Tom McFeely is the National Catholic Register’s News Editor. He lives in British Columbia.
Last week, The New York Times published this article about the resurgence in devotional practices involving indulgences.
The Daily Blog is happy that this subject has attracted the attention of the venerable Old Gray Lady of American journalism.
But unfortunately, the Times didn’t quite get it right in their recent article, when it came to explaining accurately what indulgences are all about.
Rather than critiquing the coverage in the Times, we think a better approach is to direct the attention of readers who aren’t fully acquainted with the Church’s teaching on indulgences to authoritative sources that can explain what they are and what they do.
The first stop for Catholics, whenever they want more info about something like this, should be the Catechism of the Catholic Church (friendly hint to NYTimes: this should be your first stop too when you plan to publish articles that deal with Church matters).
The Catechism states, “The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.”
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions 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,” the Catechism continues. “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead” (no 1471).
In essence, an indulgence is a framework within which a Catholic can be more completely freed of the consequences of sin by fulfilling specific conditions set forward by the Church, in order to address the second, temporal component of what the Church describes as the “double consequence” of sin. The first element, the eternal consequence of separation from God, is removed by the grace of God when sins are confessed, through the sacrament of Reconciliation.
The temporal element of sin is a consequence of the fact that all sin “entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory,” the Catechism explains.
Continues the Catechism, “This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain” (no. 1472).
An indulgence is never a way for unrepentant sinners to “purchase” a get-out-of-Purgatory-free card, as indulgences are sometimes misrepresented by those who don’t understand them. Absent an authentically contrite heart that desires to be free of its sinful attachments, fulfillment of the other conditions of an indulgence will not remove the temporal punishment that is incurred by sin.
The Catechism dedicates several additional paragraphs to the subject of indulgences, but we realize that won’t be enough to answer all the questions that are associated with them. So here’s a link to an online posting of the third edition of the Vatican’s Handbook on Indulgences, published in 1986 by the Apostolic Penitiary.
Those wanting an informed layman’s perspective might also consult “A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often Misinterpreted Teaching.” It’s written by canonist Edward Peters, with a forward written by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee.