from the Council of Trent file…

Luther Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels
Luther and his famous theses on indulgences

In 1967, Pope St. Paul VI wrote:

The practice of indulgences has at times been improperly used either through untimely and superfluous indulgences, by which the power of the keys was humiliated and penitential satisfaction weakened, or through the collection of illicit profits by which indulgences were blasphemously defamed. (para. 8 of Indulgentiarum Doctrina)

In the 16th century: Lutheranism, Protestantism–the whole mighty conflict–began. And it began with: Indulgences.

During my Protestant youth, my good instructors in religion, including my dear mother and aunt, often repeated the story of the indulgence-preacher Johann Tetzel, who declared, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther explicitly condemned that sentiment in his 95 theses.

Let’s try to sort this out.

God wills to befriend us for eternal life with Him. But that requires reconciliation with Him, with His pure goodness and holiness. Because we do not possess pure goodness and holiness.

Our reconciliation with God involves two dimensions:

1. Becoming God’s friend through Christ. Simple forgiveness of the eternal punishment we all deserve. The eternal punishment we all deserve = not being God’s friend forever. But, even though we don’t deserve His friendship, He offers it to us anyway.

2. Making up for all the bad effects of sin. Reparation. Doing penance. Serving a punishment that isn’t eternal. (Therefore, temporal.)

Trent Duomo nave rose window
Trent duomo rose window

If we die lacking the first dimension of reconciliation with God, we wind up in… correct: Hell.

If we die having the first, but lacking the full term of the second aspect of reconciliation, we wind up in… you got it. Purgatory.

Now, only I, myself, me–responding freely and courageously in faith to the promptings of my conscience, by the grace of Christ–can avoid hell. I myself have to love God and regret my sins, in order to be a friend of God in Christ.

God forgives the penitent soul through the ministry of His Son’s Church. But the individual penitent soul must undergo that ministry. No one can go to confession on someone else’s behalf. No one can decide for someone else to love God and regret sin.

And no one will make a successful appeal on judgment day to someone else’s contrition for his sins. “My mom was sorry that I stopped writing her. She went to church a lot and prayed for me to get paroled. Isn’t that good, Big Guy?” Ah. No.

Hell awaits all unrepentant sinners who die.

But: When it comes to the second dimension of reconciliation with the perfect holiness of God–that is, a friend of God serving a just sentence for the bad effects of his or her sins–in that business, we can help each other.

In fact, in that business, the friends of God are all in it together. Christ our Head, and all His members, including our Lady and all the saints, share resources in order to overcome the effects of sin and achieve total honesty, total purity, total readiness to meet God face-to-face.

Obtaining an indulgence involves sharing in those resources, the “treasury” of the Holy Church, the holiness of Christ and His saints. Only a friend of God can receive an indulgence. And all of us friends of God need the help.

[Click HERE to read the full official Vatican handbook of indulgences. If offers very consoling reading.]


8 thoughts on “Indulgences

  1. After the 95 Theses, Luther argued that there is nothing we can do to make ourselves acceptable to God. Absolutely nothing can overcome the sinful self-importance that shadows our every thought, word, and action. We depend 100 per cent on God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and promise of salvation. This understanding of our situation and of God’s promise revealed in scripture, is basic to Protestantism.

  2. I love the purgatory-as-prison-with-parole analogy. I suppose indulgences are like any other doctrine of the Faith: if we approach it like a scrupulous Pharisee – as

  3. …..with a “marks in the ledger/what’s in it for me” mentality, we fall far short of its intent. Jesus wants our hearts and minds and souls, not through quid pro quo accounting, but through going all in and all out to serve Him and imitate Him in our love for God and neighbor. A covenant blood bond, not a contract for goods and services.

  4. Btw…I really like Grace & Justification by Stephen Wood for building a bridge between Protestants and Catholics in showing both that we are really not that far apart in our understanding of both grace and justification in terms of the official teachings on both sides. But there are common misperceptions on both sides that keep us unnecessarily divided.

  5. Luther never nailed tho theses to the door. It is a myth. First, he mailed them to, among others, his bishop for comments. This story was made up not by him but a latter disciple. He was an intellectual celebrity of his times, a spiritual inspiration of many present day German Catholic bishops and theologians.

  6. John: I’d like to see your evidence for the claim that Luther did not nail the theses to the church door. This was a common practice of the day, like a bulletin board. It is reiterated, e.g. by Roland Bainton, the Luther historian,in his book Here I Stand.

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