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Saturday, August 11, 2007

God's justice, purgatory, indulgences

- Illustration for Dante's Purgatorio 18 by Gustave Doré

A few days ago I read an old article in the Tablet archives about indulgences - He who holds the keys to the kingdom. I hadn't realized indulgences still existed, nor had I given thought to the view of God that must (in my thought) underlie the whole premise of purgatory and indulgences .... it made me upset, a sure sign that I feel in some way on the defensive, so I thought I'd think about it and post about it at the same time.

First, here below is a little of the Tablet article ...


Basically, an indulgence – either partial or plenary (full) – allows one to reduce his or her “time” in purgatory or apply this grace to someone else who is already deceased. In order to obtain a plenary indulgence one must perform the prescribed task, plus go to sacramental confession, receive Eucharistic Communion, and pray for the Pope’s intentions.

The Council of Trent, which sat from 1545 to 1562, not only outlawed the selling of indulgences but also roundly condemned Martin Luther as well: “The Church… condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them.” This same formula was re-stated, verbatim, by Pope Paul VI in 1967, some two years after the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which – significantly – had chosen not to issue condemnations or anathemas.

The practice of indulgences was never really addressed at Vatican II. And yet, some four decades later, a good number of Catholics – and many Protestants, too – continue to hold rather firmly but equally erroneously to the notion that the Council did away with indulgences – or, at least, severely altered them. It was actually Pope Paul who oversaw the “revision” of the practice. But the formula that Paul devised was only a partial reform that satisfied neither the Neo-Tridentines (such as the schismatic Lefebvrists) nor the so-called “progressives” more sympathetic to Luther’s position. ......

When the bishops arrived in Rome later in the autumn of 1965 for the fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council the conference presidents were asked to state their views on the Positio, but when they did there was outrage among some. The feisty Antiochan Patriarch of the Melchites, Maximos IV, urged that indulgences be suppressed outright, saying they were “not only without theological foundation but the cause of innumerable grave abuses which (had) inflicted irreparable evils on the Church”.

Then the German bishops added fuel to the fire. The Archbishop of Munich – Cardinal Dopfner – stated unabashedly: “The idea of a ‘treasury’ that the Church ‘possesses’ leads all too easily to a materialistic or quasi-commercial conception of what is obtained by indulgences.” He recommended that the Positio be scrapped and that a group of international theologians (Karl Rahner was one such he had in mind) be selected to re-write it.

The Pope formed his new commission and in early 1967 issued the Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum Doctrina – which looked similar to the original Positio. The new document said that a believer could gain the indulgence only by fulfilling three obligations: by doing the prescribed work, by having the proper disposition (attitude of the heart) while doing the work, and by acknowledging the authority of the Pope in the process.

Indulgentiarum Doctrina was in effect a restatement of the medieval Catholic doctrine of indulgences, with more personalistic language common in the theology of the initial post-Conciliar period. (This remains a criticism of the neo-Tridentines today.) And yet the anathema of Trent is still there. Partial indulgences were no longer calculated by days and years and the number of plenary indulgences was reduced. Yet critics from the other end of the spectrum are perhaps still most disturbed that indulgence theology likens divine justice to human justice and its need for reparation .......

Since then Pope Benedict has indicated that he will make indulgences much more visible than his immediate post-Conciliar predecessors. There are good reasons for this. Theologically, the Pope seems to be emphasising the medieval doctrine – codified at Trent – of the “economy of salvation” and the necessity of the Church. And politically he is making direct appeal to those Catholics – both those still in communion with Rome and those like the Lefebvrists that are in schism – who feel the practice of indulgences and the doctrine of Purgatory have been almost irreparably minimised ...


As I read the article, smoke spiraling from my ears, I blamed myself for my stunned disbelief ... I must have dozed off in RCIA class one too many times, because this was all news to me. So, just to make sure I've got it right ... when people are bad and repent, God forgives them but they still must endure temporal punishment in purgatory, a kind of pit-stop on the way to heaven, and time served can be mitigated with an indulgence ...

