“The good news is we’re not selling them [indulgences] anymore.”
-The Rev. Tom Reese, Jesuit priest.
Having just returned from a few quiet days in rural Maryland at the Maryland Military Department Chaplains’ Conference, I was blissfully unaware of the storm clouds roiling over the blogosphere. The viciousness of the public attack upon this corner of e-Christendom by soon-to-be-former Anglicans and their fellow travelers has been only equaled by the outrageousness of some of their private shenanigans. It is an effort by professed Christians that I can only place in the category of “ultra-Montanist convert rant.”
Even the most tenacious of my Roman Catholic colleagues in academe-and there are some pretty tenacious ones among our “posse”-do not plumb these depths. Indeed, I can say that not once in nearly seven years pursuing various Pontifical degrees have I ever been treated to behavior such as that exhibited by certain bloggers. Such is the nature of the convert—or at least some converts.
It was this sort of attitude that led a similarly zealous individual to pop round to my grandmother’s house where they were mourning the sudden childhood death of my uncle Jack. The well-meaning and tearful Roman Catholic convert lady expressed her condolences, particularly since the departed child “was burning in Hell” having died outside of the Church. Shocking? Yes. Commonplace “in the day”? Of course. And today?
Well, today there is a particular ugliness to one side of the debate that is reminiscent of the days of Fr. Feeney’s peculiar take on extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Here’s a bit of cautionary Roman Catholic trivia for any wannabe Slave of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to take into account. What happened on 13 February 1953? (Hint: Fr. Feeney wasn’t a happy camper!) First to give the correct answer will receive a special Indulgence for yourself or a loved one.
This brings us to the clever segue to the topic of this column.
One curse of having served in the Continuum for any length of time is having seen so many characters come and go-frequently transiting through the law courts. There are alleged continuing Anglicans who are now Episcopalian apologists, having mined the faithful for all they could. There have been grifters, grafters, frauds, fakes, “Angricans” and outright criminals, well-turned out by C.M. Almy, Wippell and the like. There has been denominational drift along a whole spectrum, frequently one step ahead of sheriffs and receivers. All of these characters takes attention away from the incredible work that actually has been done for Christ Jesus in the Continuum for thirty-plus years.
Another curse is that these folks like to write letters and, more recently, e-mails. Lots of e-mails. Apart from the mundane and banal (which many are), there are veritable trenchers of steaming e-mails served up for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, vendetta or an admixture of the two. Many of them have washed up on my own electronic shore and, like a variety of deformed seashell or, for fans of The Simpsons, the three-eyed fish spawned near the nuclear plant. I have collected them all and, from-time to-time, savored re-reading these epistles which range from the fantastic to the petty. Perhaps I read too much late nineteenth-century English literature and derive a peculiar fascination for such things. However, the current debate warrants a brief exposition as a segue to the segue.
What Is Meant
On June 26, 2009, the following drifted in over the electronic transom and wafted gently to the virtual floor:
The ‘coherent theological vision’ of the Traditional Anglican Communion is to be found in the copy of the Catechism signed by the bishops of the Traditional Anglican Communion, and the text that elucidates their intention in signing, to be found in a separate document. And it is what the bishops teach, in union with the Bishop of Rome and catholic bishops in communion with him, that is where the faith of the Church is to be found. There can be doubt and trouble elsewhere in the Church, but the yardstick is the teaching of the Holy Father – and we are blessed to have in a single volume the teaching of this Holy Father, in glorious continuity with bishops of Rome before him, but lucid on the unique problems of our moment. And that is the yardstick that the Traditional Anglican Communion bishops adopted, and which they are taking to their people. Progress differs from place to place – some parishes in North America have purchased several hundred copies of the Catechism and have weekly studies, others are at the “pondering” stage, but all will be well...This is the statement of Abp. John Hepworth who was having trouble posting it to an e-mail list and sent it around to a number of people in lieu of posting. From the text, both in italics and not, I think it fair to say that the TAC leadership has embraced the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the “yardstick” of faith, adopted and “taken to the people” by the bishops.
This is not the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, or the innumerable and oftentimes very useful catechisms written by Anglicans such as A.G. Mortimer, or even a catechism of the TAC’s own choosing. No. It is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a comprehensive, weighty, but non-Anglican work. This is the benchmark for understanding the faith promulgated by TAC’s bishops.
Make no mistake. This is a most-valuable document and resource. However, let’s be clear who’s in control. “The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it. . . . This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.” CCC 816. This would be the Roman Catholic Church in case anyone missed it.
