The Mercy of Purgatory

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

(Today is All Souls’ Day, the commemoration of the holy souls in purgatory. As it happens, I had this post half-brewed already after a recent e-mail conversation with an anti-Catholic.)

One of the most frequent charges I hear from anti-Catholics against the doctrine of purgatory is that it “nullifies the finished work of Christ on the cross” — that somehow, the idea of purgatory implies that Jesus’s atonement was “not enough”; that sinners still have to expiate their own sins. This charge reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what purgatory is.

In fact, as Scripture itself teaches, it is the ultimate mercy:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation [i.e. you whom I planted, cf. vv. 5–8], and another man is building upon it [i.e. each of us, fellow workers of the Lord, cf. v. 9]. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10–15)

If any man’s work is burned up — even by the fire of judgment — he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Even if a man’s works are merely wood, hay, straw — materials that will not last — if he has squandered his time on this earth, and not stored up treasures in heaven (cf. Matthew 6:20) — then there is still a chance for him to be saved. How merciful is our Lord!

(At this point, I got off track and examined the passage more closely than I intended to, to reject a common Protestant counterargument — after I said I wasn’t going to. If you would like to read that, I will post it separately tomorrow(?).)

Flames

This purging fire is not a limitation of Christ’s atonement — it is an even further and deeper extension of it. Christ’s work on the cross was so overpowering, so uncontainable, that it bursts every bond of death, hell, and the grave — that it can reach to us even beyond the grave. Anti-Catholics suppose that purgatory is the application of some other power than the grace of Christ to the soul — usually, they think it is our own works or purchased indulgences or some other such? But that final purification is accomplished by none other than the same grace, the same blood, the same redemption that redeems us in life.

So why, they ask, weren’t we redeemed in life? Doesn’t this idea suppose that His redemption wasn’t enough to save us while we were alive? Here is where Protestants misunderstand. In especially the Evangelical Protestant mind, “salvation” is a one-time event, a one-time regeneration by faith, which imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, such that there is no other work to be done so far as our salvation — we are then “saved.” This tends to conflate a lot of ideas together, even from classical Protestant theology, and lose some in the shuffle. Our terminology and vocabulary is a stumbling block at this point, especially to Catholic–Protestant dialogue.

Catholics agree that in a sense, salvation is a once-and-for-all event: the irrevocable moment of our Baptism in which we are washed with the blood of Christ, our every sin cleansed, and our former self is buried with Christ, and we are raised to new life in Him. Catholics even agree that in a sense, that initial justification is by faith alone — not a “faith” of mere intellectual assent, but of faith on fire with love and raised by hope. And nothing can take away that grace; it is imprinted on our souls. But that isn’t the end of the journey. We then have a road to walk (cf. Matthew 7:13–14), a cross to bear (Luke 9:23). We have to abide in Christ (John 15:1–17) and endure to the end (Matthew 24:13, Luke 21:19). And on that journey, if we abide in His love, we will be sanctified — gradually purified and made holy.

Friendship Sunrise

Sunrise at Friendship, where four generations of my family lie buried.

Sanctification: This is a term that I think many Evangelicals have lost sight of; and many Reformed understand, but have separated it so far from justification that they fail to associate it with salvation. Catholics do not make a clean distinction between the two as Protestants have: because they are both the works of Christ’s grace, and they are both integral parts of the same process of cleansing us from sin and making us holy. But put in Protestant terms: yes, there is an initial justification in which we are saved from our sins and incorporated into Christ. And purgatory has little to do with that. As Paul himself said, one’s perishable works can be burned away and we can be saved through fire — but only if his foundation is Christ. Purgatory is only for those who die in Christ: the holy souls in purgatory are already “saved,” and they will go to heaven, without exception. Put simply, purgatory is the completion of the process of sanctification if we didn’t complete it in life.

There is a difference between the eternal guilt of one’s sins, which is wholly obliterated by Christ’s forgiveness, and the temporal effects of one’s sins, which must be purified by sanctification, that comes into play here. But this post is already too long. The difference in Protestant theology between justification and sanctification is illustrative here: even if we are wholly justified by Christ, the guilt of our sins forgiven, we still must be sanctified — for nothing impure can enter heaven and stand before God (Revelation 21:27).

Evangelical Protestants especially, but Reformed too, make a sharp, ruthless, and binary distinction between those who are saved and those who are unsaved — cleanly defined by that one-time moment of salvation. So often they lament the deaths of those who, in their judgment, were not saved, who had not experienced that salvation. But this leaves no room for the overflowing mercy of our God. It is true that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 6:44). But only God can judge our hearts; only He can know the foundation He lays. And purgatory, rather than a limitation of God’s grace, is its ultimate outpouring in our lives — bringing that final, purifying grace to those of us whose works built on that foundation were imperfect.

What is a Saint? An Introduction for Protestants

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

(This is a post I made earlier this year which seems appropriate for the solemnity of All Saints, updated and revised for the occasion and expanded with some better explanations, since I’ve learned and grown a lot since the original post.)

It occurred to me the other morning in the shower (that’s where thoughts usually occur to me) that many Protestants might be troubled by the concept of saints and sainthood. I have heard Protestants say, “We don’t believe in saints.” I assure you that you do. Do you believe that there are people in Heaven? Then you believe in saints.

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

A saint, very simply — in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) declares one a saint, and grants “Saint” as a title — is someone whom we believe, with certainty, is in Heaven with God. That’s all. From Latin sanctus (Greek ἁγιος or hagios), the word means “holy, sacred, set apart.” In biblical usage, as Protestants should be aware, “saints” refers to all the “holy ones,” the believers of the Church. When we state in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the “communion of saints,” we are saying that we believe all believers, both those who are living and those who have died, are a part of our Body and share in our communion with Christ. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews envisions in the Old Testament saints and prophets a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us (playing on μαρτυρέω, testify, bear witness, in Hebrews 11:39, and μάρτυρες, witnesses [also the same word as martyrs], in Hebrews 12:1), evoking the image of spectators in an arena as we “run . . . the race that is set before us.” How much more would those who die in Christ join this “cloud”!

