Friday, December 10, 2010

Indulgences... No need to freak out.

When I finally became a faithful Catholic in my late 20s, I had no real idea what indulgences were. I had some vague notion that they were something complicated, controversial and even corrupt. The very word seemed scandalous and sinful! And the word "indulgences" was usually preceded by "the sale of" -- and that can't be good when we're talking about souls!

What I finally figured out was not so complicated. An indulgence is just a certain prescribed prayer, good work, or practice of piety which remits the temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven.

Um, Leila, what in the heck is temporal punishment??

I'm glad you asked!

When we sin, there are two parts to reconciling with the Lord:

1) We must ask for and receive forgiveness for our sins (at which point our guilt is removed)
2) We must make amends for our sins (that's how we repair the spiritual damage we have caused)

Making up for our sins is only just, right? We know it in our hearts, and we apply it in real life.

Think about it:

A boy recklessly throws a baseball near his neighbor's home. It shatters a window. What does the boy need to do? He needs to approach the neighbor with contrition and apologize for the transgression. A good neighbor then forgives the boy.

But can the boy now just walk home happily and never think about it again? No, of course not. We all know that the boy needs to make it right, and the neighbor expects it. Pick up the glass pieces, replace the window, pay for the damage, whatever. But the window must be restored. Even with forgiveness, an apology is incomplete until the offender has made things right again. That's justice, and it makes sense.

Divine forgiveness and justice make sense, too.

So, an indulgence is a special way of making up for the damage of our sins, in the form of a specific prayer, good work, holy act, pilgrimage, etc.

I think of an indulgence as similar to a penance after a sacramental confession. In confession, our sins are forgiven when the priest absolves us, but we must still go and perform the given penance or our "apology" is not complete. That penance helps remit our temporal punishment. Indulgences are an extra-sacramental way to remit the temporal punishment for our sins, and this time not through our own personal merits, but by availing ourselves of the treasury of grace won by Christ and the saints.

A plenary indulgence removes all of one's temporal punishment.
A partial indulgence removes part of one's temporal punishment.

By the way, if all of our temporal punishment due is not paid here on earth, we'll be payin' up in Purgatory! (And Purgatory is a whole 'nother post!)

Um, Leila, what exactly gives the Church the right to set indulgences for the faithful?

I am glad you asked!

Remember back in this post, when we talked about disciplines vs. doctrines? Well, the specifics of an indulgence are an exercise of Church discipline:
A discipline is a rule or regulation which can and often does change. This is the "binding and loosing" authority that the Church received when Jesus said to Peter and the Apostles, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven" (Matt. 16:19, Matt. 18:18).... Why do they exist? To help the faithful in each era become holy. Depending on times and cultures and circumstances, Popes and bishops will bind or loose the faithful according to the needs of the people of God at that time.
Now, the thing about indulgences is, they are not obligatory. They are an amazing, voluntary opportunity for increased holiness and grace. A beautiful gift!

Um... but, Leila, what about the "selling of indulgences"? You know, the thing that caused so much scandal and made Martin Luther leave the Church?

I'm glad you asked!

At the time of Martin Luther, some of the clergy had fallen into great sin and corruption. Yes, it's true... the Church is full of sinners (for anyone who is human, this should not come as a shock). Martin Luther was right to call out the corruption in the Church, including the sale of indulgences. We don't have a problem with Luther for that! In fact, many Catholics were rightly horrified by the sin and corruption in the Church at the time. (Our issue with Martin Luther was an issue of doctrine, and that's a whole 'nother post.)

Was the sale of indulgences shameful when it occurred? Yes! But remember: The abuse of a thing does not negate its proper and legitimate use. I hope we can all agree on that principle.

And, I hope this post made you a *teensy-weensy* bit less confused about indulgences.  :)

For much more information, go here and here.


  1. what an interesting post! I love the way you write, in such a frank and friendly way. :)

  2. Great clarity in this post - thanks for sharing with me! There is so much about our faith I remain confused about!

  3. Great post! It really helped me to understand this more.

  4. Great post! I really love this aspect of our faith.

  5. Not a challenge, just a question: If someone murders someone else, and they are truly sorry and horrified at the person they were, but they can't "replace the window" so to speak, what then? Is there still a way to make it right?


