What Are They?
on a much misunderstood subject
Rev. John A. 0'Brien, Ph.D.
The Australian Catholic Truth Society No 1338 (1960)
What Are They ?
ON A MUCH MISUNDERSTOOD QUESTION
Some time ago Professor L. M. Larson, the distinguished head of the
department of history at the University of Illinois, called upon the
writer and thus stated the object of his visit. "Father," he said, "I
am writing a history of England. I have encountered so many different
and conflicting statements of historians as to the nature of an
indulgence, that I have come to you, as a representative of the
Catholic Church, to find out what an indulgence really is. I want to
know the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church on this subject, so
that I can present the doctrine truthfully and accurately to my
readers, instead of merely repeating the confusing statements of
second-hand authorities who have never understood what the Church
really means by an indulgence."
It is because many other writers have been less careful than Professor
Larson, and have taken their idea of indulgences from the caricatures
drawn by misinformed or prejudiced sources, that there prevail among
our non-Catholic fellow-citizens to this very day many grotesque
misconceptions as to the meaning of an indulgence. Many consider it a
pardon of past sin, others regard it as a licence to commit future sin.
Some think of it as an exemption from a law or duty which binds other
Christians. In some histories it is depicted as a sort of magical lever
that lifts a soul from Purgatory. (All of these ideas, as we shall see,
for Sale ?
Colouring all these notions is the idea that, whatever the kind of
indulgence, it may be purchased at a stipulated price. They are all for
sale, and the lust for money is at the root of the whole business. The
term "indulgences" has thus come to stand in the minds of our separated
brethren as the symbol of mercenary fraud and corruption in the Church
of Rome. It is regarded as the match that kindled the flames of
Luther's revolt against the most repugnant elements of the superstition
and humbuggery of the Roman system.
May I ask our dear non-Catholic reader to follow the example of
Professor Larson, whose insistence upon going to the original sources
to find the real facts in the case, has enabled him to achieve world
eminence in his field. In so doing they will get an insight into the
true meaning of an indulgence. They will then see that what they fight
against is not the Catholic doctrine of indulgences. but the grotesque
caricatures drawn either by the misinformed or by the Church's
I do not hesitate to say that if an indulgence were really the
mercenary fraud commonly imagined by non-Catholics, I, too, would rebel
against it with vehemence not less than theirs. It is only because I
know the authentic teaching of the Church on this subject that I see in
indulgences an incentive not to evil, but to deeds of virtue and
holiness. Here again I would ask of our non-Catholic reader but one
favour - an open mind.
In return, I give the assurance that instead of playing the role
of an attorney, glossing over all the hostile evidence and playing up
only that which is favourable, I shall essay the role of the historian,
recording with impartial hand the abuses as well as the wholesome
fruits of the practice of indulgences.
What is the real meaning of an indulgence ? It is simply the remission
of the temporal punishment due
after the sin itself has been forgiven. The one phrase in the
definition that may not be entirely clear to our non-Catholic reader is
"temporal punishment." To
understand that, one must first understand
that, according to the Catholic Church, every sin, especially grievous
sin, has attached to it a two-fold penalty - an eternal punishment to
be undergone in the next world, and a temporal punishment, which is
suffered either in this world, or in Purgatory, or partly in both.
The guilt, with its eternal punishment, is always forgiven in a good
confession. The temporal punishment may or may not be remitted in
confession, depending upon the quality of the contrition. If it is not
remitted, it may be remitted: (1) through the propitiatory efficacy of
deeds of penance and virtue; and (2) through the gaining of indulgences
attached by the Church to certain works of charity and piety.
Basic, in this whole conception, is the idea that even after the
eternal punishment attached to mortal sin, or venial sin, is remitted,
there may still remain some temporal punishment. While this idea does
not seem to be familiar at the present time to those outside the
Catholic Church, it is nevertheless rooted in the Scriptures. Thus
Moses, even though he was forgiven his transgressions by God, was
nevertheless punished by not being permitted to enter the Promised
Land, being allowed to view it only from the distance of Mt. Nebo.
David was forgiven for his double crime of murder and adultery, but was
compelled to suffer a temporal punishment in the violent death of his
son, Absalom (and Ammon) and the death by illness of Bathsheba's
child. "The Lord also has taken away your sin," said the prophet
Nathan, "nevertheless, because you have given occasion to the enemies
of the Lord to blaspheme, for this thing the child that is born to you
shall surely die." (2 Sam 12:13-14) Here is a clear instance of a
temporal punishment remaining after the eternal guilt has been
remitted. To satisfy the requirement of God's justice for such temporal
punishment, and thereby to remit it, is the function of indulgences.
