Misunderstanding Indulgences

Let me give some personal reflections on the matter of indulgences and “temporal punishment,” which I began discussing in an earlier post. In today’s Catholic church, things are often not explained clearly by priests, lay catechists, and apologists. Rather than using the scholastic terminology, which requires some philosophical background to fully grasp, many often find it easier to try to explain these things by way of analogies–but something often gets lost in translation.

Notice how the Archdiocese of Philadelphia explains “temporal punishment” (emphasis mine):

However, sin also has a temporal dimension which disrupts our relationship with God, with the Church, and with others. The temporal effects or consequences of our sins cause suffering for ourselves as well as harm to others hurt by our sins. Those who have received sacramental forgiveness for their sins may still have to undergo a process of purification to have these disrupted relationships restored.

Catholic Answers puts it this way:

Protestants realize that, while Jesus paid the price for our sins before God, he did not relieve our obligation to repair what we have done. They fully acknowledge that if you steal someone’s car, you have to give it back; it isn’t enough just to repent. God’s forgiveness (and man’s!) does not include letting you keep the stolen car.

In the process of becoming Catholic, I relied a lot on the liberal Catholic Update series, which says frequently that Catholic teaching has changed from what it once was. A Catholic Update on Reconciliation, for example, says:

For many people in the past penance connoted “making up to God” by punishing ourselves for our sins. But true reparation is not punishment. At its root, reparation is repairing or correcting a sinful lifestyle. In the past we were told to do penance as temporal punishment for our sins. Now, however, we understand that our real “punishment” is the continuing pattern of sin in our lives and the harmful attitudes and actions it creates in us. The purpose of doing penance is to help us change that pattern. Penance is for growth, not for punishment. “Doing penance” means taking steps in the direction of living a changed life; it means making room for something new.

Another Catholic Update says:

Accepting a penance from the priest and completing it is proof of your true sorrow. It is a way of expressing your sincere sorrow, a way of “putting your money where your mouth is.”

Consider it this way: Suppose a friend snatched your allowance which was in your locker. What would you think if that friend said, “Hey, I’m sorry I stole the money. Let’s forget it.” Maybe you’re a nice person and you decide to cut the kid a break. But wouldn’t you also expect the money back?

Wouldn’t it be crazy if your friend said, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Let’s be friends again—but I get to keep the money I stole.” Justice demands that words of regret be accompanied by actions which demonstrate true contrition.

True contrition itself is a dynamic reality that seeks to turn aside from sin and evil, and to turn back to God. Accepting and performing the penance assigned by the priest puts us on the road to God again, our final goal.

And yet another defines penance simply as “something that you might do or a prayer you might say to show or express your conversion.”

These examples illustrate how the matter was explained to me, and that is how I, as a Catholic, explained it to others. “Sin affects our relationship with God and others; in confession our sins are forgiven, but the broken relationships remain–thus the ‘satisfaction’ element of confession is to heal and strengthen those relationships, either with God (through prayer, fasting, almsgiving) or with others we’ve sinned against (by doing something for them, perhaps).” That’s why some priests will give a penance like, “Go buy your wife some flowers.”

It is a shorthand apologetic, that frankly doesn’t accurately represent the teaching of the Church. “Temporal punishment” as defined by the Catholic Church is more than broken relationships, more than consequences–it is a punishment from God that remains even after you are forgiven. See the quotes I gave here.

Sloppy apologetics don’t serve anyone well. If you don’t spell out “temporal punishments” in an accurate way, you can’t give an accurate answer to the question of indulgences–you’ll leave people wondering how a penance to “say three Hail Marys” or an indulgence associated with prayers and pilgrimages could help fix the damaged relationship resulting from an argument with their spouse.

Perhaps some of my critics are right–perhaps I never really fully grasped Catholic teaching–perhaps I was never really fully catechized. As a non-Catholic I was given Richard McBrien and Catholic Updates, I read the National Catholic Reporter. This was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, before there was such a thing as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I received the sort of intro to Catholicism that lots of people, especially other young adults, received in the 70s and 80s. It was an approach that sought to soften the differences between Catholics and Protestants.

Well, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Maybe it would be better to say that I knew the old scholastic understandings, but wanted to interpret difficult teachings in as evangelical a fashion as possible. I had accepted, you might say, a Protestantized Catholicism. I believed what the ecumenically minded Catholics and Catholic minded Lutherans said, that one could be a Lutheran within the Catholic Church, that the major differences were resolved and there was no longer a reason for separation. I naively believed that the ecumenical dialogues which eventually were to culminate in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification demonstrated that things had really changed.

As I matured in my Catholic faith, I grew to love John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger, and other conservative theologians. I celebrated the election of the latter as Benedict XVI, primarily because of the holes I saw in the liberal version of Catholicism. But as time went on, I was aware of some dissonance in my own beliefs. I had accepted Catholic authority, but had not been fully persuaded on all aspects of traditional Catholic teaching. In this I was not unusual–the crisis in the pews and pulpits of the Catholic Church is that most laity and many priests are also not fully persuaded–indeed, it hasn’t even been explained. They assume the modernized explanations.

In any case, yes, my “reversion” may very well be due to the fact that I never fully accepted certain important aspects of Catholic teaching as historically understood by the Catholic Church–I just never voiced my internal questions and found it easy to teach the short hand, more evangelical versions I had found persuasive. In the end, the nagging doubts and the unanswered questions and the unresolved tensions overwhelmed my acquiescence to Church authority.

4 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Indulgences

  1. Bill very few people fully understand all the issues that you outlined, indulgences are one issue, relations with other churches is another not to mention relations with non-Christians. How many priests could explain the state of Catholic/Jewish relations? To be honest I have depended upon your insights for the latter.
    I have known you for about six or seven years. I always knew that you were different from just about every convert I met and most cradle Catholics. I mean that in the good sense. When I came to the US I was removed from my natural environment, from a culture that was almost completely Catholic. I always felt that you “got it” in a way that many other Catholics did not. I always felt more comfortable talking to you about Catholic issues.
    There are many teachings of the Church that I do not fully understand, there are some practices that I do not agree with (not to mention an attitude or two). But I remain Catholic because it comforts me. …

  2. Bill, I think CCC 1472 gives the most succinct and understandable explanation of “temporal punishment” I’ve come across, in Magisterial teaching and private explanation.

  3. I already quoted that here. This post was building upon that one.

    Point is, the idea that punishment remains after forgiveness that must be worked off is not scriptural. It is a complete denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and a substitution of human works for divine grace.

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