Theological Significance of the Indulgence

by Fr. John M. McDermott, S.J.


An article by Fr. McDermott of the Pontifical Gregorian University about the dual emphasis of indulgences on the gravity of sin as well as the Church's mediation of Christ's salvation.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, March 17, 1999

The promulgation of the plenary indulgence in Incarnationis mysterium binds the Great Jubilee 2000 to a long tradition in the Western Catholic Church. Given such a strong anchoring in the past, it would be unwise for the barque of Peter to cast itself loose from such a time-honoured mooring. It cannot be overlooked, however, that the practice of indulgences provided the occasion for the Reformation. Not their abuse but their very existence furnishes a stone of scandal for Protestants. Since many of the intellectual presuppositions undergirding the Protestant world-view, like individualism and egalitarianism, have been generally accepted in Western culture and, through the mass media, widely diffused throughout the world, it is hardly surprising that contemporary culture does not readily appreciate the traditional doctrine of indulgences. Despite John XXIII's call for the adaptation of the Christian message to modern forms of expression, it must be recognized that hasty adaptation often involves a risk to Catholic faith. Heresies invariably accept unquestioned, but erroneous, presuppositions from the surrounding culture. To ignore or downplay the doctrine of indulgences in the year of the Great Jubilee would weaken the full splendour of truth and deprive the contemporary Church and culture of a sane counterbalance to one-sided egalitarianism and individualism. The Church lives from her tradition, and the retrieval of that tradition can contribute mightily to the evangelization of the third millennium.

Subjectivist perspective raises many questions

Luther's attempt to place the individual sinner directly before God doubtless was heavily influenced by the nominalism of late medieval Scholastics, who stressed the uniqueness of each individual and the consequent inadequacy of abstract, universal concepts to provide a coherent vision of reality. Subsequent Western culture did not follow Luther in appealing to the Bible alone as the source of security and truth in a confusing world. Even before the Wars of Religion convinced Europe that theological truth is attained neither from the pulpit nor on the battlefield, the recourse to a neutral human reason was being prepared. Medieval nominalism laid the groundwork for Galileo-Newtonian science insofar as it stressed the perceptible, accidental traits of worldly realities and their coordination in terms of external relations, especially efficient causality, which could be measured and "mathematicized". The success of mathematical analysis induced Descrates to transpose its abstract clarity into the realm of philosophy, grounding epistemological certitude in the Cogito. This move to the subject was brought to completion by Immanuel Kant's effort to synthesize Cartesian idealism and English empiricism. He accomplished his revolution by considering primarily not objective reality but the subjective conditions of human knowing. Aware of the limitations of finite knowledge, he distinguished the phenomena, which are objectified and universalized through conceptual categories, from the noumenon, the unknowable infinite to which are consigned material singularity, freedom, God and the ego. As the laws of objective Newtonian physics derive from the human mind, so also the human intellect creates for itself universal moral laws as categorical imperatives. After the metaphysical systems of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel failed to overcome the gap between the infinite and the finite by seeing reality from God's perspective, other philosophers accentuated the opposition between the infinity of actual concrete reality and the limitations of the knowing subject. With the breakdown of Newtonian physics, it became harder to insist on the validity of universal intellectual laws, and subjects were increasingly referred to their own experience as the touchstone of truth.

The modern movement toward subjectivity entered Catholic thought through certain thinkers, generally called transcendental Thomists, who sought to overcome the Kantian dichotomy between finite and infinite, abstractions and reality, by appealing to those elements of St Thomas' synthesis which stressed the dynamic movement of mind revealed in judgement. Not in the concept but in judgement is truth attained. The dynamic movement of the mind, not the passive reception of abstract concepts, gives man access to reality. Objectivity is attained only over subjectivity. Though the more profound thinkers of the school tried to maintain the balance between concept and judgement, objectivity and subjectivity, many less cautious disciples stress the human subjectivity which is oriented to the infinite God through the natural intellectual movement of judgement transcending all finite concepts and structures. From their perspective man's opening to God is completed by God's self-offering in grace to each individual according to his eternal plan of salvation.