Let me endeavour to make still clearer to my dear non-Catholic readers
the meaning of temporal punishment, so essential to the understanding
of indulgences, by the following illustration. Suppose Tom Smith is
guilty of stealing a hundred pounds from the home of his neighbour,
John Brown. The culprit is arrested and the judge pronounces him guilty
and sentences him to prison for a year by way of punishment.
While in prison Mr. Smith comes to realize the grievous injustice he
inflicted upon his neighbour by his theft, and is thoroughly repentant.
He writes to Mr. Brown, humbly asks his forgiveness and assures him
that as soon as he earns a hundred pounds after he is out of prison, he
will repay him. Touched by the evident sincerity of the prisoner's
contrition and purpose of amendment, Mr. Brown asks the governor to
pardon him. Upon investigation, the governor finds that the prisoner
has served four months of his sentence and has a record of good
behaviour during this period. Because of this fact and because of the
circumstances mentioned by Mr. Brown, the governor remits the remaining
eight months of imprisonment and releases the prisoner on parole.
The sentence to serve a year's imprisonment may be said to represent
the temporal punishment due to sin even after the sinner has repented
and the formal guilt of the sin has been remitted. The remission of the
remaining eight months of the sentence may be said to represent an
indulgence. The illustration also serves to show the wholesome effect
that the temporal punishment is likely to have upon the penitent sinner.
to Grant Indulgences
Granting, then, the fact of a temporal punishment, what is the
evidence that the Church possesses the power to remit it ? This is to
be found in the authority vested by Christ in His Church when He said
to Peter: "I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And
whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven:
and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in
heaven" (Matt. 16: l9). From these words of Christ it is clear that no
limit was placed upon the power of the Church to loose from any and all
bonds of sin - from the temporal as well as from the eternal
punishment. Indulgences constitute, therefore, a supplement to the
Sacrament of Penance, ( or Reconciliation) removing every obstacle that
separates the creature from the friendship of his God.
Indulgences are of two kinds: partial
or plenary. A partial
indulgence remits a portion of the temporal punishment, while a plenary
one remits all of it.
In addition to being applicable to the living, some indulgences are
likewise applicable to the souls in Purgatory. To understand the
possibility of such a transfer of indulgences, it is necessary first to
understand these three teachings of Christ and of His Church:
(1) The Communion of Saints.
This means that the members of Christ's Church, whether on
earth, in heaven, or in purgatory, are all members of Christ's mystical
body and are all capable of assisting one another by their prayers and
good works. "We being many," says St. Paul, "are one body in Christ,
and every one members one of another" (Rom. 12: 5).
(2) The Principle of Vicarious
To every good action of the just man there is attached a twofold
value: merit and satisfaction or atonement. Merit is personal and
cannot be transferred. Satisfaction, however, can be applied to others.
This truth St. Paul thus communicates to the Colossians: "Who now
rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are
wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which
is the Church" (Colossians 1: 24). Moreover, all Christians admit that
we have been redeemed through the propitiatory sufferings and death of
Christ. This principle of vicarious atonement; lies, therefore, at the
very heart of the Christian faith.
(3) The Spiritual Treasury of the
Since Christ suffered far more than was necessary to redeem us,
and since there resulted from His death a fund of infinite
satisfaction, it follows that there has been created a vast and
inexhaustible treasury which the Church may draw upon in payment of
temporal punishment. This spiritual treasury has been increased by the
superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin and of the saints.
"All the saints," says St. Thomas, "intended that whatever they did or
suffered for God's sake should be profitable not only to themselves but
to the whole Church" (Quodlib., Book
II., question vii., article 16, by St. Thomas Aquinas).
The existence of an infinite treasury of merits in the Church was
formally set forth by Pope Clement VI in 1343. "Upon the altar of the
Cross," says the Pope. "Christ shed of His blood not merely a drop,
though this would have sufficed. by reason of the union with the Word,
to redeem the whole human race, but a copious torrent - thereby laying
up an infinite treasure for mankind. This treasure He neither wrapped
up in a napkin nor hid in a field, but entrusted to Blessed Peter, the
key-bearer, and his successors, that they might for just and reasonable
causes distribute it to the faithful in full or in partial remission of
the temporal punishment due to sin." Hence - when Luther asserted that
"the treasures of the Church from which the Pope grants indulgences are
not the merits of Christ and the saints," the statement was promptly
condemned by Leo X.
For, without such a spiritual treasury for the Church to draw upon in
payment of temporal punishment still due by her children, indulgences
would be both ineffective and meaningless. It is part of the authority
committed by Christ to Peter and his successors to specify to what
extent, and under what conditions, the funds of this common treasury
shall be made available to the individual members.
