January 17, 2021


As a follow-up to the post on Purgatory, and to fulfill the promise therein where I said we would speak of indulgences, here we treat of that most vexed topic.

Before we begin, an acknowledgement: Yes, there was Tetzel and the sale of indulgences for the dead and yes, Tetzel was in the wrong.  You can’t just purchase an indulgence and bingo! Uncle Titus who got run over by the ox-cart before he finished his penance for being a miserly liar who cheated his employees, used false weights in his trading and cackled gleefully while twirling his moustache on the way home from evicting widows and orphans into the freezing, snowy night from their wretched hovels where he was a slum-lord, only pausing along the way to kick a three-legged puppy into the slush-filled gutter, is out of Purgatory! And yes, it was a fundraising push (though I find that the fundraising was in fact for the Archbishop of Mainz to pay off the Pope for giving him the archbishopric, not for the building of St. Peter’s as is commonly believed).  So yes, it was an example of abusing both doctrine and the trust of the people for gain – like Chaucer’s Pardoner faking relics – or Prosperity Gospel hucksters, or those who apply Acts 19: 11-12 to healing prayer cloths, or “pray this prayer for 30 days and you will gain blessings” Prayer of Jabez-style regimens?  Abusus non tollit usum and any doctrine can be abused.

As a side-note, if you ever come across anyone either in person or on the Internet offering to sell you Lourdes water, earth from the Mount of Olives, or stuff like this, this is a good indicator that they’re not kosher, if you will pardon the expression.  That’s simony – so named after Simon Magus – and refers to selling sacred goods or offices for gain, and you are not permitted to sell holy water or relics or any such things.  In other words, they can charge you for the container or the medal or the tin or the rosary beads, but the contents should come free, and you both have to be very clear that you’re selling the bottle, not the water.  Any promises of miracles, blessings or divine intervention are, of course, completely bogus.  You can’t guarantee mystical experiences with every souvenir).  This also means that one day I’ll have to talk about relics, won’t I?  I swear, I have no idea when I morphed into the Cranky Irish Woman version of the Catechism, but you can be assured that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, if they were aware of it, would probably be as unhappy about it as the rest of us.

All that being said, what are indulgences and what are they for?  Let’s step back a moment and remind ourselves about Purgatory.  Purgatory “is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”  The spiritual guilt of the sin is forgiven by God (contingent on true repentance) but the necessity for reparation to those we have offended remains.  If we haven’t done this, or if we remain secretly attached to our sins (and everyone has a pet sin or fault that they excuse themselves for and don’t really consider as bad as all that), and if we don’t do it in this life (because we tell ourselves we have plenty of time left – as in St. Augustine’s prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet” – or we leave it to the ‘death-bed repentance’ or we think we don’t have to do anything more once we’ve said “Sorry”), we have to make up for it in the next.

Not because God keeps a balance sheet of debits and credits and not because we are not forgiven our sins, and most assuredly not because we can earn salvation, but because we are spirits who have souls and are in a body, and what we do in our physical lives matters, and we stain, twist and affect our souls by our habits and our sins.

Think of the Parable of the Talents, where the last servant was condemned for being wicked and slothful and doing nothing with what he had been given.  Now, why this condemnation?  This servant has maintained what he received and has not lost it or added anything superfluous to it.  Yet he has not done his master’s will; he has produced no fruit – and it is by our fruit that we are known.  Or the cursed and withered fig tree – why expect figs out of season?  Because we know not the day nor the hour, and if we wait for the ‘proper time’ to bear our fruit, we may be too late.

It wasn’t a metaphor or a parable for the fig tree, but a real happening that it was condemned and withered away for its material lack.  Purgatory is the jail where we have to do the time if we’ve done the crime, and indulgences are parole.  That’s a dreadful metaphor, feel free to blame me for it, but it’s one way of thinking about it.

Let’s go back another step: prayers for the dead.  One prayer most every Catholic should know is the one that goes “Eternal rest, grant unto (him/her/them), O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon (him/her/them).  May (he/she/they) rest in peace.  Amen” for the repose of the Holy Souls, that they may be released from Purgatory.  The Church remembers her departed children on 2nd November, All Souls’ Day, where (according to the old “Catholic Encyclopedia”), “The theological basis for the feast is the doctrine that the souls which, on departing from the body, are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, are debarred from the Beatific Vision, and that the faithful on earth can help them by prayers, alms, deeds and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass.”

So we have a place – Purgatory – , a means – prayer for the dead – and a reason – the final payment of any debts we owe in this life, carried over to the next, because what we do in the body counts.  Put those together, and we come (by a circuitous route, if you’ve followed me this far) to the topic of indulgences.  Once again, I’m going to quote the old “Catholic Encylopedia” here, both because I think it gives a good, solid definition and because I’m amused by the palpable air of vexation that the writer gives off, as though he’s just read the 1914 equivalent of a Jack Chick tract on the topic:

What an indulgence is not. To facilitate explanation, it may be well to state what an indulgence is not.  It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power.  It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven.  It is not an exemption from any law or duty, and much less from the obligation consequent on certain kinds of sin, e.g., restitution; on the contrary, it means a more complete payment of the debt which the sinner owes to God.  It does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of subsequent lapses into sin.  Least of all is an indulgence the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer’s salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory.  The absurdity of such notions must be obvious to any one who forms a correct idea of what the Catholic Church really teaches on this subject.

