The Ripple Effect: A Study of Indulgences
Catechetical and Scriptural Support for the doctrine of Purgatory and the intentions of indulgences
"This is one of those extremely important foundational principles that support the doctrine of indulgences. If the effects of our sin can shape the future and influence the lives of dozens, hundreds, even thousands around us, then as a matter of biblical principle, grace can do that much more. If sin's effects can ripple out ten feet, then grace's effects can ripple out a thousand feet. 'And where sin abounded, grace did more abound'."
Editor's Note: Apologist Jacob Michael continues his 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 previous installment in this series has set the stage for what we find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997) on the subject of indulgences (please see my disclaimer at the end of this article):
"The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance." (CCC 1471)
The discussion of the doctrine of indulgences, very appropriately, takes place in the context of Sacramental Confession and penances, for the very reasons I have discussed above. Next I shall quote Paul VI's Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Norm 1:
"An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."
In contrast to the Protestant misunderstanding of indulgences as a license to commit future sin, as a second chance for hell-bound sinners, or as a way to work your own way into Heaven, we see a few very important points in the above definition and from the Baltimore Catechism, #4, 232.
1. The remission is for the temporal punishment of sin
With this clarified, I will address the issue of the "treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints" later in this essay. The new Catechism goes on:
2. The eternal punishment has already been forgiven
3. It is the faithful Christian who can gain an indulgence
"To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life... On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory." (CCC 1472)
This statement confirms what we have already been saying, namely, that sin brings with it a "double consequence," both eternal and temporal. The former is the punishment of eternal damnation, the latter is the punishment of disordered attachments, or addictions, to those earthly things which would compete for the affections we ought to have towards God. We also see from the above statement that indulgences, in addition to being bound up in the doctrine of Sacramental Confession and penances, is also very much a part of the doctrine of Purgatory.
Basically, from what we have already said, we must reach this conclusion: sin begets more sin, and infects the soul with disordered attachments, little impurities which render us imperfect. Since we know that "no impure thing" will ever enter heaven (see Apocalypse 21:27, Heb. 12:14), it folows that these impurities we retain, while not the willful or rebellious sins that would send us to hell, must still be dealt with before we can enter into the Beatific Vision. We have already said that these impurities, these viruses, may be medicated and healed, little by little, by counteracting their "worldliness" with actions and thoughts fixed on Heavenly things (prayers, devotions, almsgiving, etc.) - but there is no guarantee that we will ever become totally "virus-free" before our death. So what happens then? We're in a right relationship with God, but our souls are still crippled with earthly addictions, so we can't enter Heaven directly. Does God send us to hell instead? No, but in His mercy He takes us through our final purgation, the "state" (notice it is not properly called a "place") called Purgatory in order to cleanse us totally before we are admitted into God's presence forever.
So how do indulgences fit into that picture? In a couple of different ways: 1) an indulgence is a remission of those temporal punishments, a medication and healing of those viruses, and 2) these "medications" can be gained by one individual, yet applied to another individual. Before we get too much further into this aspect of indulgences, let's turn to the new Catechism again:
"The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God's grace is not alone. 'The life of each of God's children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person'" (CCC 1474)
A few things should be noted. In the context of what we've been reading from the new Catechism, the phrase "seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy" does not mean that we are, once again, saving ourselves, or pulling ourselves into Heaven by our own bootstraps. The paragraphs preceding this one make it clear that the "sin" that we are purifying ourselves of are those unhealthy addictions and disordered affections for earthly things, not the eternal guilt and damnation. We're basically talking about what St. Paul says in Romans 8:29: "For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son." Elsewhere, in Rom. 12:2, St. Paul says, "And be not conformed to this world: but be reformed in the newness of your mind." This, then, is our solemn responsibility as Christians who walk the earth: to resist the process of conformation to the world, and to progress in the process of conformation to Christ. Of course, this process is not something we do on our own, but it is also not a process in which we are passive:
"... with fear and trembling work out your salvation. For it is God Who worketh in you, both to will and to accomplish, according to his good will" (Phil. 2:12-13).
This is a perfect passage to highlight both God's action in this process of being made holy, and our own action in that same process. It is an imperative, "[You] work out your salvation," and yet, we also see that it is not by our own strength that we do this work, for "it is God Who worketh in you."
