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.