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.)

Thinking about Sin

As I’ve been pondering theology lately, it occurred to me: All this time I’ve been charging that theology is human, man-made, artificial; that it is only man’s attempt to comprehend the mysteries of God in his own feeble, limited, human mind. And we cannot possibly fully comprehend God. And that is true. But that doesn’t mean that theology is unimportant. Because it can profoundly affect the way we live our lives, the way we approach the world, and the way we approach God.

The past week or two I’ve been reading about Calvinist and Arminian and Catholic soteriology — views of sin, and grace, and justification. I’m trying to get a full, balanced view, by reading all sides of the matter, and sometimes that’s a lot of work. I’m realizing how fully and how very different the Catholic and Protestant views really are. It is a lot to wrap my head around.

Catholics charge — and I’ve read this several places, most recently here — that Protestant theology doesn’t truly believe in the eradication of sin from our lives: that when we are forgiven and justified, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, despite our own inherent sinfulness, and God declares us righteous before Him. Though I was never formally taught that, this seems to be consistent with my Protestant way of thinking.

There is a quote from Luther that I’ve seen and heard many places, and I wish I could find the original context — but the only thing I can find when I google is Catholics criticizing the doctrine. Perhaps my Lutheran friend can help? Luther is said to have taught that justification is like a cloak or a white sheet thrown over the putrid, rotting sin of the human soul: that we are only declared righteous before God while remaining sinners; that we are not truly washed clean, only our sins and our shame are covered. Is this true? I know Protestant theology makes a distinction between justification and sanctification. Hopefully, after this covering, there would be some actual purification and cleansing through God’s grace?

Catholic theology, on the other hand, doesn’t make the distinction between justification and sanctification. The two are inseparable, part of the same process, practically synonymous. When our sins are washed away through Baptism, they are really washed away. When we are forgiven and absolved through Reconciliation, our sins are really taken away, blotted out. This gives a much more satisfying and clean feeling.

But the difference is this: Protestants believe that the experience of justification is a once-and-for-all legal declaration; that when we are justified, Christ throws the white sheet and all our sins are covered; that when Christ’s righteousness has been imputed, no sin we could ever do can be held against us; that Christ paid the price for all our sins for all time. Catholics, on the other hand, believe that justification is a continuing, lifelong process. That though Christ paid the price for all our sins, we have to go back again and again to be forgiven when we fall, to receive that justification again. That when we sin again after our baptismal regeneration, the sin actually sullies our soul, damages our connection with God and with the Church — in the case of grave, mortal sin, even severs it. There is no white sheet protecting us, covering our shame: we are naked, and when we sin, filthy. Reconciliation is not just a formality; it is a sacrament of actual, spiritual healing. Through the grace of Penance, God washes us clean again, heals our wounds, and restores our damaged connection.

And this can have profound consequences for the way we think about sin. For years and years as a Protestant, I struggled with the same sin (I still do, only now I am actually struggling). I assuaged myself, told myself that God knew I was sinful, knew I was a wretch, and that He’d already forgiven me; that nothing I could ever do could take away my salvation. There was never any impetus to truly repent, to truly strive for holiness. And so I didn’t. For a long time I would pray and ask for forgiveness, say I was sorry; but then go right back to doing the same thing. After a while, I stopped even pretending to repent, believing that God “understood” and had it covered.

That’s not a Christian way to live. I hope and believe that that’s not the way most Protestants live, that most Protestants do indeed strive after repentance and holiness as the Bible teaches — but I know that it was an easy fallacy for me to fall into, believing what I did about justification. Now, as a Catholic, I am realizing more and more vividly that sin is something severely harmful and menacing — that not only does it harm me temporally, make me miserable, but it harms my relationship with God; it causes me to fall from grace; it threatens my immortal soul. More than ever before — where I have not had it before — I feel the drive to repentance and to holiness.

