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.

40 Myths About the Catholic Church–The Catholics Added Books to the Bible

To deal with this popular myth, we have to look at a little history.  In the early days of the Church, there was no Bible.  Everything was handed on by word-of-mouth.  Because the early Christians generally believed that Jesus was coming back sooner rather than later, nobody saw the need to write anything down.  As time passed the folks decided that maybe there should be some written documentation of Jesus’ life.  Unfortunately, many of the people who wrote about Jesus and His Church weren’t divinely inspired, kind of like bloggers today.

The Bible as we know it today is a collection of those writings that were divinely inspired.  This includes both Old Testament and New Testament books.  The books in question are all from the Old Testament.  It was the Catholic Council of Hippo in 393 A.D. that decided which books to include.  Without getting into a long-winded dissertation on what books came from where, suffice it to say that the Council of Trent confirmed the canon with the seven so-called deutercanonical books in 1543.    The seven books are:

  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Part of Esther
  • Wisdom
  • Sirach
  • Baruch
  • Part of Daniel
  • 1 Maccabees
  • 2 Maccabees

Since it was the Catholic Church that originally declared what books make up the Bible, it’s hard to see how anyone could think the Church added books.  The fact is that the Church added all the books.  So, what happened?

It’s fairly simple.  The books in question didn’t support some of Martin Luther’s ideas.  So, when he published his protestant Bible he left them out.  It was the protestants who changed the books of the Bible, not the Catholics.  Biblical scholars can point out any number of New Testament passages that cite the seven books in question.  James Akin gives an excellent explanation of all this in his article, Defending the Deuterocanonicals.    I recommend it to anyone looking for a more in-depth explanation.

Remember that it wasn’t until 500 years ago that any of this became an issue.  From 393 A.D. until the 1500s, there was no question of what books belonged in the Bible.  It was those wacky protestants, particularly Martin Luther, who started the kerfuffle.

Coming up…Why do we need all those “man-made” rules?  Isn’t the Bible enough?

40 Myths About the Catholic Church–Catholics Don’t Read the Bible

bibleFirst a disclaimer, SOME Catholics don’t read the Bible.  Neither do some protestants.  Some Jews don’t read the Torah and some Muslims don’t read the Koran.  But a blanket statement that Catholics don’t read God’s inspired word is just wrong.

One thing that makes it appear that we are Bible-less is that we don’t bring our Bibles to mass.  Unlike many protestant denominations, the Church provides us with a handy book called a “missalette” that contains all the Scripture readings for each week.  All we have to do is to open the book to today’s date and there’s all you need.  Many protestant churches, on the other hand, expect their members to tote their Bible with them to church.  Then the preacher will tell them where to turn in the Good Book to follow along with him.

So, when a non-Catholic brother or sister accuses you of not knowing “chapter and verse” he or she may be right.  But it doesn’t mean you don’t know the Bible, it just means that you don’t know which book is where.  I think we all know the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  We probably also know that Acts of the Apostles comes right after John.  But most of us don’t know the order of Paul’s letters and we sure don’t know where to find all those Old Testament books, especially since we have seven more than they do.  (More on this in a future post.)

I remember growing up in the Baptist church that it was considered a real milestone when you learned to name all the books of the Old and New Testaments in order.  It was an important skill to learn because when Pastor Bob tells you to turn to the third chapter of First Corinthians you’d better be quick about it.  If not, he’ll go on without you.

As far as day-to-day reading of Scripture goes, the Church encourages us to spend as much time at it as we can.  Whether you do or not is up to you.

Another rap you may hear on the Church is that she used to chain the Bibles down in the Church.  That one’s actually true.  But here’s the deal.  Before Gutenberg invented movable type all Bibles were copied by hand.  It took a very long time and a local church was lucky to have one.  They couldn’t just be left lying around where someone might steal them.  The other thing is that most people couldn’t read.  If you can’t read you really don’t need a Bible (or any other book).  Remember that Gutenberg and Martin Luther came along at about the same time, so the Churches that were chaining down the Bibles were Catholic Churches because in those days Catholic meant Christian and Christian meant Catholic.