Within the subjective perspective the notion of indulgences gives rise to many questions. If God's pardoning grace is offered to all, what need is there for the Church to grant indulgences? How does someone else supply for my deficiencies before God? Insofar as temporal punishment due to sin derives from the purification of selfish habits, how can the Church by some external act dispense with the need of full interior purification? Indeed, if the Church can grant plenary indulgences, why does she bother with partial indulgences?

Solidarity in salvation

Fortunately, Catholic doctrine does not depend upon any one theology or philosophy. The richness of revealed truth serves as the norm to judge all theologies and philosophies, and that richness cannot be narrowed to the compass of any single system. For the Revelation of Jesus Christ does not consist in the mere fulfilment of man's longing for meaning and his natural desire for truth. The Son of God entered the world to carry a cross and demand conversion, calling his disciples to follow him to the end. Salvation then consists not in the unimpeded achievement of an individual's intellectual dynamism, but in the union of love established between Jesus and his disciples and over Jesus with the Father. From the beginning salvation has been historically mediated through the humanity of Jesus and, after the Resurrection, through the Eucharist and through the community of believers, the ecclesial Body of Christ, created by the Eucharist and assembled to celebrate and proclaim Jesus eucharistically present in their midst. God's plan of salvation is sacramental, i.e., he renders himself present in a finite figure, e.g., Jesus' humanity, the Church's sacramental signs, to call for man's total response of love, and upon man's response depends his eternal salvation or damnation (Lk 12:8f.; 1 Cor 11:27-32).

After original sin had shattered the primordial unity of love among men and between God and man, the initiative for its restoration had to come from God. That restoration through God's self-revelation began early, as the Old Testament witnesses, and culminated in Jesus Christ, God become man. No higher revelation can be expected than the personal union of the Second Person of the Trinity with human nature. This hypostatic union gives men an intelligible sign of a love which sacrifices itself entirely and in losing itself finds itself. As the Son lives eternally and entirely in total self-abandonment to the Father, so on earth he sacrifices himself to the utmost on the cross and on Easter manifests the victory of the mutual love that unites Father and Son. That victorious, divine love is strong enough to overcome the selfishness of human hearts, offering itself and causing a free response. Those who accept Jesus, uniting themselves to him in freedom and living from his prevenient love, form henceforth the community of salvation, the Body of Christ. Divine love penetrates their hearts and lets them live the divine life, reborn through Baptism as God's children in Christ. Where they are most themselves, in their freedom, they are most one with Christ, and because Christ's love unites, they are one with each other.

Solidarity in salvation as well as damnation was manifested in the Old Testament notion of corporate personality whereby an individual is a representative as well as a constitutive member of the community with whom he shares a common fate. The Suffering Servant songs, especially Is 53, prefigure Christ's vicarious salvific sufferings and are so interpreted by the New Testament (Mk 10:45; Mt 8:17; 12:17-21; Lk 22:37; 23:33; Acts 8:26-35; 1 Cor 15:3-5; etc.). Insofar as Christians are called to share Christ's lot, their solidarity with him finds various expressions in Scripture. The Pauline notion of koinonia well details the characteristics of this new salvific union. Previous to Paul the word signified a participation in a common reality and a community. While retaining those senses, Paul was forced by the Christian mystery to expand the word's meaning in various directions. In Paul's writings for the first time the word signifies communion, i.e., the receiving of Christ's Body and Blood (1 Cor 10:16), which is the expression and cause of unity in Christ. For the first time also it indicates participation in a personal reality: Christ (1 Cor 1:9) and the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:13). Koinonia designates not just passive reception or sharing; it involves also giving a share (Gal 6:6; Phil 4:15f.; Phlm 6; cf. 2 Cor 8:4; Phil 1:15; koinonein with a personal subject and the dative of thing is used for the first time in Greek: Rom 12:13; Phil 4:14). What is shared goes beyond a merely spiritual blessing, for Paul designated the monetary collection for Jerusalem's poor a koinonia. As other Christians participate in the spiritual riches of the Jerusalem Church, so they are called upon to supply the material needs of that Church (Rom 15:26f.). Clearly koinonia involves a union, both spiritual and material, between the Triune God and man and among Christians; manifested and grounded in the Eucharist, it lets believers share in the divine life; this communitarian participation comprises both passive and active sharing.