God has mercy upon sinners who repent their sins, but His justice still requires that the sinner be punished for the wrongdoing. In addition, even though the separation caused by sin is removed, the repercussions for the sin have not been removed and still require punishment. E.g. if one steals a loaf of bread, the baker still is missing and suffers the loss of the bread even if the thief makes amends. This punishment is called "temporal punishment", both because it is a punishment of time, as opposed to eternal punishment, and because it relates to the temporary world (Earth or Purgatory), rather than to the “final destination” (Heaven or Hell) ... This punishment may be remitted in Purgatory, or by indulgence. The granting of an indulgence is the spiritual reassignment, as it were, of existing merit to an individual requiring that merit .... - Wikipedia

Thomas Aquinas believed in the existence of purgatory and saw it as a punishment fraught with physical suffering. Augustine (the saint I love to hate) said that such punishment is justice for the unjust and some argue that purgatory and temporal punishment (not to mention hell and eternal punishment, and even Jesus' atonement for our sins) must exist because God must be just and justice requires retribution for sin. I don't know theology, but my feeling is that, with God being love, divine justice in the sense of punishment rather than restoration, makes no sense (an interesting article on the subject - Punishment, forgiveness, and divine justice by Tom Talbott).

The ideas that it's God's nature to forgive and yet still punish rather than transform with love, that by cash, deed, or arranged prayer, rather than an honest change of heart, we can buy ourselves and others out of some of this purgatorial punishment, is disturbing .... I believe God is better than this.


Blogger Steve Bogner said...

I believe God is better than that, too.

6:02 AM  
Anonymous Mike L said...

I am with Steve!

Off the subject, I was in the hospital the end of the week for cancer surgery and took advantage of the wireless net work that the hospital provided. To my surprise, I could not read your blog, Crystal, because it was blocked "because of an unacceptable phrase." But you were in good company as yours was also blocked, Steve. Also blocked were Fr. Martin's, Amy Wellborn, Fr. Jim Tucker's and Rachel's Testosterhome. So what are you people doing to get on the censor's blacklist? So I was four days without my favorite blogs. I kept waiting for the network to shut me down. Come to think of it, periodically it did seem to throw me off, so maybe I am doing something right after all.

Anyway, now I can say Happy Birthday Crystal and Kermit, may you both have many more.

Love and hugs,

Mike L

7:18 AM  
Blogger Talmida said...

I agree, Crystal.

I like Rolheiser on purgatory (it is the experience between life and death, the letting go), but indulgences still strike me as too weird.

During the year of Jubilee (2000), our bishop announced the indulgences for going through the Jubilee door!! It had us all scrambling to find out what the heck he was talking about!

I suppose collecting lots of indulgence notches for your belt means that you live your life focussing on Heaven, but any kind of "economy" strikes me as really childish.

I think one of the Church's overwhelming errors is the idea that God is created in our petty image, and not vice versa.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Liam said...

I think to be able to appreciate the idea of Purgatory, it's important to put it in its historical context. Early Christianity was all or nothing: doubts about salvation were very common and the danger of eternal damnation was very close. The idea that there could be a way to eventually reach heaven even if one died in sin existed in a vague sense early on, but it wasn't until the Middle Ages that the idea of Purgatory was fully developed. From the perspective of a theology that allowed few to be saved, the introduction of Purgatory was progressive -- as one medievalist said, "the population of heaven grew enormously in the Middle Ages."

Of course, traditionalists never recognize historical context and imagine that anything understood from a perspective that is not 16th century is wrong. Just as Anslem's idea of atonement was an understandable way to approach the death of Jesus in the 12th century, imagining Purgatory as a place of temporal punishment made sense in the later Middle Ages and Early Modern period. We can, however, accept Purgatory (which has a scriptural basis in the Catholic canon of scripture) without having to understand it so literally. Perhaps, as a Jesuit friend of mine said just the other night, Purgatory is a momentary purification. I don't think God would require it, but maybe we do. Maybe we need to lose all the garbage of sin we bring with us in order to truly be with God. I don't think we have to see it as "punishment." We don't beat our children anymore, either.

