Yesterday’s celebration is considered controversial by many Christians while others ignore the debate entirely. Forget Halloween, I’m talking about Reformation Day, when our separated brethren celebrate the beginning of Luther’s secession from Rome. At the heart of his revolt/reform was the question of indulgences, a much-maligned practice that is rarely understood by those who decry it.
Now don’t get me wrong: Luther was right.
Yup, I said it.
Luther was right.
As regards the sale of indulgences, anyway. Selling indulgences was never officially sanctioned by the Church, but it was a practice that was common in the late middle ages. Here’s how it came about:
- Catholic faithful could get an indulgence for going on a pilgrimage or fighting in a crusade.1
- Some people couldn’t manage to go on pilgrimage because of illness or responsibilities at home. If you couldn’t go yourself, you were given the option to pay for someone else to go and share in his indulgence.
- Pretty soon, you could make a donation and get an indulgence in return.
- Before you knew it, priests were selling indulgences.
It was never official doctrine that indulgences could be sold and Martin Luther did the Church a solid by pointing out what a disaster we had on our hands. The reforms of the Council of Trent (called to clean things up after the Reformation) made it impossible to buy an indulgence or even to get an indulgence for the good work of giving alms.
But while the sale of indulgences was wrong–maybe even reprehensible–the misuse of indulgences can’t define our attitude toward them. Unfortunately, in many Protestant circles the narrative is that Catholics purchase indulgences from a priest in order to get permission to sin in the future. You know, for 50 bucks you can skip Mass on Sunday; adultery will set you back 500. Here’s how it’s sometimes described:
In the dark ages, when Papacy held control of men’s consciences and few dared to think, one method which she practiced to supply herself with money was the sale of indulgences. The indulgence was a permission to sin and yet be free from its consequences. (via Biblestudents.com)
Trouble is, that’s not what an indulgence is. It’s not permission to indulge. Indulgences, in fact, have very little to do with life on this earth. They’re all about purgatory.
(Zack-Morris-Style time out: if you have any confusion about purgatory, stop right now and learn what it is. This will make very little sense if you’re not up on the reparative nature of purgatory. Done? Good.)
The purpose of purgatory is to prepare us for heaven but also to make up for the evil we did on earth. It’s only natural, then, to believe that we can make some of that reparation before we die. That’s what indulgences are about: removing the temporal punishment that’s due to us. By our prayer, we put jelly beans back in the jar.2 We satisfy our temporal punishment on earth so that we don’t have to satisfy it in purgatory.
The trickiest thing about indulgences is the fact that you probably associate them with “days off” purgatory. Then it becomes an accounting business (like in Graham Greene’s short story “Special Duties”) rather than a movement of the heart to God. Here’s where that came from:
Back in the day, when people went to confession, they got some killer penances. “Sit outside the church door in sackcloth and ashes for 300 days” or “Fast for 500 days”–seriously hardcore stuff. When you were given such a penance, you could sometimes swap another pious practice for a certain period of your penance–make a pilgrimage to Rome, say, and get 200 days off. The idea was that your penance was about conversion and if you did something that was equally arduous or spiritually powerful, you’d done your duty. “Days off purgatory” were intended to help you see the relative value of a certain prayer but the concept ended up making people think that there were days in purgatory and we could tally them up. It got confusing for the faithful, so in recent years, the Church has changed the designation. Now we have plenary indulgences (which remove all your temporal punishment) and partial indulgences (which remove some). There is no specification of the amount of punishment satisfied, just plenary and partial.
So how do you get one?3 Before anything else, you have to be a member of the Catholic Church and in a state of grace–this is key since indulgences don’t forgive sin, they just help you deal with the consequences of your sin. Beyond that, things get more specific. In order to obtain a plenary indulgence for yourself, you have to:
- Perform an action associated with an indulgence. There are about a million of these.4 Spend half an hour in adoration,pray the rosary with your family, read the Bible for half an hour. Check out a good list here. It’s not exhaustive, as the Church has the authority to add or remove indulgenced actions at any time, but it’s a good start.
- Go to confession and communion within eight days before or after.
- Pray for the pope.
- Be free of all attachment to sin.
Oh, there’s the fine print. See, indulgences take away your “time” in purgatory.5 But it’s not just about reparation, it’s about preparation. You can’t get off on time served if you haven’t been reformed. So the only way you’ll find yourself without any need of purgatory is if you’re free of all attachment to sin. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m sure as heck not there yet.
But you’re in luck! Even if you don’t fulfill the fourth requirement, you can get a partial indulgence–which would, I would imagine, remove all “time” in purgatory except what is needed to prepare your soul for heaven. Or you can choose to offer your indulgence for a soul in purgatory.6 The first 3 requirements remain the same but instead of asking an indulgence for yourself, you offer it for one of the Holy Souls and get a plenary for them.7
Why are we talking about this now? Well, with tomorrow being All Souls’ Day, it’s a good time to think about purgatory.8 But more to the point, from today through November 8th, you can get a plenary indulgence (for a departed soul) if you make a visit to a cemetery and pray for the dead.9 You can also get a plenary indulgence for someone in purgatory if you visit a church tomorrow and pray an Our Father and a Creed.
Look, I know it sounds like legalism: say these prayers and get out of hell free! But bear in mind that it’s not getting anybody out of hell, just leading them to perfection. It stands to reason that the more you pray and receive the Sacraments, the holier you’ll be. And if you’re asking the Lord to apply the graces he’s offered you10 to a departed soul, the God who exhorts us to pray for one another11 will grant that request and give grace in abundance to that soul.
And if nothing else, consider this: the promise of an indulgence will often draw reluctant penitents to the confessional. Sometimes I wonder if God didn’t arrange indulgences this way simply to give us yet another impetus to avail ourselves of the mercy pouring from the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If the checklist above is getting people to repent and pray, it must be a good thing. “By their fruits….”
- I’m not getting into the Crusades. [↩]
- Seriously–read that post on purgatory I linked to above. [↩]
- I know, I’m skipping all the apologetics, but let’s stick with the basics here. [↩]
- Total exaggeration. [↩]
- Not really time, but us does what us can. Which, according to Google, is not a saying. Is it just something my dad says? I feel like there are a lot of things that I think are universal that are really just my dad being strange. I thought for years that “Figglety” was something people called little girls. Nope. Just my nickname from my dad. [↩]
- You can get indulgences for yourself or someone in purgatory. You can’t apply them to anyone else living or (obviously, it would seem) to anyone in heaven or hell. [↩]
- This is my plan: pray as many souls out of purgatory as I can, then let them pray me into heaven. [↩]
- All Souls’ Day commemorates the Holy Souls in purgatory. [↩]
- Assuming the other conditions above, of course. [↩]
- You’re not earning anything, just availing yourself of what’s been offered. [↩]
- 1 Tim 2:1, Jas 5:16, etc. [↩]