  6. Thanks Leila for this post! I'm still learning so much! I live learning! :) I actually asked my husband to explain this too me a few months ago and poor man, he sure tried. :) I don't know if you know many engineers, but their way of explaining things can be a bit confusing. :) Thanks for the clarity!

  7. Annie, great question!! Yes, it can be "made right" but only through great penance and holiness. So, it can't be a literal fix (because we can't undo a murder), but a life of holiness and penance (and time of purification in Purgatory) will purify the soul (and lift up all in the Body of Christ). As for the person murdered, the killer's life of sacrifice and holiness could be offered for that person's soul. God takes care of the details, but He accepts the contrite heart and makes great good come out of evil.

    Does that make sense?

  8. Thanks! I get smarter every time I come to your blog. :)

  9. There are three problems I see here. I will only adress the primamry one. Our sins HAVE been amended for by Christ's perfect obidience and his sacrifice on the cross. Both His obedience and his bearing the punishment is applied to us and on that basis God lets us into heaven. Indulgenses CAN"T obsolve us from ANY sin (based on the fact that everything we do is tainted by sin and is unacceptable to God), we MUST rest in what Jesus has done for us. Now, it's not a free pass, of course. We still do feel shame and remorse but BEFORE GOD we stand forgiven and accepted.
    Also, let me ask you this. If the church is full of sinful people and corruption (like you have rightly stated) why are you so gladly and fully accepting it's rules especially when they contradict the Bible without questioning them?

  10. AnnieP, one more clarification:

    Sin is always, first and foremost, a sin against God. So, the "neighbor" in the analogy is God. A life of holiness and penance (a contrite heart) is the way we "make up" for our sin.

    I hope that is more clear.

  11. Olya, yes, you have state the Protestant position (or one of them... there are many Protestant positions). I clearly reject that narrow understanding, and so does the Church of 2,000 years. (We've been through this before, right? :))

    Yes, Christ's sacrifice on the Cross is enough to save all of us. But we must receive His forgiveness, and we are not "once saved, always saved".... that is not a traditional Christian teaching, nor is it biblical. We are in a relationship with God, and we are also part of the big and beautiful Communion of Saints. There is a lot about it that you don't understand, Olya, and I can't explain it now, as I have a son's baseball game to get to (he's starting pitcher today!).

    And, obviously, I think your opinion contradicts the Bible. Clearly, we disagree on what the Bible says.

    As far as sinners in the Church.... Someone who is very sinful can still speak what is true. I am sure the New Testament writers were sinners (goodness, Peter even denied Christ!), yet you would agree that they taught sound doctrine in Scripture, no?


  12. Olya, I sure hope you got the distinction between being forgiven of sin and making up for sin. Two separate things.

  13. Oyla,

    No, indulgences don't absolve us of sin --only Christ can do that though his priests (in persona Christi) but indulgences can lessen or completely remove the temporal punishment that we rightly have coming to us because of our [already forgiven] sins. And let's be clear on something because I often have seen this confused, indulgences are not a get out of Hell free card. Indulgences are about temporal punishment that most of us will suffer in Purgatory before we can enter Heaven. I would agree with you that "We still do feel shame and remorse but BEFORE GOD we stand forgiven and accepted" that is provided that we have repented.

    What you are referring to Oyla is imputed righteousness --a doctrine of "reformed" Christianity that is neither Biblical nor reasonable.

    Yes, Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. [CCC 1992] but we must cooperate with the grace of God that has been freely given. Through the sacraments which give us sanctifying grace, we BECOME sanctified we don't just APPEAR to be because Christ covers us. No, grace actually CHANGES us. The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification. [CCC 1999]

    I would like to ask too Oyla what basis you have for the Bible being the only rule of Faith? Christ established a Church and Scripture itself tells us clearly that it is the Church that is "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). Among the various Christian churches, only the Catholic Church has existed since the time of Jesus. Every other Christian church is an offshoot of the Catholic Church.

    The Church existed before the New Testament, not the New Testament before the Church. Divinely-inspired members of the Church wrote the books of the New Testament, just as divinely-inspired writers had written the Old Testament, and it is the Church that is guided by the Holy Spirit to guard and interpret the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments.

