Sunday, September 11, 2011

Indulgences and the Old Church

I recently purchased a copy of the prayer book Blessed Be God : A Complete Catholic Prayer Book first published in 1960 by P.J. Kennedy and Sons with an imprimatur by Francis Cardinal Spellman dated September 11, 1959. The edition I have was reprinted in 2010 by Preserving Christian Publications.

As advertised, if you have this prayer book you probably don't need another one. (Although, Protestant though it may be, my favorite prayer book is an Anglican Catholic volume called Saint Augustine's Prayer Book). Blessed Be God has everything: prayers for the morning, prayers for the evening, the rosary, novenas and just about every kind of prayer you can think of for any circumstance. It is also very much a document of the pre-Vatican II Church and that is what I want to talk about in this post.

Blessed Be God lists indulgenced prayers with the amount of indulgence that one gets for saying that particular prayer. For instance, for saying the ejaculation "Jesus, Mary, Joseph" you are entitled to an indulgence of 7 years. For saying "Holy Mary, deliver us from the pains of hell," you get an indulgence of 300 days. It is this kind of stuff that still makes "Bible Christians" accuse Catholics of trying to work their way to Heaven. It is my understanding that back in the old days that children would try to say as many rosaries as possible as fast as possible to rack up indulgences.

Now this old Southern Baptist and sometime Anglican turned Catholic thinks that he has a pretty good grasp of the theology of Purgatory. Even though God forgives the believer for the sins that he or she has committed, sin still has a consequence. For instance, God forgave Adam and Eve but they were still banished from the Garden and they still had to suffer physical death.

Dante stands between the Mountain of Purgatory and the City of Florence

The Catholic does not believe that you can sin hardily for 80 years and then suddenly "get saved" on your death bed and die and go straight to Heaven with no consequences in the afterlife. This was the theology which I grew up with in the Baptist Church. Once you "Got Saved" you would go straight to Heaven when you died regardless of what sins you committed before or afterwards. This theology is known as "once saved, always saved.". Baptists who follow the theology of the Reformer Jacob Arminius (known as Arminians) usually believe that a person can be once saved but then "backslide" by falling into sin and loose their salvation. Baptists of a more Calvinist persuasion would say that if a believer backslides that means that he or she was not really saved to begin with.

The doctrine of Purgatory makes sense. A person who is a believer and who has confessed their sin and asked God forgiveness is forgiven. However, the negative consequences of the sin still remain. If you die and there is still a bunch of sin darkening your soul you are not yet ready to stand in the presence of God. It is like a child who is out playing in the mud who is called home for dinner. Mother is not going to let the child sit at the dinner table until he takes a bath and changes clothes.

In the modern day Catholic Church we don't talk too much about Purgatory anymore. I am going to start saying some of the prayers in Blessed Be God for the souls in Purgatory. However, I am not going to worry too much about how many days that I will get off my own stay in Purgatory for doing so.

Martin Luther denounces the sale of indulgences in his 95 Theses

At the risk of being accused of still thinking like a Protestant, it seems to this old former Southern Baptist that having people running around worrying about how much time they could get off their sentence in Purgatory pretty much deserves the criticism which has been leveled on it by Protestants. First of all, it's really meaningless to say that you've got 300 days or 300 years Indulgence. What does time mean in the afterlife? What does 300 days suffering in Purgatory mean next to Eternity. By definition if the soul is in Purgatory then that soul is destined for Heaven. I'll gladly take 300 or 3000 years in Purgatory if at the end of it I will be happy with Jesus forever in Paradise. Scripture says that with God a thousand years is as one day. (2 Peter 1:8)  Linear time as we know it here on Earth will have no meaning in the next life.

The kind of thinking that had kids trying to say as many rosaries as fast as possible to stack up indulgences is a mechanical kind of legalistic religion which we do not want to return to. This is really akin to the kind of error taking place in Martin Luther's day when Popes and Bishops were trying to sell indulgences as a revenue raising measure. ("A coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.").

An actor portrays the infamous indulgence seller Johann Tetzel in the movie "Luther"

We should talk about Purgatory and seek to humbly pray and do good works. We should do this Not because of the benefit we seek to gain from it but because of our faith in Christ and love for God. We should not give our Protestant friends cause to accuse us of trying to work our way to Heaven. To me the whole argument of Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide) verses Justification by Works is largely arguing over semantics anyway. Saint James said "Faith without works is dead." (James 2:26) That's why Luther wanted to take the Epistle of James out of the Bible. If you're really "saved" then you are going to want to try to stop sinning and bear good fruit in your life. True faith will bring forth good works.

There is a lot about the "old Church" that was good and needs to come back. Indulgenced prayers are a good thing so long as these prayers are said out of faithful conviction and not just to rack up points like life was a giant gameshow with God as the scorekeeper.


  1. The time off of Purgatory is a common misconception. The days and years attached are an equivalent measure. So the one with 7 years is worth doing 7 years worth of unindulgenced penance.

    The time spent is purgatory is to purify the soul, this includes making up for the wrong you did. The racking up points can be better seen as spiritually picking up litter on the side of a highway, painting over graffiti, or refinished a damaged surface. Using the Church's treasury of merit to bring more grace into your life and the lives of others is very good. Rack up those points and fill up the coffers with the heavenly rewards our Savior told us about.

  2. Perhaps this will help:

    When you read "300 Days Indulgence", what that meant was that you would receive the same indulgence from Purgatory as if you had done penance for 300 days on earth. If anything, that should give one a greater appreciation for just what a great mercy indulgences are.

    However, Paul VI, changed the format of indulgences (as was his right) to simply "plenary" or "partial" with no specific designation.

    I wouldn't worry too much about Protestant misconceptions either, as this can be easily explained. None of us can "earn" our way to Heaven, and indulgences are simply gifts from the treasury of the Church's graces that are available to us. However, they are only effective when the indulgenced act is done in the right manner and with the right disposition.

    I hope that helps.

  3. Thanks for the clarification guys! See how poorly some of us converts have been catechized?

    Still, I think that Pope Paul VI's simplification of this was a good move. All the stuff about indulgences of specific days and years still seems to me to be a bit too legalistic and mechanical.