Friday, June 21, 2013

The Roots of the Reformation: Indulgences

Indulgences: “Christ’s Satisfaction of Sins was Not Enough”

I’m reading The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture (by G.R. Evans, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, ©2012). This is a work that looks at the issues that were prominent in the Reformation, and traces them back to their origins, either in the Scriptures or in the history of the church. I’m finding this to be a highly useful work in understanding those theological and doctrinal issues that the Reformers addressed.

One of those issues still around is “indulgences”. In 1999, Pope John Paul II issued his Papal Bull Incarnationis Mysterium, on “the mystery of the Incarnation” of the Son of God, which provided the rationale and modern justification for the notion that “indulgences” are still valid and can be given out by the pope.

I’ll look first at how Pope John Paul explained these indulgences, then how they actually “developed” in church history.

First John Paul’s explanation:

[1.] For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:3-5, 9-10).

The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem is not an event which can be consigned to the past. The whole of human history in fact stands in reference to him: our own time and the future of the world are illumined by his presence….

[9.] Another distinctive sign, and one familiar to the faithful, is the indulgence, which is one of the constitutive elements of the Jubilee. The indulgence discloses the fulness of the Father's mercy, who offers everyone his love, expressed primarily in the forgiveness of sins. Normally, God the Father grants his pardon through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Free and conscious surrender to grave sin, in fact, separates the believer from the life of grace with God and therefore excludes the believer from the holiness to which he is called. Having received from Christ the power to forgive in his name (cf. Mt 16:19; Jn 20:23), the Church is in the world as the living presence of the love of God who leans down to every human weakness in order to gather it into the embrace of his mercy. It is precisely through the ministry of the Church that God diffuses his mercy in the world, by means of that precious gift which from very ancient times has been called “indulgence”.

Reconciliation with God does not mean that there are no enduring consequences of sin from which we must be purified. It is precisely in this context that the indulgence becomes important, since it is an expression of the “total gift of the mercy of God”. With the indulgence, the repentant sinner receives a remission of the temporal punishment due for the sins already forgiven as regards the fault.

Don’t miss this: Whereas Christ’s merit forgives the sin, the sinner is still due “temporal punishment”. Christ’s sacrifice was not enough. As the priest said to me in confession, “we’ve gotta do our part”.

[10.] Because it offends the holiness and justice of God and scorns God's personal friendship with man, sin has a twofold consequence. In the first place, if it is grave, it involves deprivation of communion with God and, in consequence, exclusion from a share in eternal life. To the repentant sinner, however, God in his mercy grants pardon of grave sin and remission of the “eternal punishment” which it would bring.

In the second place, “every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin”, [CCC 1471-2] and this expiation removes whatever impedes full communion with God and with one's brothers and sisters.

Revelation also teaches that the Christian is not alone on the path of conversion. In Christ and through Christ, his life is linked by a mysterious bond to the lives of all other Christians in the supernatural union of the Mystical Body. This establishes among the faithful a marvellous exchange of spiritual gifts, in virtue of which the holiness of one benefits others in a way far exceeding the harm which the sin of one has inflicted upon others. There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others. This is the reality of “vicariousness”, upon which the entire mystery of Christ is founded. His superabundant love saves us all. Yet it is part of the grandeur of Christ's love not to leave us in the condition of passive recipients, but to draw us into his saving work and, in particular, into his Passion. This is said in the famous passage of the Letter to the Colossians: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church” (1:24)….

Everything comes from Christ, but since we belong to him, whatever is ours also becomes his and acquires a healing power. This is what is meant by “the treasures of the Church”, which are the good works of the saints. To pray in order to gain the indulgence means to enter into this spiritual communion and therefore to open oneself totally to others. In the spiritual realm, too, no one lives for himself alone. And salutary concern for the salvation of one's own soul is freed from fear and selfishness only when it becomes concern for the salvation of others as well. This is the reality of the communion of saints, the mystery of “vicarious life”, of prayer as the means of union with Christ and his saints. He takes us with him in order that we may weave with him the white robe of the new humanity, the robe of bright linen which clothes the Bride of Christ.

