Luther, Indulgences, and their legacy

One of the tipping points for Martin Luther was the “sale of indulgence” by the papal-appointed Dominican Friar, Johann Tetzel, In his 95 Theses Luther strongly disputed the claim that Indulgences could provide freedom from God’s punishment for sin much less be purchased. The last seven days of posts have not addressed the theological issues presented in the German Reformation – not that they are not important – but more such information is easily obtained on the internet from any variety of sources. The previous posts were intended to focus on the milieu of factors already present in Germany, a variety of interests and passions outside Luther’s control or influence, and why Luther succeeded where other Reformers had not. But I thought I should at least give some perspective on indulgences. They were abused then as well as misunderstood then and still misunderstood today. Far too many Catholics need to know their faith better lest they become Pelagians or Semi-Pelagians as regards Indulgences. (Be curious …. go ahead click the links!)

The idea of Indulgences is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Catholic thinking – by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. There have been and still are non-Catholic advocates that assert the Catholic position on Indulgences is that you can get a license to sin because you “store up” forgiveness, you subvert the work of Christ’s sacrificial and atoning death on the Cross, and – if you believe in Purgatory – you can reduced the amount of time served. The list of such claims is lengthy. But then again, when you ask Catholic about indulgences, you sometimes get these same claims.

In the context of the Reformation, it is necessary to understand indulgences. Rather than simply define “What is an Indulgence” let us consider the milieu of sin, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, penance, punishment, Purgatory, and the history of Indulgences. By the way, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1471), “An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment of sins that have already been forgiven in the sacrament of Confession.”

Sin, Forgiveness and Consequences.  What is true is this: only God can forgive sins. What the Catholic Church holds true is that through Christ, God’s forgiveness is made available through the ministry of the Church in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Here are the words the priest says at the end of the sacrament: “God the Father of Mercy, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit into the world for the forgiveness of sin. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolved you of your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In the confessional, the priest forgives sins ministerally, as representatives of Christ (cf. John 20:23) and also absolve sins as ministers of the Church (Matt 16:17).

Forgiveness means that God Himself has pardoned a sin. And while that forgiveness is available in ways other than the Sacrament of Reconciliation, even in the sacrament, the forgiveness comes from God. Absolution is the juridic act of the Church by/through which sins are remitted/removed and/or the punishment due to sin is likewise removed. So… what are the “punishments due to sin?”

Because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.” (Eccl 12:14). That divine judgment includes the punishment for the bad work – sins. Within the Catholic understanding of sin there are two terms that are important to understand when the church speaks of the “punishments of sin”:

  • “Eternal punishment” – the loss of eternal life with God, and the eternal death of hell; this is associated with mortal sin
  • “temporal punishment” – even venial sin involves some degree of turning away from God and involves an attachment to transient things that do not aid one in the fullness of relationship with God. Temporal punishment is focused on helping to break these attachments.

The former (eternal punishment) is removed by the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is the second item (temporal punishment) that is impacted by Indulgences. A simple example of temporal punishment is the first sin of Adam and Eve. They were reconciled to God, but still left with the consequences: hard labor for each – neither of which was necessary in the Garden of Eden. Another temporal punishment of the original sin is that through this death entered the world. In other words, there are some “punishments of sin” that linger as a consequence of our concupiscence and the less-than-perfect world in which we live.

Perhaps closer to home, even as children we understand that after our apology for wrong doing, after receiving mom’s forgiveness, there are still consequences and punishments. The punishments are aids is breaking our attachments that lead us to sin in the first place. In the Confessional, penances are meant to help the person – whose sins are already forgiven – to begin to shed the attachments to sin.

Think about the “attachments” that lead you to sin, again and again. Maybe it is pride that leads you to continue to fabricate your accomplishments in what you say to others; some days we control that pride better than others – but it lingers. How long? Perhaps up to the doorway of death. Then what? Any last attachments that are barriers to a full relationship with God will be purified in Purgatory.

The area of “temporal punishments” is one that is the most subtle. We sin, we confess our sin, we make restitution if needed, we commit with God’s help and grace to sin no more, and yet, there is the attachment to sin. And we join St. Paul in asking why do we do the things we do not want to do and do them still? “An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment of sins that have already been forgiven in the sacrament of Confession.”

And this is where we need to understand the history of indulgences. But as regards the history and operation with the Catholic Church in the 70 years before the Reformation, you can see how all the elements are in place: sin, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, penance, temporal punishment, indulgences and Purgatory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.