Today many people have forgotten or are confused about indulgences. What is an indulgence? Can we buy them? Does it mean we can indulge in things? Let’s see what they are and how they work.
To understand what an indulgence is, you must first understand what sin does to the soul. When you sin it effects two things, the spiritual order and the temporal order; essentially heaven and earth.
The spiritual order is effected because what you are doing offends God. You hurt or damage your relationship with God, the church, and your own soul. The temporal order or earth is effected because you have done something unnatural and disordered here in this time and place.
We are called to repair both orders, the heavenly one and the earthly one. Here is an earthly example. One day while playing baseball in the street I hit a ball strait through the neighbor’s window into their flat screen TV. I knock on the door and the kind Mr. Owens answers. I explain to him what happened and that I am sorry. He forgives me but then we discuss making reparation for the window and the TV.
Now in this example I have shown an earthly example of what would be confession and penance. I confessed that I sinned and now I do what I can to repair the damage.
Here is a great Biblical example of this
In 2 Samuel 11 is tells the history of how King David sinned. First he committed adultery with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, then he had her husband murdered.
Nathan the prophet confronts David about this sin and this is what David says:
2 Samuel 12:13-14 David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." And Nathan said to David, "The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die."
This is a hard passage to our ears, we think hey why is the baby being punished for David’s sin. But we have to be biblically minded people. Death is not the worst thing in the world. Going to hell is the worst thing. This passage teaches us at least two things. #1 Our sins effect our children. #2 We will see here on earth how they effect our children and think about them until the day we die.
Back to the point though, David is forgiven yet he still experiences a punishment. Why? Because our sins effect both heaven and earth.
So where do indulgences fit in to all of this?
Back to our example with Mr. Owens and the baseball through the window. So I did hit the ball through the window. I said I was sorry he forgives me we talk about reparation. But then Mr. Owens does something shocking, He says you “know what Dan, just help me clean up the glass from the window and the TV and that will be enough.” I say, ”Hold on, what do you mean?” He says, “He says, Just as I said, you help me clean up this glass from the window and the pieces from this TV and we will be even.” I say “How is that?” He says, “Because when I was a boy, your dad took care of me in the hospital and worked tirelessly to find a cure for the disease I had and he saved my life. So for the sake of your father and his work I will spare you this bill you owe me.”
You can imagine a real life example of a young man before the police. I will let you off because you dad was a great man for the people in this town and did great things. We know this happens. This happens in the Bible too.
It is when they say, for the sake of so-in-so – I will do or not do such and such a thing.
Abraham asks God, hey if there are 10 righteous people will you destroy the whole town of Sodom? God says - Genesis 18:32 "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it." So for the righteousness of those 10 people, the town of Sodom would have been spared, yet not even ten could be found.
2Kings 8 talks about how King Jehoram was a wicked king. 2 Kings 8:18-19 and he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. Yet the LORD would not destroy Judah, for the sake of David his servant, since he promised to give a lamp to him and to his sons for ever.
So Judah was spared punishment because of King David. While we of course read earlier of the sins of David. He was overall righteous because he continued to turn to the Lord after he had sinned.
In Numbers 9 Moses relates that when Israel made the Golden Calf that God was going to destroy Israel but then Moses says.
Deuteronomy 9:18-19 Then I lay prostrate before the LORD as before, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin which you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure which the LORD bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the LORD hearkened to me that time also.
So we see that Israel is spared the punishment for the sake of what penance Moses did.
Now let’s here what the catechism says about indulgences and this fits perfectly the biblical pattern.
Here is what the catechism says about indulgences.
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven,
- So we have been forgiven in confession, and now the indulgence is to rid us of the temporal punishment.
which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions
- So we have to be a right attitude and certain conditions must be met to obtain them.
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.
- Finally it is the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints that we are calling upon to mend this temporal punishment.
Ultimately we are saying – for the sake of what Jesus and the saints did, help me mend this world that I have damaged by my sins.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 1473
The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the "old man" and to put on the "new man."
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sections 1478-1479
An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, 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. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity. Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.