If you’ve ever studied a Catholic Bible you’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of footnotes; a lot of explanations.  That’s because the Bible, like any other book is open to interpretation.  Printed words (like this post) may be read more than one way.  Plus, unless you read Greek or Hebrew, the Bible that you’re reading is translated from its original language.

So, to make sure that people were following an accurate translation, and that they were getting the proper interpretation of the Scriptures, the Church preferred that the people got their scripture at mass, not from some weird translation.  Yes, at one time some translations of the Bible were on the Church’s list of banned books.  These were inaccurate translations usually missing those seven books I talked about earlier.

So, it’s too late to make this long story short, but I’ll wrap it up by saying that yes, Virginia, Catholics are encouraged to read the Bible.  Some may be more faithful readers than others, but most of us read it and enjoy it.  Even if we don’t read the book ourselves, over the course of a three year cycle, regular attendees will have the entire Bible read to them at mass.

Coming up:  About those seven books.

40 Reasons Why It’s Cool to be Catholic #19 Scripture and the Mass

Some of our protestant brothers and sisters refer to themselves as “Bible Christians.”  I suppose they do that to differentiate themselves from “non-Bible Christians”.  That would be us.  There’s a wide-spread myth that Catholics are not Bible readers.  I’m sure you’ve heard some people criticize us saying that Catholics don’t own Bibles, or that we own them but don’t know where to find them.  On the surface, this myth may have some basis in truth.  But, lets look at the facts.

First and foremost, there’s the mass.  Just counting weekend masses, there are four selections from Scripture in the Liturgy of the World:  One Old Testament reading; a responsorial Psalm; a New Testament reading; and a reading from the Gospels.  Over 52 Sundays, that’s a total of more than 200 readings.  There is some duplication, and there are some Sundays when a second NT reading takes the place of the usual OT reading, but if you attend mass every weekend for three years, you’ve heard more than 600 Scripture readings.  Of course, if you attend daily mass, the total is much, much higher.  Because we’re a Church of structure, every Catholic Church in the world is supposed to be reading the same readings on any given Sunday.  Then there’s the homily where the priest or deacon, who is a student of the scriptures, relates the daily readings to our daily lives.  (Most of the time.  Nobody’s perfect.)

Some faith traditions give the minister the freedom to choose his own readings.  Face it, there are an awful lot of readings that nobody would use if they didn’t have to, so these ministers tend to focus on a limited selections of readings.

When you pass a lot of churches on Sunday morning, you’ll notice that the worshipers are carrying Bibles.  What’s up with that?  Since the Catholic mass has defined readings, we’re able to publish booklets containing each day’s readings called missalettes.  You don’t need a Bible because the readings are there for you in the pew.  Very convenient.  Of course, when you see a bunch of people walking around with Bibles in their hands, it’s not unreasonable to think of them as “Bible Christians.”

The prayers of the Liturgy of the Eucharist are very Biblical.  The words of the Consecration are taken directly from Scripture.  The Our Father and the Lamb of God are straight out of the New Testament.  We’re constantly exposed to the depth and meaning of the Word of God.  Of course, we’re expected and encouraged to explore the Bible on our own through personal and group Bible studies.

You are likely to run into a couple of arguments from your “Bible Christian” friends about Catholics and the Bible.  1. ” Catholic Churches used to chain down the Bible so the people couldn’t read it.”  As I wrote just two days ago, prior to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, all books (including the Bible) were very rare and expensive.  Plus, there weren’t a lot of people who knew how to read.  If a church was lucky enough to have a copy of Sacred Scripture, the wanted to be sure they kept it.  Saying the Church discouraged Scripture study by chaining down the Bible is like saying the bank discourages financial transactions by chaining down the pens.

