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Pondering Paul wrote:

Hi, guys —

I know what the (CCC) Catechism of the Catholic Church, EWTN, and other good Catholic sources say about indulgences; but I don't think I've ever heard a coherent explanation for how indulgences coincide with no longer needing Purgatory.

In short, a plenary indulgence is total remission of temporal punishment due to sin. This presumes that justice demands a certain amount of personal punishment after absolution in order to fully atone for our sins in order to enter Heaven. I get it.

However, when we experience this punishment or penance ourselves, with the right attitude, it acts like medicine to the soul, purging us of the lingering effects our sins have on us. Hence, the word Purg-atory. When we don't experience enough of this penance/punishment in this life Purgatory is the place or state where the negative effect of our sins on our being is purged.

My problem is this, that in attaining a plenary indulgence this ontological (purging/purification) is short-circuited in favor of a kind of legal gift to let us out early of Purgatory, due to other people's merits (Jesus and the saints). Their (penances/punishments) are applied to us in a legal kind of way.

  • Without experiencing the suffering of my own punishment, how does the applied indulgence heal and purge me ontologically of the lingering effects that my forgiven sins have on my being?

If you can understand the potential problem I have here, feel free to offer your two cents.


Pondering Paul

  { Though indulgences, can souls enter Heaven whose temporal punishment has not been satisfied? }

Brian and Mike gave the following team answer:

Dear Paul,

You're looking at this too personally and not from the larger view of being part of the Body of Christ.

First let put the context of indulgences in context via the Bible. St. Paul tells us:

24 I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His Body, which is the Church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, 26 the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. 27 To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. 29 To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.

Colossians 1:24-29

If you want an answer to your question that you will logically understand, you may not be able to find one on the Earthly side of your spiritual pilgrimage. I understand your point logically, but the Church also includes pure grace and Divine Mercy.

One could argue that Selfish Sam would be foolish to say,

“My soul is not totally purified and I want it to be purified on my own account.”

This attitude focuses on the self instead of the Body of Christ, the Church, and the biggest attribute of God, His Divine Mercy! In the same way, God has not bound Himself to His own sacraments, neither does He necessarily bind our own personal accountability to ourselves. He can always apply His Mercy to us, though we shouldn't take that Mercy for granted.

You said:

  • Without experiencing the suffering of my own punishment, how does the applied indulgence heal and purge me ontologically of the lingering effects that my forgiven sins have on my being?

Though the merits of Jesus, the Holy Family, and the saints that have gone ahead of us and have merits that they want to apply for our own purification. Our faithfully departed friends and family may be passive souls without a body now, but they still wish what is best for us.

We have to remember being Catholic is not only a me and Jesus issue. The word Catholic means in its totality. That extends not only to our doctrine but to all the Mystical Body of Christ:

  1. the Church on Earth
  2. the Church Suffering, and
  3. the Church Victorious

So if the Church, out of the Treasures of Grace's coming from our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, wishes to offer the faithful ways in which they can spiritually help their faithfully departed loved ones, they can, and have offered the faithful ways, in the form of partial and plenary indulgences.

For any departed soul to say, that they don't want to accept an indulgence offered up for them, would be analogous to someone rejecting an offer to eat out (with the other party paying the bill), due to a very kind deed you did for them.

Odd, I know, but we become uncharitable by not letting someone else be charitable to us.

  • Make sense?

Just my two cents.


Bob replied:


I have often pondered the same dilemma. I wonder if the notion of a plenary indulgence is over-estimated in that sense; still, there must still be a change of character effected upon the soul lest the same defects enter Heaven.

So the “punitive” dimension of Purgatory is remitted in an indulgence, but the underlying flaws within the soul need still to be healed and restored through grace. Perhaps that can be in an instant, but it is not clear. It is ironic that Protestants adhere to a juridical salvific formula without much thought to sanctification and bear our criticism for it—but we suffer the same lack of cohesiveness here.

Going to have to go back and check Aquinas and see if he comments on this.


Paul replied:


Thanks for your thoughts.

The only answer I can think of is that the free from all attachment to sin including venial sin necessity to gain an indulgence must mean being totally purged.

This would mean to gain a plenary indulgence all purification/purgation would have to be completed by one's past sufferings and penances at the time of the indulgence.

On the other hand, if you take this to its logical conclusion, it would mean that some souls enter Purgatory whose souls are already purified, but whose temporal punishment has not been satisfied. Hmm . . . .


