November 21, 2012

A Primer on Indulgences

The punishment already inflicted by the majority on such a one is enough; you should now relent and support him so that he may not be crushed by too great a weight of sorrow. (2 Cor. 2:6-7)

Indulgences rank among the most poorly understood blessings of the Catholic Church. An indulgence is not permission from the Church to indulge in sin. It is not being indulgent with sinners. It is not the pardon of sin nor the remission of guilt. Now according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):

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. [CCC 1471]

What an indulgence is and what it does.

First an indulgence is not the forgiveness of sins but only applies to the effects of past, forgiven sins. An indulgence is not a Sacrament but must rely on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) - the Sacrament through which sins are forgiven by God. Forgiveness of sin and remission of punishment are different.

Secondly sin can have two consequences: eternal (everlasting) punish- ment and temporal (temporary) punishment. Very serious sin, i.e. mortal sin (1 John 5:16), "kills" our friendship with God and deprives us of eternal life. This loss is eternal punishment. It is not punishment from a vengeful God but the consequence of rejecting God - the Source of life. Not all sin is mortal (1 John 5:17), but all sin, even venial sin (less serious sin), needs correction. This correction is temporal punishment. It is demanded by God to correct the bad effects of our sin, e.g. restoring stolen goods.

Spiritually it is the cleansing of our soul from earthly attachments due to our sin. Now Christ's death on the Cross redeems our friendship with God and totally satisfies our eternal punishment once the guilt of our sin is forgiven by God through His Church. So the forgiveness of mortal sin includes the remission of eternal punishment. But temporal punishment can still remain. Ordinarily temporal punishment is satisfied through personal penance; however, indulgences can remove the temporal punishment due to past forgiven sins, both mortal and venial.

A good example of temporal punishment can be found in II Samuel. God through Nathan forgives King David for his sin against Uriah:

"The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die." [2 Sam. 12:13-14; RSV]

God forgives David and removes his eternal punishment of death. Nevertheless God punishes David for the deed. According to the translation in the Douay-Rheims Bible, David has "given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme." [2 Sam. 12:14] This scandal needed correction (Hebrews 12:5-11).

Thirdly the sufferings of Christ and His saints can be used to satisfy the demands of temporal punishment due to our past sins. In the Bible there are examples of saints making amends for the sins of others. Moses in Exodus 32:32 offers his life to God as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. Job (Job 1:5) offers sacrifice to God for the sins of his children. Even in the New Testament, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: "I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls" [2 Cor. 12:15] or to Timothy: "For I am already on the point of being sacrificed." [2 Tim. 4:6] St. Paul sees his martyr's death as a sacrifice and is willing to be spent for the souls of others.

Even though Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross is sufficient for our redemption - the healing of our friendship with God, St. Paul also recognizes that his own suffering is important:

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