David W. Emery is my esteemed co-worker as a moderator on the Coming Home Network forum. This is his reply to some basic questions about indulgences from one of our members:
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Preliminary information: All sins have consequences. These consequences are separate from the guilt of sin, which must be forgiven before the expiation of the consequences (through penitential acts and suffering) can take place.
The consequences of (already forgiven) sin may be expiated in this life and/or in the next. The process of expiation in the next life is called purgatory (or among Eastern Christians, theosis). Theologically, it is best seen as a process, not a “place.” See CCC §1030–1032 concerning purgatory.
How does one obtain an indulgence?
By performing a specified pious act. There is a book, called the Handbook of Indulgences, which lists the various ways a person can do this. Also, certain new or temporary indulgences are announced by one or more bishops each year. One such indulgence is the recently announced Indulgence for the Year of Priests.
Does an indulgence replace the penance that would normally be given upon receiving absolution?
No. It supplements that penance, to make up for any deficiency in the penitent’s performance of the penance.
And the merits; is that related to the saints praying for someone and asking God that He would relieve the punishment normally due to that person for their sin, that punishment being the penance?
The merits involved in an indulgence are the merits (see CCC §2006–2011 concerning merits) of the saints themselves, which they freely give to the penitent to aid in the performance of penitential acts or enduring of suffering to expiate the consequences of the sins he has committed, to supplement what the penitent does. Recall that a specific pious act is required to gain an indulgence. Comparison: An indulgence is like a foundation grant that provides a stipend or specific educational opportunity to an individual student who qualifies. The pious act is his qualification, and the merits of the saints are the grant. The foundation that supplies the grant is the “spiritual treasury” of the Church through what we call the Communion of Saints (see the Apostles Creed).
Or does the punishment refer to purgatory, and the indulgence "makes up for" the time that the person would have otherwise spent in purgatory for that sin?
The consequences of sin continue even after one is forgiven the sin. You see this in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11ff): The sinful son recognizes (vv. 19, 21) that he is “no longer worthy to be called your son.” The father indeed celebrates his son’s return with a banquet, but as we see in v. 31, the inheritance that remains belongs to the elder brother. The younger son has squandered his inheritance, and it is gone forever. So in this sense, he will suffer the deprivation as a consequence of his sin.
What an indulgence would perhaps do for the younger son is to make that deprivation bearable, so that at the end of his life he will have expiated the whole of his sin and not have to endure purgatory in addition. He can therefore pass directly to heaven. However, if the penitent son does not bear his burden well, he will not expiate the consequences (or, as we say, complete his penance) during his lifetime; therefore, he will have to expiate the remainder in purgatory. An indulgence can still help him there. It does so not by allowing the penitent to “spend less time” in purgatory, for the process exists outside of time, but by aiding the process of expiation.
Does everyone go to purgatory or only those who have not confessed venial sin before their death?
As explained above, purgatory has to do not with the forgiveness of sin, but with the expiation of the consequences of sin. If a person expiates all of his (forgiven) sins before death, he does not need to do so in purgatory. (Forgiveness of sins — if we may refer back to the parable of the Prodigal Son mentioned above — is freely given by the Father of Mercies and cannot be merited. Expiation involves merit and/or suffering to offset fault and remains even after one’s sins are forgiven.)
The Church requires only that mortal sins must be forgiven through the sacrament of penance. For venial sins, other means exist for their forgiveness (for instance, the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass), although they may also be forgiven through the sacrament. All sins, both venial and mortal, must be forgiven for one to be saved. The expiation of the consequences of one’s sins, both venial and mortal, is a separate issue, as explained above.
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Catholic Dan Marcum asked in the combox:
In your last two paragraphs you gave the impression that sins cannot be forgiven in purgatory but only expiated: "purgatory has to do not with the forgiveness of sin, but with the expiation of the consequences of sin. ... All sins, both venial and mortal, must be forgiven for one to be saved. The expiation of the consequences of one’s sins, both venial and mortal, is a separate issue, [and may happen in purgatory.]"
I was under the impression that venial sin could not only be expiated in purgatory, but also forgiven there, if we die before repenting of it -- "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven...either in this age or in the age to come." (Matt. 12:32) Otherwise, what happens to someone who steals a popsicle, and gets hit by a bus on his way out, before he repents?
David W. Emery's reply:
The Church has no defined doctrine in this area. I have heard of the theological opinion you refer to, but do not think it takes into account the individual judgment, which must precede God’s decision as to where an individual person belongs, nor the question of when forgiveness must occur.***
We know that venial sin of itself cannot adversely affect the salvation of a human being; this is dogma (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1863). Yet we also know that the purpose of purgatory is the expiation of previously forgiven sins. Forgiveness, therefore, must precede one’s entrance into purgatory.
In the event of a venial sin committed but not repented of (and I think we see a lot of venial sins going unrepented for years in many people’s lives), what decides the issue is the individual judgment immediately after death. A person either recognizes and repents of his venial sins at that point, or he definitively rejects God in an act of defiance. This provides God with a basis, first of forgiveness, then of judgment. With repentance, the soul would enter purgatory to expiate his now forgiven venial sins; with defiance, not only would his venial sins be retained, but an unrepentant mortal sin would be added, thus making his destination hell (CCC §1864). Therefore, I believe that venial sins not fully repented of in this life are allowed to be forgiven, not in purgatory, but at the judgment.
This idea has a modern witness in the Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska, wherein she states (as frequently affirmed by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, possibly referring to §83, §1146 and other passages) that every human being, at the time of death and judgment, is given a final opportunity, through God’s mercy, to decide in favor of eternal life. If mortal sins can be forgiven at the time of the individual judgment, so also can venial sins.