But even among Catholics, who know better than to be led astray by such distorted phantoms of the imagination, there is a tendency to put in the background, at least of thought, if not of devotional life, the whole subject of indulgences as an abstruse and almost esoteric part of the Christian belief, with little practical bearing on the everyday life of the soul. We have before now come across converts who told us that their instructors had assured them that, provided they gave their assent to the teaching of the Church of God on that particular point, they need not trouble their heads further about it. To all intents and purposes, it was relegated to an academic atmosphere, remote from the living circle of the great dogmas that mould the Catholic life from the cradle to the grave. This lack of true perspective can only arise from a want of consideration of what the Church actually teaches as regards indulgences. The difficulties that at first sight seem to enshroud the dogma with an impenetrable gloom, disappear almost imperceptibly when its real meaning and spiritual importance become apparent. For, in truth, no doctrine perhaps is more luminous in its bearing upon Catholic belief and conduct than that which links the Church of the twentieth century with the Church of the third and fourth centuries by an identical formula.
If it is the proud boast of the Catholic and Roman Church that she is semper eadem — teaching today what she taught at the beginning — an identity of type characterizing her doctrine (all development being from within, like the increase in stature of a growing child); this note of sameness is nowhere more prominent than in the doctrine, so much misunderstood and withal so fiercely attacked, of indulgences. The name itself should be sufficient to prove this; it brings us back to the early days of the Church’s history, when persecution tried the faith of her children, and discipline in reconciling the lapsed was correspondingly severe. Here is a confessor in prison, awaiting death for the love he bore to Christ — a love stronger than the ties of life; here is a poor sinner, perchance one who had been regarded as a light for his holiness, perchance a priest of the altar, who through cowardice had burnt a few grains of incense before a statue of the Emperor, and thereby perjured his soul. Remorse seizes him; he can have no peace until he has been reconciled to God and restored to the communion of the Church, which he had forfeited by his sin. What, then, does he do? He knows that he will have to undergo a lengthy penance before the Church will receive him, and he dreads the probation and the disgrace. So he goes to the holy confessor bound with chains in his dreary dungeon, and prays him to intercede in his stead, giving him a letter to present to the bishop in which to ask him, for the sake of his imprisonment and approaching death — in other words, through the application of his merits — to remove in whole or in part the canonical penalty which was the Church’s equivalent for the temporal punishment due to his sin of apostasy. And the bishop recognized the confessor’s plea, and, as the representative of the whole Christian Society, readmitted the penitent to the privileges of communion, without making him undergo the long months or years of penitential humiliation.
But the doctrine of indulgences is not only a support to faith, in that it is a striking witness to the purity of the Catholic faith, which remains unchanged, in spite of all the fluctuations of time; it has also a distinct place of importance in the spiritual life of conflict against temptation and sin. As defined by theologians, an indulgence is declared to be “the remission of temporal punishment still due from the sinner after the guilt of his sin has been washed away, — which remission is binding at the tribunal of God in heaven, since its force lies in the application of the treasure of the Church made by a lawful superior.” To understand fully the spiritual benefits conferred by an indulgence it is necessary to consider the precise meaning of that “temporal,” or non-eternal, “punishment” which is cancelled by the application of the merits stored in the treasure-house of the Catholic Church.
It is true that sometimes in ancient forms of indulgences we find reference made to the forgiveness of sins, e.g., “Concedimus indulgentiam omnium peccatorum;” “Relaxamus tertiam partem peccatorum;” “Absolvimus a culpa et a poena,” etc. But in the first place, it must be remembered that we have Scriptural authority for including the punishment due to sin under the general term “sin,” as, e. g., in I Peter 2 : 24, “Who (Himself) bore our sins in His body upon the tree;” — so that the true meaning of the words in question is, “We relax or grant indulgence for the whole temporal punishment still to be expiated for sins committed and pardoned ... or for its third part.” In the second place, if, as we have seen, sacramental confession is the usual prerequisite condition for an indulgence to be gained, it is plain that both the culpa and the poena — the guilt and the pain of sin — are remitted by indulgences: the one indirectly by previous confession and absolution (or by an act of contrition), the other directly by the bestowal of the indulgence.
But apart altogether from the blot of guilt that stains the immaculate purity of the soul, each sin entails a penalty, rivets a fetter of pain upon the sinner, which he has to bear in order to satisfy the just demands of the outraged majesty of God. The guilt, the crime, the culpa of sin is not touched by the grant of any indulgence, however great; but the punishment, the temporal effect of sin still remaining to be expiated, after the sin itself has been forgiven and its eternal punishment escaped, — this secondary consequence can be remitted wholly or partially by the officers of Christ’s Church — the Supreme Pontiff (the successor of him to whom the promise was made, “Whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth shall be loosed also in heaven”) and the bishops throughout the world in communion with him who can echo the words of St. Paul, “What we have pardoned for your sakes we have done it in the person of Christ.”
