On Monday of this week (February 9, 2009) the New York Times published an article saying the Catholic Church is bringing back indulgences. The article has caused a storm of comments on the Internet, and most of the comments are of the dumbfounded, mouth-dropping type, wondering why the Catholic Church would return to the practice of “selling indulgences.” If your catechumens are online at all, you may be getting questions this weekend.
So let’s just clarify those two points.
First, the theology of indulgences never went away, so it can’t be “brought back.” The church’s teaching on indulgences has been roughly the same since the Council of Trent, with a little nuancing after the Second Vatican Council.
And, the church has never sold indulgences. There was once some financial shadiness and abuse surrounding indulgences that was one of the catalysts of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. But bad practice on the part of some clergy and laity is not the same as church teaching.
Where’s my reliquary?
So what is the teaching about indulgences? Honestly, I had to look it up to write this post. (And you can too. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1471-1479.) I had to look it up because it is not a central teaching of the church, in the way the death and resurrection of Christ is, and it hasn’t been an important part of my formation in faith. For some, the teaching on indulgences has been an important part of their formation. For some, reemphasizing the teaching on indulgences seems like a helpful thing right now. I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not the one with a miter.
Given that you may need to explain indulgences to your catechumens, here are some talking points.
“Indulgence” comes from the same root as “indulgent,” which means to be lenient. When I was a child, if I was at my grandmother’s house and did something bad, she would indulge me. If my mom was there too, there was a lot less indulgence to be had.
My mom did not indulge me much because to do so would not have been good for me. If I did something wrong, she wanted me to learn there were consequences. For example, if I willfully broke my brother’s toy, I had to apologize and she would punish me. In this case, my punishment might have been having to replace his toy with one of my own.
Once, when I was at my grandmother’s house, I was jumping on the bed and knocked over a vase. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be jumping on the bed, but it was fun. Until the vase broke. I apologized right away. And if Mom had been there, I probably would have had to turn over my entire toy box as my punishment. But Grandma granted me an indulgence. She let me off the hook with only a warning not to jump on the bed anymore.
The devil made me do it
The analogy limps a little, but that’s the general idea. Our sins have a consequence, even if we are sorry for them and have been absolved of them. When we sin, we are engaged in a kind of reverse-discipleship. We are disciplining ourselves to act not like Christ. As a “punishment,” we need to engage in a true spiritual discipline to be more Christ-like. In other words, we need to do something to teach ourselves to turn to God even more diligently. We can do that here on earth, and we can also do it after we die. The pre-Vatican II language we used to describe that process was to say we needed to be purified or purged of our sin. The “place” for the purging is called Purgatory. In post-Vatican II language, we might say we need to undergo a deeper conversion. And we wouldn’t speak of a place so much as a ongoing state of spiritual discipline or spiritual purification and enlightenment.
Finally, then, when the church grants an indulgence, it is using its power to “bind and loose” (Mt 19:16) to free someone from the punishment or purgation usually associated with sin.
Behold the wood of the cross
If you are going to speak with your catechumens about all this, I would urge you to put it into the context of the paschal mystery. Christ died for our sins, and no further sacrifice is required. What baptism calls us to is to join ourselves with that one, saving sacrifice by dying to ourselves and putting on Christ. Everything after that is details.