40 Myths About the Catholic Church–Purgatory and Indulgences

“Catholics think they can buy their way into heaven.”

This has never been true even though there have been times in our history when unscrupulous people have sold indulgences.  In fact, the selling of indulgences was one of the things that set Martin Luther off back in the fifteenth century.  To explain this, first we have to look at two things:  purgatory and then indulgences.

Purgatory, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1030-1032), is the place where souls go to be purified before they can enter heaven.    The Catholic beliefs about purgatory were formulated at the Councils of Florence (1431) and Trent (1545-63).  Note that this doesn’t mean we started believing in a place of purification at that time, just that that’s when the Church formalized the teaching.  The basis for our belief can be found in the Old Testament (2 Maccabees 12:46).  Throughout Church history, councils have often dealt with heresies by officially spelling out our beliefs.  Obviously they felt that there were too many people spreading false teachings on the subject.  You may recall from an earlier post that Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible left out seven books because they didn’t support his teachings. 2 Maccabees was one of those books.

So, what exactly is purgatory?  It’s a place where we go to be purified so we can enter into the happiness of heaven.

“But if someone’s work is burned up, that person will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.”  (1 Corinthians: 15)

In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials,so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”  (1 Peter 6-7)

In simple terms, if you die in a state of grace, that is if your sins have been forgiven, you still have the stain of your sins on your soul.  Depending on the number and severity of your forgiven sins, you will spend a certain amount of time in the cleansing fire of purgatory.  Think of it this way.  Let’s say you throw a rock through my living room window.  I may forgive you, but somebody still has to pay for that window.  Everything in heaven is bright and pure and clean.  God says, “You’re going to have to take off those muddy shoes before you come into my house!”

In second Macabees Judas and his men made atonement for their comrades who had sinned, “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.”  The idea of praying for the dead is nothing new.  Even our protestant brothers and sisters have funerals and pray for the deceased.

OK, what about these indulgences?

“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 conditionsthrough 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.” 

“An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.  Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.   (CCC1471)

You can get an indulgence from the Church for all of your sins (plenary) or for just some of your sins (partial).  Right now, as part of the Year of Faith, you can get a plenary indulgence from now through November 23 by doing the following:

A Plenary Indulgence can be gained only once a day. In order to obtain it, the faithful
must, in addition to being in the state of grace:
a) have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin;
b) have sacramentally confessed their sins;
c) receive the Holy Eucharist (it is certainly better to receive it while participating in
Holy Mass, but for the Indulgence only Holy Communion is required);
d) pray for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff.

You can obtain this indulgence no more than once a day.  You may ask, “If a plenary indulgence frees me from the temporal punishment for all of my sins, why would I want to get it more than once?  That’s the cool thing.  You can apply your indulgence to anyone who’s died.  You can get a plenary indulgence for yourself, then for mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, or anyone else who has passed away.  It’s kind of a get-out-of-jail-free card that you can share with anyone you like.

Remember that indulgences are only applied to purgatory.  If you don’t die in a state of grace, all the indulgences in the world won’t do you a bit of good.  Remember, too, that the indulgence applies only to your past sins.  Any future sins will need to be taken care of later.

You can see why this practice could lead to some abuses, which is what was going on in Martin Luther’s day.  A rich person could approach an unscrupulous bishop or priest and offer money for a indulgence.  Sadly, this was a common practice and it gave rise to the idea that Catholics could buy their way into heaven.  But, and this is important, an indulgence is worthless to someone who hasn’t had their sins forgiven.  It might get you into heaven sooner, but it won’t get you out of hell.

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