When I asked my dear, dear, friend, Dr. Mary C. Moorman, if she would be willing to enlighten us on Indulgences and their applications in the family she graciously agreed – despite her busy schedule. With her doctoral work on Indulgences Mary is an expert on the subject, and this summer her first book, Indulgences: Luther, Catholicism, and the Imputation of Merit was published by Emmaus Academic. This scholarly work, replete with research from her time spent in the Vatican Secret Archives, explores the role of Indulgences in the history of the Church and their continued relevance for Christians today. It is my pleasure to share her wisdom with y’all today!
If you all will take a moment and make the sign of the Cross + with the intention of obtaining an indulgence, you’ve done it. We did not have to fast for a week or undertake a long pilgrimage to obtain that indulgence. By the way, indulgences also attach to any moment of mental prayer, any reading of Scripture, and conversation which communicates the Catholic Faith.
What is an indulgence? An indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due for sins of which guilt has already been forgiven… which the faithful Christian gains through the action of the Church.” When I explain this definition to my seven year old daughter, to whom my book is dedicated, I put it this way: an indulgence is an act which honors God, which we offer to redeem our time and buy it back after we have sinned. That is basically what an indulgence is. In response to out act of faith, God covers us and the penalty that is due for our sin with His righteousness when we have none of our own to offer. In indulgences Jesus imputes His righteousness to us.
In Wittenburg, exactly 500 years ago, Luther proposed that indulgences are “pious frauds” which the Church proposes to her faithful, in grandiose presumption of falsely assumed authority. And ever since, and as of now, what has followed has been five hundred years of the most grievous kind of schism. What was so significant about these indulgences that was able to ignite such controversy? What was it that set this conversation apart from the dozens of other medieval reform movements which had characterized the Europe of Martin Luther’s time, so as to result in nation rising against nation, and the foundation of protestantism in its entirety? Could it be that this arcane and slightly embarrassing practice of the Catholic Church points beyond itself to something that goes to the very hear of the Church’s identity and vocation? Could it be that indulgences call us to be who in Christ we truly are?
As we all know, the Catholic Church calmly continued and even increased her promulgation of indulgences following Martin Luther’s controversy. The doctrine and practice were robustly addressed and reformed in the Tridentine counsels. The pious work and mission of the Catholic Counter Reformation made many saints, and ran on the indulgenced acts of their preaching, their explication of doctrine, and their simple prayers for the restored unity of the Church and the conversion of sinners. The Church continued to build the religious and civil structures of Europe and the new world on the indulged acts of her members. In the past century alone, historians such as Nikolaus Paulus, Henry Leah, Bernard Pochsmann, and Robert Shaffern have recorded a rich history of the roads, bridges, hospitals, and societies for civic service throughout modern Europe which were all inspired by the opportunity to appropriate indulgences through charitable work. In 1968, the Church’s updated Enchiridion on Indulgences issued forth from the conversations of the Second Vatican Council, and is available like a menu of options for obtaining indulgences, for your quick and easy consideration online. It is an amazing resource.
Today, the frayed indulgence grants of the past centuries (which you can see in the Vatican Secret Archives) had, since the sixteen century all tended to conclude with this uniform injunction: the acts enjoined by any indulgence are ultimately intended to support: 1) the prayers of the faithful, 2) the eradication of heresy, and 3) the exaltation of holy mother Church. And the Church’s apostolic penitentiary has expected that the appropriation of indulgences to do just that. Thus the Vatican has made over thirty decrees on indulgences which pertained throughout the universal Church in the past seventeen years. In short, we are five hundred years past the Protestant movement’s version of indulgences, and yet, everyone is still doing them :). The Church is unapologetically still offering them, because they have something crucial to tell us about who we are in Jesus.
So yes, indulgences so seem to still be timely and relevant for us today. Now more than ever, we live in a time when we are very aware if our sins. Our culture offers the most grievous temptations rapidly, and social media and technology broadcast our pride and our scandals to one another in a moment’s notice. It has become very, very easy and acceptable to spend our time sinning. And in response, indulgences, as a counter measure, are also more readily available and easy to obtain than ever before. The Church’s steady call to the religious life and the priesthood has been increasingly enhanced with more and more indulgences; when I considered the religious life, I was struck by how every moment of every day is lived in the life of eternity, literally and practically enacting the transformation of mundane time into Heavenly time. Not surprisingly, pretty much everything done in the course of the day in a religious community carries an indulgence. At the same time, the Church’s increasingly urgent call for deliberate holiness within marriage and the family is also enhanced by the opportunity to obtain indulgences. Did you know that in the rather mundane life of a stay at home mom there are literally dozens of opportunities to obtain indulgences for one’s self and for the souls in Purgatory? In every moment of mental prayer – whether it be over household appliance or over the salvation of one’s neighbors – in every sign of the cross before meals, in every opportunity to impart the faith to our children, we can spent our time in exchange for nearness to Heaven, of ourselves, for souls in Purgatory, and for the whole world. Indulgences lay open a wide mission field for ministry that is suddenly as available and accessible to the mother at her kitchen sink as it is to the religious missionary and the clergy.
