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Indulgences and the nature of the Church

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 26, 2009

 "Indulgences-- a rite in the Roman Catholic Church that harkens back to the Middle Ages and the Reformation-- are making a return." That's the teaser for a news story that appeared earlier this week in the Minnesota Star Tribune.

The article itself is so thoroughly ridden with errors that it's almost comical. Indulgences are not "rites," and they couldn't really "return" since they were never gone. Yet public interest in indulgences really is making a return, and that's a phenomenon worth noticing.

"The Roman Catholic Church stopped granting indulgences as part of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s," the Star-Tribune reports. Wrong again. The Church never stopped granting indulgences. (Indeed you could argue that the Church could not stop granting indulgences.) But it's true that the topic has not often been discussed in the past 25 years. So perhaps it's understandable that non-Catholic reporters-- and even, unfortunately, many Catholics-- are on unfamiliar ground in this discussion.

For the record, anyone looking for a terse and authoritative explanation of what indulgences are, and what they are not, can do no better than consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, particularly paragraphs 1471, 1478, and 1479. "Through indulgences," reads the summary found in #1489, "the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory."

Specific indulgences are granted to the faithful, under prescribed conditions, by the authority of the Holy See. Since Protestants and non-Christians do not recognize the authority of the Holy See, it is understandable that the Church's teaching on indulgences has been a topic of contention since the time of the Reformation.

Protestants believe that sin can be forgiven only by the power of Jesus Christ, and in a sense that is true. But anyone who recognizes the authority of the Bible should recall that the Lord told St. Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." By declaring an indulgence the Church, exercising this awesome authority, looses the punishment that results from sin.

If you believe that the Church has the power to forgive sin, it follows naturally that the Church has the power to issue indulgences; what is true in general is true in particular cases. And if you believe that the Church is the Body of Christ on earth, it follows naturally that the Church holds Christ's power to forgive sin.

In short, a proper understanding of indulgences flows easily from a proper understanding of what the Church is. We can't reasonably expect secular journalists to understand the nature of the Church. But all things considered, it's good that they're raising these questions.

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