Sorry for being so long-winded.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Liam said...

Talmida's comment appeared just as I posted mine. I agree with everything she said. I think "indulgences" can be a form of prayer, but they're not a form of celestial money.

9:15 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

I was aware indulgences were still on the books, but I wasn't aware of the fact that they had actually been (officially) addressed since Vatican II.

I thought the doctrine on indulgences was one of those old teachings the Vatican had thought better of, but couldn't bring itself to completely reverse (like the older position on capital punishment), because reversal is tantamount to an acknowledgement of error. But after reading this, I'm not so sure.

I don't have a problem with the concept of purgatory, at least as some theologians describe it. But the concept of indulgences is, in my opinion, superstition in its purest form.

10:24 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Another thing about purgatory: it has sometimes been pointed out that purgatory serves a very similar purpose as successive reincarnations in (mainly) Eastern religions. And it is widely held in the Jewish tradition that the soul has to undergo a process of sanctification after death, but not lasting more than 12 months. So the concept is well-attested in the world religions.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Nice historical perspective on this from Liam, as usual. Always good to have a medievalist around. :-)

I've never known anyone to keep track of their indulgences, and I'm inclined to think of them as absurd, but you know what? With the lack of emphasis on purgatory and indulgences, people don't pray for the dead like they used to.

I love to pray from my beloved departed ones. I'd actually hate to be without that.

10:42 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Steve -
thanks for dropping by :-)

Mike -
I hope your surgery went well. Thanks for the birthday wishes. There's a place online where you can see what your blog would be rated - mine was NC-17 for the use of words like "torture".

Hi Talmida -
yes, I read about the door ... In a way it's like Monopoly :-) I like Ron Rolheiser's idea too.

Hi Liam -
I appreciate you taking the time to give the historical context. I think the idea your Jesuit friend has sound like the Orthodox idea. The is a sort of transformation process but they don't give it a time. place basis or a name (if I understnad correctly).

PrickliestPear -
my sister, who believes in reincarnation, asked me that question - how christians can go to heaven without having been purified, as through many lives. I wonder what the Protestant ake on this is, as I don't think they believe in purgatory.

Hi Jeff -
I think that's part of what bothers me so much about indulgences ... they seem to encourage good things like prayer but for the wrong reasons .... self-advancement. And it also seems unfair - suppose someone who is dead and in purgatory has no loved ones to pray for them - are the just out of luck?

It's like my worst fear
.... I've died and found out that the afterlife is just like high school, where the cool and popular kids prosper even if they haven't read the books :-)

11:30 AM  
Blogger Garpu the Fork said...

I don't know anyone, beyond my traditionalist grandmother, who keeps track of indulgences.

I agree with Liam, too, with the added bit that I see Purgatory as an absolute last chance. It doesn't matter how badly a person screwed up in this life, there's still a chance for mercy in the next.

2:05 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Garpu,

I worry that purgatory is a comment on our lack of confidence in God's acceptance of us as we are and his ability to transform us. Or maybe that's just as I wish it would be, since I think that otherwise I'll be looking at a looooong time in purgatory, if I'm even that lucky :-)

2:46 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Hi Crystal and belated happy birthday to yourself and Kermit! You know my stance on the whole subject. The entire thing becomes ridiculous once you understand what eternity really measn and how silly it is then to talk about taking and time off of anything.

It also does not mesh in any way, as you've said, with a God who's defining characteristic is love. It's a flawed and out-dated theology and a disturbing teaching that popes have used (and still use) for more political reasons than anything else.

8:53 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

yes, I really liked your explination :-) ... Puragtory, Indulgences and Sin...Oh My!

11:07 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Maybe Purgatory is sort of like the bar at a great restaurant - a place to have a drink while you wait for your table.

"I'm sorry, I don't see your name on the reservation list."

"ButI called this morning!"

"Well, wait here while I see if we have a table."

"Thank God."

1:30 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

I like that idea. In that song "heaven" by the talking heads, heaven is a bar.

6:01 PM  

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