In the Year of Saint Paul: Indulgences...
Contrary to popular allegations, an indulgence is NOT not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; it is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; rather, it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven. It is not an exemption from any law or duty, and much less from the obligation consequent on certain kinds of sin, e.g., restitution; on the contrary, it means a more complete payment of the debt, through Christ, which the sinner owes to God for her personal sin. It does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of subsequent lapses into sin. Least of all is an indulgence the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer's salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory.
What is an indulgence? An indulgence is a means for the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has already been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of His saints.
In other words, an indulgence is a way whereby an act of our will can draw in faith on the merits of Christ to provide for our restoration after sin.
In his 1999 catechesis entitled "Indulgences are Expressions of God's Mercy," John Paul II explains the following:
"The starting-point for understanding indulgences is the abundance of God's mercy revealed in the Cross of Christ. The crucified Jesus is the great "indulgence" that the Father has offered humanity through the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of living as children (cf. Jn 1:12-13) in the Holy Spirit (cf. Cal 4:6; Rom 5:5; 8:15-16).
We can now understand how 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."
The Church has a treasury, then, which is "dispensed" as it were through indulgences. This "distribution" should not be understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were speaking of "things." It is instead the expression of the Church's full confidence of being heard by the Father when—in view of Christ's merits and, by his gift—she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace. In the unfathomable mystery of divine wisdom, this gift of intercession can also benefit the faithful departed, who receive its fruits in a way appropriate to their condition.
We can see, then, how indulgences, far from being a sort of "discount" on the duty of conversion, are instead an aid to its prompt, generous and radical fulfilment. This is required to such an extent that the spiritual condition for receiving a plenary indulgence is the exclusion "of all attachment to sin, even venial sin."
Therefore, it would be a mistake to think that we can receive this gift by simply performing certain outward acts. On the contrary, they are required as the expression and support of our progress in conversion. They particularly show our faith in God's mercy and in the marvelous reality of communion, which Christ has achieved by indissolubly uniting the Church to himself as his Body and Bride."
How could Catholic indulgences possibly relate to the teaching of St. Paul? More to come...