This doctrine on indulgences therefore “teaches firstly how sad and bitter it is to have abandoned the Lord God (cf. Jer 2:19). When they gain indulgences, the faithful understand that by their own strength they would not be able to make good the evil which by sinning they have done to themselves and to the entire community, and therefore they are stirred to saving deeds of humility”. Furthermore, the truth about the communion of saints which unites believers to Christ and to one another, reveals how much each of us can help others — living or dead — to become ever more intimately united with the Father in heaven.

Drawing on these doctrinal reasons and interpreting the motherly intuition of the Church, I decree that throughout the entire Jubilee all the faithful, properly prepared, be able to make abundant use of the gift of the indulgence, according to the directives which accompany this Bull.

Note that John Paul here is “drawing on doctrinal reasons and interpreting the motherly intuition of the Church”. This is an act of his “papal Magisterium” (if not an ex cathedra, infallible one. Nevertheless, it is a part of the “the ordinary and universal magisterium” of the Church, and as such, it is “infallible”, and it is an official Roman Catholic description of how things work in the Kingdom of God.

Here is Evans’s account of how “the communion of saints” became conflated in the middle ages with the notion of “the transferability of merit” from out of the “Treasury of Merit”:

The theory of a transferability of merit to enable penances to be offset depended on two concepts, one very old and the other an invention of the thirteenth century. The ancient idea was that of a “communion of saints,” coined in the third or fourth century. Saints did not have its modern meaning here. It referred to the sancti, the Latin word which simply meant “holy ones,” which included all Christians. The idea that the whole community of Christ’s people, living and dead, formed a union which was the body of Christ, the church.

Of course, the idea of the sancti goes farther back than that; Paul provides the taxonomy of who “the saints” are, in one of his earliest letters, 1 Corinthians 1:2:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified (ἡγιασμένοις) in Christ Jesus, called to be saints (ἁγίοις) together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours …

This does not mean that the idea of “the saints” as a category of the specially holy was not well developed by the patristic period and certainly by the Middle Ages. The merits of certain individuals stood out. Bede has a good deal to say in his Ecclesiastical History about the tokens and evidences of this notable holiness of the exceptional few, the miracles performed, the healings at the touch of a relic, such as a piece of cloth the saint had worn or a bone of the saint. The holiness of such a saint was felt [“felt”: (felt) vb. a Roman Catholic instance of “Divine Revelation”, a manifestation of “[Holy] Tradition”] to be immanent in his or her physical remains, to linger, to be available to the less holy to meet their spiritual and physical needs. By the late eleventh century a monastery whose abbot had been admired and respected by his monks would often arrange for his Life to be written, evidences of miracles collected and canonization sought. Having a local saint was to have a tourist attraction, and that could mean substantial income.

The idea that this “body,” particularly the specially holy saints, possessed a treasury of merits seems to have been devised [“devised”: (dĭ-vīz’) vb. a Roman Catholic instance of “Divine Revelation”, a manifestation of “[Holy] Tradition”] by Bonaventure (c. 1217-1274), a leading Franciscan scholar, to try to provide a theological explanation for the growing practice of allowing the faithful to pay for indulgences. His idea [“idea”: (ī-dē’-ə) vb. a Roman Catholic instance of “Divine Revelation”, a manifestation of “[Holy] Tradition”] was that there exists in the custody of the institutional church a reservoir of goodness, composed of Christ’s own infinite merits, together with the surplus merits of the saints, which were more than enough to benefit themselves, so that some of their merits were left over and kept in a reservoir by the church to the benefit of others. That this might be taken to imply that the merits of Christ were not abundantly sufficient did not cause offense until the Reformation, when it formed part of a backlash against the whole theology of sainthood. (pgs. 82-83).

As we move forward toward the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it will be important to untangle and explicate how these various threads of “Tradition” become “Divine Revelation”. At that point it will be easier to isolate the “authority” issue upon which much of Roman Catholicism is based.

The question to be asked is, “how does this ‘Tradition’, which had its origins in vague “feelings”, along with a “devised” Medieval theology, become a part of the rule of faith by which Christians are to live and believe?

No comments:

Post a Comment