January 27, 2021

Father Smith Instructs Jackson On Indulgences: A Reformation Day Consideration

Update: On a previous Reformation Day, I was lamenting the one-sideness of the current view of the Reformation (Written before my wife’s conversion btw). It was a sad, tragic necessity, but I have no probem lamenting it and I’m no cheerleader for all things “team!!”

Because of the upcoming commemoration of Reformation Day, I would like to reprint some material- penned by a Roman apologist of the previous century- that convinces me that the Reformation, while tragic and sad, was and remains a sad, tragic necessity.

This is what the Reformation continues to be about for me: Does the material below, presented without comment, present Jesus Christ and the Father-God he reveals in his person, life, teachings, death and resurrection? Is this the Gospel? Is this the God of the Gospel?

This will, no doubt, be controversial, but the issue continues to be at the heart of the reformation divide and at the heart of any reconsideration of the meaning of unity. I just finished re-reading the Vatican II documents on Ecumenism. For all their excellence, they do not address the issues raised in the doctrine of indulgences. These are the statements of those who tell us to come home to the true church of Jesus. They ought not to be avoided.

The following is a reprint of a chapter from a very well known Roman Catholic apologetics and catechetical book from the mid-twentieth century, Father Smith Instructs Jackson. Here’s a description of the book from its Amazon.com page.

Over 3 million copies of this timeless classic have been sold while influencing thousands of conversions. Witness the engaging and accessible interplay between a priest and a non-Catholic inquiring about the Faith. Their conversation is a masterpiece in catechesis as Jackson asks the questions generation after generation wants to ask and Father Smith responds with wisdom, wit, Scripture references, and solid Catholic teaching. It is one-on-one catechesis at its finest, delivered in a relevant and practical context much like Jesus himself taught.

The author, Archbishop John Francis Noll, was a stalwart warrior against anti-Catholicism in his time, and founded Our Sunday Visitor, which today is a major Catholic publisher. The book from which this chapter is taken is made up of columns written by Archbishop Noll, later edited into this volume. Several million copies are in print.

The entire book is available in Google books.

The Catechsim of the RCC has the following section on Indulgences.

Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin explains the contemporary RC view of Indulgences at Catholic Answers.

Father S. Tonight our instruction will be on the much misunderstood subject of “Indugences.” It might be best for me to explain first that the conception which the generality of non-Catholics have of Indulgences is most erroneous.

Mr. J. What do they believe to be the church’s teaching?

Father S. Many of them suppose that an Indulgence is a pardon of sin for money, or even a license to commit sin.

Mr. J. I told you the other night that I had heard this, but do you really think that many entertain such notions?

Father S. I am sure of it; recently an aged minister, one who preached for thirty-five years, but who is now drawing a pension as a retired minister, told me that the universally accepted definition of “Indulgence” by the non-Catholic world is “a license to sin for a remuneration.”

Mr. J. Where did they get such an idea?

Father S. Well, it is maintained that the so-called Reformation of the sixteenth century was occasioned by the sale of and traffic in Indulgences; this, they say, is evidence that they are, or were, sold. Then, the plain meaning of the word “Indulgence” is, they say, “a yielding to excess,” a “favor granted,” “a license.” Therefore it is a license to sin for a contribution of money.

Mr. J. How do you answer their charge?

Father S. The ecclesiastical meaning of the Latin word “Indulgentia” means “pardon,” but not a pardon of sin, much less a license to sin. In fact, it has no reference to sin at all, which is pardoned by the worthy reception of the Sacrament of Penance. It is not a pardon of sin, but of the temporal punishment due to sin already forgiven.

Mr. J. What is meant by “temporal punishment” still due after the sins are forgiven?

Father S. Let us suppose a case: You have committed a grievous sin, which renders you liable to eternal punishment. But you sincerely repent of and confess the sin, receive absolution, etc.

Mr. J. Yes Father.

Father S. By your good confession, the guilt of the mortal sin was removed, and also the eternal punishment, which you deserved. But if your sorrow was not as earnest and intense as God would have from you, He would possibly show His displeasure by sending you a little misfortune, or, if you died after your confession you might be punished for a brief period in Purgatory. This would be the temporal punishment deserved for your sin. The temporal punishment may be removed by the performance of penances, good works, prayers, etc., but by an “Indulgence,” the Church applies to your soul the merits of Christ for the complete expiation of your fault. A Scripture example will make the case clearer. David, many of whose psalms are outbursts of repentance for two grievous sins he committed, received assurance from God, through the prophet Nathan, that his crimes were forgiven, but that nevertheless his son would be taken from him. This was to be his temporal punishment after he repented and his sin was forgiven.

