(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
IndulgencesIntimately related to purgatory is the Catholic doctrine on indulgences. Indulgences grew out of the system of penance developed by the Catholic Church. In an indulgence, the Catholic Church allowed the penitent to substitute a cash payment for other forms of satisfaction. The Church would even issue an official statement saying that one had been released from other penalties. It was this official document that was called an indulgence. In a sense, the indulgence amounted to a receipt for payment of a fine.
An indulgence, according to the Roman Catholic Church, is a means of remission of the temporal punishment for sins which have already been forgiven. This punishment is most often in purgatory but can also be suffered in this life. An indulgence removes time needed to be spent in purgatory. There are two kinds of indulgences: partial and plenary. A partial indulgence removes part of the punishment of sins. A plenary indulgence removes all of the punishment of sins. Granting an indulgence of a certain number of days or years means that is how many days or years is removed from the time of punishment a person must undergo in purgatory.
On the inside of the cover of the New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism published in 1969 there is a prayer. After the prayer, it reads as follows: "An indulgence of five years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, provided this prayer has been recited daily for a month." By saying the prayer properly, the catechist is promised that five years is removed from time in purgatory.
On the same page of the Baltimore Catechism it reads, "The faithful who devote 20 minutes to a half hour to teaching or studying Christian doctrine, may gain: an indulgence of three years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions twice a month, if the above practice is carried out at least twice a month."
So, according to the Baltimore catechism, if you say the prayer properly you can have five years removed from your time in purgatory. And, if you devote twenty minutes to a half hour to teaching or studying Christian doctrine, you can have three years removed from purgatory.
Additionally, one could purchase indulgences for the dead, to reduce their time in purgatory. This was based on the Catholic doctrine of supererogatory merit.
Catholicism and Merit
Catholics speak of three types of merit, each of which plays a role in salvation:
- Condign Merit. This is merit attributed to our works for which God is obligated to give reward. This is like paying a laborer his due wages.
- Congruous Merit. This is merit that is “reasonable”, but not obligated. In secular terms, it is something like a waiter’s tip. It is attained through works and penance.
- Supererogatory Merit. This is the stuff of saints. It is their “excess” merit and it is deposited in a treasury of supererogatory merits. It can then be drawn upon to free people from purgatory. Attaining supererogatory merit is also possible for a priest living a life of celibacy in devotion to Christ. A layman can accrue supererogatory merit through regular church attendance and constant attention to the sacraments.
The Catholic doctrine of supererogatory merit is based on an interpretation of the story of the rich young ruler.
17And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" 20And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth." 21And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." 22Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)According to Catholic teaching, the ruler was obviously saved, so the fact that he could do more means that there would have been further reward. That reward would have come in the form of supererogatory merit.
(As an aside, I also believe that the rich young ruler was saved.)
Returning once again to Indulgentarium Doctrina:
Thus is explained the "treasury of the Church" which should certainly not be imagined as the sum total of material goods accumulated in the course of the centuries, but the infinite and inexhaustible value the expiation and the merits of Christ Our Lord have before God, offered as they were so that all of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. It is Christ the Redeemer Himself in whom the satisfactions and merits of His redemption exist and find their force. This treasury also includes the truly immense, unfathomable and ever pristine value before God of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, who following in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by His grace have sanctified their lives and fulfilled the mission entrusted to them by the Father. Thus while attaining their own salvation, they have also cooperated in the salvation of their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.So this treasury of merit is quite strange: it co-mingles the merit of Jesus, Mary, and the Saints. In indulgence is, then, similar to a withdrawal from this treasury. The loan officer is, naturally, the pope. Indulgentarium Doctrina tells us:
For "the only-begotten son of God… has won a treasure for the militant Church… and has entrusted it to blessed Peter, the keybearer of heaven, and to his successors, Christ's vicars on earth, that they may distribute it to the faithful for their salvation, applying it mercifully for reasonable causes to all who are repentant and have confessed their sins, at times remitting completely and at times partially the temporal punishment due sin in a general as well as in special ways insofar as they judge it to be fitting in the eyes of the Lord. It is known that the merits of the Blessed Mother of God and of all the elect… add further to this treasure."This document adds, a few paragraphs later:
In addition, it should not be forgotten that by acquiring indulgences the faithful submit docilely to the legitimate pastors of the Church and above all to the successor of Blessed Peter, the keybearer of heaven, to whom the Savior Himself entrusted the task of feeding His flock and governing His Church.In then goes on to explain the benefit of indulgences:
The salutary institution of indulgences therefore contributes in its own way to bringing it about that the Church appear before Christ without blemish or defect, but holy and immaculate, admirably united with Christ in the supernatural bond of charity. Since in fact by means of indulgences members of the Church who are undergoing purification are united more speedily to those of the Church in heaven, the kingdom of Christ is through these same indulgences established more extensively and more speedily…So indulges, we are told, contribute to creating a church without blemish. Scripture has something to say in this regard:
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:25-27)Here Paul is describing how the church will attain a blemish-free status with which to be presented to Christ. It says nothing about indulgences. It says less than nothing about contributions of merit from anyone other than Christ, including Mary or the Saints. It’s all Christ. It teaches that Christ will present the church to himself, sanctified by His own sacrifice.
Indulgences, according the official teaching presented in Indulgentarium Doctrina, have a purpose beyond releasing someone from temporal punishment. They are also helpful, according to Rome, for building our confidence in reconciliation with God:
In an indulgence in fact, the Church, making use of its power as minister of the Redemption of Christ, not only prays but by an authoritative intervention dispenses to the faithful suitably disposed the treasury of satisfaction which Christ and the saints won for the remission of temporal punishment… Likewise, the religious practice of indulgences reawakens trust and hope in a full reconciliation with God the Father…Once again we see indulgences taking partial credit for something that scripture teaches in an entirely different manner:
10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:10-11)Our confidence in reconciliation, according to the Apostle Paul, is through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Once again, nothing resembling indulgences is mentioned.
Finally, from a list of twenty “norms” or rules about the proper use of indulgences, we read in Indulgentarium Doctrina:
Norm 5. The faithful who at least with a contrite heart perform an action to which a partial indulgence is attached obtain, in addition to the remission of temporal punishment acquired by the action itself, an equal remission of punishment through the intervention of the Church.That is, the Church matches your contribution—like a retirement fund.
Norm 6. A plenary indulgence can be acquired only once a day, except for the provisions contained in n. 18 for those who are on the point of death. A partial indulgence can be acquired more than once a day, unless there is an explicit indication to the contrary.Norm 15 is my personal favorite. By the works of man and the approval of the Church, God’s grace will be allotted on a specific day.
Norm 7. To acquire a plenary indulgence it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff. 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, except for the provisions contained in n. 11 for those who are "impeded."
Norm 8. The three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after the performance of the prescribed work; nevertheless it is fitting that Communion be received and the prayers for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff be said the same day the work is performed.
Norm 10. The condition of praying for the Supreme Pontiff's intentions is fully satisfied by reciting one "Our Father" and one "Hail Mary"; nevertheless the individual faithful are free to recite any other prayer according to their own piety and devotion toward the Supreme Pontiff.
Norm 15. A plenary indulgence applicable only to the dead can be acquired in all churches and public oratories--and in semipublic oratories by those who have the right to use them--on November 2.