Thursday, July 25, 2013

Indulgences, Forgiveness, and Why I'm not a Crazy Person

A little late getting to this, but better late than never. Sid Meier is like my own personal tempter, I swear.

I have to give props to the Vatican...guys know how to stir the pot from time to time. It's well in keeping with the Holy Father's MO of late to focus on things of direct pastoral significance, but which have been hard to talk about in the very heady language of modernity. Sometimes, though, you need to have someone look you squarely in the eye and remind you that, no, what we call the Devil is not a bogeyman, and he does not like you very much.

The Devil is not the topic for discussion at the moment, of course, but he touches the conversation, because the primary subject is about sin and the forgiveness of it.

This is, I should point out, not one of those topics I have felt a strong need to toss around because for me, these are not terribly complex questions. They've permeated my formation to the point where I hardly think of them any more. I'm almost tempted to repost this section of the Catechism and leave it at that. But that wouldn't be fun, so we're going to do this the long way. First, a little bit about confession (because you really can't make sense of indulgences without it) and then the indulgences themselves. (For the Romans in the audience, you've probably figured out by now that this is being written as a defense to somebody coming at the question from a Protestant perspective.)


I. Confession

Confession in its modern form is, admitted, an evolution; however it is an evolution that proceeds from a foundation of Scripture and Tradition (which Scripture implicitly references) in a logical framework that, to my mind, leaves very little wiggle room to say, "That can't happen."

The starting point for our theological excursion is Leviticus 19:20-22, where we find provision made for the Israelite priesthood to serve a mediating role between a sinner and God. The sinner brings an offering to the priest, who sacrifices it to God on behalf of the sinner; and because of this act by the priest, the sinner receives forgiveness for his sins. There's a very good reason for this. Being composite beings of both body and spirit, we can't sustain ourselves on purely one or the other. Knowing that, through some immaterial process, God has forgiven a sin might be comforting on an intellectual level (I have my doubts - when was the last time you felt forgiven by a loved one for some infraction without hearing it from their own mouths?), but it would not be as impactful as a sacrament that incorporates both a spiritual and material reality. If you think of a sacrament, it will always be composed of a physical and non-physical component. Always. Same here: the sinner will have a much more significant recognition of his forgiveness if he is involved in a tangible process whereby that forgiveness is confected. Moreover, note that the procedure dictated by the Lord involves an actual sacrifice - the sinner must bring an offering (a ram) which in a pastoral society would not have been inexpensive. We are shown a cost to sin, which will be relevant when we get to indulgences, so hold that thought.

Now we have evidence of the way God likes to operate in saving mankind and individual men. Of course, a lot of things in the Old Law fell by the wayside with the coming of Christ (we thank Thee, Lord, for lobster), so it's not just enough to say that God has acted this way, but also that He continues to act this way. Do we have any evidence for Christ "baptizing" this part of the Old Law? I'm pretty sure that all three Synoptics as well as John contain a similar formulation, but we'll go with Matthew 16:17-19 for this one. We're not using this for evidence of the Petrine commission in this particular case, but for the mandate to bind and loose, coupled with being given the keys to the Kingdom. There's not a lot of work to do here...Christ, Who as God can forgive sins, is investing this power to His Apostles, the new priests of the New Law.

Why? Because while human nature is saved through the Passion of Christ, it is still lamed by concupiscence. People sin after their baptism, and those sins must be accounted for. Not because God's up there keeping score, but because every sin, as an act of self-centeredness, undermines our orientation toward God. God still wants us, but we want God less. So, to bring ourselves back into spiritual alignment, we are made to go in humility before a fellow man, to declare ourselves sinners and name our sins. Can't get much more humiliating than that - although the practices of the early Church took a pretty good crack at it. What's more important, though, is that just as in the Old Law there was a moment in which the priest became more than just a man - a conduit of grace and forgiveness - so too the priest of the New Law ceases to speak with his own voice and bless with his own hands, but rather sees Christ speaking and blessing through him. The words "Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis," "I absolve you from your sins," are spoken in persona Christi. Or, as Paul might say, it is not the priest, but Christ in him, who speaks. As a recipient of this form of forgiveness, I can tell you that it trumps any kind of intellectual assurance with the certainty of my own ears.

So ends a necessarily brief apologia for confession. But, of course, that just tees up the next step, which is to talk about...

II. Indulgences

Remember back when we were in Leviticus and there was a guy with a goat? There's something in the Old Law that the New hasn't addressed yet. In the original formula, there had to be humility, then sacrifice, then forgiveness. In the Christological scheme, we saw humility and forgiveness, but no sacrifice.

The act of offering a sacrifice was coupled with repentance to obtain forgiveness in the Old Law to impress upon the sinner the gravity of his sin, but also to force him to take a radical step to re-orient himself toward God. You weren't going to blow money on a ram, just to have it ritually slaughtered, unless you were serious about getting that sin wiped away - or so the theory runs. Well very little about sin itself changes from Old Law to New Law. It's still an act of turning one's face from God, fundamentally disorienting oneself spiritually and depriving oneself of the ability to truly fulfill one's end. Put simply, sin is a wound, and a wound leaves a scar. In the case of sin that scar is a predilection to further sinning. Now, this is a slight problem because that's a fairly significant imperfection and we're told very explicitly in Revelations 21:27, nothing imperfect may enter the presence of God in heaven. Christ also directs us to achieve this perfection. I certainly haven't got there, nor do I know of anyone who has. How does that square with so much of what God tells us about Himself - that He'll take us however he can get us?

Well, for Catholics, there's Purgatory. Yes, we're still working our way toward indulgences. I'm not spending a massive amount of time on Purgatory. There are Scriptural allusions to the concept all over the place, both in the books we hold in common with our separated brethren as well as the deuterocanonical books, with one particularly strong one there. There is, for example, this case in Matthew's gospel which alludes to something like a debtors' prison wherein we are punished, but ultimately released once the debt is repaid. That certainly doesn't describe Hell, and it certainly doesn't describe heaven. There's also the Old Testament case of King David, who post adultery was told by Nathan that his repentance had saved his life, but there was still a debt to be exacted. Bottom line is that there is what the Church calls an element of "temporal punishment" due to sin even after its forgiveness. Or to think of it another way, we are left with a disability due to the wound done to us by our sins. If that is not dealt with by the end of our lives (and we have a capacity to commit sin right up to the point we kick it, so there's no guarantee that we've cleared our ledger) then what happens? We're clearly not pure enough for heaven, but does that mean a long-term stay in the hot place? No. Just a short term (relatively) stay in a place where we are deprived of the sight of God until we have worked through our issues. Torturous? Yeah. Hell? No, thank the Maker.

Now we get to the indulgence part of this. We could think of indulgences as "carried interest" from the over-abundance of merit acquired by those who don't need it any longer - to wit, the saints. The Church talks about it in this way, to be sure. You could also think of it, more simply, as the spiritual version of physical therapy. We are exercising our will to restore its intended range of motion, and get rid of the scar tissue our sins have built up limiting our ability to turn toward God. What do you do in PT? Things you should be able to do under normal circumstances, but which your disability makes harder to accomplish. Same goes for indulgences. The Church links them to the performance of spiritual exercises - things that on their own turn us toward God. So, in reality, the acts are themselves the indulgences, since they clear through the damage done by sin and re-acclimating us to what we should be concerned about anyway.

So we've gone through sin, forgiveness, and "spiritual therapy." That, I think, takes care of that. It has its scriptural underpinnings and it has reason on its side. All things being equal, not a bad place to sit. Now just try to get this on CNN or The Verge, and we'll be getting somewhere.

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