And now we get to the tricky, technical, nit-picking stuff, where you will be bludgeoned over the head with terms like “the Treasury of Merits”.  Again, before we start, I want to hammer home a few points:

  1. Temporal punishment due to sin has nothing to do with spiritual guilt.  Contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction/reparation take care of that, by the grace of God.  This is the satisfaction of justice, the same way that a prison sentence is the satisfaction of justice, whether or not the offender pleads guilty, denies his crime, or there are extenuating circumstances.  Even a suspended sentence is contingent upon the defendant getting through a period of probation, so nobody gets off scott-free (unless they’ve been found ‘not guilty’, of course).  The Sacrament of Penance is clemency (“Clemency under the criminal justice system is the act by an executive member of government of extending mercy to a convicted individual.”)
  2. Because periods of public penance were assigned for particular lengths of time by the early Church, this carried over into the consideration of temporal punishment as it applied in Purgatory.  You may have heard (usually in mockery) of indulgences for thousands of years or the like.  This was misconceived (even by the faithful themselves, who should have known better, but then again, ordinary people don’t have all the subtleties at their fingers’ ends) as meaning that you got out of spending four thousand years in Purgatory by means of this, that or the other indulgence.  No, it means that the spiritual merits attached to the indulgence is the equivalent of the performances of the penances for the penal sentences for all your sins, added up, which might come to a thousand years or three thousand or a million here on Earth, if you were to be excluded from the life of the Church or put to perform other penances (e.g. this excerpt from the Rule of St. Columbanus, for punishments in a monastery, where you can see that fasting for a period of time or reciting the Psalms are made equivalent:
    “If any brother has been disobedient, let him spend two days on one loaf and water.  If any says, ‘I will not do it,’ three days on one loaf and water….  If any has slandered his abbot, seven days on one loaf and water; if his brother, twenty-four psalms, if a lay person, twelve psalms.”)  In other words, indulgences are pardons (defined as the “exemption of a convicted person from the penalties of an offense or crime by the power of the executor of the laws”).
  3. Ideally, then, working together, Sacramental Penance in this life and Purgatory in the next constitute amnesty (“Amnesty is a legislative act through which a branch of government restores the position of innocence to someone who was formerly rendered guilty.  This is more than a pardon and it totally obliterates all legal record or remembrance of the offense.”).  And now all the lawyers out there are groaning and clutching their heads at the hay I’ve made of the concepts.

Enough with the misapplied legal terms, just be certain on this point: indulgences are not a substitute for confession, since they can’t relieve you of the guilt of your sins, just the righteous punishment due an offended Divine justice – and your fellow-Christians – for your offenses.

And here we get into the technical terms: there are partial and plenary indulgences.  As you might expect from the name, partial indulgences remit some of the temporal punishment, while plenary indulgences apply to all of it.  Remember what I said earlier about the three thousand years in Purgatory get-out-of-jail-card misunderstanding?  That was because partial indulgences used to be tagged for things like three hundred days or two years or what have you.  So nowadays, there is no mention of specific times attached, just that a particular indulgence is partial or plenary.  If you do come across one of those, hang on to it – it’s a survival from before the 1968 revision of the “Enchiridion Indulgentiarum” (a revised handbook of indulgences) by Pope Paul VI.  No, you can’t sell it on eBay – we already covered that point, and besides, it (probably) isn’t worth anything monetarily anyway.

There are conditions attached (yeah, you’re not getting off that easy, which is why Tetzel was wrong to imply or state that putting the money in the box got the soul out of Purgatory).  First, you have to have the intention to gain the indulgence (well, duh, says you, but if you’re not going to fulfill all the conditions, then you’re not gaining the indulgence, just saying a prayer – which will do you no harm anyway, but isn’t what we’re talking about).  To quote Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution,

“To acquire a plenary indulgence it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff.  It is further required that all attachment to sin, even to venial sin, be absent.  If this disposition is in any way less than complete, or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be only partial, except for the provisions contained in n.11 for those who are ‘impeded.’”

That last one – being free from attachment even to venial sin – is the toughest, because who of us can say with perfect conviction and honesty that we are free of all inclination to even the smallest sin, which is why most of us will only get a partial indulgence.  The “work” to which the indulgence is attached varies; most simply, it is the recitation of a particular prayer (it can also be a pilgrimage, almsgiving, some other work of charity, etc.)  One of the old favorites is the indulgenced prayer said before a crucifix, this version from a1964 missal in my possession:

Behold, O kind and most sweet Jesus, I cast myself upon my knees in Thy sight, and with the most fervent desire of my soul I pray and beseech Thee that Thou wouldst impress upon my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope and charity, with true repentance for my sins and a firm desire of amendment, whilst with deep affection and grief of soul I consider within myself and mentally contemplate Thy five most precious Wounds; having before mine eyes that which the Prophet David spoke of Thee, O good Jesus: “They have pierced my hands and my feet; they have numbered all my bones”.  (Say Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be for the intentions of the Holy Father.  A plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, may be gained by those who shall say this prayer with devotion before an image of our crucified Redeemer.  A partial indulgence may also be gained for each devout recitation.)

There you go – an indulgence free, gratis and for nothing!

Ah, but time for another technical term: the Treasury of Merits, on which the whole point turns.  Now, we have the notion of the Communion of Saints, correct?  All the faithful are united, and we pray one for another.  No-one, regardless of denomination, has any difficulty with those on earth praying for each other.  And of course, we all appreciate the prayers of any particular holy or saintly person.  In the early Church, the prayers of those going to martyrdom were considered especially efficacious, because martyrs! Going straight to the presence of God!  And being dead did not mean that suddenly they could no longer help us, right?  They can pray for us, intercede for us, even better because now they are with God directly and not on this earth with the rest of us.  So, if prayer works, and prayer works for the living from the “dead” (excuse me for the quotation marks, but I have the knee-jerk reaction that, where someone says “What good is praying to Mary?  Mary is dead!”, I go “No, she’s not!”), then the same way, prayer from the living works for the dead – the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

Instead of me putting any merit (and yes, we do attach merit to works, because we’re in bodies, remember?  Judged by our fruit?  Heirs and sons of the Father?  Siblings of Christ?  Temples of the Holy Spirit?  We are to become divinized, which is our end and destination?) that I acquire for myself to my own benefit, I can direct it to the good of others, living and dead.  Going back to the Catechism:


In the Communion of Saints.