And the rest? “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” As if translation were necessary, the plain language is that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church (again, that would be the Roman Catholic Church) which is his Body. CCC 846. And, bluntly, “they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.”
At a minimum, this means that, if you accept the proposition that “the [Roman] Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ”, your very salvation is at risk by refusing to enter in to it. So, why is there a wait? Why delegations and bargaining and maneuvering? If this is the measure and you haven’t crossed, you had better be looking both ways before stepping off the curb as it might be a very long, very warm drop.
So it is in the land of the special deal, the secret arrangement and the hidden interpretation of Apostolic Constitutions, doctrinal statements and the occasional Encyclical. This reluctance, though, is nothing more than “cafeteria Catholicism”-a Burger King faith built on “have it your way.” And the Apostolic Constitution as has been repeatedly pointed out here and elsewhere doesn’t allow for “hold the pickles, hold the relish” special orders. You get the burger just as advertised, or you are the one on the eternal grill.
And just what is that “our” way? Let’s take a look at one of these key elements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to which you will have to accede, but which have caused spiritual heartburn: The Indulgence.
Many will dimly recall a trigger point in the Protestant Reformation from their church history lessons. Johann Tetzel (1465–1519) was a Dominican preacher accused of selling indulgences. We know him from the couplet attributed to him, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs.” In 1517, Tetzel was trying to raise money for the ongoing reconstruction of St. Peter's Basilica, and it is believed that Martin Luther was inspired to write his Ninety-Five Theses, in part, due to Tetzel's actions during this period of time.
And what precisely is an indulgence? According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and perform penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Roman Catholic could receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or messy sacrament of confession and penance.
Tetzel seemed the very image of the ecclesiastical huckster. He had early discovered his vocation as a preacher of indulgences; he combined the elocutionary gifts of a revivalist orator with the shrewdness of an auctioneer. He painted in lurid colors the terrors of purgatory, while he dwelt on the cheapness of the indulgence which would purchase remission and his prices were lowered as each sale approached its end. It’s not a struggle to find such characters haunting the modern blogosphere or even in the episcopate-“lurid pictures” and “special conditions” being a common theme.
In any event, Tetzel’s efforts were thought to have “irretrievably damaged the complicated and abstruse Catholic doctrine on the subject of indulgences.” The storm caused by Luther’s criticism, overwhelmed poor Tetzel, and even “sober Catholics” felt that his vulgar extravagances had prejudiced Catholic doctrine. He hid himself in the Dominican convent at Leipzig in fear of popular violence, and died there on the 4th of July 1519. As a result of the whole mess, the Roman Catholic Church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567. Thank God for small mercies. But, that’s not the end of the story.
In October, 1999, the Christian Century reported that the Vatican had released a new edition of the Manual of Indulgences. According to a French-language news agency in Fribourg, Switzerland, Agence de presse internationale catholique, “This manual of a hundred pages, published by the Apostolic Penitencery, the Vatican body responsible for matters of conscience, explains in 33 points the concrete methods for remission of sins--by prayer, receiving the sacraments, works of charity and acts of penance.”
Speaking in Rome earlier on September 17, 1999, Cardinal William Wakefield Baum, the Vatican’s leading authority on indulgences, said that they “are a structural element of Jubilee years.” He added that indulgences, correctly understood and piously performed, are a vital part of the continuous process of sanctification with which supernatural life is identified on earth.
Vatican theologian and Croatian Jesuit priest, Ivan Fucek, punctuated the statements following the release of the manual opining that Catholic doctrines on indulgences and purgatory, approved by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, constitute a doctrine “of faith” and therefore are not up for discussion. Does everyone understand that? Not up for discussion. There are no special deals, secret arrangements or doctrinal waivers.
How Do They…Um…Work?
There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one, but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.
The doctrine to which converting Anglicans must accede, and to which TAC bishops already have agreed is this. 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…” CCC 1475 In this 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.” So, we are talking about a more prompt and efficacious expiation of sin by “borrowing a cup of holiness” from saints who have more than they need.
But, we call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church's treasury. CCC 1476. “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 in the unity of the Mystical Body.” CCC 1477. An indulgence is obtained through the Church who intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. CCC 1478.
So, because the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted. And we get these by dipping into the spiritual piggy bank maintained by the Church, move a few thousand years from one corner of the cosmic ledger to another and, there we are.
