September 15-18, 2004
vol 15, no. 172

The Ripple Effect:
A Study of Indulgences

Part One

For many Indulgences are one of the most difficult aspects of Catholic teaching to understand, but in realizing Holy Mother Church's discernment of Divine Revelation, we can more readily see the method in God's 'madness.' It is not always His wrath, but His mercy which we don't fully comprehend.

    "In order to truly understand the principles behind the doctrine of indulgences, we have to first go back to the beginning and get a "refresher course" in what sin is, Who God is, who we are, and what Jesus did. When we sin, we willingly rebel against our Father. Spiritually speaking, we run away from home, and we become exactly like the Prodigal Son, having spent our inheritence and removed ourselves from the Father's House. God, as a wise and loving Father, will not force us to accept what we refuse to receive from His hands. If we choose to run away from home, to forego our portion of the family inheritence, He will not chase us down and force us to accept that inheritence. St. Matthew's Gospel teaches us this in no uncertain terms, when it speaks of those whom the King invited to His wedding feast."

      Editor's Note: Apologist Jacob Michael begins in this issue a series on Indulgences as he endeavors to clear up so many misconceptions that have tainted this spiritual favor which more clearly identifies our role in the Communion of Saints. As always he presents a succinct Traditional Catholic Apologetic based on the Holy Scriptures in his column Quid Dicit Scriptura? - What Saith the Scriptures? He utilizes the approved and superior Douay-Rheims Roman Catholic version in his apologia and holds to the Council of Trent's decree to "accept Sacred Scripture according to the meaning which has been held by Holy Mother Church and which She now holds. It is Her prerogative to pass judgment on the true meaning and interpretation of Sacred Scripture and will not accept or interpret it in a manner different from the unanimous agreement of the Fathers."

    Some passages below may be highlighted in blue bold for emphasis. All words of Our Lord are in red bold.

    The doctrine of indulgences is, in my experience, one of the most difficult teachings of the Church to understand, and even harder to defend. This is, perhaps, because it exists on a spiritual plane that is so entirely other-worldly, it's hard to wrap our finite minds around it. Add to that the fact that there are no Scripture verses that explicitly refer to indulgences, and that the doctrine of indulgences rests more on Scriptural principles than anything, and you've got one very difficult teaching to grasp. I've read books on the subject, and I've listened to other speakers talk about it, and in this brief essay I will attempt to condense and distill the "best of the best" of what I've been exposed to regarding this matter, in the hopes that some of it will be easier to apprehend for you.

    The very term "indulgences" almost inevitably brings to mind the era of the Protestant Reformation, for it was the preaching of indulgences by Fr. Tetzel, and more specifically, the selling of indulgences, that proved to be the catalyst for Martin Luther's open rebellion against the Catholic Church. The word itself raises certain questions and yields misunderstandings, as I have heard many Protestants say, "The Catholic Church sells indulgences, allowing people to purchase immunity from future sins and buy their way into heaven!" The infamous anti-Catholic, Lorraine Boettner, in his "bible of anti-Catholicism," writes:

    "Every year millions of dollars are paid to obtain relief from this imagined suffering [of Purgatory]... The result, particularly among ingnorant and uneducated people, has been that the Roman Catholic Church sells salvation for money... Likewise, many 'dispensations' or permissions to do certain things not approved by the Roman Church are granted each year, such as marriage between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant, annulments, and even, as in Spain until recently, permission on payment of a small fixed sum, to eat meat on Friday, which otherwise would be a mortal sin... it is understood by both parties that there are to be gifts and that for the more important ones [dispensations] the gifts are to be generous." (Roman Catholicism, 222, 264)

    Boettner seems to be strongly implying, if not explicitly stating, that an indulgence is a purchased permission to "indulge" in some form of sin, ranging from venial to mortal, depending on how much money is coughed up. Is it true? Do indulgences give us permission to commit future sin? Do they buy us forgiveness? Are they a get-out-of-Hell Free Card?

    In order to truly understand the principles behind the doctrine of indulgences, we have to first go back to the beginning and get a "refresher course" in what sin is, Who God is, who we are, and what Jesus did. When we sin, we willingly rebel against our Father. Spiritually speaking, we run away from home, and we become exactly like the Prodigal Son, having spent our inheritence and removed ourselves from the Father's House. God, as a wise and loving Father, will not force us to accept what we refuse to receive from His hands. If we choose to run away from home, to forego our portion of the family inheritence, He will not chase us down and force us to accept that inheritence. St. Matthew's Gospel teaches us this in no uncertain terms, when it speaks of those whom the King invited to His wedding feast:

    "But they neglected and went their ways, one to his farm and another to his merchandise. And the rest laid hands on his servants and, having treated them contumeliously, put them to death. But when the king had heard of it, he was angry: and sending his armies, he destroyed those murderers and burnt their city. Then he saith to his servants: The marriage indeed is ready; but they that were invited were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways; and as many as you shall find, call to the marriage. And his servants going forth into the ways, gathered together all that they found, both bad and good: and the marriage was filled with guests." (Matt. 22:5-10)

    When the original invitees refused to come, the King did not seek them out. Instead, He went out and gave their invitations to others who were willing.