Virgin and Child with Rosary, 1655 (Murillo)

Virgin and Child with Rosary (1655), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Veneration, not Worship

Catholics venerate saints — we respect, honor, and revere them; we celebrate their memory — because of their great witness and example for us in faith, virtue, and godliness. They are the heroes of the faith whose godly lives we want to remember and whom we want to emulate. They are our spiritual ancestors, our predecessors, our loved ones, the members of our family who have gone to their reward, and yet are still with us in communion with Christ. We do not worship the saints; only God is worthy of worship. We venerate them in much the same way Americans venerate the memory of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

Along the same lines: as much as Catholics are accused of “worshipping” the Virgin Mary, let me set the record straight: we don’t. We venerate Mary in the same way we venerate the saints, for she is one, too. For all that we speak of her being mother to the Church and to all Christians, she is one of us: a human person, a Christian — the first Christian — the firstfruits of salvation, who shows forth to us all that we are promised in Christ. Loving and honoring Mary is just a way to love and worship Jesus all the more.

Friends and Family

We have an unlimited calling plan.

The Intercession of Saints

So why do Catholics pray to saints? Well, if we believe that they too are part of our communion in Christ, a “great cloud of witnesses,” then why should we be separated from them? They are our friends and family, our brothers and sisters in the Lord who have crossed the river before us. They are already by Christ’s side. Why shouldn’t they pray for us? And aren’t they in a better position for that, to bring our needs and requests before God? Catholics believe that the saints can intercede for us. Praying to saints is nothing more than asking our loved ones to pray for us.

St. Luke the Evangelist

St. Luke the Evangelist, patron saint of physicians. (Simone Martini)

Patron Saints

So what is the deal with patron saints? Well, just as the saints had particular interests and causes and affinities when they were here on earth, they do in Heaven too. A saint is held to be the patron (Latin patronus, protector, defender, advocate, patron — yes, like in Harry Potter) of the profession, activity, nation, cause, or place with which they were associated in earthly life. He or she is held to be a patron against specific diseases, afflictions, and dangers when, through suffering or death, they have gained victory over those things in Christ. And, through tradition, through practice, through trial and error, saints are held to be the patrons of these things because their intercession proves efficacious: because prayers for their aid in those causes work. Saints don’t have magical powers. Saints don’t, in themselves, produce effects on this earth. But by where they are and whom they’re with, they have immense spiritual power to intercede on our behalf.

St. Isidore of Seville

St. Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the Internet. (Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1655).

Relics: What they leave behind

So what about relics? Why the macabre obsession with dead body parts? You may or may not be aware that in most Catholic altars there is a relic of some saint (Latin relictum, that which is left behind or remaining) — usually a small piece of bone or some other body part, but sometimes the whole body, or possibly an object the saint owned or touched. We hold that the person, his or her spirit, is in Heaven with Christ — but that the things which the saint left behind, his physical body most of all, offers a connection, an anchor, a bridge to their presence in that spiritual realm. The idea of placing relics under our altars — or building our churches and altars over their remains, as in the cases of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and many other ancient saints — is that by proximity to these connections, by association with these saints, we can draw as near to Heaven and to God as possible.

The Cleansing Fire of Purgatory

Another thing: Aren’t all Christians who die saints? We do believe that all Christians who die in the grace of God will go to Heaven, yes; but we Catholics also believe in Purgatory — which is not what you might think it is. It is not a place like Heaven or Hell (an idea Dante made popular) but a process. It does not detract from Christ’s victory over sin on the Cross, from His salvation or from His forgiveness of our sins. Everyone who experiences Purgatory has already had his or her sins forgiven, paid in full; he or she will be saved and is promised eternity in Heaven.

Candle

But it is the calling of every Christian to take part in the life of Christ’s grace, to live within His Church and Sacraments, to pursue holiness and grace and daily be sanctified and converted (Latin converto, turn towards, change, transform) to Christ’s image. To put it in the terms of Protestant theology: According to Luther and Calvin, justification, the forensic declaration that one is holy and righteous before God, by which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer, is different than sanctification, the process by which the believer is actually made holy and righteous, by living and working in God’s grace. (Catholics believe these are part of the same process.)

Nothing unholy or impure can enter Heaven — so for those of us believers who are not able to finish this process of sanctification, of being transformed, in our lifetimes on earth — and this will be most of us — there is Purgatory, a fire in which we will be purified of our faults and shortcomings and made holy and pure, ready to stand before God (1 Corinthians 3:15, 1 Peter 1:7). If anything, the fire of Purgatory is not a detraction from Christ’s sacrifice, but its fulfillment: He has paid the penalty for our sins, the death we deserve. Purgatory is a tool of His mercy by which even those of us believers who struggle with sin, who are less than perfect, can be saved.

St. Thérèse

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus.

Canonization

Saints, on the other hand, are very special people who, through life in God’s grace, did achieve holiness and become wholly molded to Christ’s image in this life, to the extent that they could as fallen creatures. (Cf. the Wesleyan idea of entire sanctification.) They are people whose godliness is not in doubt, people like the Apostles and St. Francis and St. Thérèse. These days, there are so many very godly people dying that there is a formal process of canonizaton in the Church, through which a person’s sainthood is confirmed and verified, as best as we on Earth can: by asking them for intercession and seeing if those prayers are answered. Two or three miracles associated with a saint’s intercession is the usual standard. A martyr’s death is the saint’s golden ticket to immediate canonization: they pay the price in blood.