1474 The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace is not alone.  “The life of each of God’s children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person.”

1475 In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth.  Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.”  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.

1476 We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury, which is “not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries.  On the contrary the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God.  They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father.  In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.

1477 This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God.  In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them.  In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.

Let me reiterate here: all the merits which any of us, even Mary, gain or have gained come through grace.  Grace builds on nature.  The love of God overflows like a fountain, spilling out and through the vessels which we become, which the saints in perfection become, and in their turn pass on to us – because there is no loss, no hoarding, no diminution of this treasure by being spent and being shared.  Holy Mother Church can toss it around like snuff at a wake because of the generosity of God, who as our loving Father takes our little baby steps and attempts to hold the hammer and pass the nails, and allows them to have worth not because we can add anything to Him or do anything of our own accord, but because we are His children and He gives us freedom and a share as of right in His creative power because we are sons, not slaves.  Going back to the Parable of the Talents, the interest that the last servant could have earned on the money he buried if he had left it with the bankers is comparable to the graces of the martyrs and saints which they earn by uniting their wills with the will of God and undergoing their sufferings and performing what works they do in unison with His will.

Okay, I’ll wind up with the words of another who has portrayed the Soul’s flight to Judgement, “The Dream of Gerontius” from 1865 by the Blessed Henry, Cardinal Newman, (from which text you may be familiar with the hymns “Firmly I Believe and Truly” and “Praise to the Holiest in the Heights”):


When then – if such thy lot – thou seest thy Judge,

The sight of Him will kindle in thy heart

All tender, gracious, reverential thoughts.

Thou wilt be sick with love, and yearn for Him,

And feel as though thou couldst but pity Him,

That one so sweet should e’er have placed Himself

At disadvantage such, as to be used

So vilely by a being so vile as thee.

There is a pleading in His pensive eyes

Will pierce thee to the quick, and trouble thee.

And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself; for, though

Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinn’d,

As never thou didst feel; and wilt desire

To slink away, and hide thee from His sight:

And yet wilt have a longing aye to dwell

Within the beauty of His countenance.

And these two pains, so counter and so keen –

The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;

The shame of self at thought of seeing Him –

Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.


  1. Wow!!! I’m honord to be the first post on this discussion. And on the gracious and redeeming Martha of Ireland of all arthurs!! (You do an awesome job as well Chaplin Mike 😉 )

    I know we kind of agreed to disagree Martha but for me the concept of purgatory is quite a stretch. IF Christianity is true..then I would think that purgatory erases the sacrifice of Jesus at Calvery. Because in the end it downplays its importance, and makes it trite. (And for the record I won’t visit the topic of why God sent his son to die when he could have just forgvien mankind…if you create the world and everytihng in it…don’t you also have the power to forgive it as well?)

    But for me it also seems that the topic of purgatory is kind of the “Catholic verison of the rapture” in my opinion.

    (Eagle runs and scurries out of the room before Mother Superior gets her brass knuckles to knock osme sense into him…) 😯

    • Nah. You want “Catholic version of the rapture” madness, just start claiming to have Marian apparitions.

    • Ah, Eagle, I would never use the brass knuckles on you 🙂

      No, Purgatory cannot erase the salvation gained for us by the atoning death of Christ. Indeed, the concept behind indulgences rests on that very death, since the idea of substitutionary atonement lies behind and underpins it (the merits of another can be pleaded on our behalf).

      Christ’s death has opened the gates of Heaven, restored the bond between God and Man, satisified on our behalf (in His human nature) the debt we owed to Divine Justice, and once and for all accomplished our salvation from the guilt of sin. However, that act is not just a one-time done and over with in history and time event; the eternal fruits of it radiate out through all time (else, how could a death two thousand years ago help us born afterwards?)

      And Purgatory does not cover the spiritual guilt of sin, but rather the effacement of the final traces of the Old Adam in us, so that we are restored to the image of God that we are created as – it may be one timeless instance, when we see our Lord and God upon our death, and the beauty, holiness and love of that Vision burn us clean of all dross – we have no language to speak of it since we have not the experience of such in our dimensionally-bound space-time, so we have to approach it by metaphors and the nearest thing we can see from our own experience (here on earth, fire burns but also cleanses, so we adapt to our senses the imagery of the purgatorial fire in order to encompass within our experience what this might be like). To be in the presence of God, to know our unfitness (no matter that we are saved) to be in that presence, when not even the heavens are pure in His sight, to long to be restored to our original innocence, to be seared through by the Divine Love until every last little wisp of attachment is consumed (not to goods, honours, our own good works, our families, our loves) and our whole will is once more in right balance so that, putting God first, we can then properly enjoy those things of the good creation – that is what we speak of so haltingly.

  2. This (indulgences) was one of the things that got Luther so upset.

    He said, “If the Pope has the power to reduce someone’s time in purgatory for an indulgence…then why does he not let everyone out (of purgatory) by an act of pure Christian charity?”


    • Ah, that Marty, such a kidder.

      That’s disingenous on his behalf, since let us say that today, the Pope declares a Jubilee Year and moreover that everyone is Purgatory, by fiat, released. (Doesn’t work like that, which he knew, but let’s go with the way he’s phrased the question).

      That’s today. People keep dying, you know, so what about the souls tomorrow? That would mean that every day, the Pope would have to declare Purgatory empty (and no, he can’t do away with Purgatory, anymore than by his own authority and the powers of the keys he can declare Hell done away with) – so basically, it would be a gradual event, day-by-day, done sequentially in time.

