Indulgence Season

…is now open. For the Indulgences for the Faithful Departed, available from 1 to 8 November, see here.

Of course, this is a contentious issue ecumenically. Yesterday was celebrated as the Festival of the Reformation in the Lutheran Church, because it was on the eve of All Saints that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517. Ever since then, indulgences has been a flashpoint issue in the dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics.

My children were treated yesterday to a “fun” children’s address in which (according to their report) the one giving the address came into the church crying something along the lines of “Pay your money and get your sins forgiven”. They were then taught that sins are only forgiven through confession and repentance. Of course. That is what the Catholic Church teaches too. Indulgences has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins, and perpetuating this myth is not helpful.

But when I tried to explain what an indulgence is to my children, I found myself floundering. That is because there are at least four ideas behind the doctrine of indulgences that need to be comprehended before the doctrine makes any sense – it is like a picture which is dependant upon the frame for its full understanding. That framework consists of the following doctrines:

1) Purgatory
2) “Merit”
3) Communion of Saints
4) the Authority of the Church to bind or loose

Each of these issues in turn is hotly contended between our two communions, and just complicates the misunderstandings.

I also find that trying to explain the doctrine of indulgences to a non-Catholic comes up against a problem that is a little like trying to describe to someone what a stained glass window looks like, when you are viewing the window from inside the church, with the light streaming in and making it look beautiful and attractive and gracious, and the person you are trying to explain it to is standing on the outside of the church, seeing only the grey dark blobs of glass with darkness behind it. It is a doctrine that looks completely different to someone standing inside the Catholic Church to someone standing outside it.

A related problem is that to the person outside the Church, it looks as if we are doing legalistic “works” to win God’s favour, his love, his acceptance, his approval, his forgiveness. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. It really has to do with one’s relationship to God in terms of one’s attachment to sin and purification from that attachment. I find one of the most helpful analogies being that which my friend Peter once pointed out: there are some things which the Church recommends that you can do for “the good of your soul”. Even the protestant churches have this, of course. They recommend bible reading, prayer, acts of charity, fasting etc. They know that, as our Lord taught us, these things are “for the good of your soul”. They do not “earn” anything, rather they strengthen one’s relationship with the Lord and they purify one from attachment to self and sin.

The Authority of the Church to bind or loose on earth and the promise that this will be granted by God in heaven is also central to our practice of indulgences. The Church has the authority to “recommend” this or that act of devotion or charity which the individual believer may engage in and to attach to it the promises of God. That is a very contentious issue in itself, but Catholics believe that the Church actually has the authority to act in the way in which Jesus said it does. It can determine the guidelines by which this “binding or loosing” may be obtained. Of course, here we are not talking about the “binding or loosing” of absolution – which “binds or looses” from the eternal consequences of sin, but the “binding or loosing” of the temporal consequences of sin. It is about purification from the attachment to sin, not forgiveness or acceptance from God.

They are therefore not a “requirement”, not a “law” that you “have to” fulfill for acceptance by God, but a gracious invitation to those disciplines that are for “the good of your soul”. The doctrine of the communion on saints, of the treasury of “merit” and of purgatory relate to the fact that these acts of devotion can also be shared with others in the communion of saints, namely the Holy Souls in purgatory. They are like the invitation of our Lord to the wedding banquet in the parable. It is all grace. Are there “requirements”? Only in so far as an invitation will often have a “dress code” attached (even in the parable of the wedding banquet, there is a “wedding garment” to be worn – which is itself, of course, a gift from the host). It would be silly to see such a requirement as a “law”, when it is all included in the gracious invitation itself. It is, as they say, “all grace”.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Indulgence Season

  1. In as much as Indulgences are claimed to remit the temporal punishment due for sins whose guilt has been forgiven, I think your children’s Lutheran pastor had a good point, David (at least in regard to the historical situation which pertained at Luther’s time). It all centres on what we mean by forgiveness, doesn’t it?

    • And about what we mean by “temporal punishment”. It might be that “punishment” is a misleading word – or in fact that the misleading word is “forgiveness”. We do often think of forgiveness in terms of remitting punishment – although it is quite possible for us to speak of forgiveness in a situation when punishment must still be undergone.

      Think of when your son or daughter does something wrong – I mean really really wrong. They cry and sob and beg for forgiveness and say “I’ll never do it again”, and of course, like a good father, you forgive them. Does that mean that there are no consequences? Of course not. For a start, real damage may have been done by the wrong deed. This damage needs to be rectified by someone. (It might be a case where Dad says, “You have to pay it back, but I will help you.”). Or maybe Sonny-Jim needs to change their behaviour in future, and so, completely within a context of forgiveness, a certain regime on discipline is applied to make sure the wrong-doing doesn’t happen again. Or if addiction is involved (maybe Sonny-Jim is now a teenager), then forgiveness is one thing – helping to break the habit is another.