Protestant Saints

Are there Protestant saints? You can bet there are. Just because someone hasn’t been formally declared a saint by the Church doesn’t mean they’re not one. Walk through any cemetery, and there are likely to be unknown saints lying all around, people who led truly godly lives and who merited Christ’s reward as soon as they crossed over from this life. Catholics are never in the business of declaring who isn’t or who can’t be saved, or who isn’t or can’t be saints: we believe God, in his infinite mercy, grants His grace and His favor according to His own will.

All Saints

All Saints and All Souls

So what are the holidays that the Roman Catholic Church celebrates on November 1 — All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’, the origin of Halloween, or Hallows’ Eve) — and November 2 — All Souls’ Day? Well, in the 2,000 years of Church history, there have been a lot of saints, a lot more than the few who get their own universal feast days on the liturgical calendar that are celebrated by the whole Church. There are even more saints who are unknown: everyday holy people who have been sanctified but never attract the attention or veneration of the Church. All Saints’ Day — the Solemnity of All Saints — is the day the Church celebrates all the saints — the many who don’t get celebrated any other day.

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

All Souls is the other side of the picture: our beloved dead in Christ who may not have been wholly sanctified at the time of their passing. Officially called the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, it is the day dedicated to remembering them and praying for them, for mercy and grace in their purification and passing to Heaven. We believe that just as we on earth are in communion with the saints in Heaven, we are also in communion with our faithful departed who may not be there yet. We have no idea how long Purgatory takes — it may, as Pope Benedict has reasoned, not be measured in our time at all, but be an “existential” passage that happens in an instant by our reckoning — but we believe, as the Church has always believed, that our prayers for our departed brothers and sisters help them and ease their journey (2 Maccabees 12:46).

May all the saints pray for us, the Church on earth, and may all the souls of our beloved dead pass into the everlasting light!

Luther and Indulgences

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Yesterday, I exposited in detail the Catholic doctrine of indulgences — what the Catholic Church actually teaches. Indulgences, of course, were at the heart of Martin Luther‘s criticisms in his Ninety-Five Theses, which sparked the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Today, I will examine Luther’s criticisms, which offer a vivid window into the abusive teachings and practices that had crept into the Church by Luther’s time. I hope in this post, as in my post yesterday, that you will learn something about Protestant and Catholic thought and theology and about the Reformation.

Luther was not the first to attempt to reform the practice of indulgences

In large part, I will allow Luther’s document itself to demonstrate the kinds of abuses that were taking place in the Church of the early sixteenth century — but first it should be noted that Luther was not the first to attempt to reform the practice of indulgences in the Church. The Church had known for centuries that indulgences could be abused and were being abused, and on a number of notable occasions, both popes and councils spoke out to reform them.

One major problem early on was the granting of excessive indulgences. When something invisible and intangible is being offered for free, it is easy to see how this could happen: In his exuberance, a bishop could declare a very lengthy indulgence (that is, in the length of penance being remitted); or conceivably prelates of various churches might even have become embroiled in “price wars” over the lengths of their indulgences, in competition to draw pilgrims. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council urged moderation (Canon 62):

Because the keys of the church are brought into contempt and satisfaction through penance loses its force through indiscriminate and excessive indulgences, which certain prelates of churches do not fear to grant, we therefore decree that when a basilica is dedicated, the indulgence shall not be for more than one year, whether it is dedicated by one bishop or by more than one, and for the anniversary of the dedication the remission of penances imposed is not to exceed forty days. We order that the letters of indulgence, which are granted for various reasons at different times, are to fix this number of days, since the Roman pontiff himself, who possesses the plenitude of power, is accustomed to observe this moderation in such things.

Over the next few centuries, right up to the time of the Reformation, a number of other efforts were made to reform indulgences (Indulgences in Catholic Encyclopedia):

  • 1268Pope Clement IV forbade the modification by local prelates of indulgences already granted to Dominicans and Franciscans.
  • 1317 – Council of Ravenna again restricted length of indulgences to forty days.
  • 1330Pope John XXII arrested and imprisoned all brothers of the Hospital of Haut-Pas for falsely asserting that their letters of indulgence offered more indulgences than had been granted to the order.
  • 1392Pope Boniface IX, in letter to Bishop of Ferrara, condemned the sale of indulgences, and claims by religious to be able to pardon sins and guarantee salvation and prosperity in exchange for money.
  • 1420Pope Martin V reprimanded Archbishop of Canterbury for offering unapproved plenary indulgence for a Jubilee pilgrimage.
  • 1450Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, at Council of Magdeburg, condemned preachers who taught that indulgences could remit the guilt of sin as well as the temporal punishment.
  • 1478Pope Sixtus IV restricted powers to grant indulgences from a large number of confessors who had been giving them not to promote virtue, but to condone vice.

(Bear in mind that all of these references come from a single source, which has a clear bias in defense of the Catholic Church — though I confirmed the accuracy of several of the statements independently.)

In short, the Church was aware that there were ongoing abuses for a very long time, and always had the power to correct those abuses.

Luther was not initially opposed to the doctrine of indulgences

It is common wisdom among Protestants that Martin Luther fought against indulgences. But the whole truth is that at least initially, in his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther had no dispute with the doctrine of indulgences per se, much less with the doctrine of Purgatory. He was opposed only to the abuses of those doctrines. Prior to the Reformation, Luther was a Roman Catholic priest and theologian, and a brother in the Augustinian order. The Church had taught the doctrines of indulgences and Purgatory for nearly 1,500 years; and Luther, trained in Catholic doctrine and theology, initially supported the whole Catholic tradition.