As we carry on this life-long work of being more and more conformed to Christ, and being less and less conformed to the world, by means of penances, prayers, devotions, etc., we are "not alone," the new Catechism tells us. No, it is a Scriptural fact that we are spiritually, mystically, but truly joined to the Body of Christ, and thus, our actions affect all the other members of the Body. We saw this principle of the ripple effect earlier when we discussed the far-reaching consequences of sin.
Well, here's the $64,000 question: is it only sin and evil that is allowed to "trickle down" to the lives of those around us, and those in the Mystical Body of Christ? Is that the kind of world that God created, in which sin has a more extensive influence than grace? Absolutely not!
"And where sin abounded, grace did more abound" (Rom. 5:20).
This is one of those extremely important foundational principles that support the doctrine of indulgences. If the effects of our sin can shape the future and influence the lives of dozens, hundreds, even thousands around us, then as a matter of biblical principle, grace can do that much more. If sin's effects can ripple out ten feet, then grace's effects can ripple out a thousand feet. "And where sin abounded, grace did more abound."
This principle is not only based in the New Testament, but was also the guiding standard in the Old Testament:
"I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me: and shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love Me, and keep My commandments" (Ex. 20:5-6).
Once again, we see that even in the Old Testament, in which many mistakenly believe that God's wrath consistently dwarfs His mercy, it is His mercy that ripples out into the thousandth generation, while His punishment only extends to the third or fourth generation. It is precisely this principle that the new Catechism hits on next:
"In the communion of saints, 'a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in Purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.' In this wondeful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others." (CCC 1475)
It is odd that a Protestant, who has no qualms about admitting that personal sin can have a broad-sweeping effect on others, who must admit that the sin of Adam is still rippling out to effect Man today, will choke on the suggestion that personal good works, performed out of love and in obedience to Christ, would not have a similar rippling effect. Nonetheless, it remains true.
But what about this statement of the new Catechism that, because of this profound unity in the Mystical Body of Christ between the saints - the Communion of Saints (those in Heaven: the Church Triumphant, those on earth: the Church Militant, and those in Purgatory: the Church Suffering), there is "an abundant exchange of all good things?" This, too, is a Scriptural principle, something we see referred to several times. To begin with, we need go no further than Noah before we see that one man's good works can have a positive ripple-effect on those around him. After all, because "Noah found grace before the Lord" (Gen. 6:8), his wife, his sons, and his sons' wives, were all spared God's judgment in the form of the flood. Abraham is another example of this principle, for we read that, because of his obedience and faith in offering his son, Isaac, God said, "And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed My voice" (Gen. 22:18). Looking back through the lens of the New Testament, we know that this blessing was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, Who offered salvation to all nations. That's quite the ripple-effect for one solitary act of obedience on Abraham's part!
Jesus himself taught this very same principle in the Gospels:
"He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet, shall receive the reward of a prophet: and he that receiveth a just man in the name of a just man, shall receive the reward of a just man" (Mt. 10:41).
Here we see that principle that all good things are shared between those who are righteous, for in this example, anyone who receives a righteous man or a prophet will, for their charity, "inherit" the reward that the prophet and the righteous man are in line to receive. St. Paul, too, confirms this teaching:
"[I] now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body, which is the Church" (Col. 1:24).
This verse makes absolutely no sense outside of the doctrine of indulgences, for what else could St. Paul mean that he makes up "those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ?" This is exactly the sort of talk that ought to cause a Protestant to say, "Christ's work was sufficient," and yet, St. Paul says there is something lacking in Christ's sufferings. What could that mean? It means exactly what it says, that the sufferings of Christ, the death of Christ to which St. Paul said he wished to be conformed (Phil. 3:10), had not yet been fully reproduced in St. Paul's "flesh." This again refers to that process of purgation, during which we detach ourselves from earthly addictions and unhealthy attachments, and St. Paul says that he undergoes this purgation "for His body, which is the Church." Again, this verse remains a riddle if it does not find its context in the principle of indulgences, a shared reward among the members of the Mystical Body of Christ.