    If we, as God's sons and daughters, come to our senses and repent, we come back home to the Father and receive His forgiveness, and we are reinstated as heirs to the inheritance. Of course, we must remember in all of this that even our faith and repentence itself would not be sufficient for God if they were not first rooted in the grace which Jesus merited for us by His death on the cross (it is in this grace which is rooted not only our faith and repentence, but also our good works and indulgences). Once our sin is forgiven, we are once again in a proper relationship with our Father. However, this is only the sufficient to explain what occurs from the Eternal perspective. The eternal consequences of our sin (i.e., loss of our inheritence, separation from God) are expunged when we repent and confess our sins in Sacramental Confession, but sin's effects extend horizontally as well as vertically. That is, because we are all united naturally as one human family, and more so because we are united spiritually as One Body with our fellow Catholics, our sin has a sort of ripple-effect. Not only are we affected by our sin, our brothers and sisters are affected as well.

    Take, for example, the sin of adultery. Not only does that sin affect me personally, by separating me from God and placing me under His Divine wrath, but it also affects a) my illicit lover, b) her spouse, c) my spouse, d) her children, and e) my children. If our mutual spouses choose to leave us and take the children, then the effects spread potentially to a) my parents, b) her parents, c) my future grandchildren, d) her future grandchildren, and so on down the generational line. That one act of rebellion against God can potentially spread its ill effects perpetually into future generations. If my children are ill-effected by it, perhaps they grow up maladjusted, and my sin will end up affecting their spouses, their children, their friends, their coworkers, and so on. This is the ubiquitousness of sin, and a very good temporal reason why we should do everything in our power to avoid it.

    Now, in this hypothetical case, the sin is public, and the visible effects are proportionate to the visibility of the sin itself. This does not, however, mean that the effects are any less destructive or far-reaching if my sin is of a private nature. Perhaps my sin is not adultery, but mental fantasies. While this sin may have considerably fewer visible effects on my wife, children, and so on, we know from Scripture that the spiritual effects are just as far reaching in the Body of Christ: "And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it." (1 Cor. 12:26)

    The story of David is a perfect example of the reality of both eternal and temporal consequences that come along with sin. David, whom God said was "a man after My own heart," committed the sins of adultery and murder. The Scripture describes both the eternal and the temporal consequences:

    "Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels. Cast me not away from thy face; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit." (Ps. 50:12-14)

    "Why therefore hast thou despised the word of the Lord, to do evil in my sight? Thou hast killed Urias the Hethite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon. Therefore the sword shall never depart from thy house, because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Urias the Hethite to be thy wife. Thus saith the Lord: Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thy own house, and I will take thy wives before thy eyes and give them to thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing in the sight of all Israel, and in the sight of the sun. And David said to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said to David: The Lord also hath taken away thy sin: thou shalt not die. Nevertheless, because thou hast given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, for this thing, the child that is born to thee, shall surely die." (2 Kings 12:9-14)

    The eternal consequences of David's sin were that he was separated from God, he quenched the Holy Spirit, and he lost the joy of his salvation. God forgave him, but he still suffered the temporal consequences of constant conflict and war, having to fight against his own son, and losing the child that was conceived as a result of his adultery.

    Another aspect of the temporal consequences of sin is the spiritually bad effects my sin will have on me, even well after the eternal consequences and guilt have been forgiven and removed. Taking again the example of adultery, let's suppose that I don't get caught, but I do repent and confess my sin. The next time I have occasion to commit that same sin, it will be much harder to resist, because sin is addictive. I will be much weaker to resist that temptation, and the more I fall into that same sin, the weaker and weaker I will become. Or, perhaps I will be strong enough to resist the temptation of further adultery, but I will be more prone to indulge in sexual fantasies, or pornography, especially if I am never caught.

    This last consideration shows us how often we distort the meaning of God's wrath versus God's mercy. We very often assume that, when bad things happen as a result of our sin (i.e., my wife leaves me, my lover's husband beats me up, and I lose my children), God must be judging us in His wrath. Actually, just the opposite is true: He is judging us in His mercy. He sends these painful consequences to us as a wake-up call, an opportunity to step back, take stock of where we are, and repent. It is a sure sign of God's judgment when He lets us continually get away with sinning, not having to face any temporal consequences. Romans 1 describes this horrible cycle for us:

    "For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice ... Because that, when they knew God, they have not glorified him as God or given thanks: but became vain in their thoughts. And their foolish heart was darkened ... Wherefore, God gave them up to the desires of their heart, unto uncleanness: to dishonour their own bodies among themselves ... For this cause, God delivered them up to shameful affections. For their women have changed the natural use into that use which is against nature. And, in like manner, the men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts, one towards another ... And as they liked not to have God in their knowledge, God delivered them up to a reprobate sense, to do those things which are not convenient. Being filled with all iniquity, malice, fornication, avarice, wickedness: full of envy, murder, contention, deceit, malignity: whisperers, detractors, hateful to God, contumelious, proud, haughty, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, foolish, dissolute: without affection, without fidelity, without mercy." (Rom. 1:18-31)