As the concept of a common spiritual treasury, consisting of the
inexhaustible merits of Christ and the superabundant satisfaction of
the saints, while essential to the understanding of indulgences, is
unfamiliar to those outside the fold, it may be helpful to show how
deeply imbedded in the Christian faith was this doctrine. centuries
birth of Protestantism. Back in the thirteenth century, St. Thomas
Aquinas bears witness to the universal belief of Christians in the
existence of such a treasury and in its availability to remit temporal
"All this treasure," says St. Thomas, "is at the dispensation of the
chief rulers of the Church, in as much as Our Lord gave the Keys of the
Church to Peter. When, then, the utility or necessity of the Church
requires it, the chief ruler of the Church can draw from this infinite
store of merits to communicate to any one who through charity is a
member of the Church as much as he deems to be opportune, whether it be
such as will suffice for the total remission of his punishment, or up
to a certain portion of the whole; in such wise, namely, that the
Passion of Christ (through Whom alone the merits of the others have
efficacy) and the other saints may be imparted to him just as if he
himself had suffered what was necessary for the remission of his sin -
as happens when one person satisfies for another" (op. cit.).
These, then, are the three basic
truths, the communion of saints, the principle of vicarious atonement,
and the common treasury of the Church, upon which the doctrine of the
applicability of indulgences to the souls of the faithful departed, as
well as to others among the living, rests. The authority to grant
indulgences, as has been indicated, flows from the power of the keys,
the unlimited power of binding and of loosing, conferred by Christ upon
St. Peter and his successors.
There is an important difference in the application of indulgences to
the living and to the dead. The living are subjects of the Church's
immediate jurisdiction; the deceased are not. To the former she grants
an indulgence as an exercise of her judiciary authority. To the latter
she makes an indulgence available by way of suffrage. That is, she
petitions God, under whose sole jurisdiction the deceased are, to
accept the works of satisfaction, and in consideration thereof to
mitigate the sufferings of the souls in purgatory.
Can we say, therefore, that an indulgence gained by the living for any
individual in purgatory will be applied with infallible certainty to
the particular soul ? While we piously believe that the individual soul
will be benefited to some degree, we cannot say with certainty that it
will be applied in its entirety to that particular soul. That lies
within the jurisdiction of Almighty God, and we rest content with the
knowledge that the case is in the hands of a Father Who is both
infinitely just and infinitely merciful.
It is well, too, to remember that there are some veils that cannot be
penetrated this side of eternity. The effort to do so usually results
in fine-spun speculations and subtleties, which do not carry
conviction, and which are usually less satisfactory than the humble
acknowledgement that we simply do not know. The answer to this question
is one of the many, then, that we leave with content to the wisdom of
our heavenly Father.
"Is not an indulgence," queried a non-Catholic friend recently, "a mere
glossing over of sin, a lazy man's method of getting his punishment
remitted instead of the normal time-honoured method of repentance and
amendment? I do not see any need for indulgences," he continued, "as
long as Christ has pointed to repentance as the way back to His love
and friendship. 'Much is forgiven her because she has loved much. Go
now and sin no more.' This was the burden of Christ's message to
mankind. It seems to me that indulgences are morally unwholesome
because they lessen the need for such interior repentance and
Such is the common view of our non-Catholic friends. It overlooks,
however, an essential condition for the gaining of an indulgence. For
the latter is not a glossing over of sin. It does not touch the guilt
of sin in any way. In fact, an indulgence cannot be gained unless the
guilt of mortal sin has been first removed by the Sacrament of Penance,
of which true interior contrition and purpose of amendment are
indispensable requisites. Therefore, an indulgence can be gained only
by a person who is already in the friendship and love of God.
Instead of lessening the need for genuine repentance and amendment,
indulgences emphasize their imperative necessity. For without such
repentance there can be no indulgences, and no forgiveness of sin,
either by the Church through the Sacrament of Penance or directly by
God. No person or institution in the world insists more strongly upon
the unescapable necessity of genuine and not feigned repentance for the
obtaining of forgiveness of sin than the Catholic Church. The picture,
then, of a man wallowing in the mire of sin and gaining an indulgence
through the offering of an alms to spare himself the trouble of
repentance and amendment does not reflect the teaching of the Catholic
Church. It exists only in the imagination of our separated brethren,
and is traceable to the widespread misrepresentation of the nature of
Forgiveness of Guilt
Do not some writs of indulgence, however, especially in the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries, contain the expression "from guilt and
punishment" (a culpa et a poena)?
Does this not show that an indulgence was regarded as a pardon of sin ?