Church's norm is God's self-sacrificial love

What Christians do affects each other. "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together" (1 Cor 12:26; Col 1:24). All are called to grow together in charity to the fullness of Christ, who is the source and goal of the Christian life (Eph 1:22f.; 4:15f.: Col 1:18-20). Any sin against Christ and the Father simultaneously wounds the members of Christ's Body; for all who should be contributing to mutual growth in love. Since sin not only is a disorder but also causes disorder in the lives of others, a conversion should involve the setting right of what has been disordered. Insofar as the new order of Redemption has been irrevocably established in Christ and in the Virgin Mary's total, free response — she could have sinned but did not — no sin can frustrate God's definitive plan for mankind's salvation. But sin does disrupt the order of charity in Christ's Body, and in justice the sinner is bound to make good what he damaged. Basic justice demands that. Fortunately human justice, which presupposes a commutative tit-for-tat measure, does not supply the ultimate norm for morality. God's justice, one with his love, is justifying (Rom 3:21-26). Not that human justice is destroyed, but it is surpassed. Indeed human justice sways between commutative and distributive justice, and the proper application of the just measure in concrete circumstances depends upon a deeper insight of love. The love of God alone converts hearts and illuminates the mind to perceive the demands of human justice.

Justice demands recompense for man's sin as an offence against God and the Church. But just as God has not insisted upon strict satisfaction in sending his Son to die for sinners (Rom 5:7f.), the Church, wounded by sin, does not insist upon strict expiatory justice from the sinner. The Church's norm is the self-sacrificial love of God revealed in Christ. Precisely to show whence she derives her life and norm of acting, she offers to believing sinners an indulgence.

In her penitential discipline the Church demands penance for sins committed. For acts have consequences and justice requires that the consequences of such acts be repaired as much as possible by the sinner. Penance imposed for sin not only corresponds to the sinner's need to be detached from his sin and to eradicate evil habits, it also marks the Church's public disapproval of sin, manifests the deleterious consequences of sin, and upholds a salutary external order. The Church must insist publicly on the evil of sin, yet she condemns sin not to denigrate the sinner but to facilitate his conversion. Traditionally, the rigorous temporal punishment imposed on sinners had been mitigated on account of the prayers of the martyrs and confessors and later by the application of the "treasure of the Church", the merits of Christ, his Blessed Mother and the saints. The communion of saints, the Christian koinonia, stretches beyond death and embraces the Church triumphant and suffering as well as the Church militant. By the application of the merits of others, the Church maintains her public discipline condemning sin, and simultaneously, lest a rigorous discipline keep sinners at a distance from her care, she offers a mitigation of the temporal punishment ordinarily assigned to the sin. Thus her charity, imitating Christ's, reconciles justice and mercy, demanding conversion, yet richly bestowing forgiveness.

Results of sin must be purged by fire of love

The "treasury of the Church" should not be imagined as something alongside and added to Christ's salvific love. Insofar as all the good actions of Christians, which produce merit, are only the obedient response to the love of Christ which motivates them, the merits of the saints flow from the omnipotence of Christ's love and exist only in dependence upon it. The entire remission of sin and temporal punishment is God's work. Nonetheless, to emphasize the internal relations existing among Christians and the ways in which they help each other through the proper use of freedom, which earns a "reward" in proportion as the love of God penetrates the heart of the agent, the Church employs the image of the treasury of merit that is applied to others. For every good work performed under grace merits a reward (cf. Mt 16:27; Rom 2:6-10; Rv 22:12), and the ultimate reward consists in the sharing in God's eternal life of tripersonal love. The application of one Christian's merit to another means that the divine life shared among Christians Is intensified and expanded. Love is both the motivation that produces an increase of charity in human freedom and the reward given, for as, the human heart opens itself ever more to God's love, the more it is permeated by that love and the more profoundly it participates in the divine life. No greater reward can be imagined than the sharing in God's eternal life with all the members of the Body of Christ, and that is the purpose of the application of the merits of Christ and the saints to others.

