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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What are indulgences?

“Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your MIND”--Matt 22:37

What are indulgences?  Aren't they a medieval invention that the Catholic Church got rid of after Martin Luther?
Before we discuss what indulgences are, let's affirm that they are NOT a medieval invention that the Church removed after Martin Luther (validly) cited abuses regarding the selling of indulgences.  They have been part of the treasury of our Church since her earliest days.  (That unscrupulous men took advantage of church teaching for their gain does not negate the teaching, any more than cheating politicians negate the validity of democracy).
Indulgences are part of the Church’s infallible teaching. This means that no Catholic is at liberty to disbelieve in them. source
And why would we want to?  They're a gift of our Church to help us cultivate holiness and we ought to avail ourselves of them!  The word itself "indulgence" has a positive connotation to it--Holy Mother Church is indulging her flock through the power given to her to bind and loose (Matt 16:19). 
An indulgence is granted (that is, our Mother is indulging us) for sins already forgiven, but which we still have the temporal (i.e. not eternal) penalties owed.  It's like the proverbial analogy of a child breaking a neighbor's window. The neighbor forgives him, but despite the forgiveness, he still owes a "penalty" and must pay for the broken window.  An indulgence is an "erasing" of this penalty.

When we sin we incur a "liability", or a stain on our soul.  When we repent and confess our mortal sins they are completely forgiven.  Our guilt is removed, but the penalty for this sin ("paying for the broken window") may yet remain. 
An example of this in Scripture is in the OT when David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah killed (by sending him to the front lines of battle).  David repents and his sin is forgiven, but he is given a penalty.  His son must die.  God forgave David, but he still was given a temporal (not eternal) punishment.

Then David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." Nathan answered David: "The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.
But since you have utterly spurned the LORD by this deed, the child born to you must surely die." -2 Sam 12: 14

When an indulgence is granted, this penalty is then removed.  What a blessing we have been given!

Some criticize indulgences, saying they involve our making "expiation" for our sins, something which only Christ can do. While this sounds like a noble defense of Christ's sufficiency, this criticism is misfounded, and most who make it do not know what the word "expiation" means or how indulgences work.

Protestant Scripture scholar Leon Morris comments on the confusion around the word "expiate": "[M]ost of us . . . don't understand `expiation' very well . . . [E]xpiation is . . . the making amends for a wrong. . . . Expiation is an impersonal word; one expiates a sin or a crime" (The Atonement [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983], 151).Leon Morris, The Atonement (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1983), 151. The Wycliff Bible Encyclopedia gives a similar definition: "The basic idea of expiation has to do with reparation for a wrong, the satisfaction of the demands of justice through paying a penalty."

The terms used in these definitions--expiation, satisfaction, amends, reparation--mean basically the same thing. To make expiation or satisfaction for a sin is to make amends or reparation for it. When someone makes reparations, he tries to repair the situation caused by his sin.

Certainly when it comes to the eternal effects of our sins, only Christ can make amends or reparation. Only he was able to pay the infinite price necessary to cover our sins. We are completely unable to do so not only because we are finite creatures incapable of making an infinite satisfaction (or an infinite anything), but because everything we have was given to us by God. For us to try to satisfy God's eternal justice would be like using money we had borrowed from someone to repay what we had stolen from him. No actual satisfaction would be made (cf. Ps. 49:7-9, Job 41:11, Rom. 11:35). This does not mean we can't make amends or reparation for the temporal effects of our sins. If someone steals an item, he can return it. If someone damages another's reputation, he can publicly correct the slander. When someone destroys a piece of property, he can compensate the owner for its loss. All these are ways in which one can make at least partial amends (expiation) for what he has done. source

How is an indulgence granted?  See article below.

From the Catechism:  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. 1478

For more in-depth study visit these websites:

Catholic Bible online

Catechism of the Catholic Church online

Plenary Indulgence vs Partial Indulgence
 A plenary indulgence is a complete release from the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven (as far as their guilt is concerned).

Conditions for a plenary indulgence: 
A. One must be baptized and in the state of grace. 
B. One must receive Holy Communion each time a plenary indulgence is sought.

C. One must go to Confession within approximately a two week period. A single sacramental Confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences.

D. One must have a disposition of mind and heart which totally excludes all attachment to sin, even venial sin, otherwise he can gain only a partial indulgence. 

E. One must pray for the intentions of the Holy Father, the Pope, preferably one “Our Father and one “Hail Mary,” however, any other pious prayer may be substituted. 

F. One must have at least a general intention to gain a plenary indulgence.

G. One must also fulfill one of the following suggested spiritual works:

     - At least a half hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament      - or family or group Rosary,       - or private Rosary before the Blessed Sacrament,      - or at least a half hour of pious reading of Sacred Scripture,       - or walking the Stations of the Cross in a church or with properly erected display of the Stations.

Conditions for a partial Indulgence: A partial indulgence removes part of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven.

The constant conditions for a partial indulgence are:
A. One must be baptized and in the state of grace. 
B. One must have at least a striving intention to cut one self off from all attachment to sin. 

C. One must have a general intention to gain an indulgence. 

D. One must fulfill the action prescribed in one of the following three general grants of indulgences: 

     - Offer up to God one’s trials in fulfilling one’s responsibilities and/or raise one’s mind in humble prayer;       - or give oneself or one’s goods as a charitable act to assist people who are in need of spiritual comfort or instruction and those who are in need of material assistance (donation of time and resources to the Church are, therefore, indulgenced);       -or voluntarily deprive oneself of what is lawful and pleasing, such as fasting, giving up dessert or a favorite TV program, while maintaining a positive attitude. 

To gain any indulgence you must be a Catholic in a state of grace. You must be a Catholic in order to be under the Church's jurisdiction, and you must be in a state of grace because apart from God's grace none of your actions are fundamentally pleasing to God (meritorious). You also must have at least the habitual intention of gaining an indulgence by the act performed.

To gain a partial indulgence, you must perform with a contrite heart the act to which the indulgence is attached.

To gain a plenary indulgence you must perform the act with a contrite heart, plus you must go to confession (one confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences), receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope's intentions. (An Our Father and a Hail Mary said for the pope's intentions are sufficient, although you are free to substitute other prayers of your own choosing.) The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin.

Because of the extreme difficulty in meeting the final condition, plenary indulgences are rarely obtained. If you attempt to receive a plenary indulgence, but are unable to meet the last condition, a partial indulgence is received instead.

Below are indulgences listed in the Handbook of Indulgences (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1991). Note that there is an indulgence for Bible reading. So, rather than discouraging Bible reading, the Catholic Church promotes it by giving indulgences for it! (This was the case long before Vatican II.)

An act of spiritual communion, expressed in any devout formula whatsoever, is endowed with a partial indulgence.

A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly spend time in mental prayer.

A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read sacred Scripture with the veneration due God's word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is done for at least one-half hour [provided the other conditions are met].

A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who devoutly sign themselves with the cross while saying the customary formula: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Priests who administer the sacraments to the Christian faithful who are in a life-and-death situation should not neglect to impart to them the apostolic blessing, with its attached indulgence.

But if a priest cannot be present, Holy Mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis, at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence. In such a situation the three usual conditions required in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition "provided they regularly prayed in some way." The Christian faithful can obtain the plenary indulgence mentioned here as death approaches (in articulo mortis) even if they had already obtained another plenary indulgence that same day.

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - 1 Peter 3:15

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