We Americans are far more likely to use the word “indulgence” to talk about food than about our souls.
We indulge our craving for chocolate. We indulge our appetites at the boundless buffet. We take full advantage of the delights the menu presents to us. That’s indulgence.
And that’s fair enough for a feast day, like Easter or Christmas. Maybe even Mardi Gras.
But the Scriptures offer us a more compelling kind of indulgence. The Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, show us a feast of mercy that God makes available to his people. The Christian faith presents a feast for the soul that’s richer than Belgian chocolate, more sumptuous than any banquet.
The doctrine, in its most developed form, is spelled out in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (¬ß¬ß1471-1479).
An indulgence remits before God any temporal punishment due to sins, as long as the guilt of those sins has already been forgiven. The Church attaches the benefit of an indulgence to the performance of certain specified pious actions: prayers, pilgrimage, fasting and acts of charity.
Against the “debt” incurred by individual sin the Church applies the abundance of the merits of Jesus Christ and the saints.
The Church’s authority to administer spiritual goods came from Jesus himself, who told his Apostles: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23).
Jesus granted that power as he established his Church and designated its leaders. But the idea of sin as a debt is as old as biblical religion, as is the notion of a “treasury of merit.”
The early Christians — the teachers we know as the Fathers of the Church — believed, as the ancient rabbis believed, that God applied mercy in this way. The classic example appears in the aftermath of Israel’s great sin of idolatry, the worship of the golden calf.
It is difficult to imagine a sin more grievous. God has just delivered his people from the horrors of slavery in Egypt. He has miraculously given them food and water in the desert. Yet they turn their backs on him and give themselves over to orgies of worship of the gods of their persecutors!
Death would be the just punishment for such ingratitude. But Moses pleads their cause. He begs forgiveness. He asks God to “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel” (Exodus 32:13). In other words, Moses is asking the Almighty to take what belongs to the righteous patriarchs and apply it to their unworthy descendants.
And Moses succeeds. For the sake of God’s promise to the patriarchs, Israel receives mercy.
The Fathers and the rabbis noted that not just anyone could obtain this indulgence from God. Only Moses could, because he was the one appointed by God as mediator of the covenant.
In this way, Moses foreshadows Jesus, the perfect mediator, who pleads the case of all humankind. Jesus, as we have seen, administers his power and mercy through the Church.
The New Testament does not introduce a new understanding of sin and its effects. St. Paul clearly believed that sin had consequences — that it created a spiritual deficit and an unpayable debt owed to God.
“The wages of sin,” he said, “is death” (Romans 6:23). St. Matthew presented the most basic Christian text, the Lord’s Prayer, in terms of what we owe to God. Jesus said: “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12).
The terms have not changed. Indulgences, as administered by the Church, still obey what Pope Saint John Paul II called “the logic of the covenant.” In a General Audience on Sept. 29, 1999, he urged people to look forward to the Jubilee Year and take full advantage of the indulgences offered. He explained:
“The crucified Jesus is the great ‘indulgence’ that the Father has offered humanity through the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of living as children (cf. John 1: 12-13) in the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 4: 6; Romans 5: 5; 8: 15-16).
“However, in the logic of the covenant, which is the heart of the whole economy of salvation, this gift does not reach us without our acceptance and response.”
As Jesus’ vicar on earth, the pope understands this dynamic and he does all he can to encourage the free response of God’s people to all the graces available to them. Mercy is always available, but people need reminders and opportunities — we benefit from a nudge or a guiding hand.
Indulgences provide all of those circumstances. They are reminders, opportunities and guiding hands.
Pope Francis has declared this year a Jubilee of Mercy, and he has attached indulgences to specific acts.
“[T]he faithful are called to make a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Door, open in every cathedral or in the churches designated by the Diocesan Bishop … as a sign of the deep desire for true conversion. … It is important that this moment be linked, first and foremost, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist with a reflection on mercy. It will be necessary to accompany these celebrations with the profession of faith and with prayer for me and for the intentions that I bear in my heart for the good of the Church and of the entire world.”
We may offer our good works for ourselves or for the sake of others, even friends and family members who have died. In this, too, we follow the logic of the covenant and the constant practice of biblical faith.
One of the great Fathers of the early Church, St. John Chrysostom, exhorted his people to make offerings on behalf of others, and especially for the dead: “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice (Job 1:5), why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
The practice of indulgences is much misunderstood, by Catholics and by others. In fact, the misunderstanding of indulgences was a primary cause for the Protestant Reformation.
We should live the Year of Mercy to its fullest, for ourselves and for those we love and we should witness boldly to its truth.
An indulgence is an outward sign of an inward conversion. Those who seek indulgences must also go to confession and receive Holy Communion near to the time they complete the indulgenced act.
An indulgence can be partial or plenary depending on whether it removes part or all of the debt due to sin.