"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
The recent article in the New York Times on indulgences has a number of people talking, and much of the talk is confused. The NYT is not the most accurate place for anyone to gain an understanding of Catholic doctrine, as Fr. Z shows in his response to the article.
What is an indulgence? An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt (i.e. eternal punishment) has already been forgiven. A Catholic can obtain an indulgence under prescribed conditions, from the Church, "which dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints." (CCC glossary)
What is the basis for the Church's teaching on indulgences? The Church's teaching on indulgences follows from three things in conjunction:
(1) the power of the keys given to St. Peter (Matthew 16:19), by which the magisterium of the Church, as Christ's authorized representative (in persona Christi, ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ [2 Cor 2:10]), can forgive sins (John 20:23) through the merit and satisfaction of Christ's Passion,
(2) the communion of the saints (1 Cor 12, Job 1:5, Col 1:24, Apostles' Creed) by which we can aid one another in the Body of Christ through our prayers and sacrifices,
(3) the two-fold nature of sin (both away from God, and toward a mutable good), which entails two sorts of debts of punishment, one eternal, and other temporal, as I explained in this post. That two-fold nature of sin is confirmed when Jesus refers to a two-fold forgiveness ("in this age, and in the age to come" - Matt 12:31), and in the practice of prayer for the dead (2 Macc 12:46), which would be of no use to the damned. It is also confirmed in the distinction between mortal and venial sin (cf. 1 John 5:16).
Thus, if the Church by the authorization of Christ can forgive sins, and thereby remove the debt of eternal punishment, then it follows a fortiori that she can remove the debt of temporal punishment, by the merits of Christ and all the saints. And that is just what an indulgence is. It is also worth repeating that an indulgence cannot be purchased. "In 1567 St. Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions." (Catholic Encyclopedia article on indulgences)