The Wandering Road

The Winding RoadIn the next phase of my life, I spent a great deal of time on the road. I took several grand road trips, taking off all across the Southern United States. I was always going somewhere, if only to the next town or county or state. At the time, what I thought I felt was freedom, liberation, the ability to go where I wanted, when I wanted. But I was irresponsible with my money and time, impulsive, and foolish. In retrospect I can see that I was actually in flight — fleeing to escape the pain of my failure; to escape who I was and where I was; to be someone else, somewhere else. Many people fall into drugs or alcohol out of similar drives. I never went to those places, but I fell to many other sins during this time. The chief among them, though — the root of everything else — was always that escapism.

After several years, I returned to school, to a more local university to which I could commute. Out of practical concerns, I began a degree in computer science. Programming was always something I had enjoyed, and I saw in it a good career. Immediately, though, history was once again a compelling interest. Whenever I picked up a course catalog, I dreamily eyed the history section, imagining all the history courses I would somehow have time to take. The first history course I took was Western Civilization from ancient to medieval. The topic I chose for my research paper, picked from a preselected list of topics, was the Great Schism. At the time I picked it, I was thinking of the Great East–West Schism that formally split the Western and Eastern Churches — a topic that interested me, and still does; I would still like to learn more about it. I remember being initially confused that there was more than one “Great Schism” — and whatever sources I found led me to write instead about the Western Schism, an event I had previously been unaware of. Although I’m not sure it presented a very positive picture, that research gave me my first introduction to the medieval papacy, and my first academic look at the Catholic Church.

For my second history course, the second half of Western Civ, from Renaissance to modern, I carefully studied the faculty bios of the history department. I chose Dr. G, who impressed me as being the most erudite and the most learned about what the course would be on. I was not disappointed. I had never had a teacher like him, who enriched his lectures with only the drama of history, but a sense of the underlying forces that drive history. He taught socratically, challenging me in new ways and urging me to do more than sit back and take notes. Initially, I did well. But towards the middle of the semester, a nagging anxiety and perfectionism took hold of me. His research paper called for a historiographic approach — something many students never hear about until graduate school — and paralyzed with fear, rather than seek help, I sank.

Mozart's Requiem

A page from the autograph of Mozart's Requiem.

I remember an episode during this dark time that presaged my journey to Rome, and my entire future course, more certainly than anything else I can think of. Like many a depressed and struggling young man before, having visions of my own impending doom, I turned to Mozart’s Requiem. I listened to it obsessively, often on my commutes to school. It was Latin; I wondered what its words meant. I went online and printed off a transcript of the Latin and its translation. Within a few weeks, I had memorized it. I had little concept then that was I was learning was liturgy, or even what that meant; but it planted a seed that was to bear fruit.

I tanked completely that semester. It was the first of many times I failed, usually in the face of term papers and major projects. I ran away and medicated rather than faced my demons. But I returned. The next semester was better. It wasn’t until a year later that I dared attempt another history course — but rather than avoid the situation and the man who had defeated me before, I recognized the value of the challenge Dr. G presented. I registered for his course again, and charged once more unto the breach.

This time, I excelled thoroughly. I clearly had an aptitude. I wrote my research paper, the historiographic one, on different historians’ interpretations of Charles I and the Battle of Naseby. That time, it presented little difficulty. I remember staying up all night (oh, to still be able to do that) the night before the final exam, rewriting and memorizing my notes backward and forward: I blew the exam out of the water. It felt to me a great coup, the first victory in overcoming my demons.

In order to major in computer science, I would have had to minor in mathematics. At one time, when I was younger, I was pretty good at math. But that part of my brain had atrophied over the years, partly because it had then been five years since I had graduated from high school, but mostly because I had lost interest in it. It had become something painful for me, and even worse, I was unwilling to devote the time necessary to study for it. The next semester after my triumph with Dr. G, it was time for me to face Calculus B. The first day of class, the professor, a kindly man named Dr. M, gave a pre-test to assess where we stood coming into the course: I missed every single question. Afterward in his office, with concern in his voice and not a trace of condescension, he asked me if I was sure I needed to be in his course. “No,” I answered, quavering.