    I would also like to clarify that the Church is NOT corrupt. Christ makes the Church holy, just as He is holy. This doesn’t mean that each member is always holy. Jesus said there would be both good and bad members in the Church (John 6:70), and not all the members would go to heaven (Matt. 7:21–23). The Church is the Bride of Christ and as such she is holy because she is the source of holiness and the guardian of the way of sanctifying grace that Christ Himself established.

  14. Remember the movie Dogma? Unfortunately, it represents the Protestant understanding of indulgences, to the point that Keven Smith based the plot of his movie on that erroneous understanding. The facts are that (a) indulgences only apply to human beings, and (b) a trip to confession as well as perfect contrition for one's sins are required for the indulgence to take effect. Neither of the above two conditions were in place in the scenario posited in [i]Dogma[/i], so the plot falls apart.

    Olya, I recommend reading "The Salvation Controversy" by Jimmy Akin. It's an excellent, in-depth study of the Catholic and Protestant views on salvation and justification.

  15. I'm forwarding this on...what a commonsense post on indulgences. I never can explain this clearly! Good job!

  16. Another excellent post by Leila! Thank you, dear friend! You are a rockstar at explaining these things- and it's fun to read, too! :)

    Awesome comments answering Oyla's question, too!

  17. A small clarification to some of the comments. To gain a plenary indulgence you need to be free of even attachment to venial sin, but not so with partial indulgences. Here is how James Akin puts it:

    To gain a partial indulgence, you must perform with a contrite heart the act to which the indulgence is attached.

    To gain a plenary indulgence you must perform the act with a contrite heart, plus you must go to confession (one confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences), receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope's intentions. (An Our Father and a Hail Mary said for the pope's intentions are sufficient, although you are free to substitute other prayers of your own choosing.) The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin.

    Because of the extreme difficulty in meeting the final condition, plenary indulgences are rarely obtained. If you attempt to receive a plenary indulgence, but are unable to meet the last condition, a partial indulgence is received instead.

  18. Here's the link to the Akin article. It's really good and easy to understand:

  19. Protestant churches are full of corruption and sinful people too, yet millions of people subscribe to each denomination's doctrines and teachings. We are all sinners - that's why we need a savior - but like it's been stated - the distinction is that the PEOPLE are the sinners, not the Church.

    And thanks for the post. I first learned more about indulgences about a year ago and while I still find them confusing, I figure that it can't hurt to try! So every time I hear about an opportunity for a plenary indulgence, I try to take it!

  20. Thanks Leila! I feel like these types of posts are so much more constructive to the community who reads your blog. As interesting as your more controversial posts are, these teaching posts are the ones that bind this community together.

  21. Michele, why do you think God needs a prest to forgive your sins? The NT clearly talks of preasthood of ALL believers. The doctrin of imputed righteosness IS a biblical doctrin unlike the Purgatory which is an invention of the Catholic church. Christ's blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of His chosen people, not of ALL men (yes, I know, many protestant churches disagree which doesn't make it less true). It is the Holy Spirit who changes our hearts, not indulgences.
    'I would like to ask too Oyla what basis you have for the Bible being the only rule of Faith' On the basis of it being the WORD OF GOD. And apostolic successiion (which, by the way, is far fetched, my husband (who knows history much better than many of history professors) tells me there were times when the Catholic church had three popes each claiming they are the real deal.) doesn't give the Church authority over divinly inspired scripture.
    I am sorry if this sounds a little short, it's late and we really have to go to bed. Leila, I understand why you defend the Church so. Many protestant churches are in such a horrible shape that Catholic church with it's moral standing seemes like the best thing available. But, really, the church has A LOT of doctrinal shortcomings. And I really don't mean it in a disrespectful kind of way, after all neither of us on earth has the perfect understending of heavenly things.
    I respect your position though I strongly disagree with it. I usually don't comment on your theological posts but justification through Christ alone is the hill on wich we (as a family) stand and die, so to speak, it's what makes us who we are and is definitely worth defending.
    Blessings to you and your family.

  22. Olya, there are so many misconceptions you have about the Church, starting with your very first comments. (Did you know that Catholics believe in the "priesthood of all believers" too? Yes, we do.) So, instead of trying to address each point (which are easily addressed by a google search to Catholic Answers or even a look at the early Fathers), I will just say... we also believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. And that no one comes to the Father except through Him. My family (including the entire family of God in the Communion of Saints) lives and dies on that hill, too.