I would love to go through all ninety-five of Luther’s theses and provide a running commentary, but for the sake of brevity I’ll give only a few illustrative examples. I encourage any one of you who’s interested to read the whole document — it’s not that long.

The great majority of Luther’s ninety-five theses relate to the doctrines of Purgatory and indulgences; but not once in any of them does he directly challenge the validity of the doctrines themselves. He exposes and challenges abuses of the doctrines, but implicitly acknowledges a proper teaching of them.

For example, in support of indulgences, he writes:

71. Let him be anathema and accursed who denies the apostolic character of the indulgences.

72. On the other hand, let him be blessed who is on his guard against the wantonness and license of the pardon-merchant’s words.

Indulgences are an apostolic teaching. This sounds more like something I would have expected to hear from the Council of Trent. Concerning abuses of the doctrine, however, he writes:

26. The pope does excellently when he grants remission to the souls in Purgatory on account of intercessions made on their behalf, and not by the power of the keys (which he cannot exercise for them).

27. There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the Purgatory immediately when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.

28. It is certainly possible that when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest avarice and greed increase; but when the church offers intercession, all depends in the will of God.

Johann Tetzel

Johann Tetzel.

Luther’s criticism, immediately, has to do with the granting of indulgences to living persons on behalf of the dead in Purgatory — especially with the sale of such indulgences, the granting of the indulgence for a monetary exchange and not a good work. In these theses, Luther is especially attacking the teachings of Johann Tetzel, the Dominican preacher and seller of indulgences who is reported to have said, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.” According to historian Ludwig von Pastor, this doctrine had already been rejected by theologians at the University of Paris in 1482, and again in 1518. It had also been condemned by the prominent theologian Thomas Cardinal Cajetan — who became a major opponent of Luther. (Von pastor gives a detailed and surprisingly fair-minded account of Tetzel, Luther, and the beginning of the Reformation in his History of the Popes, vol. 7 [1908], 347-350, ff.)

32. All those who believe themselves certain of their own salvation by means of letters of indulgence, will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

33. We should be most carefully on our guard against those who say that the papal indulgences are an inestimable divine gift, and that a man is reconciled to God by them.

34. For the grace conveyed by these indulgences relates simply to the penalties of the sacramental ‘satisfactions’ decreed merely by man.

These arguments mark some of the other false teachings that seem to have been spreading through the Church. According to the proper teaching of the doctrine, indulgences do not reconcile man to God; they cannot guarantee anyone’s salvation. These “satisfactions” he refers to are penances, the works one must undergo to satisfy the temporal punishments of a sin.

36. Any Christian whatsoever, who is truly repentant, enjoys plenary remission from penalty and guilt, and this is given him without letters of indulgence.

37. Any true Christian whatsoever, living or dead, participates in all the benefits of Christ and the Church; and this participation is granted to him by God without letters of indulgence.

38. Yet the pope’s remission and dispensation are in no way to be despised, for, as already said, they proclaim the divine remission.

This — especially 36 and 37 — begins to sound more like familiar Protestant theology, in opposition to works. But the key even here is “truly repentant” — a Christian with true, complete contrition is only then properly disposed for the remission of sin.

39. It is very difficult, even for the most learned theologians, to extol to the people the great bounty contained in the indulgences, while, at the same time, praising contrition as a virtue.

40. A truly contrite sinner seeks out, and loves to pay, the penalties of his sins; whereas the very multitude of indulgences dulls men’s consciences, and tends to make them hate the penalties.

41. Papal indulgences should only be preached with caution, lest people gain a wrong understanding, and think that they are preferable to other good works: those of love.

In teaching, it seems, the purchase of indulgences was being overemphasized, to the detriment of seeking true contrition for one’s sins or the practice of good works of charity or mercy.

53. Those are enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid the word of God to be preached at all in some churches, in order that indulgences may be preached in others.

54. The word of God suffers injury if, in the same sermon, an equal or longer time is devoted to indulgences than to that word.

55. The pope cannot help taking the view that if indulgences (very small matters) are celebrated by one bell, one pageant, or one ceremony, the gospel (a very great matter) should be preached to the accompaniment of a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.

Indulgences, it seems, were being so overemphasized in some places as to completion overshadow the preaching of the Gospel.

47. Christians should be taught that they purchase indulgences voluntarily, and are not under obligation to do so.

They weren’t obligated to buy them — indulgences were not necessary for penance or salvation — but apparently some were teaching this.

49. Christians should be taught that the pope’s indulgences are useful only if one does not rely on them, but most harmful if one loses the fear of God through them.

This error seems to have been taking root for a while. The overemphasis of indulgences seems to have been giving some the idea that they could escape all the consequences of sin by purchasing an indulgence, and need not fear God at all or seek holy behavior. This seems a little ironic in light of the path modern evangelical thought has taken.

81. This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult for learned men to guard the respect due to the pope against false accusations, or at least from the keen criticisms of the laity.

Luther, at this point, was still inclined to defend the pope from accusations and criticisms. He did not want or intend a schism with the pope or the Church.

Luther’s later views, and the Protestant Reformation

I am not a Luther scholar or a scholar of the Reformation; so I confess that I feel a little lost in this sea I’ve paddled out into. But, if I wanted to learn to navigate it, I guess I did the right thing by rowing out here. I know I have a couple of Lutheran friends out there in my circle — I would appreciate your input.

Luther eventually rejected Purgatory, indulgences, and the whole Catholic shebang. I don’t know the chronology of this, but presumably this happened gradually as he translated the Bible and eventually arrived at a conception of sola scriptura. His opposition to the Catholic Church, I presume, was aggravated by the Church’s condemnation of him.