2.  “At one time Catholics were forbidden to read the Bible.”  Once Martin Luther opened the flood gates, there were a number of new, unauthorized translations of the Bible.  By this time more people were learning to read but they might not have had the education or the experience to discern whether something called “The Bible” was the real deal.  To protect the laity from being sold a bill of goods, the Church insisted that they get their Word of God from the Church.

The bottom line is that every Catholic should be familiar with the Bible.  We’re encouraged to dig into the Scriptures.  But if all you do is go to mass every Sunday and Holy Day, you will know what the Bible says.

That’s extremely cool!

Sidebar:  To be a “Bible Christian” you don’t have to know what Scripture says, you just have to know where everything is.  In a typical sermon, the minister will say, “Turn to the sixteenth paragraph of the third chapter of the Book of John (today’s Gospel, by the way).  Then he’ll read it to you.  If you haven’t been practicing, by the time you find your place, he will have moved on.  

40 Reasons Why It’s Cool to be Catholic #22 We Have the WHOLE Bible

In 382 AD, Pope Damasus laid out the books of the Old and New Testament.  The same listing was promulgated at the Synod of Rome in 382, and again, at the regional councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419).  There were, and still are, 46 books in the Old Testament.  When Martin Luther published his German translation of the Bible in 1517, he left out seven books.  Why would he do that?  Because the books in question didn’t line up with his new theology.  At the Council of Trent in 1546 the Church reiterated her position on which books belonged in the Old Testament.  Some protestants will point to Trent and claim that the Church added books in 1546 which just isn’t true.

The books missing from Luther’s Bible were:  Baruch, Sirach, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom.  There’s an excellent article at Catholic Answers that goes into more detail about who did what and when, but the bottom line is that many of our protestant brothers and sisters are missing some pretty good stuff.  Tobit is one of my favorite books of the Old Testament.

We Catholics refer to the seven books as deuterocanonical, a good word to know for trivia night.  It means books that weren’t included in Hebrew Scripture but that are part of the Septuagint (The Greek version of the OT).  Some of our non-Catholic brethren refer to them as apocryphal, a more negative term that means “of doubtful authenticity.

The Catholic Church has recognized all of the books of the Old Testament since at least 382.  Your Bible is complete.  Nothing is missing.

That’s very cool!

40 Reasons Why It’s Cool to Be Catholic #23 2,000 Years of Church History

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,*and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.l I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.* Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Matthew 16:18-19

And so began the Roman Catholic Church.  We’ll get into the subject of the Pope in a later post.  (Hint:  He’s in the top 10.)  What I want to talk to you about today is our amazing history.  Think about it.  Jesus began with twelve Apostles, just barely enough for a soccer team.  Today His Church numbers more than 1 Billion members.  We’ve had our highs and we’ve had our lows, but as Jesus predicted, even the gates of hell (the netherworld) haven’t prevailed against.  Oh, they’ve tried, and I’m not just talking about today’s news.

Over the centuries, political powers have tried to snuff out the Church.  More than once Catholics have found themselves to be criminals because the government has made the practice of the faith illegal.  Masses have been said in people’s homes, behind hedge rows, even in prison.  But the Church always prevails.

The first serious challenge to the Church didn’t happen until 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Cathedral wall.  Even though Luther didn’t intend to start a new church, that’s how things worked out and the Lutheran Church was born.  It was a perfect storm.  Gutenberg invented the printing press, more people were learning to read, and Luther’s abbreviated Bible was all the rage.  Suddenly anyone who had a beef with the Roman Church has someplace else to go.

Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not criticizing anyone’s belief system.  All Christians worship the same God.  All the rest is just details.  Someday, hopefully, we’ll all be reunited in a single Church.

But I digress.  The history of the world would be so different if it weren’t for the Catholic Church.  In spite of what some of the politically correct would have you believe, we even count the years based on the year Christ was born.  Since the time of Christ, every great civilization has had an official position on Catholicism.  Some were for us.  Some were against us.  But you can’t deny the effect.