An Anglo-Catholic Perspective
In looking at the question of indulgences, I consulted our substantive Anglican patrimony-a patrimony either deliberately overlooked or simply deliberately ignored by some purported Anglo-Catholic cognoscenti. The Rev. Francis J. Hall (a/k/a the “Anglican Aquinas”) not surprisingly had much to say on the subject. In his monumental ten volume Dogmatic Theology, Fr. Hall considered the matter in the context of the larger issue of purgatory. Hall was of the view that even the saved, pardoned though they be, must "pay the last farthing" of penalty for sin before the scales of divine justice could be brought to their necessary final balance. However, he is clear on the notion that “sufferings inflicted by God are wholly reformatory and purificatory, ceasing when repentance is achieved, is not Christian.” It does not agree with the analogies of divine providence in this world.
However, Hall cautioned that Divine forgiveness does not exempt us from suffering sufficiently for our sins. For example, if a pardoned sinner suffering execution for murder, but dying penitent, has not fully endured the requirements of divine penal justice, it is reasonable to think that he will suffer sufficient some temporary penalty after death. “But”, according to Hall, “a qualifying consideration, already laid down in treating of purificatory suffering after death, has to be safeguarded. That is, we must not so conceive of suffering in Purgatory, whether purificatory or penal, as to nullify the scriptural description of the faithful departed as comforted and at peace.” In, short, these are matters of Divine justice and committed to God.
Now, here’s the real rub: a second limitation is that we should not even seem to estimate the penalties for pardoned sin in quantitative terms, as if each species of offence had a determinate amount of punishment assigned to it, as in human criminal law.”
Divine justice takes all things into account, and has preeminently a moral equation and personal character in view. We are not able to boil that down into quantitative or temporal terms, as if there were some cosmic menu of offenses and sentences that can be applied.
As Hall noted, the just punishment of a given sin will necessarily be governed in each several case by its punitive effect and significance for the individual involved; and this depends upon subjective susceptibilities, for which there can be no quantitative standard of measure. When divine justice has been sufficiently vindicated punishment will end. True justice is not vindictive. Accordingly, the suggestion involved in granting so many “days” or “years” of indulgences from purgatorial penalties is clearly erroneous and harmful. We just do not get to make the call on Divine justice.
Carried over into the practice of granting indulgences, interpreted though it be by theologians as meaning that the Church pledges itself to pray for the relief of the souls in Purgatory in whose behalf they are granted, has led to another erroneous supposition — that of a treasury of merits which the Church's prayers can make available for reducing purgatorial penalties.
Hall is succinct on the point that, “merits cannot be transferred either in possession or in effect from one person to another, and no saint's merits are personally superfluous in amount.” There is no warrant for a “Divine piggy bank of merits” that can be traded upon, swapped or sold…sorry…given in exchange for the gift of a new wing on the parish hall by the Church or anyone else.
This “assertion is not weakened by our acknowledging, as we do, that holy souls have great power in prayer and in their interaction through the mystical Body of Christ upon the souls of others.” Our prayers for the departed are somehow surely useful. As we would pray for one another in this present life, so too may we pray for those who have entered the larger life. (And, we hope, they are praying for us and with us.). “But the result in reducing the sufferings of souls in Purgatory, if, as we think, there are such sufferings, cannot without misleading effect be expressed in the terms which we have been criticizing.”
Indulge Me-A Contest
This particular piece continues a series of articles I began with the writings of Bp. Charles Grafton, to whom we will return from time to time. My aim is to examine and exposit those issues which differentiate the Anglo-Catholic position from that of the Roman Catholic Church. The point here is not to denigrate those soon-to-be-former Anglicans for whom the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church is now (and perhaps always was) their “yardstick”. Judging from the venom that has come from certain quarters, I believe that any position other than utter “submission” to borrow a Newmanian term, will suffice. Certainly, the avowed position of those who have converted and their bishops renders Anglican apologetic of any sort problematic.
So be it. Our task is to be clear in our own positions, and to let those who might be lulled or gulled into believing that the plain language of Catechisms, Constitutions and Encyclicals does not mean what it says. To maintain otherwise is nothing more than post-modernist linguistic technique at it basest form.
Now to capitalize on one of the best attributes of this particular forum—the knowledge and erudition of our readers and “commentators.” Not to lead you all into the sin of pride, but we have some fairly robust discussions, and, I confess that I enjoy reading the readers’ comments as much as writing the articles. So, indulge this columnist and proffer your thoughts on the topic of indulgences and the treasury of merits. We’ll review them, and our impartial panel of judges will award special prize to the best among them: First Place Winner will receive 1000 years “good time” and Runner-Up 500 years off. Those simply quoting “the Magisterium” or the Thirty-Nine Articles will have 1000 years added on…to be served in Newark.