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May 1, 2020

Absolution and Indulgences: Two Distinct Gifts from God

Hudson Byblow

Imagine if you had two amazing gifts to give, but no one to give them to. Perhaps people weren’t interested in them and/or perhaps people simply didn’t know what they were.

Well, when it comes to indulgences and absolution, I see the Church being the bearer of those two gifts, however, met with a similar disinterest from our world.

How do we move forward?

The Basic Principles

Well, people must first be open to learning about those gifts. That can be influenced by how pastorally sensitive we are to their situations, which means we should be listening to them to learn where they’re at in their journeys. Also, as we know from school, textbooks have glossaries for a reason. In those glossaries are new words. And when those new words are learned, new concepts built upon those words can be better understood.

Likewise, with matters pertaining to our Catholic faith, the same principle holds true. Above and beyond striving for pastoral sensitivity, we would do well to look at language.

Reclaiming (and Re-Clarifying) Language

In English, we have one word for “love.” In Greek, however, there are several, which differentiate the type of love (for example, agápe, éros, philía, and storgē). Likewise, with regard to concepts within our faith, our world also uses fewer words. For example, our world often uses the word “abstinence” while not, however, pointing people to understand the differences between abstinencecelibacy, and chastity, thus causing those three terms to be errantly lumped together. This makes it hard for the world to make sense of the universal call to chastity (and also how someone might find joy in pursuing it), as well as how someone could live celibately but unchastely, or chastely while engaging in (holy) sex with their spouse. In short, if we don’t have the words, the concepts can be really hard to grasp.

Another example of a need for clarification is in how the words “nature” and “natural” are used by the Church to describe what has been authored into creation (both visible and invisibly), while the world uses those words more so to refer typically to what “feels” natural, comes easily, or is observed in behavior. This is why a person of a worldly mindset can claim (errantly) that “breastfeeding is unnatural” for females. This clarification is important because a closedness to this type of clarity can reveal who might be striving to grow first and foremost in rational understanding versus who might be first and foremost attached (consciously or subconsciously) to emotionally-driven conclusions (which may be connected to trauma-induced patterns of thought or ACES).

The point is that if we fail to strive for clarification, we run a greater risk of obscuring truth. And since indulgences and absolution are gifts of the Church that are both so important with regard to the salvation of our souls, we ought to strive to do everything we can to ensure that the truth isn’t obscured when it comes to understanding those gifts.

Clarifying Language Pertaining to Indulgences

“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven…”

CCC 1471

Clearly, an indulgence is an act of mercy. However, if people have differing views of some of those words used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they might not be able to come to understand it as such, and thus will be less likely to care about them, let alone strive to attain them.

Clarifying Sin

In the definition of indulgence, the CCC uses the word sin. In my travels as a speaker, I have come to believe (unfortunately) that this may be one of the least understood words of our faith. I have learned that a large proportion of Catholics perceive that sin is determined by what we think is right and wrong (and that is influenced in some part by the depths of the desires/appetites that we have on our hearts). The Catechism, however, points us to something different—a standard that exists outside of ourselves. That is, the Catechism teaches that sin is a rejection of truth itself (CCC 1849). This isn’t about my truth or your truth, but the truth—as in, what is authored into creation both visibly and invisibly.

Note: This means that it’s possible for us to sin without us thinking we are sinning. However, we can also trust that, in his infinite mercy, God might judge a sin like that to be venial instead of mortal due to our lack of full knowledge. Where people claim that “if you don’t know it’s a sin, it isn’t a sin,” or that “you can’t judge a sin from the outside,” we need to approach with caution, for those sorts of ideas, which are pervasive and deeply entrenched within our culture, are decisively counter to our faith and can gradually poison one’s entire mindset without them even becoming aware.

The Consequence of Ignoring the Catechism

If people aren’t brought to see sin through the concrete lens of it being a rejection of truth, then they will be less likely to perceive certain behaviors/desires as sinful and will be more inclined to continue along their current trajectory. However, as the Catechism states: 

“Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil.”  

CCC 1865

That shows us that this isn’t a good trajectory to be on, and that it becomes harder to depart from it the further one enters into it. As long as people ignore this view of sin, a decreased relevance and importance of both indulgences and absolution will be what result.

So, how do we move from sin to indulgences and absolution?

A Conceptual Chain-Reaction

Some ideas must come before others, but through this, a sort of “chain reaction” of occurrences can come to be. For example, we can’t have conversations about car stereos with those who don’t know what a car is.  And we cannot talk about satellite car-radio stations in a car with those who have never heard of a car stereo. The idea of “car” has to come first, and then “car stereo” and then afterward yet again, the idea about satellite radio in cars.

In the realm of our faith, in moving from a lack of a proper understanding of sin to a lack of concern for indulgences, this same principle applies.

1. If people don’t believe they are sinning, they will be less likely to repent.

2. If that occurs, then they will be less likely to have conversations about contrition (including the difference between perfect and imperfect contrition).

3. If that occurs, they will be less likely to think about God’s responses to varying contrition and more likely to forget that as a just judge, varying contrition on a person’s part will bring about varying responses from God, in accordance with his perfect justice.

