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!

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