    Stay tuned for more theology, and at least we might be able to clear up some of the more blatant errors you have about Catholicism.

    Blessings to you, Olya.... I know I get frustrated with you, but I really am glad you are here. You are "Bubble family"! :)

  23. What the heck, Olya, I'm feeling generous, so I did the legwork for you.


    Apostolic Succession:

    "On the basis of it being the WORD OF GOD." -

    If you read these articles it will help you become better informed about what Catholics actually believe instead of what you think we believe. :)

  24. Glad to read about indulgences in a way other that the sickening way during Martin Luther's time frame. Thanks for a MUCH better understanding and way to explain when asked by Non Catholics :)

  25. Oyla wrote:"Michele, why do you think God needs a prest to forgive your sins? The NT clearly talks of preasthood of ALL believers."

    Yes but there are two participations in the one priesthood of Christ. The whole community of believers is priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ's mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are "consecrated to be . . . a holy priesthood."(CCC 1546)

    While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace --a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit--, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church. (CCC 1547)

    Christ told Peter and the Apostles "If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the ins of any, they are retained." (John 20:23) He gave them the authority that continues through Apostolic Succession.

    To say that Apostolic Succession is far fetched makes no sense. It is consistent with the way God has Fathered His people all through salvation history. Under the Old Covenant, God used priests to forgive and atone for the sins of others. In the new covenant this is perfected in Christ through his priests --in persona Christi. No where in Scripture do we see this authority ever being taken away or ended. Look at Acts 1:12 where Matthias is chosen to replace Judas. Why bother choosing someone else if there wasn't real authority in that position? But Acts tells us that he (Judas) was "allotted his share in this ministry" and it goes on in quoting the Old Testament 'His office let another take'.

    Oyla wrote"The doctrin of imputed righteosness IS a biblical doctrin unlike the Purgatory which is an invention of the Catholic church. Christ's blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of His chosen people, not of ALL men (yes, I know, many protestant churches disagree which doesn't make it less true)."

    But to say that not ALL men are chosen is to say that Christ only died for some. He died for ALL. (1 Tim 2:6)

  26. Oyla wrote: " 'I would like to ask too Oyla what basis you have for the Bible being the only rule of Faith' On the basis of it being the WORD OF GOD."

    Please explain. Yes Scripture is the Word of God and as such is authoritative. But why do you believe it is the only rule of Faith? Again, Scripture itself tells us the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. In Scripture we clearly see Christ establishing His Church, giving authority to the Apostles and that authority being passed on (and I showed above when Judas was replaced).

    We are in agreement that Scripture is the Word of God but no where does it support the idea that it alone is the sole rule of Faith. There's are hundreds of thousands of Bible Only Christians making this same claim and yet they cannot agree on what they believe.

    Oyla worte: "And apostolic successiion (which, by the way, is far fetched, my husband (who knows history much better than many of history professors) tells me there were times when the Catholic church had three popes each claiming they are the real deal.) doesn't give the Church authority over divinly inspired scripture."

    Where do you think The Bible came from? God yes but who decided which books were Scripture and which weren't? The Church. The Catholic Church. Even so the Church does not claim to be an authority OVER Scripture but rather is its servant. "Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith." (CCC 86)

  27. Thank you so much for such an informative post!!!!

    p.s. I'm going to wade into the waters of this debate! I just wish the anti-Catholics would leave us alone!

  28. Just wanted to chime in with the some Old Testament Scripture back-up for Leila's wonderful Indulgence post. In 2 Macabees 12:38-46, Judas Macabees orders sacrifices for the dead soldiers in his unit who wore pagan "good luck charms" into God's great battle. Proof of both the existence of purgatory and a early precursor to modern Catholic understanding of indulgences. Pretty cool!

    (Oh, I just realized did an online search and discovered Martin Luther kicked OUT Macabees from the Protestant Bible. Oh well!)

  29. Olya,

    Please excuse my misspelling of your name. I am terrible about transposing letters when I write! Mea culpa!

  30. Thanks, everyone, for these wonderful responses! Olya, one note regarding the popes: Yes, there were times when more than one person was claiming to be Pope. But since there is only one valid pope at a time (only one "real deal" as you said), the others were not not popes, even if they claimed to be.

