Indulgences and the Millennium Jubilee Year

Indulgences and the Millennium Jubilee Year

Neil Coup

In New Zealand, the Maori concept of "Taonga" expresses a revealed truth of the Church's Tradition concerning indulgences which, at least in local practice, would seem to have been deliberately down-played in more recent years as an ecumenical embarrassment, but which the present Millennium Jubilee Year of Grace is now setting before us anew. "Taonga" means "Treasure": a richness of accumulated wealth often stored securely as an inheritance of those who have gone before us.

Some people, thinking of the artistic treasures of the Vatican and ancient shrines, might be tempted to think of this as primarily the material possessions of the Church throughout the world, which the Church ought divest itself of for redistribution to the poor, in the manner of the Pope of Morris West's novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman. But even the finely wrought and bejewelled cultural and artistic riches such as those gifted by grateful Medieval pilgrims and Spanish conquistadors are but pale symptoms of the real treasure which the Church possesses.

The Church's real treasure is found in the richness of Revelation, an inheritance of its founder, Jesus Christ himself. Tradition itself is the treasure, while the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church of God, is a secure storehouse of the fullness of "grace and truth" (John 1:14). Aware of this, the Church proclaims not only its "indefectibility" of spiritual life and "infallibility" of spiritual truth, but also its stewardship of an abundant "treasury of merits."

When publishing the Papal document Incarnationis Mysterium (29 January 1998) proclaiming this Great Jubilee Year of 2000, Pope John Paul II announced many special Jubilee indulgences. In doing so, he re- presented the constant Magisterial teaching on the often neglected subject of indulgences and the Church's belief that it both possesses and dispenses the spiritual riches of grace from its "treasury of merits".

Citing a popular text understood as referring to indulgences - "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church" (Colossians 1:24) - the Pope amplified its meaning by quoting a passage about the Church in glory: "The fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints" (Rev 19:8).

In fact, in the lives of the saints the bright linen is woven to become the robe of eternal life. Everything comes from Christ, but since we belong to him, whatever is ours also becomes his and acquires a healing power. This is what is meant by "the treasures of the Church".

Only last September, John Paul II promulgated a new edition of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum. In presenting these new guidelines, Cardinal Baum explained how Catholic doctrine on indulgences is based on very precise theological assumptions and on well-documented historical precedents of Tradition.

In the doctrinal section of the 1967 Apostolic Constitution, known by the Latin name Indulgentiarum Doctrina, indulgences are given their theological foundation, reminding the faithful above all that the nature of sin confers a penalty that must be assumed; in the second place, there is a law of spiritual solidarity among all men, what Catholics call the "communion of saints", by which sin not only has a personal dimension, but also a communal one that must be repaired; and, finally, there is the Church's treasure, which includes Christ's merits, as well as those of the Virgin and saints, which can be put at the disposal of the faithful through the Church.


Indulgentiarum Doctrina expressed clearly for our times the Church's understanding of its treasury by tracing the development of the terminology in Tradition from the fourteenth until the sixteenth centuries, citing Clement VI (1291-1352), Jubilee Bull: Unigenitus Dei Filius (1343); Sixtus IV (1414-84), encyclical: Romani Pontificis; and Leo X (1475- 1521), decree: Cum Postquam. Then it explains the "treasury of the Church" in words which are also quoted in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1476-7.

The "treasury of the Church" includes the inexhaustible merits of Christ before God, sufferings offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. This treasury includes also the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as the prayers and good works of all the saints, in fact all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ.

The Church's teaching on the matter has also been summarised by Archbishop Michael Sheehan in his Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine: "Christ by the Sacrifice of the Cross has enabled us to pay all our debts of temporal as well as eternal punishment. He has filled with his inexhaustible merits what the Church aptly calls her Treasury. There, too, are stored the merits arising from the sufferings of our Blessed Lady, the Mother of Sorrows, and from the sufferings and penances of the saints and the pious faithful of every age, who have made more than necessary satisfaction for themselves."

The Popes explain that the "treasury of the Church" is the theological foundation for indulgences - those spiritual rewards which the Church affirmed and praised at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in opposition to the objections of Luther and the other Protestant reformers. Article Ten of the Tridentine Creed affirms that the power of granting indulgences was left by Christ in the Church, and that the use of them is most wholesome to Christian people. Since indulgences are gained by "works" and may also be "applied" to the souls detained in Purgatory, the Protestant rationale of salvation necessarily rejected those very elements of Catholic Tradition.

Biblibal understanding

Now, half a millennium later, at a time when presumably a more balanced biblical understanding of the doctrine of "Justification" by all Christians has resulted in the ecumenical signing of a "Joint declaration" on the matter by both Catholics and Lutherans (Augsburg, 31 October 1999), it is significant that the Holy Father has seen fit to reaffirm the full Magisterial teaching on the subject of both indulgences and the treasury of the Church as the rationale of the Millennial Jubilee cele-brations.

It is because the Church has a treasury of merits at its disposal that the Pope can decree that a specific, simple action like a visit to the diocesan cathedral or other specified church during the Jubilee Year can earn a plenary indulgence. Indeed, the basis of the doctrine and such praxis is the Apostolic belief in the reality of the Communion of Saints.

The Church's awareness of the spiritual solidarity of all the Baptised, living and dead, which this "Communion" represents, together with a keen sense of its apostolic authority "to bind and loose", resulted in development of spiritual reparation practices commuting the severity of the canonical penances for sins committed after Baptism, which were commonly imposed in the early Church.

Conscious of the Divine Mercy of God, Pope Paul VI taught: "God's only-begotten Son has won a treasure for the militant Church; he has entrusted it to blessed Peter, the key- bearer of heaven, and to his successors, who are Christ's vicars on earth, so that they may distribute it to the faithful for their salvation.

"They may apply it with mercy for reasonable causes to all who have repented for and have confessed their sins. At times they may remit completely, and at other times only partially, the temporal punishment due to sin in general as well as in special ways (insofar as they judge it to be fitting in the sight of the Lord). The merits of the Blessed Mother of God and of all the elect are known to add further to this treasure" (Indulgentiarum Doctrina, IV, 7).

In this same document, Pope Paul VI also revised the practical application of the traditional doctrine in order to emphasise that the Church's object was not merely to help the faithful to make due satisfaction for their sins, but chiefly to induce them to a greater fervour of charity.

In this consideration of more recent Magisterial teaching concerning the Church's understanding of its treasure, it is important to consider the liturgy as perhaps the greatest treasure of all. In this regard, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The mystery of Christ is so unfathomably rich that it cannot be exhausted by its expression in any single liturgical tradition" (#1201).

Significant, too, was the tribute paid to the doctrinal orthodoxy and devotional richness of the Traditional Roman rite by Pope Paul VI when authorising the New Mass: "Countless saintly men have drawn rich nourishment for their spiritual lives from its scripture readings and prayers, most of which were arranged in due order by St Gregory" (Apostolic Constitution, Missale Romanum, 1969).

This was more recently acknowledged in the Motu Proprio, Ecclesia Dei (1988): "... it is necessary that all the Pastors and the other faithful have a new awareness, not only of the lawfulness but also the richness for the Church of a diversity of charisms, traditions of spirituality and apostolate, which also constitutes the beauty of unity in variety: of that blended 'harmony' which the earthly Church raises up to Heaven under the impulse of the Holy Spirit."

It is much to be hoped that the Jubilee Year will see a greater appreciation of all the treasures of the Church inherent in its Tradition, including indulgences, the treasury of merits, the communion of saints, and the liturgy.

Neil Coup is a New Zealand librarian and writer.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.