So I needed another course to fill out my schedule. That semester I was also taking another course with Dr. G, a survey of ancient history. In all of Dr. G’s courses, he peppered explications of the etymologies of words, to uncover the deeper meanings of concepts: I was fascinated. As it happened, Dr. G was also the professor of Latin at my school, and he frequently plugged it in his history classes. Poring over the course schedule, looking for something I could fit in, I fell upon Latin. I thought back to my fascination with the Latin of the Requiem Mass. It could work, I thought.

Wheelock's LatinI went to Dr. G’s office, and told him that I was thinking of transferring into his Latin class. By this time it was three or four days into the course, but he didn’t hesitate, and didn’t give me the opportunity to. “Well, come on; it’s about to begin.” He handed me a copy of Wheelock’s Latin.

Immediately, the Latin language seized me. I went home that night and wrote in my journal that I didn’t think there would be any turning back. And there wasn’t. If I was abandoning math, then logically I would have to abandon computer science also. And I did: within a year, I was a history major. The next summer after taking Latin, I translated the Dies irae of the Requiem Mass on my own. So marked the first, real steps in a journey that has led me to Rome.

The Wilderness

Toward the end of high school, I entered a dark period of my life. The wounds from this time have now mostly healed, but their scars are still a tender, vulnerable part of my soul. Let us not linger here very long.

I had built my faith upon emotion — upon the conception of a Christ who moved in ecstasy, whose presence was marked by thrills and good feelings, by a “high” I saw all around me in my friends at church. The high was an idol, a false savior I pursued with everything I was. Wrapped up in it were all my feelings of self-worth, my feelings of acceptance by my peers. Pastor Pat, our youth pastor, kept us pumped up to the heights of that high; he had us at the church every day of the week for youth group or prayer or youth choir or drama team; he sent us on a mission to “take our school for Jesus.” Meanwhile, I was struggling with the sins of youth. Every week after I left church that high would fade, to be replaced by emptiness and guilt: and I thought that Jesus was forsaking me, that I must be the most wretched of sinners, worthless in my savior’s sight. Every week I would go down to the altar to “get saved” again; I would sing and dance that I had been forgiven and redeemed; I would return to the high again, only to fall again.

I often wonder if this cycle, being buffeted constantly by the most exultant highs and the most infernal lows, wasn’t itself at the root of the onset of the mental illness that impacted me during this same season. In any case, the two went hand in hand. By the end of high school, I was barely functional. Nonetheless, because I had been offered full scholarships, I felt it was imperative that I pursue a college education immediately. But I was in no condition, psychologically or emotionally, to be on my own. My cataclysm was all but foreordained.

My first university

A photograph I took at my first university.

The one or two bright spots I recall from my time at my first college were harbingers of my future path. My major, in theory, was biology/pre-med, but I don’t think I ever actually studied any biology. On this lovely, old, southern campus, I was immediately taken with a deep fascination with my school’s history. I spent most of my time copying buildings’ dedication plaques, and researching the people for whom the buildings were named, and the subjects of the portraits who watched over me. I explored local cemeteries, learned the names and biographies of all the past university presidents — meanwhile, I entirely neglected the courses for which I was supposed to be studying. The root of all this was a paralyzing, pathological anxiety and avoidance; I was unable to face my work; but even through it all, it never occurred to me that I would rather be studying history.

The Good Shepherd (Pastor Bonus), Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome

The Good Shepherd (Pastor Bonus), an early symbolic representation of Christ, from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome, mid-third century.

I also remember, in this, the golden age of the History Channel, seeing a show one night that captured my imagination and has never let go: In Search of History: “The Catacombs of Rome.” (In Search of History now seems to have been absorbed into History’s Mysteries; I haven’t watched the History Channel in years.) The fascination with the Apostles and Early Church that had briefly taken hold a few years earlier was now reignited, and joined to my obsession with cemeteries. Here was a tangible, visible record of the earliest Christians in Rome. Here were the oldest, the original, Christian cemeteries. The antiquity of the art and belief compelled me; that eerie feeling of death and eternity and continuity; the realization that this was where my faith began. Little did I know then that my path would someday take me to that place.

