Of course, this is a contentious issue ecumenically. Yesterday was celebrated as the Festival of the Reformation in the Lutheran Church, because it was on the eve of All Saints that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517. Ever since then, indulgences has been a flashpoint issue in the dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics.
My children were treated yesterday to a “fun” children’s address in which (according to their report) the one giving the address came into the church crying something along the lines of “Pay your money and get your sins forgiven”. They were then taught that sins are only forgiven through confession and repentance. Of course. That is what the Catholic Church teaches too. Indulgences has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins, and perpetuating this myth is not helpful.
But when I tried to explain what an indulgence is to my children, I found myself floundering. That is because there are at least four ideas behind the doctrine of indulgences that need to be comprehended before the doctrine makes any sense – it is like a picture which is dependant upon the frame for its full understanding. That framework consists of the following doctrines:
3) Communion of Saints
4) the Authority of the Church to bind or loose
Each of these issues in turn is hotly contended between our two communions, and just complicates the misunderstandings.
I also find that trying to explain the doctrine of indulgences to a non-Catholic comes up against a problem that is a little like trying to describe to someone what a stained glass window looks like, when you are viewing the window from inside the church, with the light streaming in and making it look beautiful and attractive and gracious, and the person you are trying to explain it to is standing on the outside of the church, seeing only the grey dark blobs of glass with darkness behind it. It is a doctrine that looks completely different to someone standing inside the Catholic Church to someone standing outside it.
A related problem is that to the person outside the Church, it looks as if we are doing legalistic “works” to win God’s favour, his love, his acceptance, his approval, his forgiveness. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. It really has to do with one’s relationship to God in terms of one’s attachment to sin and purification from that attachment. I find one of the most helpful analogies being that which my friend Peter once pointed out: there are some things which the Church recommends that you can do for “the good of your soul”. Even the protestant churches have this, of course. They recommend bible reading, prayer, acts of charity, fasting etc. They know that, as our Lord taught us, these things are “for the good of your soul”. They do not “earn” anything, rather they strengthen one’s relationship with the Lord and they purify one from attachment to self and sin.
The Authority of the Church to bind or loose on earth and the promise that this will be granted by God in heaven is also central to our practice of indulgences. The Church has the authority to “recommend” this or that act of devotion or charity which the individual believer may engage in and to attach to it the promises of God. That is a very contentious issue in itself, but Catholics believe that the Church actually has the authority to act in the way in which Jesus said it does. It can determine the guidelines by which this “binding or loosing” may be obtained. Of course, here we are not talking about the “binding or loosing” of absolution – which “binds or looses” from the eternal consequences of sin, but the “binding or loosing” of the temporal consequences of sin. It is about purification from the attachment to sin, not forgiveness or acceptance from God.
They are therefore not a “requirement”, not a “law” that you “have to” fulfill for acceptance by God, but a gracious invitation to those disciplines that are for “the good of your soul”. The doctrine of the communion on saints, of the treasury of “merit” and of purgatory relate to the fact that these acts of devotion can also be shared with others in the communion of saints, namely the Holy Souls in purgatory. They are like the invitation of our Lord to the wedding banquet in the parable. It is all grace. Are there “requirements”? Only in so far as an invitation will often have a “dress code” attached (even in the parable of the wedding banquet, there is a “wedding garment” to be worn – which is itself, of course, a gift from the host). It would be silly to see such a requirement as a “law”, when it is all included in the gracious invitation itself. It is, as they say, “all grace”.