Dear Donagh,
Your comments on confession last month were enlightening and encouraging.I'm just wondering could you write something on indulgences.  I've always had a problem with them myself and still see them as a kindof  a way of buying a passage into Heaven for someone.?I did go and check the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Veritas 1994) where I read about the Communion of Saints, the Church's Treasury (not the Vatican!) Purgatory and temporal punishment.  But I did not understand it. I feel that it has much to do with God's Mercy and I wonder could you put it into layman's language…. John

Dear John,

Thanks for your question.  If someone reads this who is not a Catholic they may think we are talking about snacks and treats and the like.  But of course it is not about that.  It is about undoing the damage of sin. 

Yes, we say, God is “the Father of Mercies,” and forgives without qualification.  "Whatever God does he does completely,” said Meister Eckhart, “like the cup running over.  Whom he forgives he forgives utterly and at once, much preferring great forgiveness to little." 

The weight of guilt could cripple a person, and God's mercy lifts that burden from us.  But it remains true that sin leaves us crippled in other ways too.  Particularly if it has become habitual it dulls the spirit, hardens the heart, blinds the eye of the mind, limits the imagination, brutalises the feelings.... People of another tradition would refer to this as ‘bad karma’.  In simpler language, sin leaves us damaged.  The burden of guilt is raised off our shoulders, but the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves (not to mention others) still need healing. 

In that process of healing or recovery, are we on our own?  Is it up to us, individually, to ‘make amends’ for our sins?  We certainly have to be part of the process – it won't be dropped into our lap – but there is a wider picture.  A Christian is never a solitary being standing before God.  As St Paul kept repeating, we are members of Christ's Body.  Bear with me now for a while, because I never tire of quoting these passages from his letters. “Christ is the head of the body, the Church” (Col 1:18).  “As in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another” (Rom 12:4-5).  “In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body  -  Jews or Greeks, slaves or free  -  and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).  “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Cor 6:15). “We are members of one another”. (Eph 4:25).  There! – I always feel that those lines answer most of our questions.  In short, our sins leave us damaged, but we are damaged parts of the Body of Christ.  Our wounds are wounds in the Body of Christ.  And likewise, our healing will involve the whole Body of Christ. 

The theory behind indulgences, or rather the theology, is very profound.  The entire treasure of Christ’s Body is ours.  Not only has Jesus given us everything, but all of the merits of his disciples throughout the ages are ours.  St Thomas Aquinas wrote: “The Passion and death of Jesus belong to us as fully as if we had suffered them ourselves.”   And his 14th-century confrère, Meister Eckhart, said: “It is a certain truth that all the virtuous deeds performed by all people are yours as perfectly as if you had performed them yourself.”  We are not lone creatures; we are part of the Communion of Saints. 

This treasure is our birth-right.  “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:6-7).  Take a look at this month’s ‘Jacob’s Well’, which is about this beautiful passage. 

The theology is beautiful, but the practice of indulgences had become quite debased.  Older Catholics remember those numbers that were given with ‘indulgenced prayers’: “7 years and 7 quarantines,” or “300 days’ indulgence,” or “50 days’ indulgence….”  Just saying a pious phrase would bring in this kind of revenue.  It must have been very puzzling to members of other Churches, or to any Catholic who thought about it.  It did not mean, as many imagined, that your Purgatory time was reduced by that amount.  It meant, putting it crudely (because it was pretty crude), that you were given as much credit for saying that prayer as you would have been given if you had done seven years and seven quarantines (7x40 days) of penance for your sins.  It had the appearance of a really good business deal…. That was the trouble: the treasure that is ours as members of Christ’s Body was made to look like capital; and Mammon appeared to be in full charge of God’s grace.  It was those numbers that caused our minds to slip into the wrong groove. 

Counting is always fatal in religion.  The Pharisee at the front of the Temple presented his figures up front: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes (10%) of all l possess” (Lk 18:12).  But the tax-collector, who in his job was no stranger to numbers, just beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  “This man,” Jesus said, “went down to his home justified rather than the other.”  The practice of ‘indulgenced prayers’ put us dangerously close behind the Pharisee. 

All that dangerous arithmetic has now been brushed aside, and Catholics speak only about ‘partial’ and ‘plenary’ indulgences.  The hope is that having thrown out that rather absurd arithmetic we won't also throw out the beautiful teaching on which it was based. 


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