But the point of this message, however feeble it has turned out to be, is that Luther didn’t initially oppose Purgatory or indulgences. The champion of Protestantism didn’t leap from the pages of Scripture fully grown and prepared for battle; his views had to develop over time. Luther had to put his pants on one leg at a time, too.

I would like to study and acquire a better understanding of the Reformation. I would like to get to the bottom of the disputes between the Reformers and the Church, and how they arose. Because I think only in understanding our origins is there any hope of reconciliation. Luther wasn’t the first to attempt to reform the Church. Voices in the Church were already trying to reform the practice of indulgences. Why did his protests elicit the response from the Church they did? Why did his complaints, initially intended for discussion and correction, explode into the Protestant Reformation?

For my next post, I intend to look at the Council of Trent and its response to Luther.

Indulgences: What they mean

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

One of the most misunderstood doctrines in the history of the Church, by both Protestants and Catholics, is the doctrine of indulgences. The mere mention of the word to Protestants conjures ideas of the worst corruptions of the Roman Church, the heights of decadence and depravity and abuse. For it’s well known that indulgences were the root of the Protestant Reformation.

But there’s much more to the story than most people realize. There is a lot of misinformation and misconception. In this post and the posts to follow, I will go back to the original sources, from both the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers, to present a better understanding about what the Catholic Church taught, and teaches, about indulgences; what exactly Martin Luther’s dispute with the Church over indulgences was; and why it’s not as big a deal as you think.

I am not expecting to convince anybody, here, of the truth of the doctrines of indulgences or Purgatory. My only aim is to clarify what the Church teaches and what the dispute in the Reformation was actually about. Whether you agree with the Church’s teachings or not, I hope you will at least learn something about them. Also bear in mind that I am new to these doctrines, too. I will strive to the best of my ability to explain them with the utmost clarity, accuracy, and honesty, but I doubtless will make some mistakes. If anyone catches them, I hope you will correct me.

Before I begin, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Martin Luther; and through the study I have conducted in the writing of this post, I have come to respect him even more. The Protestant Reformation is the most tragic event in the history of the Christian Church: the rending of Christ’s spotless Bride — and it makes it all the more tragic to read Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and realize that he was right: to recognize, through this window into the past, the terrible abuses that were taking place in the Renaissance Church, that Luther spoke out to reform. Yes, in many ways the practices of the Church of Luther’s day were decadent and corrupt. Yes, indulgences were one of the focal points of that corruption. If the Church had cooperated more readily with Luther and other critics, rather than condemning them, and if the matter hadn’t so quickly erupted out of control, our schism might have been averted.

What an indulgence is not

It is important, first of all, to realize what an indulgence is not:

  1. An indulgence is not a permission to commit sin, or a pardon of future sin.
  2. An indulgence is not, and does not offer, forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it presupposes that the sin has already been forgiven.
  3. An indulgence is not an exemption or immunity from any law or duty, and does not in itself make restitution for sin.
  4. An indulgence does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of falling into sin.
  5. Most of all, an indulgence does not purchase one’s salvation or the release of another’s soul from Purgatory (Indulgences in Catholic Encyclopedia).

What is an indulgence?

The clearest, most succinct definition I’ve read comes from Indulgentiarum doctrina (1967), the Papal Constitution of Pope Paul VI on the doctrine of indulgences (Norm 1):

An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints.

This sounds more complicated than it is. Let me take it apart. When we sin, by our actions, by our guilt, we harm and weaken our relationship with God. Grave or mortal sin in particular can separate us from God and completely break our communion with Him — because we have turned away from Him, done what is evil in His sight, and brought judgment on ourselves. This is what it means by the guilt due for sins. This is what Christ’s grace and forgiveness sets us free from: He justifies us, makes us righteous before God, and returns us to communion with Him.

But sin does something else, too. The wages of (mortal) sin is death (Romans 6:23) (that’s why it’s called “mortal”) — but all sins have wages. Even our venial sins and peccadilloes lead us into “an unhealthy attachment” to earthly things — a strengthening of our sinful habits and inclinations; the darkening of our minds; the harm sin itself does to our souls — the real, day-to-day consequences of our sin that we have to deal with even after we are forgiven. This is the temporal punishment of our sin: the temporal effects of the sin itself (CCC 1472; see also Sin in the Catholic Encyclopedia). God’s grace may wipe away our guilt, but we are still left with our sinful inclinations. From these we have to be purified — through pursuing the life of grace, especially the Sacrament of Penance; through prayer; through acts of charity and mercy — through being conformed more to Christ.

If we live and die in God’s grace, our eternal salvation is assured (CCC 1030). But if we die with these temporal effects of sin still hanging on — if we still need to be purified — then we enter a state of purification after death. The Church calls this Purgatory. Purgatory is not a place of punishment for the guilt of our sins — all the souls in Purgatory have already had their sins forgiven in full, had the eternal punishment of their sins bought and paid by the Blood of Christ; their eternal salvation is assured. But they still need to be purified, repaired, molded — to do what they didn’t finish doing in life (CCC 1031, cf. 1 Cor 3:15, 1 Pet 1:7).

This is where indulgences come in. The doctrine of indulgences (Latin indulgentia, from indulgeo, to be kind or tender; to concede, allow, grant, bestow as a favor) is an ancient teaching of the Church, the roots of which extend all the way back to the Apostles. It intersects with a number of other ancient and often misunderstood doctrines, including the “treasury” of merit and the communion of saints. It would take a while to convey a full understanding of all of these, but I will attempt to simplify things below.

