The term “indulgences” refers to specific prayers and actions, permeated with a spirit of penance, that are an extra-special channel of God’s superabundant, healing grace. Once a person has repented of his sins and, if necessary, received forgiveness from Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, indulgences help to further the healing process that is needed for himself or for a Holy Soul in Purgatory and for the people that have been hurt by his/her sins.
Two-fold Consequence (i.e. Punishment)* of Sin
*Before we get started, please know that the Church uses the words consequence and punishment interchangeably here because in this case, the natural consequences of sin are, in fact, a punishment that naturally flows from sin. There are negative effects set in motion every time we sin but the effects can be greater and much more intense depending on whether the sin is mortal or venial.
In order to come to grips with the Church’s teaching on indulgences, one must first understand the Catholic teaching on the two-fold consequence/punishment of sin: namely, the eternal and the temporal.
The eternal consequence of sin refers to hell, the permanent separation from God by persisting in a state of unrepentant mortal sin. Thus, the eternal aspect refers to whether or not we are forgiven.
The temporal consequence of sin, on the other hand, refers to the way in which our sins wound us and others.
God wants not only to forgive our sins, but to heal and transform us.
If we were to imagine our sins as nails driven into a piece of wood, and forgiveness as the removal of those nails, we would still be left with holes in the wood where the nails previously were.
In other words, the work of God is not complete upon mere forgiveness, but seeks to go further through healing and transformation accomplished by our cooperation with supernatural grace through penance & indulgences (i.e., filling in the holes of the wood).
In this light, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
“These two punishments [eternal and temporal] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin” (CCC, 1472).
We know this is true because we see the temporal consequences of sin everywhere. Even after we have repented of our sins and received forgiveness it is still obvious that further healing is necessary, not only for ourselves but also for the people we have hurt by our sins.
“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Galatians 6:8).
Forgiveness and temporal punishment/consequences are not opposite ends of a spectrum. They are two sides of the same coin. Together, they establish an essential part of the Lord's plan for believers.
Forgiveness is relational. It puts us back into a right relationship with someone. The Father sent Jesus to make a sacrifice on our behalf, and by so doing reconciled us to Himself. By His mercy alone, we can have communion with the Lord.
On the other hand, consequences are circumstantial. Often God does not remove consequences simply because we trust Christ as Savior or confess sin. He leaves them in place for us to struggle with and to grow from for many important reasons. Here are three:
to learn from our mistakes;
in order to fortify us for future temptations because when we experience the consequences or realize there is a punishment accrued, it makes it easier to resist future temptations.
to grow in humility and empathy for others.
God gives a punishment (consequence) because He not only wants to forgive us, but to heal and transform us completely not merely superficially.
We do this as parents. When our children get in trouble, and they say they’re sorry, we respond both with forgiveness and their punishment.
The punishment is not for them to earn our forgiveness back, but to redress the disorder wrought in their souls by the wrongdoing.
In Hebrews 12:6-11 we read:
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
It’s precisely because we believe in this dual consequence of sin (eternal and temporal) that we: do penance, believe in purgatory, and embrace the doctrine of indulgences.
There is a perennial temptation, once we have sinned and repented, to merely sigh sorrowfully without mending our ways but Our Lord Himself said,
“Bear fruit that befits Repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
The good news is that the principle of reaping and sowing works in a positive way as well. We can sow good seeds that will turn negative situations into positive ones through Penance & Indulgences
"The one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life" (Gal. 6:8).
So, what is Penance?
Penance, in the sense it is being used here, is an act of self-denial or devotion performed voluntarily to show sorrow for a sin or other wrongdoing in an attempt to remedy the negative consequences. Penance is, first and foremost, retribution for wrongdoing such as returning stolen goods, trying to restore a person’s reputation that we have damaged through detraction, calumny or slander, kind acts to a person we have hurt, etc. – this will be different for each person and each sin. As we do all we can to repair the damage we have caused, we precede, accompany and follow those actions with prayer, fasting & almsgiving. Penance, as understood in this way, is a channel of God's grace for the purpose of our own transformation and for the healing the temporal consequences of sins in ourselves and the people affected by our sins.
CCC 1450 – The Acts of the Penitent are Contrition, Confession & Satisfaction.
We are the penitent and the “acts of contrition, confession & satisfaction” are referring to what we have to bring with us (the disposition of our heart) to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in order for it to be a valid confession (this also goes for acts of repentance made outside of the Sacrament of Reconciliation). More than likely we know and understand the need for contrition (true sorrow) and confession (the act of confessing our sins) but we might not know and understand what satisfaction is.
So, what is satisfaction?
Catechism of the Catholic Church
“Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much.
But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor.
Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.
Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance."
Furthermore, penance can be considered a "win/win/win" because it not only helps the person doing it, and the people who have been hurt by our sins, but can also be offered as a prayer of intercession for others not directly involved.