      All of these are cases where we can understand that even though forgiveness is total and complete and entirely gratuitous, there remain temporal consequences (“punishments”?) of sin. Dealing with those temporal consequences requires the active involvement of the sinning child, even though the manner in which these consequences are dealt with are completely supported and based upon the gracious love and forgiveness of the parent. In otherwords, forgiveness and acceptance and love etc on the part of the parent actually REQUIRE the active involvement of the wayward child. It would not be authentic love if it did not.

      Now, the doctrine of indulgences says that the merits of Christ are indeed sufficient to cover not only the eternal consequences of sin, but also the temporal. Absolution reconciles the sinner to God. This reconciliation is complete, totally gratuitous, and involves nothing other than a broken heart seeking to be healed and trusting in God’s promise. And then God takes it one step further: he says, “Righto, Sonny-Jim. Now I’m going to help you deal with the temporal consequences of your sin. And here’s what we’re going to do…” By so doing he takes me seriously as his child. He shows his righteousness and justice, and also his love and mercy. It ain’t my work, but entirely the merits of Christ and God’s grace.

      I could go on and on forever in this vein, because to me I am looking at a shining stained glass window in this doctrine of indulgences. It is a pity that all you can see from your side is dull blobs.

      I also take the point about the historical situation. There was misunderstanding on all sides, and bad preaching and teaching on the Catholic side (remember that Tetzel was in fact disciplined for his activities and that the Council of Trent banned giving monetary donations to charity as an indulgence due to how easily it could be misconstrued). But we should be able now, 500 year later, to look back at the historical situation with a little more detachment and actually be clear about what was and was not going on, and about what was and was not the issue.

  2. Mr. Schütz seems to have delivered a more full-throated response, and of course he did, he’s excellent.

    But I do tend to find that just as many of us are separated by a common language, so too is it the case that we’re separated by these common theological terms. In any dialogue or debate, it is helpful to start by “defining our terms.” But I have often found this to be sometimes a battle in and of itself.

    • I meant this to be a reply to Pr. Henderson. Just smack me around for failing to use the combox correctly.

      • Not at all, Ogden. It gets a bit confusing at times!

        You are quite right about theological terms and language. I was having a conversation about this topic with a Lutheran close to me, and found immediately that the words that I was using clashed with the words that she was hearing in her head. I had one narrative operative in my mind, and she had another operative in hers. This is partly what I meant by the stained-glass window analogy – we inhabit an entire building and see the window from inside this building where it all makes beautiful sense. Those outside on the street are contending with a different surrounding “ambience”, which doesn’t communicate the same message. I guess what I am trying to say to Lutherans and others who object to the doctrine of indulgences is “come inside and take a look from our perspective”.

  3. But you seem to be missing the point, David (and Ogden), in fact you’ve basically given me the Lutheran doctrine on temporal ‘punishment’! The point at issue centres on the question of whether ‘temporal punishment’ for sins is remitted along with the guilt, to use Roman Catholic – sorry, Catholic! – terminology. Your point about how we treat a wayward son is not germane to the question, because the Catholic doctrine is not that the temporal punishment for sins is merely remedial in intention, but that it is just what it says – punitive! Cf Trent, “the satisfaction imposed by them is meant not merely as a safeguard for the new life and as a remedy to weakness, but also as vindicatory (i.e. avenging) punishment for former sins” (Council of Trent, Session 14, Chapter 8). Elsewhere in the same document punishments are referred to as satisfactions for sins, along with the usual Trentine double-speak that (somehow) this does not obscure the merit of Christ. This teaching is, at best, based on a misunderstanding of the Gospel, or at worst a perversion of the Gospel!), which teaches that through Christ “we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1) and “do not come into judgment” (John 5:24). The merciful King “forgave the debt” of his servant and let him go; he didn’t call him back and and ask for 10%! (Matt 18). The forgiveness was complete. When the woman caught in adultery was forgiven, our Lord told her “go in peace”, there was no need for satisfaction, because our Lord would make that for her. When sins are loosed they are loosed, taken away, as far as the East is from teh West! As one more felicitous with words than I put it, “the quality of mercy is not strained”.

  4. The point at issue centres on the question of whether ‘temporal punishment’ for sins is remitted along with the guilt.

    Well spotted. This is indeed the question at issue. The Catechism addresses the issue in §1471-1473. I will use quotations from this section.

    The absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation looses one from the “eternal punishment” of sins committed. Penance and indulgences (“satisfaction”) deal with the “temporal punishment”.

    “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].

    Thus we must ask what “eternal punishment” and “temporal punishment” are and how they are distinguished.

    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.

