Blog Template Theology of the Body: Indulgences on the Road: Treasure Chests and the Treasury of Merit

Friday, March 20, 2009

Indulgences on the Road: Treasure Chests and the Treasury of Merit

If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. Philemon 1:18

The Catholic doctrine of the treasury of merit is based on the instructions of St. Paul to his distant friend regarding an escaped slave; just as Christ vicariously bore the punishment which was due to His friends, so St. Paul purports to provide the compensation which is owed by his transgressing friend. The same theological theme is vivid throughout the text of II Corinthians, wherein St. Paul continuously reminds his flock that he is willing to suffer in his body for their sakes, and in that way extend the redemption effected once and for all by grace through his own body: "For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body." (II Corinthians 4:11) Consider the even more poignant words of St. Paul in Colossians 1:24: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church."

The early Church had these texts of Scripture in mind when the early martyrs would famously cry out the names of their sinful friends, while on their way to face death for the sake of the Gospel. They named their friends as an act of intercession. The bishops and pastors who heard these requests were being asked to remit all that the transgressing friends had owed to the Christian community- as penance and restoration for their offenses against the community and the cause of Christ- by instead "charging" the sinners' debt to the incalculable worth of the martyrs' acts in laying their lives down out of love for Christ and their Christian brothers and sisters. In the name of the martyr, and for the sake of the grace of Christ at work in that martyr, the penitent sinner connected with the martyr was to be restored to full communion in the Body of Christ.

This is the underlying logic of the indulgence; the merits of the martyrs are still applied today to the needy penitent, who could never on his own hope to compensate forhis sins. This is possible because the superabundant merits of Christ are at work in the hearts, minds, wills, and bodies of the saints whom He calls to surrender all for Him. The Indulgentiarum Doctrina of Paul VI makes this idea explicit: "In an indulgence in fact, the Church, making use of its power as minister of the redemption of Christ, not only prays but by an authoritative intervention dispenses to the faithful who are suitably disposed the treasury of satisfaction which Christ and the saints won for the remission of temporal punishment." (Indulgence Doctrina VIII)

Contemporary historians put it this way: "those who grant indulgences pray in the name of the Church; they can, especially by reason of the communion of saints, call on the intercession and merits of the Church triumphant, on whose readiness to assist penitents they can count. That is the real meaning of the treasury of merits and of the control of the Church over it extracted from its metaphorical covering. If an indulgence is in this way primarily considered under the aspect of a prayer, and its jurisdictional effect restricted to the realm of the Church on earth, then the moral and religious scruples which are raised against its one-sided juridical formulation at once fall to the ground." (Bernhard Poschmann, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, 231)

The same intuition is at work in the explanation of the Church's tresury of merit which was offered by John Calvin himself:

Part of the sufferings of Christ still remains- viz. that which He suffered in himself He daily suffers in His members. Christ so honors us as to regard and count our afflictions as His own… for the Church, Paul means not for the redemption or reconciliation or satisfaction of the Church, but for edification and progress.” (Calvin, Institutes III.5.4)

Calvin supports his explanation of the Church's "treasury of merit" by drawing on Augustine:

"The sufferings of Christ are in Christ alone, as in the head; they are in Christ and the Church as in the whole body. Hence Paul, being one member, says “I fill up in my body that which is behind of the sufferings of Christ.’ Therefore oh hearers whoever you be, if you are among the members of Christ, whatever you suffer… was lacking to the sufferings of Christ.” (Augustine, In Ps. 16, qtd. Institutes III.5. 4)

... with all of this mind, I smiled to see that almost all of the medieval reliquaries on disply in various museums look exactly like little treasure chests. These beautiful boxes contained the relics of the bodies of those who suffered and died for Christ and His Church; and on seeing them, I found it to be unsurprising that the early Church, at prayer with and around these memorials, understood that they depended on a "treasury."