A recent news headline read “Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets.” The media has a tremendous gift of making anything spiritual sound stupid, don’t they? And so the subheading to this article reads, “Papal court handling pardons for sins says contrite Catholics may win ‘indulgences’ by following World Youth Day on Twitter.”
I thought this would be the perfect time to clarify the Church’s teaching on indulgences. So, with the help of a fantastic article from Catholic Answers (which begins after this paragraph), let’s look at exactly what an indulgence is (and isn’t), followed by a look at six biblical principles in support of this teaching.
Those who claim that indulgences are no longer part of Church teaching have the admirable desire to distance themselves from abuses that occurred around the time of the Protestant Reformation.
They also want to remove stumbling blocks that prevent non-Catholics from taking a positive view of the Church.
As admirable as these motives are, the claim that indulgences are not part of Church teaching today is false.
This is proved by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states,
An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishment due for their sins.” The Church does this not just to aid Christians, “but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity (CCC 1478).
Indulgences are part of the Church’s infallible teaching.
This means that no Catholic is at liberty to disbelieve in them. The Council of Trent stated that it “condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them”(Trent, session 25, Decree on Indulgences).
Trent’s anathema places indulgences in the realm of infallibly defined teaching. The pious use of indulgences dates back into the early days of the Church, and the principles underlying indulgences extend back into the Bible itself.
Catholics who are uncomfortable with indulgences do not realize how biblical they are. The principles behind indulgences are as clear in Scripture as those behind more familiar doctrines, such as the Trinity.
Before looking at those principles more closely, we should define indulgences. In his apostolic constitution on indulgences, Pope Paul VI said:
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 1).
This technical definition can be phrased more simply as, “An indulgence is what we receive when the Church lessens the temporal (lasting only for a short time) penalties to which we may be subject even though our sins have been forgiven.”
To understand this definition, we need to look at the biblical principles behind indulgences.