    Thus the absolution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation restores us to fellowship with God and with the Church – it sets the relationship right again. Anyone with historical knowledge of the penitential practice of the Church from the earliest times will know that this is the major focus of the Sacrament. This reconciliation is, of course, entirely due to the merits of Christ.

    But the Catechism goes on:

    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.

    Note carefully this business of “an unhealthy attachment to creatures”. This is a reality in the human soul, which is not simply removed by the declaration of the absolution in the Sacrament of Penance. Although I come to the Sacrament in deep sorrow and repentance, it is certainly possible (and indeed all too likely) that I remain attached to my sins, psychologically and spiritually (and even perhaps, in the case of certain addictions, physically). Absolution restores my relationship with God, and this certainly puts me on the right path toward overcoming with the help of his Spirit and Grace these “attachments”, but the attachments are not miraculously removed (well, not usually). Some Spiritual effort in cooperation with a lot of Grace is necessary for this to take place.

    Now, these “attachments” are not without consequences, and those consequences are the “temporal (ie. in time) punishments”. At this point you said:

    Your point about how we treat a wayward son is not germane to the question, because the Catholic doctrine is not that the temporal punishment for sins is merely remedial in intention, but that it is just what it says – punitive! Cf Trent, “the satisfaction imposed by them is meant not merely as a safeguard for the new life and as a remedy to weakness, but also as vindicatory (i.e. avenging) punishment for former sins” (Council of Trent, Session 14, Chapter 8).

    You have listed some of the ways in which “temporal punishments” are regarded as precisely as “punishments” by the Church, ie.

    1) Remedial punishment
    2) Satisfactory punishment
    3) Vindicatory/Avenging punishment

    In fact, it is more customary today for the Church to speak of “temporal punishments” in terms of “purification” from the “attachments” to sin (in this sense, the emphasis is on the “remedial”), rather than in terms of punitive satisfaction or vindication. The reason for this is actually obvious and is important if we are not to lose sight of what is really happening here. Here we must listen very closely to the Catechism, which says of the punishments for sin:

    These two punishments [ie. Both eternal and temporal] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.

    That is a remarkable statement, yet I think there is ample evidence for it in the first chapters of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It undercuts the inherent positivism in Lutheran theology, which all to often regards the punishment of sin as something inflicted arbitrarily by God’s divine will from without, such that he could in fact forgive sinners by simply deciding to no longer inflict his wrath upon them. In fact this cannot be done, for sin itself cries out for just punishment, punishment is a consequence which is essential to sin itself, such that the one who sins must be judged.

    Therefore, by God’s grace and solely for the all sufficient merits of Christ, absolution restores the sinner to a right relationship with God, and the performance of penance leads him forward to that purification which God’s Charity works in believers through the “obedience of faith”.

    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 [cf. Council of Trent(1551): DS 1712-1713;(1563): 1820].

    You say: Elsewhere in the same document punishments are referred to as satisfactions for sins, along with the usual Trentine double-speak that (somehow) this does not obscure the merit of Christ.

    That is a little unfair. Here is the Council of Trent, Session 14:

    Add to this, that while we by making satisfaction suffer for our sins. we are made conformable to Christ Jesus who satisfied for our sins, from whom is all our sufficiency, having thence also a most certain pledge, that Neither is this satisfaction which we discharge for our sins so our own as not to be through Christ Jesus; for we who can do nothing of ourselves as of ourselves, can do all things with the cooperation of Him who strengthens us. Thus man has not wherein to glory, but all our glorying is in Christ, in whom we live, in whom we merit, in whom we make satisfaction, which have their efficacy from Him, by Him are offered to the Father, and through Him are accepted by the Father….

    It was not their [the early Fathers’] understanding, moreover, that the sacrament of penance is a tribunal of wrath or of punishments, as no Catholic ever understood that through our satisfactions the efficacy of the merit and satisfaction of our Lord Jesus Christ is either obscured or in any way diminished; but since the innovators wish to understand it so, they teach, in order to destroy the efficacy and use of satisfaction, that a new life is the best penance.

    When you dismiss this as “double speak”, you are, in effect, saying “I don’t believe what you are saying; you are lying to me.” We are not lying to you. We believe that just as the loosing from “eternal punishments”, which takes place through the pronouncement of the priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is fully of the merits and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, so the loosing from “temporal punishments”, which takes place through the exercise of charity in the heart of the penitent, is also fully of the merits and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is you who have created a false antithesis, by saying that if something is “all grace” it must of necessity exclude any action or cooperation on my part. We say it is not so, you say that it is. We are on one side of the stained glass window seeing the light stream in through the glass, you are on the other and have quite a different view of the subject.

    So you tell us: This teaching is, at best, based on a misunderstanding of the Gospel, or at worst a perversion of the Gospel!), which teaches that through Christ “we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1) and “do not come into judgment” (John 5:24).

