If these criticisms look familiar, they should. They are similar to the arguments Protestants have made regarding Catholic doctrine on indulgences for the last 500 years. And, just like the Protestant arguments, they betray a fundamental lack of understanding as to what indulgences are and an historically incorrect and cynical attitude as to their fruits.
First, it is the sacrament of penance that restores the soul to a state of grace. This state of grace is a necessary precondition to gaining of any indulgence. An indulgence, on the other hand, is not a sacrament and is not concerned with meriting “grace,” per se. It is instead concerned with the power of satisfaction for sin. As Cardinal Alexis Lépicier OSM, wrote in his 1895 book, Indulgences: Their Origin Nature and Development:
…whenever we perform a good work in the state of grace, to say nothing of the power of impetration such a work possesses, we derive therefrom a twofold advantage : first, our essential merit is increased, and consequently our claim to the retribution of eternal glory. It is this which marks the different degrees of sanctity in this life, and by which "star differeth from star in glory” in the next.
But besides that, our good works possess another efficacy, that of satisfaction, by which we can atone for the temporal debt of our sins. For the performance of every good work involves a certain amount of hardship, of difficulty, and consequently of selfdenial; and this, when borne for God, is accounted by Him as a compensation for past sins.
The merit belongs properly and exclusively to the performer of these good works. It is inalienable. It constitutes the reward due to each man, and " every man," says St. Paul, " shall receive his own reward according to his own labours." But the satisfaction may be made over to another. Indeed, it is in this that satisfaction differs from the other parts of penance, that it can be transferred by us to our neighbour. "No man may be contrite, or confess for another,” says the Catechism of the Council of Trent; "but those who are endowed with Divine grace may pay for one another what is due to God, and so they seem in some sort to bear each other's burden."
Second, the amount of days or years assigned to indulgenced prayers or acts was never intended to strictly quantify grace. As Fr. John Francis Sullivan wrote in his 1919 book, The Externals of the Catholic Church:
In primitive times the discipline of the Church towards sinners was very severe. Heavy penalties, known as "canonical penances,"were exacted for grave sins; but if the penitent manifested extraordinary signs of contrition, these penalties were shortened and lessened, and this was done especially when persecutions were going on. It frequently happened in those days that thousands of Christians were in prison, suffering much and awaiting death. Their martyrdom was sure to effect their eternal salvation. They often wrote to the Pope or bishops a "letter of peace," offering their merits and sufferings as a substitute for the canonical penances demanded of some other Christians who were being disciplined for sins. The penalties imposed upon these latter were then remitted, and they were not only restored to full membership in the Church, but they received remission of their temporal punishment in the sight of God. St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, tells us: "God can set down to the sinner's account whatever the martyrs have asked and the bishops have done for them."
Later on, as the law of canonical penances was made less rigorous, the Church often allowed a lesser work in place of a greater. Alms to the poor, the endowing of churches and monasteries, pilgrimages to holy places, and even short prayers - all of these were considered equivalent to many days or even years of severe penance; and here we find the reason why indulgences are entitled "of forty days," "of one year," etc. These words do not imply, as some might think, that by a certain prayer or good work we take away forty days or a year of Purgatory for ourselves or another. They mean that we get as much benefit (for ourselves or for a soul in Purgatory) as we would if we performed the severe canonical penances of former times for forty days or one year.
After reading the Pope’s sermon, one might think that the Church’s doctrine on indulgences incentivizes the vice of turning grace into commodity or merchandise. The Council of Trent believed otherwise. In its decree on indulgences it stated the following:
Whereas the power of conferring Indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church; and she has, even in the most ancient times, used the said power, delivered unto her of God; the sacred holy Synod teaches, and enjoins, that the use of Indulgences, for the Christian people most salutary, and approved of by the authority of sacred Councils, is to be retained in the Church; and It condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them…
Does the Church’s centuries old practice of granting indulgences lead to selfishness? Again, let’s examine the Pope’s words:
In this way this beautiful truth of God's closeness slips into a kind spiritual book-keeping: 'I will do this because it will give me 300 days of grace ... I will do that because it will give me this, and doing so I will accumulate grace'. But what is grace? A commodity? That’s what it appears. And throughout history this closeness of God to his people has been betrayed by this selfish attitude, selfish, by wanting to control grace, to turn it into merchandise".
But was this the result of the Church granting indulgenced prayers and acts throughout history? Fr. Sullivan disagrees:
But a tree is known by its fruits, and surely if indulgences are an exotic, a baneful institution in the Church, they must ultimately result in the corruption of morals and in the waning of the religious spirit. Let us see what impartial writers tell us of the fruit brought about by the Portiuncula or the Jubilee.
Of the Portiuncula, Bourdaloue tells us how it has ever been blessed by extraordinary fruits of sincere penance, and how many have been the faithful who, on that occasion, have passed from a life of sin to a life of holiness, from a state of forgetfulness of God to the practice of the most heroic acts of virtue.
Of the Jubilee year, Cardinal Bellarmine does not hesitate to say, from his own experience, that it produces such great fruits of penance, such remark able conversions, such numerous and splendid works of piety, that it can justly be called the holy year, the year pleasing to God, of all the years the most fertile.
Of the Jubilee of 1825 already referred to, Cardinal Wiseman tells us in glowing terms what good effects it produced. "I wish you could have seen," he says, "not merely the churches filled, but the public places and squares crowded to hear the word of God-for churches could not contain the audience ; I wish you could have seen the throng at every confessional, the multitudes that pressed round the altar of God to partake of its heavenly gift. I wish you could know the restitution of ill-gotten property which was made, the destruction of immoral and irreligious books which took place, the amendments of hardened sinners which date from that time, and then you would understand why men and women undertook the toilsome pilgrimage, and judge whether it was indulgence in crime and facility to commit sin that is proffered and accepted in such an institution."
