It has been said by some outside the Church, that an indulgence is “the Catholic Church’s permission for a person to indulge in sin.” So, when someone hears that the Catholic Church has granted an indulgence, they might think wrongly that the Church has granted them a “right to sin.” In today’s environment, the current usage for the term “indulgence” seems to be understood as “a stamp of approval for some wrongdoing.” But, the original meaning of the word means “favor,” “remission,” or “forgiveness.”
What is an indulgence? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.” The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead (#1471).
To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory (please read my post entitled “Does Purgatory Really Exist?”). This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain (#1472).
The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man (#1473).”
An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity (#1478).
Now, to illustrate that a sin has both guilt and consequences attached to it, let me share an analogy that may help. It is taken from Fr. Mario Romero’s book, “Unabridged Christianity.” He says this:
“Suppose that two young boys are playing in their backyard and one of the boys bets the other that he can’t throw a rock through a neighbor’s window. Suppose that the boys are successful in breaking the window and, after discovering the broken window, the neighbor contacts his personal lawyer (who has been given the authority to represent him and make decisions in his absence). Suppose the appointed lawyer tells the boys that his client has forgiven them for what they had done but they are still, nonetheless, responsible for replacing the broken glass in the clients window. In this example, the boys are forgiven of the guilt of their sin but still, out of justice, they are required to pay the price to repair the wrong that they had done.
Suppose that the lawyer, representing the client with the broken window, was to tell the mischievous boys that they are excused from paying the full price of replacing the glass in the window ($40.00) and that they only had to pay $5.00 (which he knew that they could earn by mowing their parents’ yard one time). To go one step further, could not the lawyer representing the client with the broken glass totally excuse the boys from any and all liability to repair the window? Yes, he could. That would be his decision and the decision would, in turn, be ratified by the man whom he represents (pages 340-341).”
If we turn to Scripture, we can see that the forgiven sinner is still required to face the consequences brought about by his sin:
2 Samuel 12:9, 13-18 we read that God forgave David of the guilt of his sin but he still had to pay the consequences of what he had done—his child still died.
James 5:20 we read: “…whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” We see how an individual’s pious works can have an effect in offsetting the consequences of his sins after Jesus has already forgiven the guilt of those sins.
2 Corinthians 5:10, St. Paul (a “saved” Christian) tells us that our sins in this life will have consequences in the next life. In other words, everyone will be held accountable for the consequences of our sins after the guilt (and, thus, the eternal punishment) has been remitted.
Other texts: Num 12:1-15, Num 5:5-8, Sir 3:14, 1 Pet 4:8, Sir 3:29, 2 Cor 2:6-10.
Until next time, God bless.