The Communion of Saints and the Treasury of Merit

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

All people are connected, in that the sin of one person harms others and the holiness of one person benefits others: we affect each other. Just as all humans have suffered through the original sin of Adam, through communion with Christ we can all share in His righteousness and reap the rewards of His sacrifice. Likewise, we are connected to each other in that through charity we can lift each other up in prayer; we can help bear each other’s crosses; we can share with each other spiritual “goods” (i.e. good things) — our prayer, our charity, our penitence. And because all believers are connected through the Body of Christ — those of us sojourning on earth; those saints receiving their reward in heaven; and those souls being purified in Purgatory — all can share with each other spiritual “goods,” even across the barriers of life and death. This is at the heart of the idea that saints can pray for us, and share with us the satisfaction earned by the merits they have obtained before God. By this same idea, we can reach the departed souls being purified in Purgatory, to pray for them and share with them our spiritual “goods” (CCC 1474-1475; Indulgentiarum doctrina 4-5).

The combined merits of Christ and all the saints — all the good that anyone has ever done through God’s grace, and all the reward that it has ever received — creates a “treasury” of merit in heaven. This “treasury” contains, most of all, the infinite and inexhaustible value of Christ’s mercy and sacrifice, together with the wealth of all the prayers and good works of all the saints of all the ages (CCC 1476-1477).

The Doctrine of Indulgences

The Delivery of the Keys (Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Rome)

The Delivery of the Keys (Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Rome).

We believe that the Church, by the power of the keys Christ entrusted to Peter — the power to “bind and loose on earth and in heaven” — has the power to unlock this “treasury” of merit and dispense its spiritual “goods,” to apply them to truly penitent sinners for the expiation of the temporal punishments of their sins. Only God can forgive the guilt of sins — but the Church, which administers penance for the expiation of the temporal punishments, can also apply the satisfaction of this treasury of merit to remit those punishments, for those who are penitent and properly disposed.

And this is the idea of indulgences. By the Middle Ages, the Church was granting indulgences — the remission of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven — in reward for certain, approved good works that were deemed for the good of the penitent, or for the good of all the faithful and the Church. Some examples of these works include making a devout pilgrimage to a holy site, praying the Rosary or Stations of the Cross, or the pious use of devotional objects such as a Crucifix or medal. Earning an indulgence could be applied to either one’s own temporal punishments, or to those of a departed soul in Purgatory, to shorten the time he or she might spend there (CCC 1478-1479, Indulgentiarum Doctrina 6-7).

Of indulgences, Pope Paul VI wrote (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 8):

The aim pursued by ecclesiastical authority in granting indulgences is not only that of helping the faithful to expiate the punishment due sin but also that of urging them to perform works of piety, penitence and charity — particularly those which lead to growth in faith and which favor the common good.

I fear this may be a crass metaphor — but as I have studied this, I’ve thought of indulgences as the rewards system of a kindergarten classroom. In order to promote good citizenship, virtue, and praiseworthy behavior, the teacher grants to her students gold or silver stars on a board. She may also give them certain rewards if they achieve enough stars. The Church, which has the power to dispense these rewards for the expiation of temporal punishment, chooses to offer them as incentives for good works that are beneficial to the penitent or the entire Christian community — to raise them up to do those things as a matter of habit.

A Church with Authority

The doctrine of indulgences only makes sense if you believe in a Church with authority in both heaven and earth — if you believe the Gospels at their word (Matthew 16:19):

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Despite the Word of the Gospel, the idea of the Church having real spiritual authority is foreign to most Protestants — many of whom deny the very idea of authority beyond the letter of Scripture and the individual conscience. But when we acknowledge that Christ invested his Church with exactly this kind of authority, and with the authority to remit sins (John 20:21-23) — when we acknowledge that the Church is more than just a temporal, manmade institution, but a divinely-appointed spiritual authority, existing both on earth and in heaven — then this doctrine commands a great deal more weight.

I recognize the difficulty of presenting this doctrine to anyone adhering to a sola scriptura viewpoint; but Tradition and the writings of the Church Fathers support that the whole Church held and believed the doctrine of indulgences in some form for nearly 1,500 years. I do not expect the explanation above to be convincing, but I do hope that it is at least illuminating about what the Catholic Church actually teaches regarding indulgences, and helps clear up some misconceptions.

Indulgences, properly taught, have nothing to do with forgiveness of the guilt of sins, and nothing to do with eternal salvation. The very idea of indulgences is that the guilt for one’s sins has already been forgiven. Indulgences have only to do with the temporal punishments for sin that still remain and with the need for purification from them, either in life or in the hereafter in Purgatory. All souls being purified in Purgatory are already guaranteed salvation in heaven, with or without indulgences.

Indulgences, however, weren’t always properly taught. By the late Middle Ages, abuses were creeping into some areas of the Church regarding the teaching of indulgences. By the Renaissance, these abuses were becoming widespread and flagrant. It is in this context that Martin Luther protested in 1517, and produced his Ninety-Five Theses — initially only proposals for critical, academic discussion — but soon igniting the fires of Reformation across Europe.

(Next time: Luther and his theses — what he protested and why.)

What is a Saint? An Introduction for Protestants

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

It occurred to me the other morning in the shower (that’s where thoughts usually occur to me) that many Protestants might be troubled by the concept of saints and sainthood. I have heard Protestants say, “We don’t believe in saints.” I assure you that you do. Do you believe that there are people in Heaven? Then you believe in saints.

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

A saint, very simply — in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church declares one a saint and grants “Saint” as a title — is someone whom we believe, with certainty, is in Heaven. That’s all. From Latin sanctus (Greek ἁγιος or hagios), the word means “holy, sacred, set apart.” In biblical usage, as Protestants should be aware, “saints” refers to all the “holy ones,” the believers of the Church. When we state in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the “communion of saints,” we are saying that we believe all believers, both those who are living and those who have died, are a part of our Body and share in our communion with Christ. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews envisions in the Old Testament saints and prophets a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us (playing on μαρτυρέω, testify, bear witness, in Heb 11:39, and μάρτυρες, witnesses [also the same word as martyrs], in Heb 12:1), evoking the image of spectators in an arena as we “run . . . the race that is set before us.” How much more would those who die in Christ join this “cloud”!