The remission of temporal punishment does not occur mechanically. The results of sin, man's inordinate attachments to creatures, have to be purged or burned away by the fire of love, and it usually takes time to effect a thorough conversion. The Church's penances aim at the profound conversion of a sinner to Christ and his Church. There should be a correspondence between the severity of the sin and the penance imposed in order that the latter might overcome the ingrained selfishness manifested in the sin and lead to full communion with Christ and his Church. The correspondence presupposes the connection between body and soul, the external penance and the interior renewal. But God's grace can directly touch the heart and effect a perfect act of charity which wipes away all sin and its consequences. Internal and external do not always reflect each other perfectly. For this reason the Church, relying on Christ's superabundant grace, can remit the external penance imposed. The Church's proffered indulgence is effective in proportion to the profundity of the sinner's conversion to God. As long as that conversion is not complete, the remaining selfishness impedes unrestricted communion with Christ and the Church, and this selfishness has to be overcome in this world or the next. So temporal punishment may remain despite the Church's indulgence. However generous the offer, the indulgence remits the punishment only in proportion to the sinner's attitude. Conversion to God and conversion to Christ's Body are correlative.

The pilgrimage to Rome

The pilgrimage to Rome manifests in a special way that conversion to God and conversion to his Church occur together. The indulgence is granted by Peter to all believers, and their journey to Peter shows their willingness to accept the Church's mediation of salvation, as Christ intended. The pilgrimage to Rome also involves a sacrifice of time, effort, and money, and the very disposition to sacrifice these material goods for the sake of union with God is due to grace's purification of the human heart. When the heart has been opened to grace the great witness to Christ by so many martyrs and saints who lived and died in Rome speaks all the more powerfully. The grave of Peter offers a point of historical continuity joining mankind to its Saviour and marks a centre for the concrete dedication required by authentic love.

Given the necessity of the penitent sinner's interior conversion to receive the full benefits of the entire remission of temporal punishment, the reason for the Church's limitation of indulgences emerges clearly. What is too liberally offered is often ignored or disdained. So partial indulgences may be better applied to specific prayers and acts of mercy, teaching Christians the value of indulgences and preparing them for greater gifts. Similarly plenary indulgences are limited to particular places, times and conditions in order that their very infrequency may encourage sinners to esteem and take advantage of them. A too frequent indulgence could weaken the Church's public discipline.

The indulgences offered by the Church are applied first and foremost to the penitent sinner performing the prerequisite good works. For his freedom is engaged in the works and thereby purified. The indulgences may also be applied per suffragium to others, both living and dead, in the communion of saints. We pray that God's benevolence apply to others the merits that our good works entail. The union of believers in Christ works to the good of all, each contributing to the growth in charity of others. Even though the mutual influence cannot be exactly measured — freedom and grace do not let themselves be quantified — Scripture and tradition assure us of the efficacy of prayer and good works offered for others.

In a world torn apart by materialism, which isolates individuals and leads them to consider as real only what is sensibly perceptible, the Church's preaching of indulgences can help to offset the narrow limits of the modern world's spiritual vision. Charity joins believers among themselves. Each should be responsible for the others. This basic solidarity realized in the Body of Christ embraces the dead as well as the living. Besides expanding the spiritual horizon of believers, indulgences also serve to emphasize the gravity of sin as an offence against God and his Church as well as the Church's mediation of Christ's salvation to all sinners. Hence the proper preaching of the Jubilee Year indulgence can contribute greatly to the Church's renewal, effecting under God's grace the conversion of sinners, a greater growth of solidarity in charity, and a deeper love and appreciation of the Church as mediator of salvation.

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