      Like what we do now. Like the prayers for the dead after the Anamnesis in the Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass:

      EP I – Remember, Lord, those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, especially those for whom we now pray, {names deceased loved ones whom the celebrant or parishioner wishes to offer before God}. May these, and all who sleep in Christ, find in your presence light, happiness, and peace. [Through Christ our Lord. Amen.]

      EP II – Remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again; bring them and all the departed into the light of your presence. Have mercy on us all; make us worthy to share eternal life with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with the apostles, and with all the saints who have done your will throughout the ages. May we praise you in union with them, and give you glory through your Son, Jesus Christ.

      EP III – Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters, and all who have left this world in your friendship. We hope to enjoy for ever the vision of your glory, through Christ our Lord, from whom all good things come.

      EP IV – Remember those who have died in the peace of Christ and all the dead whose faith is known to you alone. Father, in your mercy grant also to us, your children, to enter into our heavenly inheritance in the company of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, and your apostles and saints. Then, in your kingdom, freed from the corruption of sin and death, we shall sing your glory with every creature through Christ our Lord, through whom you give us everything that is good.

      So basically, every time the Mass is said, we are letting souls out of Purgatory by an act of pure Christian charity – the charity of Christ. Indulgences are religion, not magic. We cannot compel God to do anything. Indulgences are a two-way street; they depend on the fulfilment of conditions on the part of the one gaining them (the dead can’t get them for themselves, obviously) and we’ve already covered why Tetzel was in the wrong on this point by just making it a simple act of almsgiving/sale of pardons.

      • If a Pope can lessen the time of someone in Purgatory, and they don’t do that except when payment of some kind is made, it begs the question of mercy.

        I don’t believe there is such a place. For all those in Christ will be with Him, no further cleaning up is necessary unless you believe Jesus couldn’t do everything.

        It’s just religion, and that’s about it.

        • No, no, no – not payment. You have to want the indulgence and to be in a state of grace. It doesn’t work like magic, it’s co-operation with God. You bring your tiny little crumb of (for once) all your heart and soul and mind is on and for and with God, and this is united with the merits of Christ and applied to the living or the dead as intended.

          You can gain an indulgence for yourself. You can gain one for your neighbour, or your co-worker, or some anonymous person you don’t even know, but you feel like praying for that person who is trying – or maybe can’t even bring themselves yet to try, through fear or shame – to repair the relationships they have damaged by their sin: their family or friends or those they abused in some way by anger or greed or desire to be in charge or pride (e.g. if Eagle will excuse me, his experience that “If this is what Christians are really like, count me out!”).

          Catholics don’t believe in irresistable grace as such; we believe that God respects human free will. If we want to be damned, that’s our choice. If we don’t want to put our money where our mouth is and ask for a change of heart, that is also our choice.

          • Cooperation with God.

            God does His part and now we must do our part.

            You don’t even need the cross for that.

            You guys can have at it. (the religion, ladder climbing, holiness project)

            I’ll stick with Christ and His cross.

            Thanks anyway, Martha.


  3. Thanks for writing this, Martha. On the Catholic Answers website, I find this:

    “Below are indulgences listed in the Handbook of Indulgences (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1991). Note that there is an indulgence for Bible reading. So, rather than discouraging Bible reading, the Catholic Church promotes it by giving indulgences for it! (This was the case long before Vatican II.)

    • An act of spiritual communion, expressed in any devout formula whatsoever, is endowed with a partial indulgence.

    • A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly spend time in mental prayer.

    • A plenary indulgence is granted when the rosary is recited in a church or oratory or when it is recited in a family, a religious community, or a pious association. A partial indulgence is granted for its recitation in all other circumstances.

    • A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read sacred Scripture with the veneration due God’s word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is done for at least one-half hour [provided the other conditions are met].

    • A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who devoutly sign themselves with the cross while saying the customary formula: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ ”

    So, I think the Catholic Church should just say all the above actions are ones that can lead us to becoming closer to realizing the presence of God in our lives. I still do not think the indulgences “thing” is necessary and it is overly complicated. But I am not stupid enough to think that what I consider would have any influence on what the Church does about indulgences!

    • Thanks for this, JoanieD…very helpful.

      And thanks, Miss Martha, for unraveling this mystery for us Protestants. I’m sure that much debate is to come, but I have to say, this series has made for some of the most interesting reading I’ve had in quite a bit.

      Still waiting for the publication of “Miss Martha’s Guide to All Things Catholic, Written for Heathens, Quacks, and Generally Snarky Evangelicals”!

      • Lee, that is a GREAT title for the book!

        • Good word choice, Joanie: “the” book.”

          There vill be a book, Martha. Vill there not???

          • Oh, Ted. It would, I am afraid, be a very short book.

            Chapter One: We’re right. Deal with it.

            Chapter Two: If we’re so perfect, why am I such a mess? Don’t make me bring out the brass knuckles. Do as I say, not as I do.

            Chapter Three: There is no chapter three. Why are you still reading this far and not rushing out to buy a picture of the Pope, one of the Sacred Heart, and a statue of Our Lady for your homes?


    • The ironic thing, JoanieD, is that all the complexity arose out of the fact that the Church loves and defends reason (another reason why I laugh hollowly when P.Z. Myers gets his rant on or Richard Dawkins is all smug about how no, he’s never read any theological arguments* because he knows without having to read them that they’re nonsense, or any newly-minted “atheist”** trots out the party line that the Church is anti-science, anti-reason, and what about Galileo and Giordano Bruno???)

      *Back in 2006, the ex-Catholic, Marxist, of working-class Irish descent literary critic and theorist Terry Eagleton went up one side of Dawkins and down the other of him for this very thing in his review of “THe God Delusion”:

      “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.”

