Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our series on plenary indulgences. You can find the previous installment in our series here.
Based on your feedback and further consideration on the initial question, I thought I should share a few more thoughts on this topic.
The Days of Our Indulgences
I want to start with two clarifications. First of all, one reader referred to the older practice of linking indulgences with particular numbers of “days” in purgatory. That practice has been officially phased out, not because it was doctrinally false, but because it was so easily misunderstood. It fostered the kind of mathematical piety that some of our readers are rightly uncomfortable with. The current practice is much simplified. The popes grant indulgences for certain pious actions (praying the stations of the cross, lifting your heart to God during the day, reading the Scriptures each day…), but they no longer assign numbers of days. Rather, they are simply partial or full indulgences.
This means that they can help make reparation for our sins and those of the faithful who are now in purgatory. The Church doesn’t want us to think of salvation as a math problem that we can calculate and manipulate. And yet, the Church recognizes that our active love for God and neighbor can make a real positive impact on our souls and those of our brothers and sisters. Indulgences are simply one expression of this beautiful aspect of God’s plan for salvation.
And that brings us to the second clarification. Indulgences are not merely an expression of popular piety. Expressions of popular piety, like pilgrimages, novenas to saints, and prayer vigils, are encouraged by the Church insofar as they help some of us stay energetic in our pursuit of holiness. But they are entirely optional.
Even the Rosary (probably the most popular of all) is entirely optional, though it has been strongly recommended by every pope since the start of the twentieth century. Even approved Marian apparitions (Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe…) are not an integral part of the Catholic faith. No Catholic has to believe in them or be devoted to them. They belong to what is known as private revelations.
Whereas doctrines like the Resurrection of Christ and the Immaculate Conception are not optional. They are integral parts of Revelation, and knowingly rejecting them is a sin against faith. Indulgences are closer to this side of the spectrum; they are both a doctrine and a practice. In other words, believing in indulgences is not optional. It is taught by the teaching authority of the Church as a true doctrine, as integrally related to Revelation. So, even if some of us don’t like the doctrine and the practice, even if we don’t try to obtain them, we must accept the truth of indulgences as part of our faith.
In fact, an entire subsection of the Catechism is dedicated to explaining and praising this doctrine and practice. (I have reproduced it below, if you want to see it – #s 1471-1480).
The Heart of the Matter
Those were the easy items. Now comes the hard part. I am glad that our readers were so honest with their responses to this Q&A, because some of those responses raise an important issue.
The Catholic Church is, precisely, Catholic, i.e. universal. Within this spiritual family we find every possible type of personality and temperament, every single level of education and formation, and all existing cultural variations. This is part of the richness of what it means to be Catholic. And this richness has practical repercussions in the realm of piety, of expressions of faith.
Many native Mexicans, for example, make the last miles of their pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on their knees, painfully shuffling over concrete and stone as a sign of their devotion. Bosnian Catholics cherish their tradition of climbing Cross Mountain barefoot, as an act of penance. Now, all of us may not feel called to these kinds of faith-expressions, but we should all respect them.
We must try to guard our hearts against the temptation to judge others by the standard of our own limited perspective, our own personal preferences. This is precisely why we are so blessed to have a clear explanation of our faith in the Catechism, and a divinely guided teaching authority in the Church. Those are the standards by which we should strive to evaluate and judge what we experience and encounter.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that only God can see into the depths of the human heart. Only he knows which members of the lightening-fast-Rosary-group are raving hypocrites, and which are truly and beautifully praying.
When we are tempted to pass judgment on others, we should ask God to remind us that we are not called to judge, but to love, which can certainly involve sisterly correction and instruction, but never condemns one’s neighbor. As Jesus made so uncomfortably clear: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).
Here is what the Church says about indulgences:
1471 The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.
What is an indulgence?
“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
“An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.“82 The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.83
The punishments of sin
1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand 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. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.84
The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.“85
In the Communion of Saints
1474 The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace is not alone. “The life of each of God’s children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person.“86
1475 In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.“87 In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.
1476 We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury, which is “not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.“88
1477 “This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission in the unity of the Mystical Body.“89
Obtaining indulgence from God through the Church
1478 An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity.90
1479 Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD