Catholic Theology (Part 9): Penance, Indulgences, and the Treasury of Merit — Modes of Restoration in the Catholic Church

“The Confession” by Pietro Longhi

In my final post in this series on Catholic teaching, I’d like to focus on a collection of related issues that have puzzled Protestants since the Reformation: Penance, Indulgences, and the Treasury of Merit. These are foreign concepts to those outside Catholicism, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church helped me understand them more fully.
The first thing to know about Penance is that it is considered a sacrament of healing for those who are already members of the Church. Catholics count seven sacraments, all of them instituted by Jesus in some way. Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist are sacraments of initiation into the faith; Penance and Anointing the Sick are sacraments of healing for believers; and Holy Orders and Matrimony relate to communion and mission (§1211). The place of Penance in this list is very important to note.Penance is not a means of salvation, but plays a restorative role for believers who have committed sin. It can be called many things: conversion, confession, forgiveness, and Reconciliation (§1423–1424). While Baptism ushers us into new life in Christ, it does not erase our propensity to sin. The sacrament of Penance recognizes that ongoing struggle against sin and provides a means by which a sinner can be restored (§1426).

The CCC takes sin seriously, and calls for heartfelt repentance in response to God’s great mercy (§1428). But Catholics don’t stop there. Penance addresses both the internal and external aspects of sin: “interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance” (§1430). Internally, we renounce our sin and turn back towards God, cultivating once again our love for him. Love for him is the purest defense against sin (§1431–1432). Externally, Penance can take any number of forms: “fasting, prayer, and almsgiving” (§1434), “gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, . . . acceptance of suffering” (§1435), Eucharist (§1436), or reading Scripture (§1437), among other things. Each of these actions orients the heart of the sinner to God’s mercy and prepares them for his forgiveness.

Protestants tend to think of sin in personal terms, and view repentance as a private thing. This is not, however, a biblical notion. In keeping with Scripture, Catholics recognize a two-fold dimension to sin. Not only is our relationship with God disrupted, but so is our relationship to the Church. For that reason, restoration involves a renewed submission to the Church via confession to a priest (§1440). Ultimately, the forgiveness comes from God, but priests serve as his authorized representatives. Priests absolve sinners, or declare them “not guilty” based on the clear delegation of this authority to Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 16:19 and John 20:21–23 (§1441–1445; 1462–1467). The CCC insists “Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (§1445). Penance is usually “performed in secret between penitent and priest” (§1447), who promises confidentiality (§1467), and involves three steps: contrition (sorrow over the sin), confession (full acknowledgment of wrongdoing), andsatisfaction (making restitution for wrongs committed) [§1450–1460]. I love what the CCC says about confession: “Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible” (§1455).
Why does restitution need to be made? The CCC explains, “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin” (§1459). Our kids have a favorite radio program that illustrates the need for restitution. It’s part of the series produced by Focus on the Family called Adventures in Odyssey. In one episode, Rodney Rathbone (a consummate troublemaker), climbs a neighbor’s fence and steals some apples. In the process he breaks the fence. When he is caught, he thinks that saying “sorry” will be enough. But time shows that Rodney has failed to learn his lesson from the experience (he beats up another kid who owes him a dollar, forgetting the mercy that he had just been shown). The local police pick him up and bring him back to his neighbor’s house, where he learns what the word “restitution” means. He is asked to either pay the homeowner the cost of repairing his fence or repair it himself. In the Catholic Church, the ‘action step’ required is assigned by the priest, who carefully considers what act of penance will bring about spiritual fruit in the confessor (§1460).

Penance, then, is not trying to earn God’s grace or forgiveness, but is seeking to restore/repair the broken relationship with God and with the Church (§1468–1469). It is an act that “anticipates in a certain way the judgment to which he will be subjected at the end of his earthly life” when God judges the works of all people (§1470, emphasis original). You might think of it like a therapy undertaken to infuse spiritual strength. A broken shoulder doesn’t just need a cast. One the bone has been healed (=forgiveness), the person goes through therapy to build up the muscles and tissues that will allow for full movement again (=penance).

Included within the sacrament of Penance is the concept of Indulgences. The abuse of Indulgences was one thing that sparked the Protestant Reformation. Dr. Cavadini explained to me, “Indulgences are easily prone to abuse. The Church doesn’t talk about them all that much nowadays, although they are still available for pious practices that are designed to help us put into practice the grace of repentance (e.g. practices of prayer and, sometimes, almsgiving to the poor).” The CCC explains what the Church today believes about Indulgences. First, a definition:

“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” (§1471).

A few things about this definition should be noted. Indulgences do not offer forgiveness. Forgiveness has already been given by God. Instead, Indulgences cover the punishment or natural consequence that remains (the same punishment that Penance is designed to address). This remaining punishment (mediated through Penance) purifies sinners from the “unhealthy attachment to creatures” (§1472–1473). But this is not a lonely, individual purification. Believers share in the “communion of saints,” about which the CCC says, “In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin” (§1475).

We must remember that these sins are not those committed by unbelievers, but by those who have already been baptized into the Church and have since fallen. And though the doctrine can include minor, everyday sins, it is designed to address major sins such as adultery and murder. For these sinners, the Catholic Church identifies the rich storehouse of merits laid up by Christ, Mary, and other saints (§1476–1477). Just as believers share their possessions and so meet one another’s needs, so the Catholic Church believes that these spiritual treasures can be shared with those in need. Based on the authority that God granted to the apostles (noted above), the Church dispenses Indulgences, not to simply excuse sin, but “to spur [fallen Christians] to works of devotion, penance, and charity” (§1478). This undeserved grace evokes gratitude and service. Indulgences may also be applied to those who have already died and are in the process of purification in Purgatory (§1479, 1498).

This is all very unfamiliar territory for Protestants, so perhaps it will help to get a picture of how the process of Penance actually works. The CCC describes it this way:

The elements of the celebration [of Penance] are ordinarily these: a greeting and blessing from the priest, reading the word of God to illuminate the conscience and elicit contrition, and an exhortation to repentance; the confession, which acknowledges sins and makes them known to the priest; the imposition and acceptance of a penance; the priest’s absolution; a prayer of thanksgiving and praise and dismissal with the blessing of the priest. (§1480)

Though even Catholics resist the idea of Confession, the Church encourages the practice at least yearly

The confession of sins is a biblical concept, one that Protestants could practice more often (James 5:16). And, strange as it may sound to our ears, Jesus clearly does grant authority to his disciples to proclaim forgiveness of sins (John 20:19–23). Based on the Catholic idea of apostolic succession (the passing down of authority for church leadership from the apostles to present-day priests), it makes sense that priests would be the ones granting absolution from sin. Second Corinthians 5:21 describes how Jesus’ merits benefit us: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NRSV). Protestants believe, too, that we are recipients of God’s great grace in Jesus Christ. While our understanding of the mode of its application to us may differ, we can stand side-by-side with Catholics in praising God for the work of redemption in Christ. And from Catholics we can be reminded of the need to repent of our sins and work for the restoration of relationships broken by our sin.

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About Carmen Imes

I entered Wheaton's doctoral program in 2011 with an Old Testament concentration under Dr. Daniel Block. I have an MA in Biblical Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Charlotte campus), and a BA from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. My husband, Danny, and I are missionaries with SIM and we have 3 great kids: Eliana, Emma, and Easton. You can find my personal blog at www.seminarymom.blogspot.com. I'm passionate about the Word of God, both written and incarnate, and I long to see our generation transformed so that we can truly know God and reflect Him to the world.
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