Saturday, 23 July 2011

"I feel like they're telling God what to do."

In my last post, I repeated the explanation of Indulgences I gave to a friend of mine, who'd never heard of them. In this post, we'll look at some of the objections I've heard to them, and examine the basis for the Church's teaching on Indulgences.

Talking to another young Catholic a while ago, she said that she didn't believe in Indulgences because she felt like they were a way of "telling what God what to do" i.e. that He must remit the temporal punishment due to our sins. Certainly, I can see where she's coming from, but on closer inspection, it doesn't make much sense. Think about it - from this point of view, aren't the Sacraments also a way of telling God what to do? The priest says certain words and does certain actions, and therefore God baptises us, forgives our sins, seals us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and allows us to consume His Body under the appearance of bread. How is this less shocking than Indulgences? Obviously, this isn't a good way of understanding the Sacraments, and neither is it a good way of understanding Indulgences.

Rather, like the Sacraments, Indulgences are ways that God communicates His superabundant love (grace) to us in this life. In the Sacraments, we receive a share of His divine life. In Indulgences, we receive a share of His merits. Again, even the word 'merit' can raise an objection from other Christians, who sometimes think we're saying that if you can earn enough 'Jesus points', you get to Heaven (this is the heresy of Pelagianism, against which the Church fought strenuously). So what do we mean by 'merit'? Our belief in the Treasury of Merit, and therefore Indulgences, has its basis in Our Lord's own words - "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal." [Mt 6:19-21]

In the previous paragraphs, Our Lord has told His disciples not to imitate the hypocrites, who fast and pray and give alms in public so that people will praise them, but rather to do them so as to please God, and God will reward them. It's very clear then, that such things as penances, prayer, and charity are 'worth something' in God's eyes, are in fact a "treasure" which is stored in heaven for us.

Of greatest value, indeed of infinite value, are the absolutely perfect treasures stored up by Jesus Himself - who ever fasted, prayed or did charity more perfectly, or was more pleasing to God the Father in this life? St. Paul writes of the Lord that because He "became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, therefore God has highly exalted him." [Phil 2:8-9] On this verse, St. Thomas Aquinas comments, "Therefore by obeying He merited His exaltation and thus He merited something for Himself." [ST III, Q 19.4]

Yet, because God's love isn't just 'enough' but 'super-abundant', this treasury of His is added to by the spiritual treasures of Our Lady, next in perfection to Him, and of the saints, all of whom have been perfected by being conformed to His nature. The face that "all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy" [CCC 1477] avoids any critical nonsense about the Catholic Church exalting the saints to the same level as God - they're only perfect because they've been perfected by Him, whereas He is, of His very nature, perfect.

All this is well and good. Store up treasure in Heaven by praying, doing penances, and acts of charity which are pleasing to God - check. But what do Christ, and Mary, and the saints do with it all? Is it for their pleasure only? Can they even share His merits with us on Earth (or souls in Purgatory, for that matter)? Our answer to this will depend a lot on what our vision of Heaven is like. In my opinion, too many Christians imagine Heaven as place of inert bliss, with souls floating about, not doing much. This isn't how Our Lord describes it, and in a well known parable, He gives us a clue about the truth of life in Heaven.

In the famous Parable of the Talents [cf. Mt 25:14-30], Our Lord describes a man going abroad, and entrusting his own property to his servants. As we know, the one who was given 5 talents made another 5, the one with 2 doubled his as well, and the servant with 1 hid his in the ground. Do you remember what the master says to the two servants who invested wisely? "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have shown you are faithful [or trustworthy] in small things; I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master's happiness." [emphasis mine].

When recalling the Master's words, too many of us leave out the part I've emphasised here. Another translation reads "...I will place you over many [things]", indicating a position of authority and responsibility. This certainly runs counter to what "[sharing] in your master's happiness" conjures up for many people.

It seems that the Master's good and faithfuul servants have things to do in Heaven. Might not their investments then be shared out with other servants in the household? According to our belief in the Communion of Saints, ably laid about by St Paul in his analogy of the body, they can. In clarifying the theology of Indulgences, Clement VII in the bull 'Unigenitas' used imagery from this parable, saying that Christ did not "hide His treasure in a napkin" as did the unwise servant, but laid up an "inestimable treasure for mankind".The merits of Christ, the good Master and the faithful Servant, and those of His saints, are able to be distributed to us by the power of the keys which He gave to Peter, and of binding and loosing, given to the Apostles. No limit is set on this authority, because it is Christ's own, shared with His Body, the Church.
so, don't be afraid of attempting to gain indulgences. In fact, search 'Enchiridion of Indulgences' on Google, and download the Church's handbook of Indulgences. You'll see that a lot of what you do already is indulgences in some way. Then tell others about them. Be a good and faithful servant and share the treasure which Christ has stored up for us!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

"What's an Indulgence?"