In light of these opportunities, more fundamentally what do indulgences have to say about us – and our Lord – today?
First, at the most basic level, indulgences say the same thing that they have said all along. And remind us that what we do with our time before our death really, really, matters. Our lives do not stand still; how we spend our time either propels us closer our Lord in Heaven, or positions us for further preparation, according to His merciful will, in Purgatory. Our time matters, and it is redeemable, it can be bought back, as St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5: “redeem the time, because the days are evil.” In indulgences we buy back the time we have spent in sin.
And in this way, the offer of indulgences dignifies us as active participants in our own restoration, as we are invited to deliberately re-create ourselves rather than just passively undergoing the suffering which inevitably follows from our sins. Indulgences dignify us. They even dignify our spiritual poverty and our needs, since indulgences attach to our every prayer for mercy and forgiveness and for any kind of divine help.
Furthermore, the acts of devotion to which indulgences attach – serving the needy, mental prayer, Scripture reading – recall us to the perfect rest that is possible in God, because indulgenced acts are works which are done for their own sake. They may have no other utility or usefulness other than the celebration of our union with our Savior. And indulgences underscore the truth that that union is enough. Like the penitent who broke her alabaster box to anoint Jesus’s feet, in indulgences we recall that there are some things which are worth doing for their own sake, even though they may “waste our time” in the world’s eyes. We do these things on the model of our Savior, who spent Himself on us.
Jesus spent Himself to purchase us. And this is the second aspect of what indulgences say to us in our time. Because Jesus entered into a transaction – a purchase – for our sake at Calvary, in Him we transact with God too. We in the Church are those people who have made a binding covenant with God; particularly in indulgences we offer one thing to Him in exchange for another. Indulgences are not sacraments; in themselves, they do not heal us ontologically from within; they are instances of mere exchange with God. And this is perhaps the greatest scandal the indulgences have presented to the watching world, and perhaps it is the greatest surprise as well: it is her sinful penitents that the Church sends to enact the covenant with God in the form of reparative indulgences. We are confronted with the fact that we fundamentally believe that we are unworthy to enter into covenant with God. But in His mercy, this honorable transaction is given for sinners. Here we hear Jesus saying to us, in our sins and our debts, “NO really, You are the ones I came for.” And in sending her penitents to make contracts with God, the post- 16th century church reminds the contemporary world that, just as St. Augustine put it against schismatic heresies in ancient times, in every age the true Church is the one that is seen to be a hospital for sinners… not necessarily a society for saints.
Thirdly, the role which indulgences play in the identity of the Church is this point which I consider to be the most significant thing that indulgences underscore for us today, in our post 16th century, schismatic world, in our age of sinners. In the medieval period, the preachers referred to the nuptial relationship between Christ and the Church to justify and explain the Church’s teachings on indulgences. In our day, a Church teaching like this one still requires and provokes something like what the prophet uttered millennia ago: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still… until her vindication shines forth like dawning, and her victory like the day of the Lord… (for) nations shall behold your glory… (for) as a young man marries a virgin, do shall your Lord marry you… as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so shall I YOUR Lord rejoice over you (Isaiah 62).”
In my work on Indulgences, I highlighted the fact that they have offered us the opportunity to enter into covenant with God. They are tokens of the value of our time and the dignity of our work in restoring that time. But these aspects ultimately point beyond themselves to the vindication of the corporate Church as the covenant Bride of Christ. In our time indulgences tell us something audacious and radicle about who the Church is, and who we are within her. She is not a fractured community in diaspora, loosely held together by the emerging consensus of her members. She is most certainly not the whore of Babylon who defies the Gospel. Rather, the Church’s daring offer of indulgences to us forces us to grapple with her more fundamental claim that she is one with our Lord, here and now, because the Church has become one with His flesh, bone of His bone, bearing His name and wielding His authority – even that authority to remit the temporal punishment that is due for our sins. The Church has this status because Jesus’ covenant with her. Just like in any contract, He has offered Himself, she has accepted, and she indicates and ratifies her consent daily in the bodies and acts of her faithful. From this covenant flows an ontological union between Christ and His members in the Church, this is created and nourished by the sacraments. But the particular idea of covenant, in exchange of vows which began it all, which was enacted in Christ’s body at Calvary, is imitated particularly in indulgences where a divine offer of mercy is appropriated and accepted by the acts of faith which the Church prescribes. The Church can do something as daring as to propose and authorize indulgences because in her nuptials she has become one with her Lord: the two have become one flesh. The Church offers her indulgences to us, and it is Christ Himself who grants them.
In our time, this is the radical claim which the entirety of the Christian tradition authorizes: the Church is the Bride of Christ.