    Three times St. Paul says that God "gave them over," or "delivered them up," that is, He allowed them to have exactly what they wanted: license to sin with temporal impunity. The longer they get away with sinning, the worse it gets, until they eventually become inventors of evil - plain vanilla sin no longer satisfies the addiction, and so new methods of sin must be invented. This is what happens when God's wrath is revealed: we are allowed to sin exponentially, without getting caught. This is why Hebrews says:

    "And you have forgotten the consolation which speaketh to you, as unto children, saying: My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord: neither be thou wearied whilst thou art rebuked by him. For whom the Lord loveth he chastiseth: and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. Persevere under discipline. God dealeth with you as with his sons. For what son is there whom the father doth not correct? But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are made partakers, then are you bastards and not sons. Moreover, we have had fathers of our flesh for instructors, and we reverenced them. Shall we not much more obey the Father of spirits and live? And they indeed for a few days, according to their own pleasure, instructed us: but He, for our profit, that we might receive His sanctification. Now all chastisement for the present indeed seemeth not to bring with it joy, but sorrow: but afterwards it will yield to them that are exercised by it the most peaceable fruit of justice. Wherefore, lift up the hands which hang down and the feeble knees: And make straight steps with your feet: that no one, halting, may go out of the way; but rather be healed." (Heb. 12:5-13)

    In other words, the chastisement of God is painful for the time, but it should be our comfort, for it brings about peace and holiness.

    This chastisement, however, does not always come in the form of great tragedies in our lives. It also comes in the form of the penances that are assigned to us by our confessors after we have been absolved of the eternal consequences of our sin. When we consider the addictive and weakening nature of sin, it should be obvious what role penances play in our lives. Any kind of sin, whether mortal or venial, acts like a virus in the soul. Mortal sin is so powerful a virus that it kills the soul, but even venial sins, while they may not separate us from God immediately, are a virus that weaken the will, cripple the soul and make it more susceptible to worse sins. How do we combat this virus? By fixing our minds even more firmly on the spiritual good, which is why most penances come in the form of prayers, rosaries, and other devotions. Far from the Protestant misunderstanding that Catholics think their sins can be forgiven by "saying 10 Hail Mary's," those devotions and prayers are a way of nourishing the soul and strengthening it against the virus of sin, after the eternal punishment of sin has already been forgiven.

    I will continue in this vein in a future installment, but for now I would like to leave you with the fact that Holy Mother Church has given us many prayers, short ejaculations, and devotional acts that are attached to indulgences, and it is to our own loss if we do not make use of them. Please do not just read this article, but rather, live out the principles that you are learning. Below are given several prayers to which Mother Church has attached indulgences - use them generously, not only for yourself, but also for me, and for the poor souls in Purgatory.

Memorare, O piissima Virgo Maria, non esse auditum a saeculo, quemquam ad tua currentem praesidia, tua implorantem auxilia, tua petentem suffragia, esse derelictum. Ego tali animatus confidentia, ad te, Virgo Virginum, Mater, curro, ad te venio, coram te gemens peccator assisto. Noli, Mater Verbi, verba mea despicere; sed audi propitia et exaudi. Amen.
(300 days)
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come; before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.
(300 days)

Ora pro nobis, Sancta Dei Genetrix, ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi
(300 days)
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
(300 days)

Memorare, o purissime Sponse Virginis Mariae, o dulcis Protector mi, sancte Ioseph, non esse auditum a saeculo, quemquem ad tua implorantem auxilia, tua petentem suffragia, esse derelictum. Ego tali animatus confidentia ad te venio, tibique fervide me commendo. Noli, quaeso, o Pater putative Redemptoris, verba mea despicere, sed audi propitius. Amen.
(500 days)
Remember, o most pure Spouse of the Virgin Mary, my sweet Protector Saint Joseph, never was it heard that anyone who implored thy help nor sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence I come to thee and to thee do I fervently commend myself. Despise not my petitions, I beseech thee, foster Father of the Redeemer, but graciously hear them. Amen.
(500 days)
Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom His love entrusts me here, ever this day be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.

(3 years)

Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine!

(500 days)

O Christ Jesus, I acknowledge Thee to be the King of the universe; all that hath been made is created for Thee. Exercise over me all Thy sovereign rights. I hereby renew the promises of my Baptism, renouncing Satan and all his works and pomps, and I engage myself to lead henceforth a truly Christian life. And in an especial manner do I undertake to bring about the triumph of the rights of God and Thy Church, so far as in me lies. Divine Heart of Jesus, I offer Thee my poor actions to obtain the acknowledgement by every heart of Thy sacred kingly power. In such wise may the kingdom of Thy peace be firmly established throughout all the earth. Amen.

(plenary indulgence)

Divine Heart of Jesus, convert sinners, save the dying, and set free the holy souls in purgatory.

(300 days)

Jacob Michael

If you want to ask Jacob a question, you can e-mail him at and we encourage you to visit his site A Lumen Gentleman - Lumen Gentleman Apologetics.

    September 15-18, 2004
    vol 15, no. 172
    Quid Dicit Scriptura? - What Saith the Scriptures?