  31. Great post!!!! Thanks... this makes indulgences so much more clear.

    Olya - Catholics believe Jesus Christ is the High Priest, that He ordained a ministerial priesthood (starting with the 12), and that there is also the universal priesthood of believers. All of these can be found in Scripture.

    Also, purgatory (the need for a believer to be purified through God's refining grace) can be found throughout scripture. I don't know too many devout Protestant Christians who believe they DON'T need to let go of old, sinful habits, cooperate with God's will or receive God's purifying graces? While I don't always agree with my Reformed friends, I often feel there are more similarities between our beliefs than they seem to realize (because they are always getting worked up over things I supposedly believe as a Catholic when I don't even recognize the supposed Catholicism they are upset about).

  32. I'm interested in learning more about a few things

    1. why exactly do you have to pray for the pope for a plenary indulgence? Is there documentation on that somewhere?

    2. Regarding this statement: The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin.
    Because of the extreme difficulty in meeting the final condition, plenary indulgences are rarely obtained.
    Who makes the decision? Is it priest-level, or bishop-level. And, are there any guidelines that the regular catholic person can follow to know how this decision will be made? I'd love to see them

  33. One more thing, from JellyBelly - "I just wish the anti-Catholics would leave us alone!"

    This is an interesting comment. When I was much younger, and was considering joining Americorps or Peace Corps (Peace Corps ended up winning), I had a conversation with a fundamentalist (bible-only) christian. She said she couldn't imagine why I would want to even associate with the people that I would be working with in those jobs. Her point was, continue to surround yourself with people who are just like you, and you'll be better for it. (We didn't stay friends for very long.) I agree with Leila's attempts to get outside of her bubble, but I wonder how much each of you do this in your lives, outside of the internet world.

  34. 1. We don’t have to pray for the Pope, (although that is a good and virtuous thing); we have to pray for the Pope’s intentions. These are things the Pope sees as important for the people of earth and for us all to pray about. In modern times the Pope has a set of published monthly intentions. This month one of his intentions is “That our personal experience of suffering may be an occasion for better understanding the situation of unease and pain which is the lot of many people who are alone, sick or aged, and stir us all to give them generous help.” You can pray by knowing his specific intentions or by simply saying you are praying for his intentions.

    2. No human being can decide if you are free from an attachment to sin and therefore no human being can definitely state whether or not you have gained an indulgence. That is left to the discretion of God alone. We know they must be rarely earned because we know through our own experience that that attachment to sin is a difficult thing to escape.

    As a side note – the Church does not presume to be able to judge the soul of any living human and only in rare cases those that have passed. The Church has never declared that any specific person has been condemned to hell because we cannot judge their culpability of contriteness. The people the Church has definitely declared to be in heaven (saints) are few for the same reason.

  35. Sorry - that should have been "culpability OR contriteness"

  36. So, Elizabeth -

    "Because of the extreme difficulty in meeting the final condition, plenary indulgences are rarely obtained." I make this decision? I obtain it from God? Why does Leila quote something that says "Popes and bishops will bind or loose the faithful according to the needs of the people of God at that time."

    If I were a Catholic, are there guidelines to let me know if I've been able to obtain an indulgence?

  37. There are a few issues here. When Leila says a Pope or Bishop "bind or loose the faithful according to the needs of the people of God at that time", she means that they will make some indulgences available in some eras that are not available in others. Occasionally there will be a special indulgence to highlight some current circumstance (like the Jubliee year)that will help the faithful to recognize some important teaching or aspect of their faith.

    We do not know if our actions have truly gained for us remission from the temporal punishments from sin until we pass and face judgement. Only God knows if we have gained the indulgence and only He will tell us.

    As Catholics we know that we must strive for holiness, we know hope is a great virtue and we know that God's mercy is to be trusted in but not presumed upon.

  38. Thanks, Elisabeth! I appreciate the help in clarifying!

    Mai, an indulgence is obtained either way, but if we are shooting for PLENARY, we may or may not make it. But we will certainly still get a partial indulgence if we should fall short of the conditions for plenary. Bottom line, we strive for personal holiness, and when we fall short on this earth, we will have that last cleansing in Purgatory, before we enter Heaven. (Assuming we are going to Heaven and not hell.) Hope that helps.