4. If that occurs, then they will be less likely to have conversations about what that justice looks like.

5. If that occurs, then they will be less likely to be concerned about heaven and hell.

6. If that occurs, then they will be less concerned about how those who don’t go to hell need to be purified before they enter heaven, in some “place” that’s post-judgment, outside of this physical realm, and beyond the reach of demons. (Note: This doesn’t conflict with the truth that Jesus’ atonement was/is enough.)

7. If that occurs, then they will be less likely to be concerned about what is necessary to endure within the refining flames of purgatory (which are far from comfortable to say the least, and extremely agonizing to say the most).

8. If that occurs, then they will be less likely to be intentional about behavior that minimizes the duration of purgatorial purification.

9. If that occurs, then they will be less likely to be concerned about how the mercy of God can be enacted in ways known to him and for the benefit of all humanity as a result of offering penances while still here on earth.

10. If that occurs, then they will be less likely to consider indulgences altogether (let alone how to differentiate indulgences from other essential concepts such as absolution).

For these reasons, if we want to help others come to know and embrace indulgences, we should first help people come to see sin (and everything else) through the wisdom of the Church. Again, we have to strive to do this appropriately: with love and truth, and a respect for the reality that, as St. Paul implies in Hebrews 5:12, milk comes before solid food. We also have to understand that if we keep people at “milk” for one reason or another (possibly due to our own attachments), we may actually be doing them a grave disservice in the long run.

How Does Absolution Fit Into All Of This?

Absolution, like an indulgence, is an act of mercy. During the sacrament of reconciliation, after we confess our sins, the priest, acting In Persona Christi (in the Person of Christ), can grant us absolution for those sins. However, in order for that to occur, we have to be truly sorry for our sins, have a firm amendment to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.

Whether we are sorry with “imperfect contrition” (being sorry primarily due to the fears of hell) or with “perfect contrition” (being sorry primarily due to falling short of loving God in the way he deserves), our confessed sins will still be forgiven and absolved, although it would be more meritorious for us to enter that sacrament with a heart of perfect contrition.

Absolved (not Dissolved)

When sins are absolved, those sins no longer exist. This isn’t the same as them being dissolved, where one could conceive that those sins (or their “residue”) might somehow still exist in our universe but just perhaps in some dissolved or “broken down” fashion. This “dissolving” idea errantly applies the principles of material existence to our immaterial soul within an immaterial realm. If it were just a matter of dissolution, perhaps into our universe somehow, then any demon could “pick up the pieces” and re-fabricate something of those confessed sins to use against us. However, as has been revealed in exorcisms, demons no longer know sins that have been confessed, thus those now-confessed sins can no longer be used by them against us.

Absolution Doesn’t Equate to an Indulgence

Though both are acts of mercy, indulgences and absolution aren’t the same. That is, just because a sin has been absolved, it doesn’t mean the just punishment somehow vanishes. Think of it this way: A parent might forgive a child after the child does something wrong. The parent might also desire to “move forward” in the parent-child relationship in a positive way, focusing on the restoration of the relationship above their justified anger. This would be for the good of the child, so the child would know that they can have a fresh start—even while perhaps knowing that their parent isn’t happy. The parent in a case like this, even after this course of action, isn’t obligated to negate the just punishment that might still be due to that child. And if a mere human isn’t obligated to negate due justice, then surely God isn’t either. Indeed, when we confess with a truly repentant heart, God forgives us, but just because he desires to move forward with us in a positive “parent-child” relationship, even amidst his justified anger, it doesn’t obligate him to negate the truly just punishment that may be due to us.

Conclusion

Indulgences and absolution are two amazing gifts, and if more utilized, could transform the world overnight. Whether people become more open to them or not, however, depends both on their choice to cooperate with God’s grace, but also our choice to pray and fast for them. God can use that penitential offering of ours to bestow on people a life-transformative awakening. And through that a thirst for greater truth, greater clarity in language, and greater utilization of the sacraments to grow in holiness overall.

All of this can come to be if we strive to do our part, both pastorally and educationally.


This article was first published on hudsonbyblow.com. It has been republished here with permission.


You May Also Like:

Does the Church Still Believe in Indulgences?


Did the Church Ever Sell Indulgences? [Fr. Mike podcast]


Confession: A Love Story


Hudson Byblow is a Catholic speaker and writer who presents at conferences throughout Canada and the United States. He shares his personal testimony to clergy, schools, and parishes and consults for various Catholic agencies, speakers, and educators. He focuses on his story of overcoming trauma while pursuing greater self-honesty and truth. Today he strives to elevate the conversation through clear language while revealing the joy of living chastely in his newfound freedom in the Lord. His website is www.hudsonbyblow.com.


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  • Love this about indulgence’s – but I have a question that has been asked of me as a Catholic, from Calvinist. So Catholic’s think they can BUY their way into Heaven??
    It seems there was a priest that told some workers of the Calvinist that they had to pay a lot of money for their sins – and the workers kept asking their Calvinist employers for more money to pay the church for their sins. Is this something that could have happened and how do I explain this to a Calvinist today – what their parents taught them is wrong.

    • Great question! I think the best way would be to think of the relationship between a parent and the child. When the child tries to make things better, does that imply that there is a transaction taking place? Not at all. Rather, it is through the love an mercy of the parent that the things are made better – and in a way that is independent of whatever “value” that the child could bring to the table. Thus, calling it a transaction, which would seem to require mutually agreed-upon terms, would not really be the proper way of viewing the situation.

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