This is where Purgatory comes in. Purgatory is not a second chance or a middle ground. Rather, purgatory is for those who die in friendship with God (i.e., the eternal consequence of sin has been dealt with), but not yet completely purified (i.e., some of the temporal consequence/punishment of sin remains).
God begins his work of transformation in us now and he provides every opportunity to make amends for our sins and every grace we need to grow in this life; if left incomplete upon death, He will complete it in a state called “purgatory (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030, 1054).
In Purgatory, a person can no longer do penance or make satisfaction for himself/herself. They count on us to do it for them. Penance, in the form of indulgences, can be offered for our loved ones who have died and, after having Masses offered for the repose of their soul, is the greatest way of assisting them.
The transformation that results from this is necessary for the Holy Souls in Purgatory to enter into full communion with God. And as always, with God’s Will for us, it also transforms us as we do this. Our transformation is necessary too.
Indulgences flow from penance (satisfaction) and our understanding of purgatory.
Understanding the doctrine of purgatory and the need for penance (satisfaction) also helps us understand the doctrine of indulgences – a doctrine that has been frequently misunderstood and often abused, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw it away. “The abuse does not take away the use”, as the old saying goes.
An indulgence is simply a favor granted by the Church – to which, remember, Christ gave the “Keys of the Kingdom” and the “power to bind and loose on earth and in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).
By means of this favor, the Church applies the grace of Christ that flows through the Communion of Saints to help us repair the damage and heal the wounds caused by our personal sins.
In other words, instead of having to suffer through the necessary purification oneself, indulgences apply the suffering already lovingly undergone by Christ and the saints to the healing of our wounded souls.
Importantly, indulgences have nothing to do with the eternal consequences of sin. That is, the Church has never taught anything like “you can buy your way to heaven.” Rather, indulgences are a lessening of the temporal punishment due to sin.
Analogously, it’s as if I assigned one of my children a thirty-minute timeout and later reduced it to fifteen minutes.
So where does this reduction in the temporal punishment come from?
It comes from the Treasury of Grace (also called Treasury of Merit). Let me explain.
All the faithful who possess the Holy Spirit form one Body in Christ - the Church (Romans 12:5). In this Body or family all the members can help one another. Jesus, the one mediator - enables us to share in His work by uniting our prayers, works, joys, sorrows and suffering to His great work of Redemption. In this way he uses our cooperation to bring grace and good to others in the Body (the Church).
This is called The Communion of Saints.
This communion of saints has two closely linked meanings:
It is a communion among holy persons (persons in the state of grace)
And a communion in holy things (primarily the sacraments - especially the Eucharist, but also the prayers, works, joys, sorrows & suffering united with Christ and offered out of love)
What each one does or suffers through, with and in Christ bears fruit for all.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide" (John 15:16).
All Christians are united by the Holy Spirit even though we live in three different states of being:
Some of us are pilgrims on earth journeying to heaven - The Pilgrim Church or The Church Militant
Others have died and are being purified in Purgatory - The Church Suffering
While still others are in the glory of heaven - The Church Triumphant
The saints in heaven can help us with their prayers. We can help the souls in Purgatory. The souls in Purgatory cannot help themselves but by offering our prayers, works, joys, sorrow and suffering for them we can speed them on to full union with God. They, in turn, pray for us and as they come closer to the glory of heaven, their prayers for us become more & more effective.
“Our prayer for them is capable of not only helping them, but also of making their intercession for us more effective” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 958).
The Communion of Saints is explained simply that in the one family of God, each member of the family can help each other. We read in Matthew 6:19-20:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Christ is teaching that we can indeed store up “treasure in heaven.” Every time we do something good for God and others and by his grace working in our heart, we “lay up treasure (merits) in Heaven.” And thus there is truly a treasury of good deeds in Heaven.
Revelation 19:7-8 also speaks of this:
“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb[a] has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints”
The Communion of Saints image (below) shows how the souls in the different states of being help one another:
What do we mean by “Merits?
By this we mean fruits, rewards, or good deeds. But this is not a proportionate system whereby we do certain good works and simply earn our way to heaven, as if God literally “owed” us something.
Rather, Jesus merits our capacity to merit in the first place; He is the primary cause of every merit accrued to us.
But just because he is the primary cause does not mean that we have no part to play at all. If we are connected to him, and use our free will to love others, we are truly secondary causes in his work of salvation.
On our own, we are absolutely incapable of obtaining supernatural merits. This is because we are fallen, sinful human beings. An unplugged lamp won’t give off any light, no matter how many times you turn the switch.
Similarly, original sin unplugged our souls from the source of grace – God himself. When Jesus became man and offered himself in atonement for our sins, he plugged human nature back in to God, so to speak. This was the redemption. And so, anyone who is united to Christ through faith and the sacraments is now once again connected to the source of grace – they are living in the “state of grace.”