There are few tenets of the Catholic Church so little understood, or so grossly misrepresented by her adversaries, as her doctrine regarding Indulgences.
One of the reasons of the popular misapprehension of an Indulgence may be ascribed to the change which the meaning of that term has gradually undergone. The word Indulgence originally signified favor, remission or forgiveness. Now, it is commonly used in the sense of unlawful gratification, and of free scope to the passions. Hence, when some ignorant or prejudiced persons hear of the Church granting an Indulgence the idea of license to sin is at once presented to their minds.
An Indulgence is simply a remission in whole or in part, through the superabundant merits of Jesus Christ and His saints, of the temporal punishment due to God on account of sin after the guilt and eternal punishment have been remitted.
It should be borne in mind that, even after our guilt is removed, there often remains some temporal punishment to be undergone, either in this life or the next, as an expiation to Divine sanctity and justice. The Holy Scripture furnishes us with many examples of this truth. Mary, the sister of Moses, was pardoned the sin which she had committed by murmuring against her brother. Nevertheless, God inflicted on her the penalty of leprosy and of seven days' separation from the people.[Num. xii.]
Nathan, the prophet, announced to David that his crimes were forgiven, but that he should suffer many chastisements from the hand of God.[II Kings xii.]
That our Lord has given to the Church the power of granting Indulgences is clearly deduced from the Sacred Text. To the Prince of the Apostles He said: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven."[Matt. xvi. 19.] And to all the Apostles assembled together He made the same solemn declaration.[Ibid., xviii. 18.] By these words our Savior empowered His Church to deliver her children (if properly disposed) from every obstacle that might retard them from the Kingdom of Heaven. Now there are two impediments that withhold a man from the heavenly kingdom--sin and the temporal punishment incurred by it. And the Church having power to remit the greater obstacle, which is sin, has power also to remove the smaller obstacle, which is the temporal punishment due on account of it.
The prerogative of granting Indulgence has been exercised by the teachers of the Church from the beginning of her existence.
St. Paul exercised it in behalf of the incestuous Corinthian whom he had condemned to a severe penance proportioned to his guilt, "that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord."[I Cor. v. 5.] And having learned afterwards of the Corinthian's fervent contrition the Apostle absolves him from the penance which he had imposed: "To him, that is such a one, this rebuke is sufficient, which is given by many. So that contrariwise you should rather pardon and comfort him, lest, perhaps, such a one be swallowed up with over-much sorrow. ... And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes I have done it in the person of Christ."[II Cor. ii. 6-10.]
Here we have all the elements that constitute an Indulgence. First--A penance, or temporal punishment proportioned to the gravity of the offence, is imposed on the transgressor. Second--The penitent is truly contrite for his crime. Third--This determines the Apostle to remit the penalty. Fourth--The Apostle considers the relaxation of the penance ratified by Jesus Christ, in whose name it is imparted.
We find the Bishops of the Church, after the Apostle, wielding this same power. No one disputes the right, which they claimed from the very first ages, of inflicting canonical penances on grievous criminals, who were subjected to long fasts, severe abstinences and other mortifications for a period extending from a few days to five or ten years and even to a lifetime, according to the gravity of the offence. These penalties were, in several instances, mitigated or cancelled by the Church, according to her discretion; for a society that can inflict a punishment can also remit it. Our Lord gave His Church power not only to bind, but also to loose. This discretionary prerogative was often exercised by the Church at the intercession of those who were condemned to martyrdom, when the penitents themselves gave strong marks of fervent sorrow, as we learn from the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian.
The General Council of Nice and other Synods authorize Bishops to mitigate, or even to remit altogether, public penances, whenever, in their judgment, the penitent manifested special marks of repentance. Now, in relaxing the canonical penances, or in substituting for them a milder satisfaction, the Bishops granted what we call an Indulgence. This sentence of remission on the part of the Bishops was valid not only in the sight of the Church, but also in the sight of God. Although the Church imposes canonical penances no longer, God has never ceased to inflict temporal punishment for sin. Hence Indulgences continue to be necessary now, if not as substitute for canonical penances, at least as a mild and merciful payment of the temporal debt due to God.
An Indulgence is called plenary or partial, according as it remits the whole or part of the temporal punishment due to sin. An Indulgence, for instance, of forty days remits, before God, so much of the temporal punishment as would have been expiated in the primitive Church by a canonical penance of forty days.
Although the very name of Indulgence is now so repugnant to our dissenting brethren, there was a time when the Protestant Church professed to grant them. In the canons of the Church of England reference is made to Indulgences, and to the disposition to be made of the money paid for them.[Articuli pro Clero, a.d. 1584. Sparrow, 194. I admit, indeed, that Protestant canons have but a fleeting and ephemeral authority even among themselves, and that the canons must yield to the spirit of the times, not the times to the canons. I dare say that even few Protestant theologians are familiar with the canons to which I have referred. Some people have a convenient faculty of forgetting unpleasant traditions.]