In time, not very much time, my fall did come. I returned home in disgrace. The feeling that this had been my destiny, that my twelve years of schooling had brought me to this point, and that I had failed, hit me with a finality and fatality. I sank into a deep despair. I naïvely expected my friends, my pastor, my church family, to care for me and support me; but they were all a bunch of kids, caught up in their own world; they took no notice. In the midst of all this, Pastor Pat had unceremoniously left Calvary. I was not the only one whose faith, for so long confused with emotion and hype, abruptly collapsed when the man was no longer there to keep it pumping. I felt abandoned by my friends, my church, my God.

Dark ForestI had entered the wilderness. Though the darkest part of it lasted only a couple of years, for some eight years, I didn’t pray, I didn’t read my Bible, I didn’t go to church, with any regularity. I was angry, hurt, and bitter from my experience at Calvary. Though I still called myself a Christian, I had turned my back on God, and convinced myself that God had forsaken me. I was the man insisting that he was blind, all the while unwilling to open his eyes. Not looking where I was going, I fell into a ravine of sin, and rather than striving to get out, I only wandered deeper and deeper into its recesses, and got myself more and more lost. In time, I made myself comfortable, and deceived myself into thinking that this was the lot God had set aside for me; that he was okay with where I was; that even my sin was not really sin, but a necessary salve to my wounded soul — that I was only human and weak, and Jesus understood and forgave me.

Conversion

Since I’ve been on this road, I’ve been reluctant to use the term “conversion” in referring to my becoming Catholic, since in common parlance, “to convert” connotes a changing of form or character:

con·vert (kən-vûrt´) v. con·vert·ed, con·vert·ing, con·verts v.tr.
1. To change (something) into another form, substance, state, or product; transform: convert water into ice.
2. To change (something) from one use, function, or purpose to another; adapt to a new or different purpose.
3. To persuade or induce to adopt a particular religion, faith, or belief.
. . .
[convert. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved October 9 2011 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/convert]

And I’ve insisted that I’m not changing form or character, or even changing faiths; I am continuing as what I’ve been all along, a Christian. In many ways, though not formally initiated, I’ve been outwardly and inwardly a Catholic Christian for a while now. I’ve preferred to say that “I’m joining the Catholic Church” rather than “I’m converting to Catholicism.” “Conversion” is a scary word; somehow it feels that if I “convert,” I will no longer be what I was before.

Though the majority around me doesn’t think in such terms, I know, I have always seen through the English to the Latin root: converto — I turn around or turn towards a new direction. I want people to see that my conversion is not a change of character, but merely a reorientation.

Last night, I read at length in the Catechism about the sacraments of penance and reconciliation. I was surprised to read of a “second conversion” — the ongoing process of a baptized Christian in growing towards holiness and eternal life — something that I’ve never heard referred to in any Protestant circle. Sure, I’ve heard of “discipleship” and “maturing spiritually,” but generally the evangelical attitude seems to be, “Poof! You’re a Christian! Now live like a Christian!” My ongoing struggle with sin, even though I was supposed to be a Christian, has been a constant source of trouble and confusion in my life. The Cathechism:

Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] always follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a “contrite heart,” drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first. [Cathechism of the Catholic Church, 1428]

Another name of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation is the sacrament of conversion. It is the process not only by which sinners are reconciled to God and the Church, but through which we are inwardly healed and changed; through which we turn away from sin and toward God:

Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. [Catechism, 1431]

I want to be converted, in my whole being. Even more than converting — reorienting — toward the Catholic Church, I want to turn toward God.

The Catholic Church, through its sacrament of reconciliation, understands the need for this continuing conversion in Christians, and how it is effected. I know I have heard some Protestants, the wise ones, acknowledge that growing in Christ is a process; they surely recognize, by experience, what isn’t formally taught in evangelical churches, but should be. So much of my youth was spent in agony, needing to confess and be reconciled, but instead making the same mistakes again and again, never growing, never converting, until I became calloused and complacent.