      ** I put this in quotes because there are some rational, reasonable atheists out there who actually think about why they are atheists and are willing to discuss the whole question, and then there are those who just like to yell and shout.

      The very fact that the mediaeval theologians loved pushing rational thought and logic to its extremes, while firmly maintaining the supremacy of God over all, meant that we get a very intricate and developed rationale for all kinds of doctrines instead of – on the one hand – dumping them overboard as ‘we’re so much smarter than the primitives who wrote the Bible so that we don’t have to believe this thing because no reasonable person who knows all about spontaneous generation/phlogiston/DNA can believe it’ and – on the other hand – just shrugging and saying ‘it’s a mystery, you’re not meant to understand’.

      As Mike Flynn is fond of quoting, that attitude reached its zenith in William of Conches:

      [They say] “We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.” You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so.
      — William of Conches, The Dragmatikon

      • Much agreed on Dawkins, Miss Martha. He puts on quite a circus…speaking tours, debates, challenging “proofs” of God’s existence by offering “proofs” of His non-existence ( as if you can prove something doesn’t exist…He forgets the old atheist argument of the flying spaghetti monster…which, if an atheist chooses to believe in, I pray the FSM would at least offer some plenary-inspired code of morality and ethics); not to mention his grasping onto evangelical marketing practices, offering a “Christmas Bundle” of books on his website a couple of years ago…but never really explaining why any self-respecting atheist would give Christmas gifts.

        I tried to read His work, at the request of a friend, a former campus ministry worker who now purports to be atheist (He had horrible experience in ministry and personally with some believers, but claims that didn’t influence his rejection of Christ…He says he made his choice based on rational thought and reason). I found it to be drivel, poorly written regurgitation, saying the same things time and time again without any foundation to his arguments.

        I almost wish Dawkins would stop calling himself an atheist, as much as I wish many televangelists would stop calling themselves pastors. Sensationalist, attention-seeker, fame whore…maybe…but no intelligent, reasonable atheist would associate themselves with the guy, no more than Christians with any depth to their faith would associate with (fill in name of your favorite apostate priest or pastor here…).

        • He’s a good scientist, when he sticks to his subject. His popularisation of science books are great.

          It’s when he comes out with notions such as if only there was no religion, there would be no war, I have to say “Richard, lovey. Take a look at history, hey? Even English history. Stephen and Matilda, the period when it was said that Christ and His saints slept. Both of them Roman Catholics, so no wars or religion going on there. Both of them trying to claw each other’s eyes out for power. Make them both atheists, Buddhists, agnostics, or Pastafarians, and they’d still have been trying to gain the throne and knock each other off. Human nature is like that.”

      • “So nowadays, there is no mention of specific times attached, just that a particular indulgence is partial or plenary.”

        I am glad about that part, Martha. But really, how often do people get assigned penances here on earth to which these indulgences are supposed to apply? I think it is an archaic system that should be allowed to go away. That’s all that I will say about it, I think.

        • (I lied. I AM still thinking about and writing about this!)

          I think the indulgences (if known about by more Catholics) would appeal to people who have certain neuroses. If I read that if I perform the Sign of the Cross devoutly I will receive a “partial indulgence” then why would I not go around all day long devoutly making the Sign of the Cross, figuring that all of those partial indulgences are BOUND to add up to a plenary indulgence sooner or later and then my penance/suffering for my sins here on earth will be over? Glory to God!

          I know you are not here to defend the Catholic teaching about this, Martha; you are just telling us what the teaching is. So don’t feel as if I am challenging YOU in any way about this. It’s just one of the few things in Catholicism that I would really like to see changed.

          • Sure, scrupulosity is a definite ill for some people, and in those cases, you would tell them “No, don’t go around worrying did you make the Sign of the Cross properly”.

            But it’s more the case that (a) these are not compulsory – nobody need ever in their life seek an indulgence if they don’t want to and (b) that the conditions are pretty simple. No more having to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land or the likes, when you can just (as you say) gain a partial indulgence by the practice of mindfulness – the next time you bless yourself going out your front door, give it an extra three seconds of thought.

            Because you do have a holy water font hanging up in your hallway, and you do bless yourself before you go out, don’t you, Joanie?

            *hauls out Big Nun Ruler and smiles ominously*


          • “Because you do have a holy water font hanging up in your hallway, and you do bless yourself before you go out, don’t you, Joanie?”

            Oh, right, sure I do, Martha. (Actually, the only water I handle as I leave the house is to haul the gallon of tap water out from under my potting bunch and dump a half gallon on each of the two Morning Glory plants. Oh my goodness, those plants are scary… they are growing so tall. They kind of creep Tom out, I think, as they reach out for things to wrap around.)

  4. Dan Crawford says

    Nearly twenty years ago, I did some extensive research on purgatory for a seminary paper and came to the following conclusions:
    a. The doctrine of purgatory makes more sense if one understands it as the Eastern Church does: that is, a purification of the Christian before he/she sees God. (Benedict XVI seems to believe more in purification than temporal punishment when he suggests that coming into Christ’s presence is a kind of purgatory because the light of our Sovereign Lord and Savior will burn away our imperfections.) The Latin understanding of purgatory comes from Tertullian who as a lawyer delighted in the kinds of distinctions Martha has detailed in her exposition.
    b. The Western Church built such a structure of doctrine and practice around purgatory that the Reformation became inevitable and necessary. The difficulty with the doctrine is that contrary to the old Christian hymn, Jesus didn’t pay it all which meant that somehow the burden fell on humans to make up for what is lacking in grace. Tertullian compares the state of the soul to a guilty defendant in the court: Sure he may be pardoned but he still has to pay the price for his offense. I have a very difficult time finding such a notion in the New Testament. The notion of the Merits of the Saints or the Treasury of the Saints came several centuries after the doctrine of Purgatory took hold in the Western Church. The reasoning behind that peculiar understanding made simony and the other ecclesiastical abuses associated with Purgatory inevitable, especially when such a doctrine was placed in the hands of corrupt men.
    c. None of what is said in the previous two paragraphs is meant to imply that we should not pray for the dead and implore the Righteous and Compassionate Lord of Life on their behalf. If we were not to pray for the dead, the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints becomes a rather superfluous doctrine. God is not bound by the strictures of human time.
    d. I think we need to acknowledge that the benefits the doctrines of Purgatory and Indulgences (if such there are) have been far outweighed by their corrupt fruits. I do believe Rome could maintain the practice of praying for the dead, could even maintain the doctrine of Purgatory as a purification without clinging to the indulgences, the Merits of the Saints, and the associated practices which suggest that somehow the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was not indeed the once-for-all payment for our sins.

