The Catholic Church’s teaching on indulgences is one of those things that our Protestant friends tend to shake their head at. At various points in the Church’s history there were certainly abuses in the area of indulgences – this is one of the things that contributed to Martin Luther’s angst, for example. While we must condemn such abuses, we shouldn’t be too surprised about them either; a quick reflection on our own human weakness – on our own givenness to excesses or to private interpretations at times during our lives – will serve to remind us that the Church is made up of weak and fallible human beings who mess things up. In spite of that, the one true Church of Christ still exists, some 2,000 years after it was founded.
The question arises: Should we try to defend our teaching on indulgences from scripture? Of course, nothing stops anyone from doing it, and it is certainly possible (incidentally, the linked site is an excellent all-around resource). But I tend to think that it is not the main issue that we need to argue with our Protestant friends.
At the end of the day, when we argue scripture with our Protestant friends we are pitting their private interpretation against ours (in fact, we should present them with Church teaching, but based on their own conception of things they will perceive it as our own private interpretation). This is because they don’t have a central teaching authority to guarantee an authentic teaching. Their preacher might say one thing, but another preacher from the same denomination might say something different, and still be considered a member of that denomination in good standing. Our Protestant friends might protest that theirs is not a private interpretation – they might even claim that the Holy Spirit has led them to the correct interpretation or otherwise guarantees it. But the only authority they have to fall back on is their own, or perhaps of their preacher or favorite televangelist/author.
Oh – our friends might object – but Catholics do this all the time as well! And it’s true. Some proudly-professing Catholics support procured abortion, for example; they even promote it. Even though it is not, never has been, and never will be morally acceptable for a Catholic to support or promote abortion. But in this case, it is clearly obvious (to be pleonastic) that they are at odds with the official teaching of the Church. Their communion with the Church is weakened – or in some cases, severed – to the extent that they don’t accept what the Church teaches. We could talk here about their deformed conscience, their need for repentance, the peril they put their souls in, the grave scandal they are giving, etc. But let’s get back on track with indulgences.
So the basic issue when we set about arguing scripture with our Protestant friends is that it is us-against-them, or them-against-us, because there are two different conceptions of authority at play. What is at stake is what is traditionally known as the “Rule of Faith”: which is to say, the objective measure of what we believe, which gives us certitude, so that, adhering firmly to those beliefs, we can be saved. When we start talking about salvation – and again reflecting upon our own fickleness – we clearly need a higher authority than ourselves, or even our local preacher/priest.
In this regard I highly recommend that you support the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word by purchasing one (or ten thousand) copies of their little brochure entitled “The Rule of Faith” and read it, memorize it, share it, etc.
It is only when we are on the same page with regard to teaching authority that we can argue effectively with our Protestant friends. They need to understand the authority (not authoritarianism) that is behind Catholic teaching – authority willed by Christ himself (and clearly found in Scripture) – so that they can accept the Church’s teaching. Otherwise, what they believe is arbitrary because it is based on a private interpretation rooted in someone’s limited understanding. (In a similar way, Catholics who “pick and choose” are arbitrary as well.)
Bottom line: everyone needs a Pope.
For those who might still be with me at this point and haven’t clicked through to that Catholic Answers article I linked, I’ll provide just two scripture passages that help us to understand indulgences a little better.
First, to understand the distinction between guilt and punishment, we can look at 2 Samuel 12: there the prophet Nathan confronts David over the sin of adultery that he committed with Bathsheba (also involving his having Bathsheba’s husband killed). David repents of his sin, and the Lord forgives him. More specifically, the Lord forgives the guilt that David incurred. There is still a punishment indicated which he must suffer – even though his guilt has been forgiven – and David additionally takes on a penance of his own.
Second, to see the concept of an indulgence in action, we need only to look at the scene of the crucifixion. In Luke 23, the good thief, crucified next to Jesus, turns to him and says, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. His was an act of faith accompanied with contrition for his crime. The Lord, in turn, responds to him: “Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in paradise”. The good thief received a sort of partial indulgence in that moment. I say “partial” and not “plenary” because his punishment did not immediately cease; he didn’t die immediately and go straight to heaven; he still had to hang on his cross a little while longer until the soldiers came and broke his legs to hasten his death, if he had not already died by that point. He still had some suffering to endure but the bottom line is that his punishment was truncated – it was pardoned. The Lord indicated that he would soon be in heaven; he did not indicate any further purification necessary. And this, on the basis of his fervent prayer to the Lord accompanied by the dispositions of his soul.
I suppose an analogy that we have in the civil sector is that of those who are released early from prison for good behavior. We could also talk about presidential pardons, though I think the analogy breaks down a bit more there.
There are certainly other Bible passages that we could look to, and I again refer you to the Catholic Answers article. In my next post I will begin looking more specifically at the various indulgences that we may commonly obtain.