In our previous posts, we explained in details what an indulgence is and some prayers and devotions that can help you gain Indulgences. Those who attack the Church on her use of indulgence take advantages of the ignorance of most Catholics. Step number one in explaining indulgences is to know what they are. Step number two is to clarify what they are not. Here are the seven most common myths about indulgences:
Myth 1: A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences.
This charge is without foundation. Since indulgences remit only temporal penalties, they cannot remit the eternal penalty of hell. Once a person is in hell, no amount of indulgences will ever change that fact. The only way to avoid hell is by appealing to God’s eternal mercy while still alive. After death, one’s eternal fate is set (Heb. 9:27).
Myth 2: A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed.
The Church has always taught that indulgences do not apply to sins not yet committed. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “An indulgence is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power.”
Myth 3: A person can “buy forgiveness” with indulgences.
The definition of indulgences presupposes that forgiveness has already taken place: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Indulgentarium Doctrina 1, emphasis added). Indulgences in no way forgive sins. They deal only with punishments left after sins have been forgiven.
Myth 4: Indulgences were invented as a means for the Church to raise money.
Indulgences developed from reflection on the sacrament of reconciliation. They are a way of shortening the penance of sacramental discipline and were in use centuries before money-related problems appeared.
Myth 5: An indulgence will shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days.
The number of days which used to be attached to indulgences were references to the period of penance one might undergo during life on earth. The Catholic Church does not claim to know anything about how long or short purgatory is in general, much less in a specific person’s case.
Myth 6: A person can buy indulgences.
The Council of Trent instituted severe reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and, because of prior abuses, “in 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions” (Catholic Encyclopedia). This act proved the Church’s seriousness about removing abuses from indulgences.
Myth 7: A person used to be able to buy indulgences.
One never could “buy” indulgences. The financial scandal surrounding indulgences, the scandal that gave Martin Luther an excuse for his heterodoxy, involved alms—indulgences in which the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. There was no outright selling of indulgences. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “it is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded.”
Being able to explain these seven myths will be a large step in helping others to understand indulgences. But, there are still questions to be asked:
“How many of one’s temporal penalties can be remitted?”
Potentially, all of them. The Church recognizes that Christ and the saints are interested in helping penitents deal with the aftermath of their sins, as indicated by the fact they always pray for us (Heb. 7:25, Rev. 5:8). Fulfilling its role in the administration of temporal penalties, the Church draws upon the rich supply of rewards God chose to bestow on the saints, who pleased him, and on his Son, who pleased him most of all.
The rewards on which the Church draws are infinite because Christ is God, so the rewards he accrued are infinite and never can be exhausted. His rewards alone, apart from the saints’, could remove all temporal penalties from everyone, everywhere. The rewards of the saints are added to Christ’s—not because anything is lacking in his, but because it is fitting that they are united with his rewards as the saints are united with him. Although immense, their rewards are finite, but his own is infinite.
“If the Church has the resources to wipe out everyone’s temporal penalties, why doesn’t it do so?”
Because God does not wish this to be done. God himself instituted the pattern of temporal penalties being left behind. They fulfill valid functions, one of them is disciplinary. If a child were never disciplined, he would never learn obedience. God disciplines us as his children — “the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6) — so some temporal penalties must remain.
The Church cannot wipe out, with a stroke of the pen, so to speak, everyone’s temporal punishments because their remission depends on the dispositions of the persons who suffer those temporal punishments. Just as repentance and faith are needed for the remission of eternal penalties, so they are needed for the remission of temporal penalties. Pope Paul VI stated, “Indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God”(Indulgentarium Doctrina 11). We might say that the degree of remission depends on how well the penitent has learned his lesson.
“How does one determine by what amount penalties have been lessened?”
Before Vatican II each indulgence was said to remove a certain number of “days” from one’s discipline. For instance, an act might gain “300 days’ indulgence”, but the use of the term “days” confused people, giving them the mistaken impression that in purgatory time as we know it still exists and that we can calculate our “good time” in a mechanical way. The number of days associated with indulgences actually never meant that that much “time” would be taken off one’s stay in purgatory. Instead, it meant that an indefinite but partial (not complete) amount of remission would be granted, proportionate to what ancient Christians would have received for performing that many days’ penance. So, someone gaining 300 days’ indulgence gained roughly what an early Christian would have gained by, say, reciting a particular prayer on arising for 300 days.
To overcome the confusion St. Paul VI issued a revision of the handbook (Enchiridion is the formal name) of indulgences. Today, numbers of days are not associated with indulgences. They are either plenary or partial.
“What’s the difference between a partial and a plenary indulgence?”
“An indulgence is partial or plenary as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin” (Indulgentarium Doctrina 2, 3). Only God knows exactly how efficacious any particular partial indulgence is or whether a plenary indulgence was received at all.
“Don’t indulgences duplicate or even negate the work of Christ?”
Despite the biblical underpinnings of indulgences, some are sharply critical of them and insist the doctrine supplants the work of Christ and turns us into our own saviors. This objection results from confusion about the nature of indulgences and about how Christ’s work is applied to us.
Indulgences apply only to temporal penalties, not to eternal ones. The Bible indicates that these penalties may remain after a sin has been forgiven and that God lessens these penalties as rewards to those who have pleased him. Since the Bible indicates this, Christ’s work cannot be said to have been supplanted by indulgences.
The merits of Christ, since they are infinite, comprise most of those in the treasury of merits. By applying these to believers, the Church acts as Christ’s servant in the application of what he has done for us, and we know from Scripture that Christ’s work is applied to us over time and not in one big lump (Phil. 2:12, 1 Pet. 1:9).
“Isn’t it better to put all of the emphasis on Christ alone?”
If we ignore the fact of indulgences, we neglect what Christ does through us, and we fail to recognize the value of what he has done in us. Paul used this very sort of language: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
Even though Christ’s sufferings were superabundant (far more than needed to pay for anything), Paul spoke of completing what was “lacking” in Christ’s sufferings. If this mode of speech was permissible for Paul, it is permissible for us, even though the Catholic language about indulgences is far less shocking than was Paul’s language about his own role in salvation.
Catholics should not be defensive about indulgences. They are based on principles straight from the Bible, and we can be confident not only that indulgences exist, but that they are useful and worth obtaining.
Pope Paul VI declared, “The Church invites all its children to think over and weigh up in their minds as well as they can how the use of indulgences benefits their lives and all Christian society…. Supported by these truths, Holy Mother Church again recommends the practice of indulgences to the faithful. It has been very dear to Christian people for many centuries as well as in our own day. Experience proves this” (Indulgentarium Doctrina, 9, 11).