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Indulgences

August 5, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

“The whole power of the sacrament of Penance,” teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship” (n. 1468).
It is the primary means provided by an all-loving, all-merciful God for members of His Church to obtain forgiveness and remission of serious sins committed after Baptism. Moreover, as Pope St. John Paul II beautifully expresses in his 1984 post-synodal apostolic exhortation entitled Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, restoration of communion with Christ “takes place before a tribunal of mercy rather than of strict and rigorous justice” (n. 31, 2).
Several other marvelous effects, as we saw last week, are also realized by worthy reception of this “sacrament of healing.”
As enumerated by the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they are: reconciliation with the Church; remission of the eternal punishment of Hell that is incurred by mortal sins; remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments which are the consequence of sin; peace, serenity of conscience, and spiritual consolation; and an increase of spiritual strength for the daily Christian battle (cf. n. 310).
Furthermore, significant psychological benefits also result when one unburdens himself from the guilt of sin.
The Catechism now examines the doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church, which “are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance” (CCC, n. 1471). As we will see, two dogmas of the Church that were considered in Part One of this series (“The Profession of Faith”) are intimately related to this topic: the Communion of Saints (see volume 148, nn. 7-8; February 19-26, 2015) and Purgatory (see volume 148, nn. 19-20; May 14-21, 2015).
The word “indulgence” is derived from the Latin indulgentia (from indulgeo; to be kind or tender). In post-classic Latin, it came to mean “the remission of a tax or debt” and in theological language its primary sense signifies the kindness and mercy of God (cf. Catholic Encyclopedia).
In the language of the Church, as defined by Blessed Paul VI in his 1967 apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina (ID), an indulgence is “the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already 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” (ID, norm 1).
More simply stated, an indulgence is “the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven” (CCC, Glossary). It can be “partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due sin” (ID, norm 2) and, as specified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC), “any member of the faithful can gain partial or plenary indulgences for oneself or apply them to the dead” (canon 984).
In order to more fully understand the Church’s doctrine on indulgences, it would be helpful to briefly review a topic that was considered much earlier in our consideration of the Sacrament of Penance, namely that “sin has a double consequence” (CCC, n. 1472). By deliberately sinning, a person becomes liable to both guilt and punishment, which can be eternal and temporal. Eternal punishment is “the penalty for unrepented mortal sin, separating the sinner from communion with God for all eternity” (CCC, Glossary).
By the divine mercy of God, guilt is forgiven and the penalty of eternal punishment due to mortal sin is remitted through a good Confession.
Divine justice, on the other hand, demands a further act for the remission of temporal penalty due for all sins — mortal and venial. It is a truth of our faith that “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” (CCC, n. 1472).
As explained by Fr. Paul Haffner, “temporal punishment due to sin is precisely connected with the undue attachment to or the disorder caused among God’s creatures. . . . An indulgence offers the penitent sinner the means of discharging this debt during his life on earth” (The Sacramental Mystery [TSM], p. 164).
When the doctrine of Purgatory was discussed earlier in this series, we saw that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation” (CCC, n. 1030). However, since nothing impure can enter Heaven (cf. Rev. 21:27), souls who die without being completely free of human imperfections are consigned to spend time in Purgatory to satisfy the demands of God’s justice.
This is precisely where the doctrine of the Communion of Saints comes into play, for “the Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace is not alone” (CCC, n. 1474).
“The life of each individual son of God in Christ and through Christ,” explains Blessed Paul VI, “is joined by a wonderful link to the life of all his other Christian brothers in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ till, as it were, a single mystical person is formed” (ID, n. 5 § 2).
Correspondingly, there exists the “Treasury of the Church,” which consists of the infinite merits of Christ together with the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints.
“These merits, [which] are the common property of the whole Church,” states St. Thomas Aquinas, “are distributed to the various individuals according to the judgment of him who rules them all” (Summa Theologiae, Supplementum, Q. 25, art. 1).
This doctrine was first officially expressed in 1343 by Pope Clement VI in Unigenitus Dei Filius.
How are indulgences obtained by those in need? “An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus,” teaches the Catechism, “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” (CCC, n. 1478).
Important to note is that “only the Pope has a universal power of granting and establishing indulgences” (TSM, p. 165). However, as specified by the 1983 Code, “[T]hose to whom this power is acknowledged in the law or granted by the Roman Pontiff can bestow indulgences. No authority below the Roman Pontiff can entrust the power of granting indulgences to others unless the Apostolic See has given this expressly to the person” (CIC, canon 995 §§ 1-2).

Detachment From Sin

What is required of the faithful in order to gain an indulgence? First of all, “a person must be baptized, not excommunicated, and in the state of grace at least at the end of the prescribed works” (CIC, canon 996 § 1).
In addition, persons wishing to gain indulgences “must have at least the general intention of acquiring them and must fulfill the enjoined works in the established time and the proper method, according to the tenor of the grant” (CIC, canon 996 § 2).
To gain a plenary indulgence (which remits all temporal punishment due to sin), it is also necessary “to fulfill three conditions: sacramental Confession, Eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff” (ID, norm 7 § 1).
Reception of sacramental Confession must occur within eight days before or after the prescribed prayer or practice. Praying at least one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the Holy Father satisfies that condition (other prayers can be substituted).
It is recommended that reception of Holy Communion and prayers for the Holy Father take place on the same day that the indulgenced prayer or practice is offered, but they may also be carried out several days before or after the indulgenced act.
“It is further required that all attachment to sin, even to venial sin, be absent. If this disposition is in any way less than complete, or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be only partial” (ID, norm 7 § 2).
This is the greatest hurdle to fulfill since the person seeking the indulgence must be completely free of all attachment to sin. In truth, only God knows with certainty if a plenary indulgence is actually gained — only He knows whether a person’s dispositions are adequate. To illustrate this point, consider the following account.
In a booklet entitled Divine Mercy Explained, Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, poses the question: “Are we detached from all sin?” as a direct inference to the most difficult of the conditions which must be met to gain a plenary indulgence.
He answers his own question by recalling a story he once heard about the 16th-century founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, St. Philip Neri.
As recounted by Fr. Gaitley, St. Philip “was speaking to a large crowd of people who had gathered for some Church event to receive a plenary indulgence, and the Holy Spirit told St. Philip that only two people in the whole crowd were going to receive the plenary indulgence: Philip himself and a seven-year-old boy — presumably because everyone else was attached to sin.”

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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 doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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