Catholics venerate saints — we respect, honor, and revere them; we celebrate their memory — because of their great witness and example for us in faith, virtue, and godliness. They are the heroes of the faith whose godly lives we want to remember and whom we want to emulate. They are our spiritual ancestors, our predecessors, our loved ones, the members of our family who have gone to their reward, and yet are still with us in communion with Christ. We do not worship the saints; only God is worthy of worship. We venerate them in much the same way Americans venerate the memory of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

Friends and Family

We have an unlimited calling plan.

So why do Catholics pray to saints? Well, if we believe that they too are part of our communion in Christ, a “great cloud of witnesses,” then why should we be separated from them? They are our friends and family, our brothers and sisters in the Lord who have crossed the river before us. They are already by Christ’s side. Why shouldn’t they pray for us? And aren’t they in a better position for that, to bring our needs and requests before God? Catholics believe that the saints can intercede for us. Praying to saints is nothing more than asking our loved ones to pray for us.

St. Luke the Evangelist

St. Luke the Evangelist, patron saint of physicians. (Simone Martini)

So what is the deal with patron saints? Well, just as the saints had particular interests and causes and affinities when they were here on earth, they do in Heaven too. A saint is held to be the patron (Latin patronus, protector, defender, advocate, patron — yes, like in Harry Potter) of the profession, activity, nation, cause, or place with which they were associated in earthly life. He or she is held to be a patron against specific diseases, afflictions, and dangers when, through suffering or death, they have gained victory over those things in Christ. And, through tradition, through practice, through trial and error, saints are held to be the patrons of these things because their intercession proves efficacious: because prayers for their aid in those causes work. Saints don’t have magical powers. Saints don’t, in themselves, produce effects on this earth. But by where they are and whom they’re with, they have immense spiritual power to intercede on our behalf.

St. Isidore of Seville

St. Isidore of Seville, paron saint of the Internet. (Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1655).

So what about relics? Why the macabre obsession with dead body parts? You may or may not be aware that in every Catholic altar there is a relic of some saint (Latin relictum, that which is left behind or remaining) — usually a small piece of bone or some other body part, but sometimes the whole body, or possibly an object the saint owned or touched. We hold that the person, his or her spirit, is in Heaven with Christ — but that the things which the saint left behind, his physical body most of all, offers a connection, an anchor, a bridge to their presence in that spiritual realm. The idea of placing relics under our altars — or building our churches and altars over their remains, as in the cases of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and many other ancient saints — is that by proximity to these connections, by association with these saints, we can draw as near to Heaven and to God as possible.

One last thing: Aren’t all Christians who die saints? We do believe that all Christians who die in the grace of God will go to Heaven, yes; but we also believe in Purgatory — which is a another kettle of fish that will require another post or three. But briefly: It is the calling of every Christian to take part in the life of Christ’s grace, to live within His Church and Sacraments, to pursue holiness and grace and daily be sanctified and converted (Latin converto, turn towards, change, transform) to Christ’s image. Most of us are not able to be fully transformed in this life — so for us there is a time of Purgatory, a fire in which we will be purified of our faults and made ready to stand before God. (No, we’re not being punished for our sins — Christ has already paid the penalty for those, the death we deserve — but spiritually, we still need to be purified. But — another time.)

St. Thérèse

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus.

Saints, on the other hand, are very special people who, through life in God’s grace, did achieve holiness and become wholly molded to Christ’s image in this life, to the extent that they could as fallen creatures. (Cf. the Wesleyan idea of entire sanctification.) They are people whose godliness is not in doubt, people like the Apostles and St. Francis and St. Thérèse. These days, there are so many very godly people dying that there is a formal process of canonizaton in the Church, through which a person’s sainthood is confirmed and verified, as best as we on Earth can: by asking them for intercession and seeing if those prayers are answered. Two or three miracles associated with a saint’s intercession is the usual standard. A martyr’s death is the saint’s golden ticket to immediate canonization: they pay the price in blood.

Are there Protestant saints? You bet. Just because someone hasn’t been formally declared a saint by the Church doesn’t mean they’re not one. Walk through any cemetery, and there are likely to be unknown saints lying all around, people who led truly godly lives and who merited Christ’s reward as soon as they crossed over from this life. Catholics are never in the business of declaring who isn’t or who can’t be saved, or who isn’t or can’t be saints: we believe God, in his infinite mercy, grants His grace and His favor according to His own will.

Wisdom and the Deuterocanon

I’ve never read much of the Deuterocanon (also called the Apocrypha by Protestants) before — just the occasional Mass readings from those books. I’ve been unsure of their role in the canon. Catholics attest to their canonicity and divine inspiration; but then, why did Protestants exclude them? (I know, for one thing, that the Deuterocanon contains the scriptural foundation for the Catholic beliefs in prayer for the dead and Purgatory. Were the Reformers so petty as to exclude books because they didn’t like what they said?)