    I want to thank Martha for one of the clearest expositions and apologias of the doctrines I have ever had the pleasure of reading, and for helping me clarify my thinking about them. But I do what to remind her that they led to the great schism in the West and all of us, Protestant and Catholic, are still suffering the effects today.

    • ” I do believe Rome could maintain the practice of praying for the dead, could even maintain the doctrine of Purgatory as a purification without clinging to the indulgences, the Merits of the Saints, and the associated practices which suggest that somehow the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was not indeed the once-for-all payment for our sins.”

      “…which suggest that somehow the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was not indeed the once-for-all payment for our sins.”


      Whay then the cross?

      If that didn’t do everything then our God is a mere god…and we are in big trouble.

      But that cross DID DO EVERYTHING. And we have a real Savior.

      Stick to Christ and His cross alone, and you will be alright and you’ll have the assurance of your salvation in Him.

    • Dan Crawford says

      Last sentence should read “But I do want to remind her that they led to the great schism in the West and all of us, Protestant and Catholic, are still suffering the effects today.

  5. Like vegetarians, pergatory and indulgences are not to be found in the concordance or Biblical dictionary, so what’s the point?

    • Vern, neither is “sinner’s prayer”…:o)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Or Rapture (TM)…

        And the “sinner’s prayer” (i.e. the Magic Words) is a direct knockoff of a classic Catholic prayer called “The Act of Contrition”. Just as the “Four Spiritual Laws” are cribbed directly from the four main section headings of “The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola.” And St Alphonsus Liguori invented the modern Christian tract (though he probablyu didn’t design them to resemble 100-lira bills).

    • “Pergatory” isn’t found in Catholic teachings, either. “Purgatory,” on the other hand … 🙂

    • Does that mean my brother is going to Hell, Vern? He’s a vegan, and if they’re not in the Concordance…

      (I feel like he should do, some days, when he’s annoying me over what he will/won’t eat).

  6. Thanks, Martha for your research and clear explanations! I don’t agree with this doctrine but I appreciate you and your efforts and beliefs.

  7. Now I lay me down to sleep,
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
    If I shall die before I wake,
    I pray the Lord my soul to take.

    And if He takes it I would hope,
    My heavenly reward unbound by Pope,
    Whose doctrinal pronouncements make my little head spin,
    Detailing classifications of my every sin.

    If Heaven is real do I enter–do I not?
    What is the truth regarding my soul’s lot?
    Will I end up wandering a preliminary maze?
    Wondering which indulgence reduces the days?

    Try as I might to untangle this mess,
    My sleep is restless from worry, I confess,
    What if my hope & trust in Jesus is deficient?
    And my child-like faith simply insufficient?

    • Cute, Joseph!

    • Dear Joseph, when child-like you wander,
      These simple few rules please observe;
      Keep away from Augustine up yonder
      Or you’ll get what you may not deserve

      For Gus, I regret to inform you,
      Is very old-fashioned indeed;
      Himself and Jean Cauvin are just two
      Who think we are perdition’s seed

      Through Original Sin from our parents,
      The unlucky Adam and Eve,
      Who handed down to us errants
      The punishment we all receive.

      No, better by far as an infant
      Or one who is child-like in faith
      To rely on your name-saint, the peasant
      Who fostered God’s Son – Mary’s mate.


      • Wonderful, Martha!!

        • 😀

          ah yes, my patron saint, Joseph…

          my namesake both represented in Old & New Testaments…

          i like the fact that it was also my uncle’s name: the fraternal twin of my mother…

          i have much to live up to in this regard. all men of amazing character & traits i do actually identify with…

          thanx for the reminder…

  8. Great information Martha – even for me as a Catholic, indulgences are probably the hardest concept for me to put my arms around. Its not something thats in the fore front of faith these days so for me it is on the ‘less important to think about’ list.

  9. My internet was out for a while, so I missed out on your article on purgatory and the discussion until this week. It was quite a long read, catching up on both at the same time, but a good one.

    Ultimately, every denomination has to strive with the paradoxical combination of assurances of Christ’s love for us and our effectual salvation through him versus repeated encouragement in the very same epistles of the Bible to strive, make sure our election, and work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Whether you are protestant and call it justification vs sanctification or whether you look at is as a process of divinization/deification, the same tension is there. I think all of us look a little foolish trying to explain it. The RCC wrote about it in great detail, so you guys get a harder tweaking about it because they dared to put specifics into writing. Protestants tend to get mumbley and hard to hear when they have to talk about it, and as you posted before, us Orthodox try not to get into theological speculation about such things.

    Thank you for your well written and highly explanatory posts. You explain these things really well. I appreciate your contributions to imonk very much!

  10. Aidan Clevinger says

    Excellent article. But I confess I’m still a little confused. If we must still bear temporal punishment for our sins, without which we cannot enter Heaven, then how in any meaningful sense are we forgiven for them? Forgiveness, the declaration of “innocent” or “not guilty” by definition implies that there is nothing more to do. The prisoner who has been declared “not guilty” does not then have to go to prison.