Mr. J. If the temporal punishment is not endured here, or is not removed by penance or good works, it will be inflicted in Purgatory. Am I right?

Father S. Yes; unless remitted through the application of Christ’s merits to the soul by the Church, by the grant of an Indulgence.

Mr. J. The Indulgence is not granted at the time of confession?

Father S. No; the Church attaches Indulgences to certain prayers, or good works, which become effective if performed by a person who is in the state of grace and otherwise properly disposed. An Indulgence is either Plenary or Partial: that is, either calculated to remove all or only part of the temporal punishment. Partial Indulgences are usually attached to prayers, whilst for a Plenary Indulgence it is nearly always required that the person receive Holy Communion and pay a visit to the church, where he must say more prayers for the success of God’s interests on earth, especially as they are in the mind of the Pope.

Mr. J. Compliance with such conditions always secures the Plenary Indulgence?

Father S. Not always, If the person is somewhat attached to the sin for which the temporal punishment would be due, if his sorrow be not sufficiently intense, he would not gain the Indulgence in all its fullness.

Mr. J. Since an Indulgence can only be gained after the person’s sins are wholly forgiven, I suppose, if a Plenary Indulgence be actually gained before one’s death, that one avoids Purgatory and has assurance of immediate entrance into Heaven, does he not?

Father S. Yes.

Mr. J. Can a person gain an Indulgence for someone else?

Father S. We cannot gain Indulgences for other living persons, but we can gain them for the souls in Purgatory, since the Church makes most Indulgences applicable to them.

Mr. J. And money is never paid for an Indulgence?

Father S. No; as I have said, works of penance, prayers, Holy Communion, visits to a church, etc. may be among the conditions named for the gaining of an Indulgence; and since the Bible recommends alms as a work pleasing to god; the offering of an alms might be asked, but not in return for the Indulgence.
Remember that a person who has not confessed and repented of his sin could not gain an Indulgence for any amount of prayers, alms and good works. Let us refute the case of “Indulgence traffic,” of which the so-called reformer accused the Church. Pope Leo X, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when all Europe was Catholic, decided to erect in Rome a cathedral church such as should exist in the capital city of the Christian world. he asked for small contributions for Catholics throughout Europe, and promulgated a Plenary Indulgence to all who should pray for the success of the cause, go to confession and receive Holy Communion worthily, and contribute an alms towards the erection of the great cathedral. Now any instructed Catholic knows that the Indulgence could not be given in return for an alms, no matter how great, without previous confession and Communion.

I have told you that even today, some good work, such as visiting a church, is required for the gaining of a Plenary Indulgence, even after Confession and Communion. The good work specified in that instance was an alms, but the papal letter expressly declared that the poor could gain the same Indulgence by performing good works of another nature.

Mr. J. To me this instance is much the same as the frequent announcements from Protestant pulpits that Almighty God will grant special favors and blessings to those who contribute for home or foreign missionary work.

Father S. It is quite the same. But to explain the grounds for the non-Catholic contention that Indulgences were sold: At that time there was no telegraph service, there were no daily newspapers to acquaint the people of Europe with the desire and the project of the Pope. It had to be done by sending preachers to the several countries. John Tetzel, head of the Dominican order of priests, was commissioned to preach the Indulgence in Germany. It might be that uninstructed Catholics thought that the Indulgence was given in return for their alms. We shall even grant, for sake of the argument, that Tetzel himself abused his charge, but that would not implicate the Church. It would never have justified Luther of the Augustinian order of priest to repudiate his vows and attack the Church.

Mr. J. John Tetzel was not the Catholic Church.


  1. Imonk, I apologize. I am sorry that I was accusatory toward you. I should stop posting anywhere until I get my head a little more straight. I will bow out and appreciate any prayers you can offer.

  2. I wrote a relatively long discussion of Indulgences working from the Prodigal Son here.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    …then they’ll turn around and say, “By the way, if you are not doing A, B, or C, you’re probably not elect.”

    Is this not just works snuck in through a back door? — Confused

    Or the latest in “spiritual one-upmanship”.

    i.e. “Proof of election/salvation is whatever I do that YOU don’t.” And “The Unpardonable Sin is whatver YOU do that I don’t.”

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