Why do Catholics… believe in indulgences?
500 years ago, a German priest named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door. He was particularly upset about the practice of selling indulgences to pay for new churches. That action sparked a movement that became known as the Protestant Reformation. Since then, Christianity has splintered into hundreds of different denominations. Some are separated only by minor theological nuances. Others have such vastly different beliefs that they are not even categorized as Christians. Many denominations consider Catholics to be an old-fashioned religion that has failed to live up to the needs of modern times. But is that true?
When discussing the difference between Catholics and Protestants, it is important to remember that the Catholic Church is still the original Church founded by Christ and the Apostles. For two thousand years, the Church has fought to preserve and uphold Christ’s teachings. Is that old-fashioned? Perhaps. But it is also the truth that God knows we all need in our lives. Every other Christian denomination left the Catholic Church at some point because of a religious concern. Their concerns may have been correct at that time, but that doesn’t mean they needed to reject the entire Catholic religion.
Let’s take Martin Luther for example. He was a priest who had some serious complaints about the Church. Was he correct? Yes, many things Martin Luther questioned were legitimate problems with the Church at his time. In the 1500’s, priests were creating clever slogans to encourage people to donate to building new churches. Some of their slogans said, “When gold in the coffer rings, a soul flies to heaven on new wings.” Is this a false and misleading statement? Yes. No one can buy their way into heaven. All the gold in the world cannot cleanse the soul of an evil person. Because of these problems, the Catholic Church has clarified its teaching about indulgences since then.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses indulgences for several pages, beginning with paragraph 1471. The teaching emphasizes that indulgences are tied to the sacrament of Reconciliation. Even after our sins are forgiven, our human nature still gets in the way of a more complete union between God and man. This is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. It is not a punishment from God. Rather, it is the natural consequence of being attached to material things and being tempted to hurt others.
The Church wants to help free us from temporal punishment, which is why the sacrament of Reconciliation includes acts of penance or charity. The more we focus on others, the less we will be self-absorbed and inclined to selfishness. If our sinful nature is not purified during our life on earth, the Church teaches that Purgatory is the place of purification after death. Prayers and acts of charity can help purify us during our lives. Through the communion of saints, prayers and penance can benefit the souls in purgatory.
So can you buy your way out of purgatory with an indulgence? No. But if you make a sincere effort to get rid of your belongings and help the poor, then the generosity of your actions will naturally make you a better person. That’s what an indulgence is: an act of charity that the Church uses to encourage you to be a better person.
Some of the theological differences between Protestant denominations are based on misunderstandings or outdated concerns. Pope Francis has make a great effort to dialog with other denominations to bring greater peace and unity to the Church. Shouting and arguing will never win over souls, but peaceful conversation about concerns can go a long way to promoting unity.