Not indulge, but indulgence


By Frank Wessling

Indulgences are being revived.

It’s a good bet that most Catholics under the age of 50 don’t understand that opening sentence. Indul-gence? Is that like indulging in more chocolate than I should? Or more beer? Or shopping ‘til I drop?

And why is it coming back during Lent? Isn’t this the time when good Catholics are the anti-indulgents of the world?

The indulgence that comes out of Catholic history isn’t about greedy behavior, as the word might imply. In fact, it’s the opposite, more like a gift we receive on appeal after promising to do good. If you’ve ever applied for a grant of money from a foundation — even that well known foundation of Dad and Mom — you can understand our religious idea of indulgence.


You are the receiver of goods granted from a rich source; you are being indulged for the sake of the good you promise to do.

Today as part of the Year of St. Paul, indulgences are being talked about again after a period of inattention. We need only confess our sins and do certain pious acts. We then receive an indulgence, a purifying gift from the “treasury” or overflow of God’s grace built up in the communion of saints. This indulgence straightens out the crippling effects of our sinning so that we’re pure enough for residence in heaven. And we can even have this benefit applied to someone who died and might be in heaven’s anteroom of purgatory.

It all sounds complicated enough to match the complex and confusing financial transactions that nearly wrecked the global economy today. Indulgences do have their own history of sowing wreckage, largely from misuse and corruption centuries ago. The indulgence idea contributed to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation that split the Christian Church into pieces.

The indulgence idea was an early part of Catholic thought. It had two elements: a realization that confession of sin and erasing of guilt still leaves the bad effects of sin loose in the world and some punishment or penance is due for that, and second, a conviction that death does not end the living relationship of faith. We remain bound together in a communion of those on their way to God — one class of us still living on Earth, another class that died while crippled with the effects of sin even though they’ve been forgiven for their sins and carry no guilt — with those already at the goal of eternal life in God. We say that the second class is in a state called purgatory being purged of all lingering desire for whatever is not God.

The notion of indulgences as spiritual coin came to prominence around 1,000 years ago as the people of Europe were urged to join crusades to liberate the ancient Holy Land from Muslim control. In the latter part of the 11th century, Pope Urban II offered a plenary indulgence as a benefit to everyone who joined the first crusade. This meant that crusaders who went to confession and carried out their service could expect an immediate audience with God at death. The full “temporal punishment due to sin” would be paid, according to the technical language that developed.

Not everyone could go on crusade, so the pious works needed for an indulgence grew to include religious pilgrimages, visits to holy sites and charitable works. It was only a small step to make charity include gifts to any cause dear to the heart of a pope or bishop. When Pope Leo X (1513-1521) encouraged the preaching of indulgences to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he took a fateful step in corruption of the indulgence idea. It pushed a scrupulously pious monk named Martin Luther over the edge and a revolution began.

As the Catholic Church reformed and recovered from the Reformation we retained the practice of indulgences. Rich Catholics kept an advantage because they could more easily give money to pious causes but our teaching emphasized other dimensions, especially praying for others, including “the poor souls in purgatory.”

After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), attention in the church shifted to the excitement of changes and new ideas. Old pious practices such as indulgences faded to the background. The papacy of Benedict XVI is encouraging renewed attention to them, and the 2,000 anniversary of St. Paul’s birth provides an opportunity. With enough money you can gain the special Pauline jubilee indulgence by going to Rome and visiting the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to visit Paul’s tomb and say certain prayers. But you still must receive the sacrament of reconciliation and receive the Eucharist.

Without money the indulgence is ours if we participate in a local event dedicated to St. Paul, receive the sacraments and pray for the intentions of the pope. The indulgence is even granted to the home-bound and otherwise confined Catholics who offer “prayers and sufferings to God for Christian unity.”

Because of its history, some of us dislike the indulgence concept. It may help to remember an essential part: the way it encourages us to remember the full scope of our relationship in faith; what we call the communion of saints. Our principal benefit in life is membership in that communion.

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