Myths about Indulgences

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From the Editor’s Desk (Saturday, 05-02-2015, Gaudium Press) The subject of indulgences is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Catholic doctrine. Jimmy Akin, author of “The Drama of Salvation” addresses some common myths and misconceptions, his article follows.

Myth 1: A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences.
 
False. Repentance and sacramental confession-not indulgences-are the way to avoid going to hell when one has committed mortal sin. As we will see, indulgences remit only temporal penalties of sins that have already been forgiven, so they cannot stop an unrepentant, unforgiven person from going to hell. Once a person is in hell, no number of indulgences will get him out. The way to avoid hell is by appealing to and accepting God’s mercy while still alive. After death, one’s eternal fate is set (cf. Heb. 9:27).
 
Myth 2: A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed.
 
Again, false. The Church has always taught that indulgences do not apply to sins not yet committed. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that an indulgence “is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power” (1910 ed., s.v. “Indulgences”).
 
Myth 3: A person can buy forgiveness with indulgences.
 
The definition of indulgences presupposes that forgiveness has already taken place: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina, norm 1). Indulgences in no way forgive sins. They deal only with temporal consequences that may be left after sins have been forgiven.
 
Myth 4: Indulgences were invented to make money for the Church.
 
Indulgences developed from reflection on the sacrament of reconciliation. They are a way of encouraging spiritual growth and lessening the temporal consequences that may remain when sins are forgiven. The roots of the practice go back centuries before money-related problems appeared.
 
Myth 5: An indulgence will shorten one’s time in purgatory by a fixed number of days.
 
The Catholic Church does not teach anything about how long or short purgatory is. Indeed, from a temporal perspective, purgatory may be accomplished instantaneously, “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:51-52). In such a case, indulgences could affect its intensity but not its temporal duration.

The origin of this myth is the fact that, in the past, a certain number of “days” were attached to many indulgences. These were not days off in purgatory. Instead, they expressed the value of an indulgence by analogizing it to the number of days’ penance one would have done on Earth under the penitential practices of the early Church.

Moderns had lost touch with the ancient system, which made the reckoning of such “days” confusing. The practice was abolished in 1967 in Pope Paul VI’s constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina.
 
Myth 6: A person formerly could buy indulgences.
 
One never could buy indulgences. The financial scandal surrounding indulgences involved alms-indulgences, in which the giving of alms to a charitable fund was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. The practice was the same in principle as modern nonprofit organizations’ granting premium gifts in thank-yous for donations. That is not the same as selling. The purpose of granting indulgences was to encourage people to do good things and to grow spiritually. Only one kind of indulgence involved alms, and giving alms in itself is a good thing. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes in its article on indulgences: “Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded.” The Council of Trent instituted major reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and because of prior abuses, “in 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions” (Catholic Encyclopedia, loc. cit.). This act proved the Church’s seriousness about removing abuses from indulgences.

From Catholic Answers Insider

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