Enjoying a Sunday afternoon with a couple of friends, the conversation turned, as it usually does, to matters spiritual. We talked about Medjugorje (far too much was said to recount here, but all in a spirit of charity), which lead to a brief chat about the new Brown Scapular one of them had just received. He's a fairly recent convert to Catholicism, and a guy of such good humour, honest nature, and a real working-man (an electrician), that I always imagine he'd have been in his element 'talking shop' with those other holy working-men, the Apostles.

It turns out that none of us knew very much about the Brown Scapular, other than it was something to do with the Carmelites. The guy who'd given it to him had told him that if you die whilst wearing, you go straight to Heaven, at which point I made the 'wrong answer' noise from Family Fortunes [errrhhh-uurrrhhh!]. A quick check on the Carmelites' website revealed, as I suspected, that this is nonsense and that they've taken pains to distance themselves from the silly superstitions which have become attached to this devotion, which is almost as old as the Rosary. I also discovered that it's an English devotion of sorts, so naturally I'm all for it.

Something the guy told my friend which was true, however, was that an indulgence could be gained by kissing the Scapular. Unfortunately, you have to be formally enrolled in the Scapular to gain this indulgence, and I get the impression that the guy gave it to him as some sort of 'good luck charm', or the Catholic equivalent at any rate. Needless to say, my friend "just started wearing in" but didn't know any of this at the time.

On the plus side, it did lead him to ask about indulgences, about which he knew even less than the scapular he'd been wearing for weeks. Certainly, this is one of those topics, like the Crusades, the Inquisition, or Galileo, about which so many lies have been spread by critics of the Church, and for so long, that even Catholics think they must be true (indulgences are "buying your way out of Hell" etc...). That being the case, it's more important than ever for us Catholics to understand precisely what an Indulgence is, and what it is not, and more important still, to make them part of our practice of the Faith.

The Church's teaching on Indulgences is clearly laid out in the Catechism, 1471-1479. However, this is all theological language, and can be difficult for some. This is how I explained it...

Imagine you're playing football outside in the garden of the house which is owned by your friend, in which you rent a room, and you're having so much fun you start to get carried away. Perhaps you even think to yourself, "I should calm down a bit. This could all end in tears," but you're having such a good time, you don't listen to Jimminy Cricket, and so, almost inevitably, you end up breaking your friend's window. [This is the act of sin].

However, two things are actually broken now - the window, and your friendship with your friend. After all, it was your fault, and you were being silly. [cf. CCC 1472 - sin deprives us of communion/friendship with God, which is called 'eternal punishment due to sin', and also has here-and-now consequences, which is called 'temporal punishment'.]

So, seeing the damage you've caused, you apologise profusely, promise not to behave like an animal in or around their house again, and being merciful, your friend forgives you, and your friendship is restored [the same happens through the Sacrament of Confession; we ask forgiveness for our sins, and God forgives us, and so we are spared the eternal punishment due to the sins we've just confessed, and are restored to friendship with God].

However, as nice as it is that you're on friendly terms again, none of that fixes the broken window. Someone is going to have to pay for it, and in all fairness (a better word is 'justice'), it should be you - you broke it, you pay for it. It's not a penalty, or a harsh fine that's being inflicted on you, it's the debt you owe as a direct result of your carelessness [cf. CCC 1473 - "sufferings and trials of all kinds" come our way as a direct result of our sinful actions. The Christian should accept these as a grace, an opportunity to pay our debt, even taking up works of mercy, penances, and prayer as well, as a way to grow spiritually so as to avoid sinning in the future].

As it happens, you're in luck, because you know that your friend has put by a fund for just such an occasion. It turns out, that through your friend's contributions, and the contributions of lots of others who've lived in the house before you, there's lots of money in the fund, and all you need to do is apply for it, and the window will be fixed lickety-split [cf CCC 1476-77. This is the act of gaining the Indulgence, whereby our temporal punishment due to sin is remitted, 'paid for' by the merits of Christ and the saints from the Treasury of Merit.]

That, in a nutshell, is the process and purpose of Indulgences, yet more does need to be said. In the next post, we'll look at two of the most common objections to Indulgences, and then see on what basis the Church holds to this doctrine.