To sum it all up, then, we learned that our the consequences of our sins have two aspects to them, an eternal aspect, and a temporal aspect. We examined how penances serve as an antidote to the crippling virus of sin that clings to us even after we have repented, confessed, and been forgiven before God. We saw that our sins produce a ripple-effect that may extend for generations to come. We also saw that these effects are felt not only by our earthly families, but also by our spiritual family, the Mystical Body of Christ. However, we determined that the biblical principle at work here is that grace superabounds over the effects of sin, and that therefore, our good works of love and obedience (including our penances) ripple out to the rest of the Mystical Body of Christ as well. Finally, we looked at some Scripture texts that teach the principle of a shared reward (what the Church calls the "treasury of merit") between the righteous, and how the righteous acts of one man can merit rewards for those around him.
To refocus our attention before I close, it must be stated again that none of this would be possible apart from the grace merited by Jesus Christ when He died on the Cross. It is this redeeming action, this purchased grace, that cloaks anything we do which is pleasing to God, whether it be our faith, our repentance, our penances, our almsgivings, or anything else we do out of love for Him. It is precisely because all of these works are grounded in the superabundant grace of God, are centered around the infinitely valuable work of Christ, that the effects can be further-reaching than the effects of our sin. It must never be said that the doctrine of indulgences undermines the work of Christ, for no temporal punishment could be remitted, no disordered attachment could be broken, were it not for the sufficiency of Christ's work. In confessing the doctrine of indulgences, we are confessing that Christ's death was so sufficient that it continues to spill over into our very own lives, so that we, too, become conduits and channels of this grace. "Where sin increased, Grace abounded all the more." That, and that alone, is why we can hold firmly to the doctrine of indulgences.
Below are some more indulgenced prayers and short ejaculations to assist you in helping that ripple effect of good. Note two prayers below, the Anima Christi and pronouncement of Saint Thomas the Apostle, when said at the True Holy Mass, gains 7 years indulgence! That can add up!
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesu, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from Thee.
From the wicked enemy defend me.
In the hour of my death call me.
And bid me come to Thee,
That with Thy saints I may praise Thee
For ever and ever. Amen.
(300 days, or 7 years if said after Communion)
My Lord and my God!
(7 years if said when the Host is elevated during Mass)
Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will, whatsoever I have and possess. Thou hast given all these things to me; to Thee, O Lord, I restore them; all are Thine, dispose of them all according to Thy Will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is enough for me.
O God, Who, through the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, didst prepare a suitable dwelling place for Thy Son, grant, we beseech Thee, that, as through the death of Thy Son, foreseen by Thee, Thou didst preserve her from all stain of sin, by her intercession we also may be purified and so may come to Thee. Through the same Christ Our lord. Amen.
O Joseph, virgin father of Jesus, most pure spouse of the Virgin Mary, pray for us daily to Jesus Himself, the Son of God, that, armed with the weapons of His grace, we may fight as we ought in life and be crowned by Him in death.
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts: the Heavens and the earth are full of thy glory.
O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Most worthy queen of the world, Mary ever Virgin, intercede for our peace and salvation, thou who didst bring forth Christ the Lord, the Saviour of all.
Holy Mary, the deliverer, pray for us and for the souls in Purgatory.
St. Michael, first defender of the Kingship of Christ, pray for us.
From sudden and unprovided death, O Lord, deliver us.
Some may flinch at my use of the
New CCC and the writings of Pope Paul VI in support of
these teachings. This is a more than understandable
reaction for Traditional Catholics who are a bit
"gun-shy" over what happened at Vatican II, etc.
However, a word of caution is in order here: as
Traditionalists, we take the very Catholic
approach of preserving what is true in our Tradition,
as well as salvaging what is true in newer
statements put out by the post-conciliar Church. Our
Lord gives us the principle: "every scribe instructed
in the kingdom of Heaven, is like to a man that is a
householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure
new things and old" (Matt. 13:52). In using
the CCC and Pope Paul VI, I hope that I am only
exercising this principle of bringing forth from our
Catholic "treasure" things that are "new and old." In
the case of Indulgences, I hasten to point out that
what Pope Paul VI said in Indulgentiarium
Doctrina is also said verbatim in the
Baltimore Catechism: "An indulgence is the remission
in whole or in part of the temporal punishment due to
sin." (Baltimore Catechism #4, 231)
If you want to ask Jacob a question, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and we encourage you to visit his site A Lumen Gentleman - Lumen Gentleman Apologetics.