    How is our teaching a denial of this? Have we not said that absolution from “eternal punishments” reconciles us with God and give us peace with God? Have we not made it abundantly clear that since we have been absolved of our sins, the “eternal punishments” have been removed, and thus we “do not come into judgment”? What God does in me now by his grace and charity through the “temporal punishments” designed to purify me of my attachment to sin is merely the completion of the transformation of my soul in this life so that I am prepared for the eternal blessings of the next. How could that be, if I were not already “at peace with God” and if I were still to “come into judgment”?

    You cite some parables. You say: The merciful King “forgave the debt” of his servant and let him go; he didn’t call him back and and ask for 10%! (Matt 18). The forgiveness was complete. True, but why don’t you include how the story ended? In fact, as the story makes clear, the servant was not sufficiently cleansed of his attachment to sin. What he required was to grow in charity toward his neighbour, and to live out the grace he had been shown. Jesus’ parable shows us very clearly what happens when we do not undergo the purification of charity that follows absolution.

    You remind us that When the woman caught in adultery was forgiven, our Lord told her “go in peace”, there was no need for satisfaction, because our Lord would make that for her. Actually, of course, the story says nothing about what satisfaction Jesus might “make for her” – you are reading that into the text. What Jesus says is “Go and sin no more”. You see, again a consequence, a change to a way of life, a purification is necessary. Forgiveness yes, to be followed with a life of penance and purification powered by the grace of that forgiveness. Same pattern as the parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

    When sins are loosed they are loosed, taken away, as far as the East is from the West! Ah, with all apologies to the Psalmist, if only it were so. For while I know with faith that the eternal punishment of my sins are completely done away with in Absolution, yet I find my attachment to sin ever dogging me from behind. I rather think that the Psalmist was saying (poetically) that God remembers our transgressions no more, he puts them out of his rememberance. And thank God that is so. Yet the reality of sin (rather than particular transgressions), and of my attachment to it, still has to be dealt with.

    Thus we are told by the Catechism:

    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” [Eph 4:22, 24].

    The “punishments” of purification following forgiveness are therefore quite different from the “punishment” of eternal separation from God. They are undergone precisely because communion with God has been established by Christ. It is in this communion that the purification takes place. And this is “all grace”. All grace.

    I fully understand that you cannot see this, Pastor. But one day I hope you will be able to come inside the Church and see the wonderful stained glass window for yourself from the inside out.

  5. David,

    Thank you for the time you’ve taken to answer my response. Of course, I cannot agree with you, and I think you misrpresent Lutheran doctrine (as also in your recent post on the priesthood of believers, btw) when you describe it as positivistic. I can’t help but wonder where you get these impressions from? However, be that as it may, I am working on a longer response which I will post at Glosses. You may care to comment there when it is up, which I hope will be tomorrow.

    • Pastor,

      One might say after reading your responses that you somewhat misrepresent Catholic doctrine (as for example your description of Tridentine “doublespeal”). But I recognise that you did not do so to be necessarily uncharitable, even if it certainly came across that way.

      One thing I have noticed with my former co-religionists is that the 16th Century is very important to them. Rather than discuss our current understanding of something via the Catechism, it is thought more profitable to relitigate the 16th Century.

      Now, I rather suspect, and please Pastor correct me wherever and whenever I am wrong on this, but I suspect this is because we have never repudiated Trent (nor are we at all likely to do so, since we find it to be excellent and, more importantly, correct theology). But something to keep in mind is that our minds and hearts did not stop considering the issues from then on. We have prayed about Tridentine issues and grown in our understanding.

      You might consider, Pastor, exploring how we today understand issues rather than how our forefathers did.

      Forgive me if that is at all uncharitable to you, Pastor.

    • I look forward to it. As regards “positivism” (and its good buddy, “nominalism”) I had no idea either that Lutheran theology was driven by such things – until I began to undergo instruction in the Catholic faith from a very well trained Dominican who could spot “positivism” and “nominalism” a mile away (and hit it with his sling-shot from the same distance). It was truly a bit of an epiphany to me. What can I compare it too? Imagine it was like having grown up all your life wearing a pair of rose coloured sunglasses, such that you have never realised that the world was any other colour. And then one day someone says, “Don’t you realise that the world only looks pink to you because you are wearing those rose-coloured sunglasses?”, and you say, “What sunglasses?”, and he says, “These one’s” and he takes them off your nose and shows you. At one and the same time you suddenly realise that you HAVE been looking at the world through a pair of rose coloured sunglasses all your life (a fact of which you were not previously aware) and THAT is why it looked so pink all the time. A poor analogy, perhaps, but truly that is what is going on in Lutheran theology with “positivism” and “nominalism”. Once you actually learn to recognise that this you are doing theology with “postivist/nomilalist” sunglasses, you can actually learn to take them off and see the world for what it is.