Saturday, September 05, 2015

Papal indulgences

The Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Spirit and in accordance with sacred Scripture and the ancient Tradition of the Fathers, has taught in the holy Councils and most recently in this ecumenical Council that there is a purgatory and that the souls detained there are helped by the acts of intercession (suffragia) of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.

Related Canon 30 from the Council of Trent's Decree on Justification (Sixth Session, 1547)

30.  If anyone says that after the grace of justification has been received the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out for any repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be paid, either in this world or in the other, in purgatory, before access can be opened to the kingdom of heaven, anathema sit ["let him be anathema" or excommunicated]. 
1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. 
1471 "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."81 [Paul VI, apostolic constitution, Indulgentiarum doctrina, Norm 1.]

i) If, for the sake of argument, you accept the Tridentine premise, then there's a certain inner logic between purgatory and indulgences. In the Tridenine definition, purgatory involves retributive punishment. It's about guilt. Paying off your debt. Same thing with the treasury of merit. The "satisfactions" of Christ and the saints presume the same forensic category.

If you think there's a treasury of merit which the pope can tap into, then, within that framework, it makes sense to say your purgatorial sentence is subject to commutation or pardon. Someone else paid the debt. Someone else made restitution on your behalf.  

ii) Mind you, even on its own terms, that's dubious. It operates with a quantitative view of guilt, as if as sinner has incurred x units of guilt which may be offset by x units of merit. But why think guilt is quantitative rather than qualitative? There are other problems, but I'll pass on that.

iii) Another problem is the contradiction between the traditional conception of purgatory and the contemporary conception (in Roman Catholicism). The contemporary conception has undergone a paradigm-shift from retributive justice to remedial justice. From objective guilt to subjective corruption. Purgatory is now a process of postmortem sanctification to purify the decedent before he is ready for heaven.

But even if you grant that for the sake of argument, it clashes with the traditional theology of indulgences. If purgatory is necessary to complete your sanctification, then that process can't be accelerated or short-circuited by a papal indulgence. Rather, that would operate at its own pace. However long it takes you to eradicate your sinful disposition. An indulgence would prematurely convey you to heaven, before the refining fire has had time burn away the dross.  

So you end up with a hybrid theology of purgatory and indulgences, combining disparate elements from two incompatible paradigms.  


  1. An anglo-cathlic priest tried to make sense of this in this way:

    The other reason for continued disagreement through the ages is indulgences and purgatory, as you note. My own tentative answer to this difficult problem I have given before on this weblog, as you know. I incline to the "purifying discipline" rather than "satisfaction of punishment" model, and freely admit this makes indulgences hard to understand. If the purgation is remedying discipline rather than merely owed penalty, how can it be "remitted"?

    My answer is that the charity undergirding the gaining of the indulgence may no longer remain solely in the "gainer" of the indulgence, but might be communicated to the "benefitter" in the Church Expectant as an active principle due to the communion of saints. In other words, the "benefitter" is not merely a passive object of this love, but a recipient activated in it. Thus a living persons act of charity, combined with intercessory prayer and intent, would, due to the "One Body" interconnections in Christ (cf. Ephesians 4:16), benefit the faithful departed inwardly and not just in circumstance.

    Alternatively, since God can do what he likes, including transform/purify a person more quickly and with less "discipline" than ordinarily necessary if He so chooses, with a different application of grace, this may simply be the means -- in response to the prayer combined with the "spiritual sacrifices" (cf. 1 Peter 2:5) involved in gaining indulgences, or indeed in any intercession, including and especially Eucharistic, for the dead.

    Either way, indulgences would and should remain, in my view, at most a minor part of the priestly, intercessory work of Christians. I see them as one way this overall work can be brought into mental focus. However, I admit that they, like the word "merit", are easily misleading. Changes in terminology and better explanation are probably necessary in order not to undermine the Gospel in the popular perception of the people of God. Which leads me to the next paragraph as a prime example ...

    On another point you raised, it should be remembered that indulgences gained for the dead are only ever by suffrage, that is, by request, as it is explicitly taught by the RCC that the Pope and other bishops have no jurisdiction over the dead, as you correctly note. Unfortunately, this is not mentioned in the CCC.

    1. Vincent,

      Your a-c priest's thoughts track with JP2's:
      “Just as in their earthly life believers are united in the one Mystical Body, so after death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer, prayers for suffrage and love for their other brothers and sisters in the faith. Purification is lived in the essential bond created between those who live in this world and those who enjoy eternal beatitude.”

      “This “distribution” [of saints merit] 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, those of Our Lady and the saints — 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 also answers the concern that indulgences prematurely accelerate or short-circuit the process of sanctification/purification that is necessary - "... 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"

    2. Indulgences are indexed to a retributive theory of punishment. Resorting to a "medicinal" metaphor does nothing to harmonize that with a view of Purgatory based on a remedial theory of punishment. To "cancel" pain short-circuits sanctification, which operates on a different principle than objective guilt.

  2. The bottom line -literally -remains unchanged on this infernal moneymaker for Papistry. Also remaining is the fact that those with losts of friends, fmaily, and miney can get their sentences reduced, while the lonely remain wihtout access to bail; even in death, highschool never ends.