  39. Actually, Mai, I think you are reading JellyBelly's statement wrong. She is wishing that the Catholic bashers would simply stop bashing Catholics. For example, if we say, time and again, that Catholics don't worship Mary, and then they come back, time and again, with the same old response, "Yes, you do worship Mary".... well, it gets tiring. I've watched the pattern for 17 years now. It's one thing if people want to hear what the Church actually teaches, to clear up misconceptions. It's another thing when they won't accept what the Church teaches and instead substitute their anti-Catholic misrepresentations for the true teachings. It is frustrating.

    None of us actually live in a Catholic bubble. That's the irony of making one on the internet! We live in a secular world (JellyBelly in Canada), and it is actually rare that we would run into a devout, faithful Catholic these days on the street or in the neighborhood, even in some Catholic churches! Some of the ladies on the blogs have confessed to having no real Catholic friends in real life. So, this internet community is giving them some consolation in an otherwise secular (or fundamentalist) world. So, you have it totally backwards.

    By the way, speaking of anti-Catholicism, I saw this today and it shows how common it's always been, from way back. Note the alligators:

  40. Why does the New Catholic Encyclopedia (That Leila linked to) say this:

    "Hence the pope, as supreme head of the Church on earth, can grant all kinds of indulgences to any and all of the faithful; and he alone can grant plenary indulgences. "

    and this

    "Priests, vicars general, abbots, and generals of religious orders cannot grant indulgences unless specially authorized to do so. On the other hand, the pope can empower a cleric who is not a priest to give an indulgence"

    And what about the fact that the church teaching changes. Leila goes on and on (specifically regarding pope and condoms) about how church teaching doesn't change. This seems to have changed, specifically from the site that Leila linked to:

    "Since some Catholics were confused by the designation of days and years attached to partial indulgences, and since nearly all Protestants got a wrong idea of what those numbers meant, the rules for indulgences were modified in 1967, and now "the grant of a partial indulgence is designated only with the words "partial indulgence," without any determination of days or years," "

    What are the criteria for a "good" church teaching change, like this one, and a "bad" church teaching change, like a potential pope and condoms one?

  41. Mai, crying baby at my feet, so here is the quick answer to the last part: First, "bad" church teachings (changes to the Deposit of Faith) never happen, so that's not an issue. Doctrine doesn't change. But rules and regulations can and do change. Let me try to give you a secular example (based on Natural Law): Speed limits can change (there is nothing inherently true or untrue about a 45mph limit vs a 35mph limit, or the right to travel those speeds). However, they are regulated, and we must obey. However, let's take rape. There is something inherently wrong about rape. It can never be right. It is not a "changeable" law. (The fact that a society can change it shows that the society and society's law can go wrong, not that Natural Law can change).

    I don't know if that makes sense to you. But re-read this post carefully, and maybe it will help:

    If you can see why traffic regulations are different, in their very essence, from laws against rape and murder, then you're on the right track...

  42. Here's another way of thinking of it. The Pope has no power to change the moral law, or the truths of faith. But he can change "speed limits" so to speak. As an atheist, you might have a hard time with the idea of unchanging "Law" or "objective Truth", because in a merely secular world, a government (or a majority)can change any law, given the right circumstances (which is a scary proposition). Not so in the Church. All "Laws" are not created equal. Some are mere regulations, and some are untouchable Truths.

    Totally different from the secular paradigm, so perhaps hard to grasp.

  43. Mai, the Pope is ultimately the one who determines the conditions for a plenary indulgence. It's actually a wonderful opportunity, but not mandatory at all. For example, in the Jubilee Year, there were wonderful indulgences given for certain pilgrimages through "holy doors" of cathedrals and churches all across the world (since most cannot afford a trip to the Holy Land or Rome). It was a joyful, wonderful opportunity. While the Pope can say, "I am graning indulgences for this or that act", he can not dive into the heart of the pilgrim or penitent and see if the disposition of the heart was correct, as well as the actions. So, the indulgence is there to gain, but only God knows in the end how properly disposed the person was to recieve it. The person will gain a partial indulgence if he does not gain a plenary. Not a bad thing. :)

    But maybe I am misunderstanding your question?

    The Pope or bishops don't have to "do anything" once the indulgenced works are performed, if that's what you are asking? No one has to "go and see" a Pope or bishop to "get" the indulgence. Is that what you mean?