This passage came up in Mass reading last week — and it bowled me over:

“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
Wisdom 2:12-20 (NRSV)

Can anyone really read this and maintain that this book doesn’t belong in the Bible? This is clearly a Messianic prophecy. The ever-academic New Oxford Annotated Bible doesn’t comment on that, but points out that it is similar to Isaiah 52-53. But this passage goes further than any other Old Testament Messianic prophecy that I’ve seen:

  1. The “righteous man” would oppose the actions of the ungodly, reproach them for “sins against the law,” and accuse them of “sins against their training.”
  2. He would “profess to have knowledge of God” and “boast that God is his father.” (I don’t think the Messiah’s claim to be the Son of God is made this explicit in other prophecies.)
  3. He would be “insulted,” “tortured,” and “tested”: “For if the righteous man is God’s child, He will help him, / and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries” (cf. Matthew 27:39-40, Mark 15:29-32, Luke 23:35-37, for exact parallels).

Sin and Punishment

Tonight I’m struggling with Purgatory.

I guess I haven’t really thought much about it before. Like Mary did, it came upon me rather suddenly. Father Joe mentioned Purgatory briefly at RCIA on Sunday. I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of salvation, and the differences between the Catholic and evangelical Protestant conceptions of it. I’ve been reading Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and today read the chapters on salvation and Purgatory. It’s been a helpful book. It has drawn my attention to Catholic doctrines with which I still have questions and issues, and has helped me through grasping several of them.

The trouble with Keating is that sometimes I’m not sure he understands the fundamentalist position (or evangelical — his “fundamentalists” sound like every Southern evangelical I’ve ever known) any better than fundamentalists understand the Catholic one. For that matter, I’m not sure I understand the evangelical position very well either. I come from a theologically impoverished background; I have my own “feelings” about things, that aren’t always very rational or consistent. I have been saying for years, and still maintain, that theology is only man’s feeble attempt to grasp the mysteries of God that are ultimately beyond his comprehension. Grace and salvation may themselves be mysteries we will never fully understand. Scholasticism (at least, my prejudiced conception of it) deeply bothered me for a long time; I felt that it tried to regiment and reason away even the mysteries of faith. But the further I delve into Catholicism, the more I admire its consistency. The more I study, the more I find that many Protestant doctrines aren’t baked all the way through.

This is an awfully big bear to wrestle with in one post — I know I will be making many — so let me limit myself to the topic at hand: sin and punishment. This, if I’m not careful, multiplies into redemption, justification, salvation, and lots of other things. But what I really want to talk about is Purgatory.

I bought a worship CD a year or two ago, from a band I’d never heard of before called Branch. I bought it specifically because I was looking for a cover of the Gospel hymn “Nothing But the Blood,” and liked theirs. I was struggling with sin and those beautiful, powerful words kept echoing in my head:

O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus.

I liked the CD. They had some really moving, impassioned songs about redemption and forgiveness. But one day I was listening to one of them, and it struck me in a way I hadn’t anticipated:

This is redemption written in his blood
This is forgiveness, the guilty go free
This is redemption, sinners get heaven 
This is a love song for those who believe

The guilty go free? Unexpectedly, these words troubled me deeply. Is that really what my religion espouses? Murderers, rapists, thieves, liars, and con men, getting off scot-free? Is that right? Is that just? Is that really what Christ’s redemption equates to? Criminals walking out of a courtroom unpunished?

Last night, Isaiah 53 came up in my Bible reading, entirely by random coincidence (though the older I get, the less I believe there’s any such thing). This is one of my dearest, most cherished passages of Scripture in the Bible. He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. Jesus suffered and died so our sins could be forgiven. I’ve always believed as a Protestant that one drop of His blood was enough to atone for a lifetime of my sins; that no matter what I did, His blood had purchased my forgiveness.

Covering. Keating writes of Luther’s conception of grace as a cloak:

[In the fundamentalist view,] accepting Christ accomplishes one thing and one thing only. It makes God cover one’s sinfulness. It makes him turn a blind eye to it. It is as though he hides the soul under a cloak. Any soul under this cloak is admitted to heaven, no matter how putrescent the reality beneath; no one without the cloak, no matter how pristine, can enter the pearly gates (Catholicism and Fundamentalism, 167).

Is this really what I believed? No, I don’t think it is. I have never accepted that I was “putrescent” or “totally depraved.” I have acknowledged that the sinful nature of my flesh was hopelessly sinful and flawed, that I could never be holy through my own power; but I maintained that there was a lot of good in me, by God’s grace. I never believed that I would go to Heaven as a rotting, putrid mass of sin; I had faith that Christ had cleansed me by His blood. There is power in the blood to wash away sins.

There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

The blood, I believed, had washed me white as snow. Sometimes, after repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness, I would truly feel in a state of grace. But then I would turn right around and sin again. Was I “white as snow”? What part of me had been washed clean?

The guilty go free. On this earth, it’s a great travesty of justice for the guilty to go free. No matter how contrite the person is; no matter if they ask, and are forgiven, by the people they have wronged; crime demands punishment. I’ve never been a great proponent of the death penalty, but it always bothered me when death row convicts would argue that they deserved to be spared because they had found grace through Christ and changed their lives. Perhaps so; but nonetheless, they committed a crime; Christ may have paid their eternal debt, but they still owed one on this earth.

“Having one’s sins forgiven is not the same thing as having the punishment for them wiped out,” writes Keating (195). Certainly in my case above this holds true. It is not just for the guilty to go free. God is a just God; it was for our guilt that Christ had to suffer. But that wasn’t enough? “It is not contrary to the Redemption to say we must suffer for our sins; it is a matter of justice” (194).

I have believed, as do Catholics, and as do the (Protestant) composers of the hymns above, that Christ washes away our sins; that he washes us clean. Maybe it’s not as instantaneous a process as I thought. But nonetheless, I will be washed clean. Perhaps Christ’s Redemption is analogous to him taking my death penalty for me: he died for my sins so I wouldn’t have to die spiritually; so I wouldn’t have to suffer eternal torment; instead, I only have to go to his prison, where daily I’ll bathe in his cathartic blood, until I really am white as snow.