable to do penance this gives hope. Others in the Body of Christ can help to bear his burdens. From the beginning, Christians never left penitents to do their penance in complete isolation. The whole church surrounded them with prayers and offered intercession for them. And they could even join in penance with the penitent to take some of the load off those who could not bear it. The damage done by sin could be undone not only by the penance of the sinner, but also by what the other does together with him, bearing another’s burden, and so fulfilling the law of Christ. The Body of Christ is a real doctrine, and so we are not isolated in repairing the damage our sins have done: we can help each other, and the Holy Spirit can heal us by inspiring us to help in the healing of each other.
Is this what happened in the early church?
Yes. Christians in prison, about to be martyred, would agree that their own sufferings should remit the penances of those who could not bear them. These reductions of penances on account of the prayers and good works of other Christians continued into the Middle Ages. The more severe penances of the early Church gave way to a system of reduction of penances based on mercy. This is based on the doctrine of the Body of Christ: that we all depend on one another and can benefit one another in Christ, bearing one another’s burdens. This is what indulgences are all about.
What is the definition of an indulgence?
It is ‘a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven’. So it is not a remission of eternal punishment, but of temporal; it is not about getting the sinner forgiven and restoring friendship with God, but about undoing and repairing the damage done to us by our sins. An indulgence is a reduction of the penance that is necessary to heal us of our spiritual sickness. On the surface it means that the penance we have to do is less. More deeply it means that the Body of Christ – other Christians, the Church – has come to our help and brought their good works (done under the influence of the Holy Spirit) to our aid. So we have not had to heal ourselves by ourselves; we have been healed by the Spirit moving other members of the Body of Christ to our aid.
Can the church grant indulgences?
Yes, she can, because God has given a certain gift to the Church. He gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter, the power to bind and to loose to Peter and the other apostles. If God has given such a gift to the Church, then the Church can apply the wonderful things Christ and Christ’s saints have done to our benefit, and God will say yes to the Church’s prayers.
What must I do to receive an indulgence?
It is not enough to throw a drowning man a rope: he must take hold of it. To benefit from the Church’s help, you need in the first place the general intention of receiving indulgences. The Church lays down four general grants for receiving indulgences. First, while performing your duties and enduring the difficulties of life, you raise your mind in humble trust to God and call on him, either aloud or in your mind. Secondly, when in a spirit of faith you devote yourself or your goods in compassionate service to someone in need. Thirdly, when in a spirit of turning back to God you freely give up something which is actually a good thing and something which you like. Fourthly, when you freely give to others a clear witness to the faith in everyday things.
By how much is my Penance reduced? How much do they repair the damage by sins have done?
In the past the Church measured them by the old system of public penance. An indulgenced prayer might have ‘10 days’ written under it, meaning that the benefit of this prayer said in a good spirit was equivalent to 10 days of fasting under the old system. As long as people knew about the old system, that ‘10 days’ would have automatic meaning for them. Now that the old system is well beyond the experience of anyone living, the Church does not try to quantify indulgences. Whatever benefit is accrued to us by activities inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Church doubles by indulgences. These are ‘partial indulgences’. A ‘plenary indulgence’ is one which restores us to full spiritual health. It requires a lot more than a partial indulgence. The Church offers her prayers here for those who not only do the particular prayer or good work, but also go to confession, receive communion, pray for the pope’s intentions, and are completely detached from sin, however slight that sin might be.
Can indulgences by applied to the dead?
Yes, but only by way of suffrage (i.e. the living offering it on behalf of the dead). Purgatory is good news for those who die without being healed of all the bad effects of their sins. Just because their healing isn’t completed in this life doesn’t mean they must spend eternity with spiritual sickness. God has ways of healing for us: in this life through penances by which we turn back to him, and in the next life through what we call ‘purgatory’. Dead Christians are still members of the Body of Christ, and so the Church allows us to gain indulgences for the dead. What does this mean? It means that instead of the benefits of this prayer or act coming to heal the effects of my own sins, I ask God to accept it for the healing of the dead, to help them to full spiritual health so that they can enjoy heaven as they should.