It is true that this medieval formula was often used, though rarely by
the Roman chancery. But it was never used in the sense ascribed to it
by Protestant writers, as meaning the remission of the guilt of sin
through an indulgence. Addressed to Catholics who understood the
meaning of an indulgence, the formula always implied the previous
remission of the guilt of sin through the Sacrament of Penance or
In order that I may not appear to be asking our non-Catholic reader to
accept this explanation on my authority, I shall cite the words of a
contemporary of Luther. While I have before me the writings of over a
dozen authors of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries
explaining the writs of indulgences in the sense just mentioned, I
shall quote but one, allowing him to speak for all. I choose John of
Palts, for the threefold reason that he was authorized to preach the
jubilee indulgence under Pope Alexander VII, because he was a fellow
religious of Luther, and because his explanation is accepted as correct
even by Brieger, one of the most hostile of all Protestant writers on
the question of indulgences.
"Properly speaking," writes Palts, "in virtue of an indulgence no one
is ever absolved from punishment and guilt, but from punishment only.
However, it is commonly said that during the jubilee one is absolved
from both - a poena et culpa.
And that saying is true, because a 'jubilee is more than a mere
indulgence; it includes authority to confess and absolve and together
with this power to remit punishment by way of indulgence. In this way
it includes the Sacrament: of Penance and together with it an
indulgence properly so called. For the clearer understanding of the
aforesaid, it must be noted that the term indulgence may be taken in
one of two ways. In one way, in so far as it properly signifies the
mere remission of punishment, and in this sense it does not imply the
remission of guilt; and in another way, in as much as in a wider sense
it stands for the jubilee, or for the letter including the jubilee, and
then it extends itself to the remission of sin. And the reason is that
usually when the Pope grants a jubilee, he does not concede a simple
indulgence, but also the faculty of confessing and absolving from all
sins. And in this way the guilt is taken away by the Sacrament of
Penance, which there intervenes; while the punishment is cancelled by
the indulgence, which is there granted" (Brieger, p. 88).
The alleged sale of indulgences, the numerous abuses which grew up
around them, and their bearing upon the religious upheaval of the
sixteenth century are questions which demand fuller treatment than is
possible within the limits of this article. They, along with the
historical origin of the practice of indulgences, are discussed in
Suffice it to say here that the doctrine of indulgences, while perhaps
not explicit in Holy Scripture, is at least implicit therein. It is
likewise in accordance with reason. Far from being subversive of true
repentance and purpose of amendment, it stimulates the arousal of these
subjective dispositions by stressing their necessity for the gaining of
Incentive to Virtue
The official teaching of the Church on the subject is thus expressed by
the Council of Trent: "Since," says the Council, "the power of
conferring indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church, and she
has, even in the most ancient times, used this kind of power, delivered
unto her of God; the Sacred Holy Synod teaches and enjoins that the use
of Indulgences, for the Christian people most salutary and
approved of by the authority of Sacred Councils, is to be retained in
the Church; and it condemns, with anathema, those who either assert
they are useless, or who deny that there is in the Church the power of
granting them" (Sess. XXV).
It is to be noted how moderate and restrained is the official statement
of the Church's teaching. It simply affirms two truths, namely, that
the Church has the power to grant indulgences, and that their use is
salutary. Thus it is evident that the Church does not crowd them upon
any of her children. If one will appraise the doctrine of indulgences,
not as caricatured by her enemies but as actually taught by the Church,
he will come, I think, to the two following conclusions:
(1) Indulgences constitute a powerful incentive to deeds of virtue,
piety, and charity, quickening man in his love of God and in his
service to his fellow man.
(2) Indulgences are a beautiful dispensation of Divine Providence
emphasizing the social solidarity of our race and binding us all
together as members of the mystical body of Christ by the golden ties
of love and prayer.
We do not struggle as solitary, lonely wayfarers, climbing slowly up
life's rough mountain-side, with no one to cheer or help us when we
falter on the way. We travel as pilgrims in a goodly company, and as
soldier in a mighty army, with the hands of angels stretched down to
help us when we stumble, with the prayers of the faithful pleading for
us before the Throne of the Most High, and with the sacrifices and good
deeds of our brothers-in-arms to hearten us when we weary on the way.
The gaining of indulgences for one another is, therefore, but an
integral part of that consoling doctrine of the communion of saints,
the sweet reasonableness of which is so beautifully portrayed in the
words of Tennyson:
"For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If knowing God they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friends ?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God."
BERNARD O'CONNOR. Diocesan Censor.
+ DANIEL MANNIX, Archiepiscopus Melbournensis. June 6th, 1960