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Indulgences

August 12, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

Part 2

The Church’s authoritative teaching on indulgences, as we saw last week, is based on her doctrine of the Communion of Saints. In this “supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “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” (nn. 1474, 1475).
Between them takes place a wonderful exchange of all good things: The Church is able to draw upon the superabundant treasury of merits gained by Christ and all the saints and apply them toward the remission of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.
As we likewise saw last week, in order to grasp the Church’s teaching on indulgences it is essential to realize that sin has a twofold consequence. In his Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee Year of 2000 entitled Incarnationis Mysterium (IM), St. John Paul II masterfully summarized why this is true. “In the first place, if [the sin] is grave, it involves deprivation of communion with God and…exclusion from a share in eternal life” (n. 10 § 1).
Indulgences, in fact, do not apply toward the forgiveness of guilt or the remission of eternal punishment; rather, reception of the Sacrament of Penance is the normal means for regaining communion with God.
“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” (IM, n. 10 § 2).
In his general audience of September 29, 1999, St. John Paul II explains why this purification [temporal punishment] is necessary: “Temporal punishment expresses the condition of suffering of those who, although reconciled with God, are still marked by those ‘remains’ of sin which do not leave them totally open to grace. Precisely for the sake of complete healing, the sinner is called to undertake a journey of conversion toward the fullness of love.”
This is where indulgences come into play. In His great love and mercy, our Lord empowers the Church to dispense and supply, from her inexhaustible treasury of merits, mitigation for all or part of the temporal punishment remaining for forgiven sins. One must have the intention to gain an indulgence (for oneself or the deceased in Purgatory), be properly disposed (be a baptized member of the Church and in the state of grace), and complete the prescribed work.
To gain a plenary indulgence one must also fulfill certain conditions (sacramental Confession, Holy Communion, and prayers for the Roman Pontiff).
In addition, as was demonstrated at the close of last week’s installment, another requirement applies which is very difficult to satisfy — to gain a plenary indulgence one must be free of all affection to sin. Nevertheless, this is something for which all members of the faithful should strive, for it is possible to gain a plenary indulgence on a daily basis (on the day one dies, a second plenary indulgence can be gained).
If one falls short of fulfilling all the conditions necessary to gain a plenary indulgence, a partial indulgence may be granted. Indeed, several partial indulgences can be gained each day.
As explained by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, in The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, “the value of an indulgence depends on two things: the supernatural charity . . . with which the indulgenced task is performed, and the dignity of the indulgenced task itself” (pp. 278-279).
Expressed in different terms, the value of an indulgence depends on what a person does and how well he does it. Only Almighty God knows with certitude the value of an indulgenced work.
For those who have prayer books or holy cards from pre-Vatican II days, it is interesting to note that a period of time was specified for an indulgenced act. Many people incorrectly assume the time period is indicative of the number of days or years that their time in Purgatory would be shortened.
Fr. Hardon dispels that misperception by explaining that the specified periods of time “designated the equivalent of the temporal punishment remitted in terms of the canonical penances formerly practiced by the Church” (The Catholic Catechism [TCC], p. 564).
With the promulgation of Indulgentiarum Doctrina (ID) in 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI alleviated this confusion with the following norm: “A partial indulgence will henceforth be designated only with the words ‘partial indulgence’ without any determination of days or years” (norm 4). In other words, as indicated earlier, the efficacy of the indulgenced act is based on the dignity of the act and the fervor with which it is accomplished (and is known definitively to God alone).
When did indulgences originate? An excellent adult catechism published by the German Bishops’ Conference in 1985 states: “Generally speaking, there have been indulgences in the Church from the beginning” (The Church’s Confession of Faith [CCF], p. 305).
The basic underlying principles of indulgences were present in the ancient Church, explains Fr. Hardon, in that the intercession of confessors (those who bore great suffering because of their public defense of the faith during times of great persecution) and those awaiting martyrdom was allowed to be applied by ecclesiastical authorities toward the shortening of canonical penances (cf. TCC, p. 562).
As the Church lessened the severity of penitential discipline, development of doctrine regarding vicarious merit (suffering in place of another) took place. Resultantly, the practice of obtaining indulgences in its present form can be traced to the 11th century (cf. CCF, p. 305).
Along with prayer and fasting, almsgiving is one of the three general means recognized by the Church for the expiation of sin. As such, contributing financially toward praiseworthy ecclesiastical purposes (e.g., building or restoring a church) was admitted as a salutary means for gaining an indulgence.
Yet, “no institution, however holy, has entirely escaped abuse through the malice or unworthiness of man” (Catholic Encyclopedia). And indeed, the practice of gaining an indulgence through the giving of alms was no exception, for as Sacred Scripture has it: “The love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim. 6:10).
Abuses crept in via the form of “the collection of ‘illicit profits’ by which indulgences were blasphemously defamed” (ID, n. 8 § 6). Indeed, “traffic in indulgences” helped to provoke the so-called Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent was outspoken in its condemnation of the “improper use” of indulgences and in 1567, all grants of indulgences that involved fees or financial transactions of any kind were revoked by Pope Pius V.
In parallel, however, the Council of Trent maintained that indulgences are exceedingly beneficial for the Christian people and anathematized anyone who declared indulgences to be useless or denied that the Church had the right to confer indulgences (cf. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, n. 1835; as cited in CCF, p. 305).
In the aftermath of Vatican Council II and about a year and a half after the promulgation of the apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina by Blessed Paul VI, on June 29, 1968, the initial edition of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum was published. About one sixth the size of its predecessor, it fulfilled the Holy Father’s injunction that the former version was “to be revised with a view to attaching indulgences only to the most important prayers and works of piety, charity, and penance” (ID, norm 13).
The fourth and most recent edition of a volume entitled Manual of Indulgences (1999) should be on the bookshelf of every faithful Catholic. It lists and explains four general grants “which may in some sense serve as beacons for the conduct of daily Christian life” (p. 9). Likewise, it lists dozens of devotional and penitential prayers and practices to which indulgences are attached. It also provides instructions on how pious exercises such as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, praying the rosary in common, the reading of Scripture, and making the stations of the cross are attached to plenary indulgences.

The Apostolic Pardon

To conclude our treatment of indulgences, we recall a special plenary indulgence that was referred to earlier when mention was made of the one exception to the norm that a person can gain only one plenary indulgence each day. This is in reference to the “Apostolic Pardon” (or “Apostolic Blessing”) which should be received at the hour of death. Even if a member of the faithful has gained a plenary indulgence earlier in the day, he can gain a second for himself as he approaches death’s door.
As indicated in the above-referenced Manual of Indulgences, “a priest who administers the sacraments to someone in danger of death should not fail to impart the apostolic blessing to which a plenary indulgence is attached” (grant 12 § 1). In fact, the 1983 Code of Canon Law lists as a function especially entrusted to a pastor: “the imparting of the apostolic blessing” (canon 530, 3).
So important is the Apostolic Pardon that “if a priest is unavailable, Holy Mother Church benevolently grants to the Christian faithful, who are duly disposed, a plenary indulgence to be acquired at the point of death provided they have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime; in such a case, the Church supplies for the three conditions ordinarily required for a plenary indulgence” (grant 12 § 2).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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