Today at Mass, as if to confirm this was a lesson I needed to pay attention to and take to heart, Deacon Ted spoke about this ongoing conversion in his homily.

Climbing out of the pit

Today I had lunch with Audrey, and she offered some very helpful and reassuring answers to my questions about Purgatory. And Kristen gave me some very rich and valuable comments to my previous post about it. So tonight I have ample food for thought.

In a pitEven before I began this journey to Catholicism, I had been having vague, inchoate doubts about the Protestant conceptions of grace and salvation. As an evangelical, I always believed that all that was necessary for the forgiveness of sins was to confess them to God and repent. I struggled with the repentance part, but told myself that “everybody struggles; you’re human and carnal; Christ understands that and will forgive you.” I stopped feeling so wracked with guilt; I felt I was forgiven. I prayed and prayed for Him to set me free from my sins; to clean me and change me and help me stop doing what I was doing. But I was never getting any better. I seemed to be trapped; unable to rise above my fault. And I was miserable — not from guilt, but from the very temporal, practical wages of my sin. Something clearly was very flawed in what I was doing.

I think it was out of my longing for true repentance, even if that longing wasn’t fully realized, that brought me to attend my first Ash Wednesday Mass the Lent before last. It was the first time I’d been in a Catholic Church in five years (I had visited once with a friend out of curiosity, and to churches in Rome as a tourist) — the first time ever with an inquiring mind. I knew no one, had very little idea what was going on (I was taken aback by all the kneeling and genuflecting), and did my best to be inconspicuous. When I went forward to receive the ashes, the lay worker blessed me with the formula, “Turn from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” For some reason — which I now realize to be the finger of the Holy Spirit — those words struck a very deep chord with me: I was shaken for several weeks. Turn from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel. You mean I can turn from sin? You mean I can be faithful? More than what I’m doing now?

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday, the penitent receives a cross of ashes on his or her forehead, to symbolize the repentance of Lent.

My second Ash Wednesday, after I’d been attending Mass regularly here for about a month, had an even deeper impact. Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return. It wasn’t so much the experience of the ritual that struck me this time — it was what happened afterward; what I can only understand as God speaking to me. I remembered the words of the year before — and suddenly something clicked into place. Christ died for my sins. So I have an obligation to stand against them and to live for him. And I started taking that stand. Father Joe had said in his homily that for the Lenten fast, we should give up the thing that was most standing between us and God. And I did just that: I gave up my complacency in my sin. And Lent this year was a greater time of victory than I had ever before known.

Before, I wasn’t really “struggling”; I was rolling over and letting sin have me, since I believed it was my nature. All those years, I prayed and prayed, “Lord, I’m dying here. I can’t get out of this pit; I’m trapped; won’t you pull me out?” And I felt so frustrated and despondent that he never seemed to help me; that no matter what I did, I couldn’t get out. It was only recently that it occurred to me: all that time, he was saying to me, “I’m offering you a rope for you to climb out; why won’t you take it?”

ClimbingI’m not a theologian; so it’s only out of my practical, personal experience that I say that the Protestant conception of salvation by faith alone got me nowhere. I had faith in Christ, in his divinity and Resurrection; I had faith that he had saved me from my sins; and yet that faith was doing nothing to set me free. Maybe if I had died, I would have gone to Heaven (or at least to Purgatory); but more pressing, my daily struggle with sin was making my life a living hell. In that moment on Ash Wednesday, it hit me that having faith wasn’t enough; I had to do something. When Protestants pick at the Catholic position of salvation by faith and works, it’s usually presented as if Catholics believe, in a Pharisaical sense, that their “good works,” their observance of rituals, is going to get them into heaven. But that’s not it at all. The “works” just means that I had to do something; that I had to cooperate with Christ in my own salvation; that I had to work at it; that he wasn’t going to just zap me and make me a saint. Instead of just begging him to pull me out of the pit, I had to take the rope.