For 2,000 years, Church history is world history.  There are some who would deny this, but you can’t fight the facts.  For comparison, here’s a little timeline I made up of the founding of some of the protestant faiths:

      year       faith tradition
30       Catholic
1517       Lutheranism
1517       Calvanism (Presbyterianism)
1609        Baptists
1700       Freemasonry
1830       Mormonism
1830       Cambellites
1845       7th Day Adventists
1870       Jehovah’s Witnesses
1879       Christian Scientists
1906       Pentecost Assemblies
1914       Assemblies of God
1934       World Wide Church of God
1955       Scientology

This list is hardly comprehensive (There are more than 20,000 protestant denominations) and some of the dates may be in dispute, but I hope you get my drift.  Two thousand years of western history have been driven by the rise and fall and rise again of the Catholic Church.

And, that’s cool.

40 Reasons Why It’s Cool to be Catholic #27 Indulgences

Indulgences have been around for a long time, but I suspect that a lot of people, even Catholic people, have a hard time understanding how they work.  So I went to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC1471-1479).  The opening paragraph of the section on indulgences is a paragraph-length sentence that’s clear as mud.  Here’s how it was once explained to me.

Pretend your a child.  You’re playing ball and you break your neighbor’s window.  That’s a sin.  As all good parents do, mom and/or dad tells you to go to the neighbor and tell her you broke the window.  That’s confession.  The neighbor says “That’s ok.  I forgive you.”  That’s reconciliation.  But you still have to pay for the broken window.  The neighbor agrees that you can satisfy the debt by cutting her grass.  That’s an indulgence.

It’s a simple-minded explanation but I think it works.  In our world, we commit a sin, we confess it to the priest, and we’re forgiven.  But there’s still that “stain of sin” on your soul.  That’s what purgatory is for.  You enter purgatory free from sin, but your soul isn’t clean.  After a certain amount of time, your soul is clean enough to enter heaven.  The cleansing process is called “temporal punishment”.  The root of the word temporal means time.  Each sin has a certain amount of time attached to it.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how you look at it) we have no idea how much time is attached to each sin.  Imagine if you died and went to purgatory and the first person you met was Saint Peter.  That would be very depressing.

One way of cleansing the soul is through good works.  Some people are so virtuous that their good works are far more than they need for their own salvation.  The excess is called the “Church’s treasury.”  These “excess graces” (my term) are stored up for you and me.  Imagine the virtues of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and all the saints.  Through them there is an infinite store of graces that you and I can share in.  On the other hand, it’s possible for us to obtain indulgences and give them to someone who has died, helping them cleanse their souls.

There are two types of indulgences.  Plenary indulgences wipe out all of your temporal punishment.  Partial indulgences, as the name implies, only wipe out some of your temporal punishment.  Because time is a human concept, we have no idea how much time we spend in purgatory or how much time an indulgence is worth.

Quoting the Catechism (#1478)

An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted by Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due to their sin.

So, where do I buy these indulgences?

In the past indulgences have gotten a bad rap because some unscrupulous clergy use to sell them.  The sale of indulgences was one of the things that got Martin Luther so worked up that he nailed his 95 Theses on the Cathedral door.  You can’t buy an indulgence.  You can earn an indulgence in a lot of different ways.  As I mentioned yesterday, praying the Stations of the Cross is one way.  I’m not going to take the space here to list them all.  The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent article on the subject.  But it is worth mentioning that you are probably earning indulgences every day and don’t even know it.  For instance, reading the Bible earns a partial indulgence.  So does making the Sign of the Cross.  Reading this blog might even be worth a few seconds.   Catholic Answers has a good article on myths about indulgences along with a partial list of them.

Here’s the thing.  If you get a chance to earn an indulgence, especially a plenary one, jump on it.

Being able to reduce or even eliminate your time in purgatory with indulgences is super cool.