    About the prayers of the saints: I agree that we here on earth pray for each other, and I will even grant that we may (key word: “may”) pray for one another in Heaven. But the prayers to the saints that I have read are not mere requests for intercession (especially those to Mary). They read as though the person in question is asking the saint by his/her own merits and power to grant various graces. Thoughts?

    • Aiden, when I think of being forgiven but still having to DO something about the actions we have done, I think of it like this. A child acts carelessly and breaks something in the home. The parent “forgives” the child in that the parent does not punish the child physically, does not hold it against the child in the future, does not love the child any less. BUT, the parent does ask the child to clean up the mess and may even ask the child to work to buy a new item to replace the broken one. So, the child is making reparation but not being punished and the parent is helping the child to learn and to grow.

    • I’m not sure what prayers to saints you have read, but here’s a snippet of a morning prayer to Mary from the Orthodox tradition:

      “Oh Bride of God, by thy prayers release me, bound by the bonds of sin.”


      “O good Mother of the Good King, most pure and blessed Theotokos Mary, do thy pour out the mercy of thy Son and our God… and by thine intercessions guide me into good works…”

      Intercession of your name saint:

      “Pray unto God for me, O holy God-pleaser [insert name here], for I fervently flee to thee, they speedy helper and intercessor for my soul.”

      The power to answer any such petition comes from God, period. Even believing there is a point to asking things from “dead” people, or believing such things exist to ask for requires faith in an abrahamic cosmology.

      That said, just as there are terrible theology hymns out there (It’s me, it’s me, it’s me o Lord, standing in the need of prayer… not my brother, not my sister… wait, they aren’t???), I’m sure there are recorded prayers with bad theology too.

      • No kidding, tokahfang! My pet peeve is the hymnwriter who claims that while walking and talking with God, “the joy we share as we tarry there None other has ever known.”

        • Hahaha, or “Silent Night”…. really? With all the town full to bursting, no place to sleep in the inn, lowing farm animals, and a woman in labor that seems most unlikely.

          Your example reminded me of a ministry (generally a really good ministry) with a curious sign on the door to their meeting room/gym thing “The House that Jesus Built”. If Jesus were to be helping his carpenter father, that also seems distinctly unlikely, even if we put aside the disrespect to other churches.

      • i know how you feel

    • Quixotequest says

      A book I read, “The Art of Forgiving” by Lewis Smedes, was very helpful counsel for me when going through a difficult time of finding the strength to forgive. Smedes put it similar to this: The power to forgive, to grant a new beginning, is not tied at all to reconciliation. Forgiveness is a gracious gift given by the wounded to him/herself and to the perpetrator, the wounder to start over. New beginnings are not bound to fixing or reconciling a former relationship.

      The wounder, on the other hand, holds the key to reconciliation and relationship in how they respond to forgiveness given by the wounded by their submissiveness, humility, by changing course, and bridging so that reconciled relationship can result. They cannot demand or influence forgiveness if forgiveness has been given in graciousness. Forgiveness is not tied to reconciliation to be true forgiveness, and shouldn’t be contingent on anything the wounder does or doesn’t to restore relationship with the wounded.

      My obstacle was that I couldn’t and wouldn’t forgive because I couldn’t imagine wanting a reconciled relationship with the person who hurt me. I was holding onto pain because I wanted control over everything; I only wanted to forgive if the wounder did what I wanted them to do to earn and deserve their forgiveness. And even then, I really didn’t want them in my life any more.

      I don’t want to cast God in our image, as I believe (as the scripture says) His grace draws us to him, so even our drawing to him is influenced by his Spirit. There is both forgiveness and power to reconcile relationship that flows from His grace. But the tension is that He also binds his work among us humans, and as such, there is something within our control in response to his grace that reconciles and grows our relationship with Him. When a doctrine of Purgatory is believed and taught within a model like this how can we not have admiration for our Catholic brothers and sisters who remind us of the tension of our part in the reconciliation of ourselves to His holy relationship? Reconciliation is not the forgiveness nor pardon; that role and power is God’s alone apart from our effort. We’re the wounder and He the wounded.

      Purgatory is not a doctrine I could hold dear because, as others have said, it is too tied to its historical Indulgence abuses. But I also like to find beauty and pragmatism in the wise teaching of Purgatory for whom the doctrine is dear inasmuch as it reminds me of the tension of God’s work that He willingly binds within our human relationship and experience.

      • There are two parts to the asking of forgiveness.

        Firstly, there is the confession of the sin. That’s dealling with the forgiveness of the guilt of sin by the grace of God.

        Secondly, there is the penalty. I may say that God has forgiven me, and that is true, but I still have to live with the effects of what I have done, one of which is the broken relationship I have with the person I hurt.

        That person may not, as you say, want anything to do with me. They may not be interested or may be too hurt. But I can’t just go around “Tra-la-la, God has forgiven me, all is sunshine and roses!” I have to ask you to forgive me, if you can. I have to try and rebuild or repair what I broke. Maybe I can’t do that, maybe it’s not possible, maybe you don’t want me around or anything to do with me, maybe there is no possible way this can ever be mended.

        That’s the wound and the effect and the penalty that Purgatory deals with. If I can’t or won’t make the effort to reach out to you, my spiritual guilt is forgiven, the sin is effaced by God’s grace and forgiveness, but I’ve still left a wound in the world. If I won’t do it in this life, I have to do it in the next. And – pardon me – but if for whatevr reason, you hold a grudge and withhold forgiveness for petty reasons, that too is a wound for you that must be healed and you must deal with its effects either in this world or in the next.

        Matthew 5:23-24

        “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

        • Quixotequest says

          Thanks for the perspective. I agree with the principles of what you say.