This temporal punishment which survives the forgiveness of the actual sin is manifold. It comprises such effects of transgression as loss of money, of friends, of one’s good name; disease of body, failure of mental power, remorse of soul, destroying, like a canker worm, all happiness and peace. It enters even into the sphere of the after-life. Punishment unexpiated here has to be undergone in purgatory, where the “penal waters” finally obliterate the last traces of sinful rebellion. But more terrible, because spiritual in their consequences, than these obvious results of sin, are the evil habits contracted, the links of the long chain of evil influences, that weigh down and hold back the penitent, as he tries painfully to rise after his sad and disgraceful fall. Each separate act of sin tends to make resistance to the temptation more difficult. The habit formed does not vanish with the forgiven sin; it abides with us as a reminder of our ingratitude, a mute witness to the awful sanctity of God whose law we have so lightly set at naught.
This branch of temporal punishment is often lost sight of, although its bearing on the spiritual profit of indulgences makes it of the utmost importance. An indulgence is too often regarded as a mechanical balancing of the books, so that the credit side of the soul's account with God may equal the debit, whereas it positively aids us in our struggle against sin. It only needs for us to look into ourselves to realize the fact of the advantage to be gained by a greater or less freedom from the thralldom of evil memories, evil propensities, which sinful actions inevitably bear in their train as by a natural law. The guilt of our sin has been destroyed; the absolving words said over us, and we have felt to the centre of our being that we have been truly forgiven by God. And yet in spite of this, we are sadly conscious that our life is different from what it was before we sinned. Sin has thrown its bewitching glamor around us, and once having yielded to its fatal charm we find it hard to resist when it allures us a second time.
We know that such is not the case. As we have sown, so do we reap. Each sin bears its fruit as surely as the tree its blossoms. The evil habits contracted in youth, of carelessness, sloth, self-indulgence, undisciplined speech, unbridled desire — habits that increase in our riper years — are hardly broken. Our sins may be blotted out, but their chastisement remains. We carry ever about with us a diseased imagination, a knowledge of evil, penetrating our every thought, from which we cannot shake ourselves free. The weight of the heavy chains of evil habit and inclination, forged by us so tightly when we sinned, bows us down to this lower earth, keeping us back from spiritual progress.
It is to destroy this secondary effect of sin, this accumulation of evil habits, this temporal penalty in its many ramifications, that indulgences are granted us by the Church. The sinner must pay the debt of punishment, or another must pay it in his stead. In the Catholic Church, as in some palace of kings, there is a treasury wherein is contained wealth, infinite, inexhaustible — even the satisfactions of Christ and the super-abounding merits of His saints. This boundless sea of satisfaction can be applied to individual members of the Body of Christ, because they are His members — bone of His bone, flesh of His flesh — and the power and virtue flowing from the Head reaches to each least part of the organism vitally united to Him. And this application of indulgences cancels the debt, unloosens the bands of the sinner’s pain, and sets him free from the captivity of evil. The evil habit that cloaks the soul, driving out the air and sunshine of every holy impulse; the heavy chain that clanks drearily as the sinner tries to enter the house of peace; the searching punishment that falls with heavy weight upon his shoulders; the temporal misfortunes that God’s sanctity demands in reparation for repeated acts of rebellion — all are set aside by the gracious act of the Redeemer Who from the Cross granted the first indulgence to the penitent thief: “Today shalt thou, freed by My royal word from every bond of sin, today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.”
Thus, an indulgence is of real advantage to the soul. If it is no relic of a far-distant past, possessing only an antiquarian interest, but an important witness to the identity of the Catholic Faith of the twentieth century with that of the primitive age, it is doubly true that besides its evidential value, it is of solid profit to us in the spiritual life of toil and battle. Each indulgence that we gain releases us from the effects of sin — effects that hinder us in our struggles against evil —, strengthens our resolutions, and brings us nearer to God. We cannot see here the full extent of the benefits thereby conferred upon us. We can only know from inward experience how the seductions of sin become less powerful, the influence of evil habit decreases, the sad memories of past falls fade away, presaging the glad day when, through the virtue of indulgences powerful even beyond the veil, we enter the gates of the City of everlasting peace.
Taken from The Dolphin, Vol. 1, 1902