Indulgences: Some Useful Clarifications
Professor clarifies myths about practice of indulgences
March 31, 2009
As the controversy over a recent editorial in this newspaper illustrates, indulgences are easily misunderstood by non-Catholics and even by Catholics themselves. One cannot do justice to the topic of indulgences in a 680-word article, but at least the following clarifications can be offered.
Myth No. 1: Indulgences are a part of Catholicism's doctrine of works-based salvation.
There is a double myth here, that the Catholic Church has a "works-based" soteriology (it doesn't) and that indulgences stem from it. The key to understanding indulgences is not the prism of faith and works, but of what is called operative and cooperative grace. Operative grace is grace that God works in us without us, such as the gift of faith, which none of us deserve and for which none of us has meritoriously prepared ourselves. Receiving operative grace is like being brought back to life on the operating table after spiritually flat-lining. Cooperative grace, on the other hand, is akin to our cooperating with the Divine Physician in rehab, doing what he tells us in order to facilitate our recovery.
It is not that we are "healing ourselves" through our good works; rather, we are simply cooperating with the healing process orchestrated by the Physician. In Catholic life, indulgences can be one part of this healing process.
Myth No. 2: Indulgences are an "excuse" for sin or a "do-over" of some kind.
Indulgences do not forgive or re-forgive sins; they help to remove the effects of sins that have already been forgiven. Sin is not only a transgression against God; it is also a wounding of oneself and of one's community -- and wounds leave a lingering effect.
As St. Augustine puts it, there is a difference between having a poison dart removed and having the body recover afterwards. Hence the total triumph over sin involves not only its removal (forgiveness), but a healing of those wounds (its effects). Indulgences only deal with the latter.
Myth No. 3: Indulgences are "Get out of Jail" free cards ("jail" being either Hell or Purgatory).
As should be clear by now, indulgences are not about getting off scot free but about a complete transformation of one's life such that one becomes holy--a living, shining icon of Christ, a fully restored image and likeness of God (for this is the goal of all true spiritual healing). That is why indulgences are not efficacious unless they are accompanied by a genuine conversion of heart and a devout and active life in the Church, Christ's body.
Myth No. 4: Indulgences were sold.
The term "sale of indulgences" is so commonplace in the annals of Christian history that it is surprising to learn that the Catholic Church never technically sold indulgences.
What it did was allow a donation to charity to be an indulgenced act. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with giving money to a church (it is a biblically-endorsed activity), but unfortunately, the practice was vulnerable to abuse and gave rise to all kinds of corruption, especially in the hands of the unscrupulous. That is why the Council of Trent (1565) wisely forbade charitable donations from the list of indulgences.
Myth No. 5: Indulgences are a medieval invention.
While indulgences became more explicitly defined in the early Middle Ages, they have existed in one form or another since at least the second century. For their history, see the "Indulgences" entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia on newadvent.org.
Myth No. 6: Indulgences were discontinued.
Neither the Council of Trent nor the more recent Second Vatican Council (1965) discontinued indulgences. In fact, Pope Paul VI expanded the practice of indulgences in 1967 by allowing any prayer to count as a partial indulgence. Thus, when a contemporary Pope grants an indulgence for a particular act, it is not to "remind" Catholics of the importance of acknowledging sin, but to actually assist in the removal of sins' effects.
Exposing these myths is far from adequately explaining indulgences, but hopefully it is a start.
Michael P. Foley is an associate professor of Patristics in the Great Texts Program.