Monday, March 16, 2009

"A Bit of a Stretch"

In the February 19, 2009, issue of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Fr. John Paul Erickson, director of the archdiocesan Worship Office, offered an explanation of the church’s teachings on indulgences.

At one point, Erickson offers an analogy in which humanity is represented by “Tommy,” a young boy who accidentally breaks a window belonging to “Mrs Mulcahy,” who represents God.

Writes Erickson:

Mrs. Mulcahy . . . kindly forgives [Tommy]. She also makes it clear, “But, Tommy, you still have to pay for my window.”

Well, it’s similar in the spiritual life. When we sin, complete reconciliation with God and neighbor requires not only the forgiveness of God, ordinarily given in sacramental confession, but also some kind of “making up” for the offense.

This “making up” for our offenses is what we call “temporal punishment” due to sin. It ordinarily is experienced either through acts of penance here on earth or in the afterlife in what we call “purgatory.”

An indulgence is an act of the church by means of which this temporal punishment is remitted through some act of devotion or piety, that is, some act of love. Some actions carry “plenary” indulgences, as they alleviate all temporal punishment. A partial indulgence alleviates some portion of temporal punishment.

In explaining where the idea for indulgences came from, Erickson asserts that “it began right in Scripture itself when Jesus gave to Peter and to the church the keys to the Kingdom (Matthew 16:19), and the authority to bind and loose. (see also John 20:23)”

The following letter by Florence Steichen, CSJ, was one of three published by The Catholic Spirit in response to Erickson’s explanation of indulgences. (All three letters, according to the paper, were the result of their respective writers’ “struggle” to understand what the church teaches on this particular matter.)


Dear Editor,

I am writing in response to the article on indulgences in The Catholic Spirit February 19.

With all due respect, I am quite certain God is not like Mrs. Mulcahy, who requires payment after forgiveness. It seems a bit of a stretch to find support for indulgences in the New Testament when Jesus gave His disciples the power to forgive sins, to bind and loose.

What I find in the New Testament is forgiveness without mention of punishment.

Your sins are forgiven ... take up your mat and go home (Mark 2).

Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again (John 8).

In the last judgment scene, (Matthew 25), the righteous will go into eternal life. No mention of temporal punishment due to sin.

In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, Jesus assured the thief who admitted his guilt: Today you will be with me in paradise. No mention of Purgatory.

In The Mystery of Death, Ladislas Boros imagines the moment of death something like this.

When we are in the presence of infinite love, seeing God face-to-face, so to speak, we will experience excruciating sorrow, deep pain, intense regret for our sins. In a timeless moment we are purified. Then without interval – for there is no time in the afterlife – the forgiven one enters into the joy of eternal life.

Florence Steichen, CSJ - retired educator


In response to those who, like Steichen, question the concept of indulgences, a follow-up article was published by The Catholic Spirit in which Erickson expressed gratitude for the “chance to elaborate and clarify the church’s teaching on indulgences.” This response can be viewed here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Florence, for writing to The Catholic Spirit, and thanks, Michael, for posting it here for a wider audience. Doesn't it seem that there is an overly quantitative aspect to the Church's construction of sin and grace? Mrs. Mulcahy is out the cost of the window that Tommy broke. Restorative justice is in order. But what can we take from God in any action of ours? How can restoration be made to God? Of course, what we do in sinning is to impede the creation of a community of mutual love and cooperation that is the Christian vision. I would like to hear John Paul Erickson talk more about our responsibility to co-create that community. As quantitative as the doctrine is, do you think the doctrine of indulgences has anything to do with helping to create a community of mutual love and cooperation? Once Tommy pays for the window, what is his continuing responsibility?