Should We Indulge In Indulgences?
According to Modern Catholic Dictionary by Fr. John Hardon, an Indulgence “is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church, which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints.” (Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences).
Ok, I know what you’re thinking, what does all of that mean?
We know God is a God of mercy and we can access that Mercy through the Sacrament of Penance. God forgives anyone of even the most terrible sin who approaches Him in a true state of repentance. However, repentance and forgiveness do not restore a soul to its original state of purity. Sin has effects. Each sin, no matter how small, weakens our virtue and attachment to God, strengthens our own disordered desires, and makes committing the next sin easier. So there are consequences to our sins.
Suppose I throw a baseball through your car windshield. I will apologize to you sincerely, but wouldn’t you still be expecting me to pay for your window? Sometimes we have to do something more than apologize to restore a relationship with one another. If I steal money from someone and I am sorry, I need to pay it back. In many cases, when true reparation (that is “repair”) is not possible, a criminal must undergo imprisonment – a reparation by way of loss of liberty. When I was still in parochial school a priest explained it this way to our catechism class. We all commit sins. Imagine it this way, suppose each time you sin you hammer a nail into a piece of wood. If you commit a mortal sin, imagine hammering a large nail into the wood. After a month, you have a lot of little nails in that wood and God forbid, some big nails hammered in there. You go to Confession. By the blood of Jesus all of those sins are forgiven. Imagine all the nails were gone in the wood. Our Lord Jesus forgave you. Yet those sins you committed had an effect. Now that all the nails are gone, what’s left in the wood? The holes the nails left. We have to do something to fill in those holes, kind of like a spiritual medicine or putty! Penance must be done to begin getting us back to where we should be! These leads us to Indulgences.
All of our sins, since they would the Mystical Body of Christ as well as offend God, require some form of reparation. This reparation goes by the name of temporal punishment (that is, punishment that is not eternal), and it can occur either in this life or in Purgatory). See Larry’s article on Purgatory on this same website.
Nothing we do of ourselves can satisfy God’s justice, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came to take our sins upon Himself (Thanks be to God!!!). However, His actions do not make our own efforts at reparation unnecessary, however limited and unable to make full restoration they are. While Jesus’ Sacrifice on the Cross had infinite merit and makes our acts meritorious, the damage done to our own souls, and the damage we have done to the Body of Christ, requires us to ourselves act to repair the wrong done.
How can we make reparation?
St. Peter teaches us that “love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet. 4:8). There is a powerful verse from St. James, “whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (Jas 5:20).
Isn’t that very consoling! Even in God’s justice there is mercy. So by loving others, bringing them back to Christ and His Church, we not only help repair the damage we have done to the Body of Christ, but also undo the damage of sin by strengthening or attachment to God. There are other things as well and you may have thought of some of these already. Prayer, mortification, and good acts can all help us and accomplish much. When we do all of these things we can heal the wounds we have inflicted on the Body of Christ as well as the damage we have done to ourselves.
What are Indulgences and how do they work?
Once again, to reinforce what we said in our opening paragraph by Fr. Hardon, 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 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).
An indulgence is a way of removing some of the need for punishment in this life or in the next, Purgatory. Through this authority, the Church may give to sinners a share in the merits of Christ and the saints to lessen, or remove, the temporal punishment due to sin. God’s children can gain spiritual merit from the abundance of Christ’s mercy by our performance in prayers and good works in cooperation with His grace.
What does it mean that we have to be “duly disposed?”
One has to be in a state of grace and has the right intention can, by saying a certain prayer or performing some good work, merit this remission of punishment; the amount of remission determined by the authority of the Church. We should not be trying to hoard indulgences! Like trying to gain brownie points with God.
Indulgences can be partial or plenary. We can either gain part of the remission or all of the remission of punishment due to sin. A plenary indulgence remits all of it punishment due to sin. To gain a plenary indulgence usually requires the person go to Confession (Sacrament of Penance) and to receive Holy Communion, and to have a disposition of detachment from sin, in addition to a specified prayer or good work. The intention of the heart is the critical matter; it is not a “mechanical” or “automatic” thing to receive an indulgence.
Indulgences May Not be Bought or Sold
These things are matter of the spirit, therefore they cannot be bought or sold. We don’t gain indulgences just by merely making a donation to a cause. Sometimes we can misuse a good thing. However, the misuse of Indulgences in the 16th century does not make the good thing bad. It is the misuse that must be corrected, so that the good thing can be preserved.
Did you know that Indulgences can be applied to other? This is implied in the Church’s teaching on the Communion of the Saints. We are all members of Christ’s Body and He, the Head of this Body, is the infinite source of merit. What comes to mind immediately is St. Paul’s statement, “”complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” (Col. 1:24).
So not only are we allowed to participate in Christ’s salvific action by our own efforts in response to God’s grace, but that these efforts can also do good for the entire Church. This common treasury of spiritual goods, which is the Church’s to dispense as it sees fit, make it possible for us to obtain indulgences not only for ourselves but also for those who have died and may be in Purgatory.
I like to look at the Church in the family model which helped me to understand things when I was younger. We have the Church Triumphant which are the souls in Heaven. They are with God forever. We have the Church Suffering which are the souls in Purgatory who needed purification before they enter Heaven. They will one day reach Heaven when their souls have been purified of sin and all attachment to sin. Then we have the Church Militant. That’s us, those who are still on this earth fighting the “Spiritual Combat” as Dom Lawrence Scupoli called it. We are still running the race and we need spiritual help. These are not three different churches but only one. We can all help each other through prayer and good works to overcome tribulations and reach eternal happiness in the company of God. This is the glory that derives from the Communion of Saints. Our Blessed Mother, the Queen of the Saints, can intercede for us along with the saints in Heaven. We can pray for the souls in Purgatory! They can pray for us! We can pray to the Saints in Heaven! I remember two famous quotes from Sts. Therese of the Little Flower and St. Pio. St. Therese says, “I wish to spend my heaven in doing good upon earth.” St. Pio said, “I will ask the good Lord not to let me into Heaven until all of my spiritual children are there.” What wonderful love and service and that love does not stop at death!
Many Catholics choose especially to ask God to apply the indulgences they obtain to the souls in Purgatory. This is a blessed act of charity. Some specifically ask God to send them sufferings and trials beyond what they need to make reparation for their own sins, so that they might add to the treasury of the Church and save souls. This is a great act of charity as well. (CCC 1471-1479).
So should we indulge with regards to indulgences? Yes, provided it is done with the right intention of heart and when done as an act of charity towards others whether they be on earth or in Purgatory.
God bless you and I pray this helps you understand what Indulgences are.
I would like to give credit to the following:Modern Catholic Dictionary by Fr. John Hardon, S. J.The Catechism of the Catholic ChurchAssociation of Catechumenal Ministry Manual