But what proves with greater evidence, that the Jubilees have been at all times a blessing to the Church by their good effects, is the fact of the combined efforts of unbelievers to prevent their realization and to check these outbursts of faith. And when they failed in this enterprise " of night," they would slanderously travesty history, and represent Jubilees as a cause of corruption and vice; unless the contrary evidence were so great as to compel them to confess, with D'Alembert, that, for instance, the Jubilee of 1775 had sent the Revolution twenty years back, or to say with Voltaire : "Another Jubilee, and our Philosophy is done for."
But what if this “spiritual book-keeping” and “controlling grace” and “turning it into merchandise” were stopped altogether? Wouldn’t that help us to “allow ourselves to be loved” and realize that “God’s love is free?” As it turns out, this approach was actually tried in history. Let’s see the results. Fr. Sullivan continues:
On the other hand, we have from the lips of the founder of the Reformation an open confession of the evil effects which the abolition of the practices of the Church, including Indulgences, caused among the people of Germany.
"From the time that our doctrine has been preached," said Luther, "the world ever becomes more wicked, more ungodly, more impudent, and men are more avaricious, more given to lasciviousness than under Papism. We see everywhere nothing but avarice, intemperance, drunkenness, fornication, shameful disorders, and abominable passions."
And again : "Men, because they find themselves freed from the bonds and ropes of Papism, would also rid themselves of the Gospel and of all the commandments of God ; and from henceforth nothing is good, nothing is just, but that which is in accordance with their whims and pleasures. It would seem as if our Germany were possessed by the devil, since the great light of the Gospel has arisen over it. Young men are barefaced and wild ; they will not allow themselves to be educated. Old men are contaminated by avarice, usury, and many other sins."
Can this not be seen to a lesser degree among Catholics, since Paul VI de-emphasized indulgences and drastically reduced their number in 1967? So where did this anti-indulgence mindset go wrong?
Many, says St. Jerome, fall into error because they ignoretrue history.This is true above all in the present matter. Had the reformers studied the history of the Church, from the time when St.Paul absolved the incestuous man of Corinth, to the time of the martyrs, and through the Middle Ages down to the present epoch,they would not with so much confidence have asserted that "the doctrine concerning Pardons and Indulgences is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Holy Scripture, but rather repugnant to the word of God."
On the contrary, had they wished to draw aside from their minds' eyes the cloud of prejudice which covered them, they might have recognized, in the present practice of the Church, a faithful expression of the tradition of the first ages, handed down indeed to us in an unaltered and incorrupted manner, yet spread abroad, strengthened, and perfected, as every other point of dogma or discipline contained in the deposit of faith. And, instead of representing this practice as a breach of discipline and a cause of demoralization, they would have acknowledged it to be, as one of the benefits bequeathed to us through our Saviour's Passion, conducive to the spiritual weal and profit of Christians.
But aren’t indulgences selfish since they want to “control grace?” Quite the contrary!
Here is the apex of the perfection of Indulgences, and the highest standpoint from which it behoves us to judge of their worth-they promote true Christian charity. By gaining Indulgences, we are enabled to rescue the souls of our suffering brethren in Purgatory. We have only to offer to God those satisfactory works of ours, and we have an assurance that God will take them into account in favour of those souls which, perhaps also through our own sins, are still suffering in those cleansing flames.
But Indulgences prompt the faithful oftentimes to exercise a greater charity still. For not few are those who, in order to help others, do not wait until they have fully satisfied for themselves. Forgetful of their own misery, they think only of the misery of their departed brethren; they gain the Jubilee, frequent the Portiuncula, or perform some other work by which these suffering souls may be released, even before they themselves have paid all their debt to the justice of God. And this charity is so much the more conspicuous, as they pray for unknown souls, and sometimes for those that are the most forgotten, or even for such as may be detained in Purgatory precisely for having wronged them.
Also, the great Fr. Frederick Faber had this to say about indulgences in his 1860 book, Growth in Holiness:
There is a great connection between indulgences and the spiritual life, and the use of indulgenced devotions is almost an infallible test of a good catholic...For to undervalue indulgences is a sign of heresy; and the hatred which heresy has for them is an index of the devil's dislike of them, and that, in its turn, is a measure of their power and of their acceptableness with God.
Finally, since Pope Francis is a Jesuit, it would be interesting to see if St. Ignatius of Loyola shared the Pope’s views on indulgences, or “300 days of grace” as he likes to call them. Fr. Sullivan answers the question:
While the apostate friar [Luther] was inveighing against Indulgences, calling them vain and frivolous institutions and impostures of the Church of Rome, the illustrious founder of the Society of Jesus was giving to the hosts of sons whom he was to beget to the Church in course of time, a splendid example of the value they should set on them, by starting off from Manresa as a poor, unknown pilgrim, in order to visit Rome and the holy places, where he might gain for himself the holy treasures of the Indulgences.
And not content to preach by example, he would, a few years later (1540), write to his own countrymen, the inhabitants of Aspezia : " Indulgences are such excellent goods, that I find myself incapable of praising and extolling them as they deserve: the only thing which remains to me to do is to pray and entreat you all, through the love and respect which you owe to God, to esteem them highly, and to endeavour to profit by them with all the care of which you are capable."