Mike replied:

Hi guys,

I think Bob has the correct path to an answer to Paul's question. This is what I found; mouse over the web link below to see the questions that Thomas addresses.


John replied:

Hi, guys —

My feelings on this, is that as we typically do in the West, we try to over define things and that's when we run into these issues. This is a classic example of the juridical paradigm for Purgatory going way too far.

Purgatory (as Paul noted) is far better defined or understood in the context of healing . . . healing the damage we do our souls when we commit sin. We pray for people in the hospital, so we pray for people in Purgatory. Sometimes they get a partial healing; sometimes they get full immediate healing.

God decides.

We get into real trouble when we try to establish equations for what is, in fact, a Mystery.


Paul replied:


I don't think there's too much thinking here. Any apparent contradiction in doctrine needs to be clarified by the Church. To make it simpler, the problem is there are two traditions with regard to Purgatory:

  1. one relating to justice
  2. the other to rehabilitation
  1. Souls go there because there is more temporal punishment due to sin that must be made up for. This is what the CCC speaks about.
  2. Souls go there to be purified ontologically from the effects that their sins have had on their souls. Becoming detached from all these effects.

A way to have these two notions come together is to say experiencing the temporal punishment (suffering, penance) due to sin is what purifies our souls.

The conundrum is the Church teaches that by receiving a plenary indulgence it renders Purgatory unnecessary.

  • But how is the soul purged by applying someone else's merits?

Analogously, it's like avoiding jail and rehabilitation for a crime committed because one's father served too much time, and his excess time is applied to him.

  • How is the new criminal rehabbed by this gift?


John replied:

I like to fall back on Pope St. John Paul II's thinking is on this subject.

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory are conditions in which we experience the Love of God.

  1. The condemned soul, is constantly rejecting God's love. Therefore His love becomes a source of self-imposed torment.

  2. The soul being purified experiences both:
    • the joy of God's love, but
    • suffers as the Love of God is a consuming fire that burns away the selfishness, the self-centered love, which remains and has been fed by the sins we've committed.

  3. The soul in Heaven, experiences the Love of God only as joy, although in truth, their redemption won't be fully manifested until the Resurrection of the faithful departed.

If we're going to use the temporal punishment model, we need to be careful as we can't confuse:

  • the wrath of a judge imposing a juridical sentence, with
  • the punishment of a loving Father, that is imposing the punishment to a son for the ultimate benefit of that son.

Finally, I'm not saying we are over thinking. We just need to understand that the temporal punishment model and healing model, are just paradigms in which we seek to explain purification after death.

They aren't part of a defined dogma.


Paul replied:

Aquinas speaks of indulgences as the Church treasury paying the debt of temporal punishment due to sin.

CCC 1479: 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 punishments due for their sins may be remitted.

Me: Still, no explanation as to how others' paying the temporal debt for one's sins purifies/purges his being from their effects.


John replied:


Again these a paradigms so let's transfer this to the Healing Model and let's talk about the Body of Christ and the various parts or organs.

If we cut our arm, we would potentially bleed to death if a different part of the body didn't produce clotting material. If we are intoxicated, the brain doesn't function properly but the liver, another member of the body, detoxifies the blood and helps to restore the brain to proper functional capability, etc., etc., etc.

I'm sure you recall the Gospel account of the paralytic man being lowered through the roof to see Jesus. (Matthew 9:1–8, Mark 2:1–12, and Luke 5:17–26) Jesus noted the faith of those lowering him, and said your sins are forgiven. (Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5, Luke 5:20)

It kind of works like the sacrament of Confession. Most of us don't always have perfect contrition when we confess our sins but through the sacrament of Confession, the faith of the Church makes up what is lacking in our contrition.


Mike replied:

Hi, guys —

Here's my extra two cents. I can't deny that Paul has a logical point.

I think the reason the CCC didn't address Paul's query is that the CCC was written as a book of basis Catholic beliefs rather than a theology book.

I'm guessing that if Aquinas were part of this dialogue, he would say one of two things:

  • What John said: We get into real trouble when we try to establish equations for what is in fact in Mystery, and/or
  • The Body of Christ helps among what willing members of the Church have to offer their fellow brethren.

If any faithful Catholic visitor is reading this and has another view to offer, you are more than welcome to share it with us. Who knows, maybe a theologian will read this and have an answer that would satisfy Paul's question.


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