From what I have said you may judge for yourself what to think of those who say that an Indulgence is the remission of past sins, or a license to commit sin granted by the Pope as a spiritual compensation to the faithful for pecuniary offerings made him. I need not inform you that an Indulgence is neither the one nor the other. It is not a remission of sin, since no one can gain an Indulgence until he is already free from sin. It is still less a license to commit sin; for every Catholic child knows that neither Priest nor Bishop nor Pope nor even God Himself--with all reverence be it said--can give license to commit the smallest fault.
But are not Indulgences at variance with the spirit of the Gospel, since they appear to be a mild and feeble substitute for alms-giving, fasts, abstinences and other penitential austerities, which Jesus Christ inculcated and practised, and which the primitive Church enforced?
The Church, as every one must know who is acquainted with her history, never exempts her children from the obligation of doing works of penance.
No one can deny that the practices of mortification are more frequent among Catholics than among Protestants. Where will you find the evangelical duty of fasting enforced, if not from the Catholic pulpit? It is well known that, among the members of the Catholic Church, those who avail themselves of the boon of Indulgences are usually her most practical, edifying and fervent children. Their spiritual growth far from being retarded, is quickened by the aid of Indulgences, which are usually accompanied by acts of contrition, devotion, self-denial and the reception of the Sacraments.
But, do what we will, we cannot please our opponents. If we fast and give alms; if we crucify our flesh, and make pilgrimages and perform other works of penance, we are accused of clinging to the rags of dead works, instead of "holding on to Jesus" by faith. If, on the other hand, we enrich our souls with the treasures of Indulgences we are charged with relying on the vicarious merits of others and of lightening too much the salutary burden of the cross. But how can Protestants consistently find fault with the Church for mitigating the austerities of penance, since their own fundamental principle rests on faith alone without good works?
But have not Indulgences been the occasion of many abuses at various times, particularly in the sixteenth century?
I will not deny that Indulgences have been abused; but are not the most sacred things liable to be perverted? This is a proper place to refer briefly to the Bull of Pope Leo X proclaiming the Indulgence which afforded Luther a pretext for his apostasy. Leo determined to bring to completion the magnificent Church of St. Peter, commenced by his predecessor, Julius II. With that view he issued a Bull promulgating an Indulgence to such as would contribute some voluntary offering toward the erection of the grand cathedral. Those, however, who contributed nothing shared equally in the treasury of the Church, provided they complied with the essential conditions for gaining the Indulgence. The only indispensable conditions enjoined by the Papal Bull were sincere repentance and confession of sins. D'Aubigne admits this truth, though in a faltering manner, when he observes that "in the Pope's Bull something was said of the repentance of the heart and the confession of the lips."[Vol. I. p. 214.] The applicants for the Indulgence knew well that, no matter how munificent were their offerings, these would avail them nothing without true contrition of heart.
No traffic or sale of Indulgences was, consequently, authorized or countenanced by the Head of the Church, since the contributions were understood to be voluntary. In order to check any sordid love of gain in those charged with preaching the Indulgence, "the hand that delivered the Indulgence," as D'Aubigne testifies, "could not receive the money: that was forbidden under the severest penalties."[Ibid.]
Wherein, then, was the conduct of the Pope reprehensible? Certainly not in soliciting the donations of the faithful for the purpose of erecting a temple of worship, a temple which today stands unrivalled in majesty and beauty!
"But thou of temples old, or altars new,
Standest alone, with nothing like to thee;
Worthiest of God, the holy and the true,
Since Sion's desolation, when that He
Forsook His former city, what could be
Of earthly structures, in His honor piled,
Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty,
Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty, all are aisled
In this eternal ark of worship undefiled."[Byron]
If Moses was justified in appealing to the Hebrew people, in the Old Law, for offerings to adorn the tabernacle, why should not the Pope be equally justified in appealing for similar offerings to the Christian people, among whom he exercises supreme authority, as Moses did among the Israelites?
Nor did the Pope exceed his legitimate powers in promising to the pious donors spiritual favors in exchange for their donations. For if our sins can be redeemed by alms to the poor,[Daniel iv. 24.] as the Scripture tells us, why not as well by offerings in the cause of religion? When Protestant ministers appeal to their congregations in behalf of themselves and their children, or in support of a church, they do not fail to hold out to their hearers spiritual blessings in reward for their gifts. It is not long since a Methodist parson of New York addressed these sacred words to Cornelius Vanderbilt, the millionaire, who had endowed a Methodist college: "Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thy alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God."[Acts x. 31.] The minister is more indulgent than even the Pope, to whom were given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; for the minister declares Cornelius absolved without the preliminary of confession or contrition, while even, according to D'Aubigne, the inflexible Pope insisted on the necessity of "repentance of the heart and confession of the lips" before the donor's offering could avail him to salvation.
John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, who had been appointed the chief preacher to announce the Indulgence in Germany, was accused by Luther of exceeding his powers by making them subservient to his own private ends. Tetzel's conduct was disavowed and condemned by the representative of the Holy See. The Council of Trent, held some time after, took effectual measures to put a stop to all irregularities regarding Indulgences and issued the following decree: "Wishing to correct and amend the abuses which have crept into them, and on occasion of which this signal name of Indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, the Holy Synod enjoins in general, by the present decree, that all wicked traffic for obtaining them, which has been the fruitful source of many abuses among the Christian people, should be wholly abolished."[Sess. xxv. Dec. de Indulgentia.]