Do you still forgive sins in return for alms or financial donations as was the custom during the building of Saint Peters Cathedral?
Answer to both questions, no. 120 and no. 121: Both questions are marked by a grave misapprehension: the fundamental difference that the Church’s teaching makes between sin and punishment is ignored.
We need to remind ourselves briefly of the basic elements of the Church’s doctrine on sin, penance and reconciliation: The Catechism of the Catholic Church (for its full text see: www.vatican.va) summarises the relevant doctrine as follows:
“1485 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, Jesus showed himself to his apostles. He breathed on them, and said to them: 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained' (Jn 20:19, 22-23).
1486 The forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament called the sacrament of conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation.
1487 The sinner wounds Gods honour and love, his own human dignity as a man called to be a son of God, and the spiritual well-being of the Church, of which each Christian ought to be a living stone.
1488 To the eyes of faith no evil is graver than sin and nothing has worse consequences for sinners themselves, for the Church, and for the whole world.
1489 To return to communion with God after having lost it through sin is a process born of the grace of God who is rich in mercy and solicitous for the salvation of men. One must ask for this precious gift for oneself and for others.
1490 The movement of return to God, called conversion and repentance, entails sorrow for and abhorrence of sins committed, and the firm purpose of sinning no more in the future. Conversion touches the past and the future and is nourished by hope in Gods mercy.
1491 The sacrament of Penance is a whole consisting in three actions of the penitent and the priests absolution. The penitents acts are repentance, confession or disclosure of sins to the priest, and the intention to make reparation and do works of reparation.
1494 The confessor proposes the performance of certain acts of "satisfaction" or "penance" to be performed by the penitent in order to repair the harm caused by sin and to re-establish habits befitting a disciple of Christ.
1496 The spiritual effects of the sacrament of Penance are:
- reconciliation with God by which the penitent recovers grace;
- reconciliation with the Church;
- remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins;
- remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments resulting from sin;
- peace and serenity of conscience, and spiritual consolation;
- an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle.”
Closely connected to the Sacrament of Penance is the Church doctrine and practice of indulgence. The Adult Catholic Catechism (1985, (Ed.) German Bishops Conference) states on pp. 372-374:
“An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment of sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. Indulgence thus presupposes personal conversion, the reception of the sacrament of Penance for grave sins and, in the case of plenary indulgence, the reception of communion. Those who perform certain works (particularly prayer, visits to a pilgrimage church are granted an indulgence by the Church on the authority of the treasury of the satisfactions of Jesus Christ and the saints.
The doctrine and practise of indulgence are hard to understand today. To understand the doctrine more fully, one must understand it within the context of its historical roots and factual background.
In general, indulgence has existed in one form or another since the beginning of the Church. Of course, the individual aspects of indulgence have a long history. In the ancient Church, it was particularly the petitions of the faithful, who had undergone much suffering from persecutions, which played a major role. Since temporal punishment in the early Church was indulged through prescribed punishments by the Church, for a long time there was talk of indulgences that lasted for around 100 or 500 days. Indulgence in its present form originated in the 11th century. Since the early Middle Ages, indulgence was often linked to certain acts of piety: joining a Crusade, a pilgrimage to sanctuaries, particular prayers or good works. These include the Portiuncula indulgence, the Jubilees indulgence on the occasion of the Holy Year and the All Souls indulgence.
Indulgence was often also linked to financial donations for Church purposes. Particularly in the late Middle Ages this led to major grievances, which were partly responsible for the beginning of the Reformation. As a result, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) fundamentally reformed the practice of indulgence and remedied the grievances. However, the Council fundamentally maintained that indulgence is a great blessing for Christians and therefore it condemned those who declare indulgence to be useless, or who deny the Church the right to grant indulgences. Nevertheless, the Council of Trent requested that the Church act with moderation when granting indulgences, according to the long-standing, approved tradition, and that particularly every attempt for gain be excluded. The doctrine of indulgence was explored more deeply and a renewal for the present was promulgated in the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI in 1967 on the revision of sacred indulgences.
For a deeper understanding of the doctrine of indulgence, which forms the foundation for the practise of indulgence, one must first understand that sin has a double consequence . Firstly, sin leads to a revocation of our communion with God and thus leads to the loss of eternal life (which is called the eternal punishment); however, it also injures and poisons the relationship between the human being and God and the life of the human being and the human community (temporal punishment). These two punishments are not dictated by God from without but follow from within from the very nature of sin. Forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trial of all kinds, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. The Christian should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the old person and to put on the new person (Eph 4:22-24).
The Church offers the Christian another path which he may take in the community of the Church which is community of believers that shares the gifts of grace made to here through Jesus Christ. The Christian who seeks to purify himself of sin and to become holy with the help of Gods grace is not alone. He is a link in the body of Christ. In Christ all Christians form a large community of solidarity: If one member suffers, all suffer together with it (1 Cor 12:26). This wonderful exchange of the goods of salvation, which Jesus Christ and, with the help of Christ’s mercy, the saints gained for us, is the Church’s treasury. An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favour of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance and charity. Since also the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, we can help them by obtaining indulgence for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.”
A further excerpt from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P4G.HTM)
in this regard:
“In the Communion of Saints
1474 The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of Gods grace is not alone. The life of each of Gods children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person. (Paul VI)
1475 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. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things. In this wonderful 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.
1476 We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Churchs treasury, which is not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the 'treasury of the Church' is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christs merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy (Paul VI).”
This means that the grievance of granting indulgences in return for alms or financial donations for good causes is abolished under canon law since at least the Council of Trent (1545-63).
As far as the theology and practise of indulgence by the Church during the Jubilee Year 2000 is concerned, the Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 Incarnationis mysterium of 29 November 1998 (http://gsearch.vatican.va/search?q=cache:2rgRdmMfbUUJ:www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/docs/documents/hf_jp-ii_doc_30111998_bolla-jubilee_en.html+incarnationis+mysterium+in+english&client=default_frontend&output=xml_no_dtd&proxystylesheet=default_frontend&ie=UTF-8&site=default_collection&access=p&oe=ISO-8859-1)
gives detailed information. A paragraph from this text must suffice here:
“This doctrine on indulgences therefore 'teaches firstly how sad and bitter it is to have abandoned the Lord God (cf. Jer 2:19). When they gain indulgences, the faithful understand that by their own strength they would not be able to make good the evil which by sinning they have done to themselves and to the entire community, and therefore they are stirred to saving deeds of humility'. Furthermore, the truth about the communion of saints which unites believers to Christ and to one another, reveals how much each of us can help others — living or dead — to become ever more intimately united with the Father in heaven.
Drawing on these doctrinal reasons and interpreting the motherly intuition of the Church, I decree that throughout the entire Jubilee all the faithful, properly prepared, be able to make abundant use of the gift of the indulgence, according to the directives which accompany this Bull (cf. attached decree).”