  44. For those of us who are converts, a "Catholic Bubble" is nearly an impossibility, at least in my experience. If I refused to associate with anyone who was not Catholic, I'd have to cut ties with my mother, father, stepfather, brother, stepsister, cousins, etc. Cutting ties with cultural Catholics would mean not associating with my sister or stepbrother, too. Then there's my husband's family, none of whom are Catholic. Not to mention that neither my husband nor I could hold the jobs we currently have, as our co-workers are not all Catholic (and my husband is in customer service, so he would lose his job in a heartbeat if he refused tech support to non-Catholics).

    It's simply not practical, or wise. In Scripture we're admonished to live in the world, but not of the world -- not take ourselves out of the world entirely. Not to mention that we are to love our neighbors and our enemies, and it's hard to do either if you isolate yourself from all but those who think as you do.

    Mai, as Leila pointed out, doctrine doesn't change (although our understanding of it can develop). Disciplines can and do change.

  45. I would argue, even with your speed limit example, that allowing people to use condoms specifically to prevent the transmission of HIV is also not a moral change. What's the big deal? It's still wrong to use condoms for the purpose of contraception. Why are people so uptight about that possible change then?

  46. Mai, yes, I get what you are saying. Some people would (and have) argued that there is no "change" because the whole issue is irrelevant to contraception anyway. But the press is making it seem like it opens a door to condom use, and the public is believing it.... More soon, gotta run for real....

  47. People are "uptight" about the change because the secular media has been blaring left and right that condoms are now acceptable for Catholics. Look at PETA's recent ad, for example. It's a huge misconception and mischaracterization about our beliefs, and it's upsetting. Plus it may lead Catholics who are not as informed about their faith into further sin, if they don't bother to investigate further and just assume that condoms are now morally okay because the mainstream media said that the Pope said so.

  48. Great post, Leila! I recently had the opportunity to obtain a plenary indulgence, and while I fulfilled all the conditions, I have no idea if I obtained it or not.

    When I was in confession, the priest was telling me that in our path to holiness, we need to do whatever we can to cooperate with God's grace, and trying to obtain an indulgence is just one of the many ways that this cooperation occurs. :)

  49. Just to clarify, about this statement: "while I fulfilled all the conditions, I have no idea if I obtained it or not."

    Nobody can ever know, right? By definition? Just like objective truth. You can only know after you die. So, in this case, are you also making an assumption about your plenary indulgence the way you make an assumption about objective truth?

  50. Here's another shot at my attempt to understand: The pope or someone else could say, ok, this month if you help out at a homeless shelter, you can get a plenary indulgence. So people go out and help at a homeless shelter, and maybe they will get a plenary indulgence, maybe not, you'll find out when you land in either purgatory or heaven. Something along those lines? And certainly you feel better for having helped at a homeless shelter, and the pope has helped a bunch of people get to heaven sooner (maybe).

    What if nobody ever did an indulgence? You say it isn't mandatory. Will they sit in purgatory longer?

  51. Regarding the pope and condoms and PETA, related to indulgences. Most people don't understand indulgences, as Leila points out. Even I, after reading all of this stuff, am barely grasping the mental gymnastics of it all. And I'm saying that because I think that the catholics generally make their moral teachings excessively and needlessly complicated. However, the Catholics I've experienced seem to rejoice in such complications.

    In the case of indulgences, there is a complicated explanation, and you all say how annoying it is that people don't understand the explanation. It is an extremely common misconception, you must admit.

    Regarding condoms, why don't you just embrace that complication again? The pope does justify condoms in certain situations when HIV is a factor and etc etc, but that doesn't mean it is ok in all situations. After you embrace it, you'll be able to say again, why can't people just understand that? People will misunderstand it, but if they only took the time to listen to our complicated arguments, then they would really understand.

    Also, I don't think that the media has said that condoms are acceptable for all catholics - they clearly said condoms can be justified in some cases. Not all.

    Who knows? Maybe the same sort of reaction would have happened if we had the same type of polarized society when in 1967 the church said that no specific years are tied to a partial indulgence.