          What I hoped to emphasize is my agreement that when we are wounded, to not hold off on the gift of grace, for our own lives as well as for the lives of those who wound us, to have a new beginning. And when we wound, to approach with humility and contriteness sooner than later. Reconciliation, if that is a relationship between wounded and wounder, doesn’t have to happen; yet if it does the initiative to do it best resides with the wounder.

          If the Matthew scripture is applied as advice to the wounded person needing to have reconciliation, that is they need to have a friendly relationship with the wounder before their worship is valid, I don’t think that is effectually healthy — some wounders just don’t need to be in your life anymore even after gracious forgiveness and permission to go forward has been given. What I see more is that by “reconciliation” the wound has been reconciled in that, though granting forgiveness, the issue has been turned over to God, who reconciles our wounded world though His Gracious work. if I can’t reconcile my wounds by placing them in His trust I agree that my worship would just be posturing.

  11. Martha, I scarce can take it in. I’ll have to print it out and sit down with it.

    But, in defense of Tetzel [hastily ducks incoming tomatoes and eggs], was there at least some logic to his sale of indulgences? I think I’ve heard that it’s partly based on the idea that a pilgrimage to the Holy Land could get one out of purgatory—however, if a person were too old or infirm (or too successful in business to squander the time) he could pay another to go on pilgrimage in his stead (this is a bit like hiring a replacement during the U.S. Civil War if a man were drafted into the army. In either case the replacement would be paid by the wealthier stay-at-home individual, the debt would be satisfied—by God or the U.S. government—and if the replacement died by a musketball or a scimitar, well…).

    Theory being, if one could pay one’s way out of purgatory by the pilgrimage method, why not a direct-deposit transaction by means of the coin in the coffer ringing? Bypass the pilgrimage, which probably was out of style by the 16th century anyway.

    Is there any truth to this logic historically? And if so, was Tetzel at all justified or was he merely a sleaze?

    • He seems to have garnered condemnation for the manner in which he marketed (and really, we have to call it that) the means of obtaining indulgences for the dead; it takes more on the part of the living person obtaining the indulgence than just making a donation (now, the part where it gets tricky is that the donation = almsgiving and that particular act was the “work” associated with the indulgence, but the other conditions, e.g. being in a state of grace by making a sacramental confession etc. were not being performed).

      He wasn’t a complete sleaze (that is, if the Wikipedia article on him is to be believed); he does seem to have had faith in the doctrine (so he wasn’t cynically peddling salvation by quack methods) but he did take a minority theological view (on how the effects of indulgences might be applied) and went beyond the limits of what his licence permitted.

      Basically, he was on a combination fund-raising drive on behalf ot the Archbishop of Mainz plus revival tour, and he used all the razzle-dazzle he could to attract people into the churches – just like the worst gimmicks of any televangelist – and that was behaviour that was a godsend for the likes of Luther (who had questions about theology anyways) to hang his protests on, and you can be sure he didn’t hang back about making the maximum use of the worst interpretation.

      So yes, genuine quibbles about abuse of the doctrine and practice met with the golden opportunity of using this carry-on to embarrass the Pope 🙂

      • So Luther was a practical man, and ruthless in exploiting Tetzel’s weakness.

        I am shocked! Shocked! that opposing parties would capitalize on one another’s scandals!

        (getting warmed up for the primary elections over here…)

  12. Martha-
    I choked on the reference about All Souls’ Day. The notion of the Mass as a “sacrifice” is, of course, highly problematic for Protestants. More importantly, the Encyclopedia fails to draw the line between Purgatory and our ability to influence events there. Conceding for a second the existence of Purgatory, why should my deeds, alms, prayers, or mass affect the souls there. Rephrasing: why should your deeds affect my culpability for my sin? It makes no sense.

    • Not culpability for sin – that still holds. Everyone is responsible for their own guilt and their own actions.

      It’s more like a bail-bondsman standing bail for someone who hasn’t the ready money themselves. (Yes, more poorly-applied legal terminology). I give back the grace and merit God gifts to me (through the Mass or through my good fruits or through prayer) not for my own benefit – although I may need it – but for those I love or those who are my fellows, both in life and in death.

  13. Hmmm… I have a comment stuck in purgatory since 7:19 PM. Any chance of getting sprung with a coin in the coffer rung?

  14. I’m Catholic but I must admit I am with Steve Martin and others on this one. It just has the taste of spirituality turned concrete. The whole thing smacks of a physical solution and I know you have spent a lot of time saying that it is not that but I can’t get past appearances the seemingly extraneous nature of the whole thing. Thank you though for your considerable effort on the topic. Great writing.

  15. The Catholic Church is my mother.
    She nursed me and watched me grow
    She makes me angry sometimes
    I just want to let you know!

    This thing about indulgences…
    Benedict, help us out here!
    It’s time to let this practice go
    Thanking you in advance, my dear.

  16. Do we have Free Will in the afterlife?

    I have come to understand the need for Purgatory or some process after death, only because the Almighty allows us to retain our Free Will after death. It is our remaining Free Will that will affect our choices – our attachments to our world view. Obviously, if after death, we see Jesus standing lovingly next to the most evil person we knew in this life, we might slow down our run to side of our Lord. Purgatory, might be that process of obtaining answers questions about the justice or mercy of God: “How can I love a God who allowed my child to suffer for no apparent reason”, “how can I learn to love this person that God loves?”

    Even if we are to be transformed in a twinkling of an eye we will still have free will, and this will affect our process of communion. Indulgences, like so many other things we do in this life, are disciplines which we apply – to and with our Free Will to align ourselves with God’s will. These disciplines, here and now, will affect our process of meeting God in person. Grace is behind all of this, but we must use our Free Will to accept these graces.

Speak Your Mind