Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I am wondering if there are limits to Our Lord’s generosity regarding plenary indulgences. I am referring to the sexual abuse crisis affecting the Catholic Church in the U.S. as well as other countries. Can a sexual predator abuse children, youth and seminarians for years, and then simply go to confession and then obtain a plenary indulgence, and once completed, know he would go directly to heaven if he died a moment later? Somehow this just doesn’t seem right. – T.B., Courtenay, British Columbia
A: Perhaps this question can help us go deeper into the purpose of indulgences in the life of the Church and of the individual Christian.
In that article we exposed the general doctrine and conditions regarding indulgences:
“No. 1471 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: ‘An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.’
“No. 1479 adds: ‘Since 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 punishment due for their sins may be remitted.’
“The decree reminds the faithful that to obtain a plenary indulgence it is necessary to observe the ‘usual conditions’:
“1. Sacramental confession, usually within a week before or after obtaining the indulgence. One sacramental confession is sufficient for several indulgences.
“2. Eucharistic Communion. Unlike confession, only one indulgence may be obtained for each Communion. Although this Communion may be fulfilled several days before or after obtaining the indulgence, it is preferable that this condition be fulfilled the same day. Thus, those who practice regular confession and daily Mass may obtain a plenary indulgence practically every day.
“3. Prayer in keeping with the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff. Like Communion, prayer for the Pope’s intentions must be recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence. Although there are no prescribed prayers the condition is satisfied by reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary.
“4. Having the soul completely removed from attachment to any form of sin. This is the most difficult condition as even attachment to venial sin precludes the possibility of obtaining the indulgence. However, note that the condition is not freedom from all venial sin, but from attachment to sin; that is, that there is no sin which the soul is unwilling to renounce.”
While God’s mercy is infinite and no sin is beyond his forgiveness except for those who obstinately refuse to repent, there is a difference between the conditions required for receiving absolution and those for obtaining an indulgence.
From what we have seen above, freedom from attachment to even venial sin is required to obtain an indulgence. Thus it falls to reason that a person who is still attached to a very grave sin would be unable to benefit from an indulgence.
Thus a sexual predator or anyone who commits habitual mortal sin can reach the level of repentance required for absolution. This requires true sorrow for the sin committed and a sincere proposal not to sin again. Thus confession gives the person an opportunity to convert and start again. It does not turn the person into a saint.
He or she still might have deep wounds and dangerous ingrained vices and be attached to the sin even though not wanting to commit it again. The conversion of such a person, even when sincere, will usually require much more than doing an act that is endowed with a plenary indulgence. Such a conversion often requires years of prayer, sacrifice, and true sorrow for the grave and even irreparable damage inflicted on others.
Over the centuries the Church has certainly had some sudden and radical conversions and, in this light, the scenario described by our reader is theoretically possible by means of a special grace of God.
Such radical and total conversions are exceptions, and most people who have abandoned lives of serious sin continue to struggle for a long time. However, in engaging this struggle it is true that performing the spiritual acts united to indulgences and seeking to obtain whatever graces they may be capable of, can help these souls overcome discouragement, heal their wounds and overcome their attachments. In this way attempting to obtain indulgences is not some kind of free pass but rather part of a process of true conversion.
Also, confession makes no difference to the material consequences of grave sin, especially if the sin is also a criminal act that entails loss of status, reputation, and even liberty. It is possible, however, that a person who accepts the punishment due to the crime as just atonement for his or her sinful acts can transform it into a means of spiritual purification and renewal.
Another way of looking at the question is from the perspective of a Christian life. Christ has set the bar quite high for Christian life and thus for reaching heaven. We are invited to love the Lord our God heart and soul and our neighbor as ourselves, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And we are commanded to love one another in the same measure as Christ has loved us.
This means that we Christians must live our lives as a continual process of giving ourselves to love, of emptying ourselves of our ego, of living charity in the multiple ordinary events of our lives until we are fully united to the Holy Trinity in heaven. In this process, our sinfulness distances us from our goal.
A way of considering the doctrine of purgatory is that since most of us will not fully attain Christian perfection in this life, and we will have even set up obstacles to this love through our sins, God will offer us an opportunity to reach it after death.
An indulgence, therefore, is above all an act of mercy toward the deceased in helping them attain their final perfection in love.
In the case of the living, the Church grants indulgences above all to encourage those Catholics who are already striving to live a full Christian life to continue to perform those spiritual and material acts which will help them grow in love anyway. In some situations, as mentioned above, they can also help some souls along the road to spiritual recovery.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.