  52. Mai, there's a lot (and on different posts) that you've said today. I hope I can get to it all. What I will try to do throughout the day is give you simple answers, as best I can, to address the major points. Otherwise, I think I will just be multiplying words. First.... someone told me (as an example of how the media's portrayal is not accurate or helpful) that a woman at church told her that "you can just use condoms now" to prevent another pregnancy. Groan! How many other hundreds of thousands (millions?) of ignorant Catholics got the same message? So the media did not "clearly" state things. Quite the opposite. (Did you see the headlines?)

    More soon.

  53. Mai, as for the "complication" of Church teaching... you have given me (again!) a whole new idea for a post! I really am grateful for the opportunity. I wish I could write 24/7. But, the best I can do is get to it in the next few weeks.

    Church teaching is as simple or as deep as any one believer. For example, millions of peasants throughout the ages have been able to love and live the Catholic faith (including indulgences) without feeling terribly confused.

    Humans are often terribly confused about things with which we are not familiar. Indulgences are not familiar to most of us (even me). So, it seems confusing. However, if you can understand the concept of the broken window (and the need to make up for the damage caused) then you have the basics of an indulgence.

    And, if a Catholic can do such simple things as: recieve Communion, go to Confession, and pray for the intentions of the pope, then an indulgence is not overly complicated to perform.

    And, if you note that even these simple actions are voluntary anyway, then it's really not overwhelming to think of living life as a Catholic.

    As for whether or not we have 100% assurance of PLENARY indulgences, no we don't. (We also don't have 100% assurance of salvation in general. But we can have reasonable assurance.) And as far as getting a partial vs. plenary indulgence when trying for a plenary.... I just think of it this way: Go big! Shoot for Heaven, and if you fall short and spend some "time" in Purgatory, well, that is what most of us will do anyway, and we know we will be in Heaven after that. What can it hurt to strive for perfect holiness and a plenary indulgence? We let God work out the details, since He knows our hearts better than we do.

    If I get a partial indulgence, what a joy that is as well.

    Is the following a sound analogy? I admit I'm not sure, but I'll try: If we are promised that a full tank of A-grade gasoline will get us to Naples (Heaven?!), then we will fill up the tank and go! If, by some chance, we didn't upkeep our car well enough, and that fact hinders the work of the fuel, then we might stop short of Naples. That's the car's fault, not the gas' fault. But we always have the opportunity to get more gas, and if we stay on the same road, we will still make it all the way to Naples.

  54. PS: If I didn't make it clear: Indulgences are foreign to us (even Catholics) because it's not part of our "culture" anymore. That is why they seem complicated. The Russian language seems complicated to me, but when folks grow up with it, it's not really such a big, complicated deal.

    Anyway, I think you get what I am trying to say.

  55. And I'm saying that because I think that the catholics generally make their moral teachings excessively and needlessly complicated.

    Life is complicated. There's always someone saying "But but but... what about THIS situation?!"

    If you want complicated (as an example), look at the kind of things that pro-choicers come up with; e.g., the "unconscious violinist" scenario. When people posit scenarios such as that one, is it any wonder that moral theology will be more complicated as a result?

    In the case of indulgences, there is a complicated explanation, and you all say how annoying it is that people don't understand the explanation. It is an extremely common misconception, you must admit.

    If people wouldn't misrepresent Catholic teaching (e.g., Kevin Smith's Dogma), it wouldn't be nearly as common.

    The pope does justify condoms in certain situations when HIV is a factor and etc etc,

    This is an example of what I'm talking about. How many times have we gone around and around on this? The Pope NEVER JUSTIFIED USING CONDOMS. He said that a male prostitute using a condom could be an indication that the prostitute in question was having a moral awakening of his conscience, and that -- the awakening -- is a good thing. But the Pope NEVER "justified using condoms" -- in fact, he said they were not a "real or moral solution."

    How many times did we go over that on the other thread, and yet you're still repeating the same misconception! That is why I get frustrated.

    Also, I don't think that the media has said that condoms are acceptable for all catholics - they clearly said condoms can be justified in some cases. Not all.

    I hang out at a rather liberal message board. A few hours after the condom kerfluffle broke out, there was a thread posted with the subject line, "Pope changes teaching about condoms." The message body said, in a nutshell, "The Pope said condoms are okay to use now!" You had Mrs. Sarkozy (sp?) of France praising the Pope for changing Catholic teaching. Et cetera. Whatever message you think the media was trying to portray was not the one that was transmitted.


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