Thursday, September 06, 2007

Why Should You Pay the Price?

Fr. Al Kimel, quondam Pontificator, has drawn my attention to an essay by a young man who is a traditionalist-minded Catholic who also happens to be gay, on the subject of Sacramental Confession. The part that interested Fr. Kimel was a section on temporal punishment and indulgences, but the entire essay is actually rather interesting, if somewhat tendentious. Indeed, I found the whole website rather interesting: the author has done a fair amount of homework on a number of topics, and often has interesting things to say about them.

What he says about indulgences is mostly handbooky stuff, but as I read through it I couldn't help thinking that, as handbooky as it all was, it needed to be read in the context of the overall essay as a whole, and doing so is something of a complicating factor in this particular case, because the author clearly rejects some very central elements of traditional Roman Catholic theology while at the same time averring that he is a very traditional, orthodox Roman Catholic. Same-sex attraction is the big exception for him, and in order to justify this exception he has done something rather interesting. Rather than jettison entirely the theological edifice that supports the arguments against same-sex attraction, he has simply accepted those parts of it that have nothing to do with sex in any direct way, and rejected those parts that touch on sex in any way. In particular, he has come up with a rather novel idea that can perhaps best be described as Relative Natural Law:
I strongly support the Church's traditional teaching that the proper order of man's nature must be observed if human dignity is to be maintained; that unchangeable objective principles operate here; and that these can be discerned by human reason. However, I believe the Church to be wrong in assuming that Human Nature is uniform: that what is natural for one is natural for all. Hence, I believe that She is mistaken in deducing first that one rule is good for all, and next that if a rule seems not to fit someone, then the nature of the individual in question is in some sense dis-ordered; and at odds with God's design and manifest intent.
I see this kind of thing in my own students all the time. I will ask them to write an essay comparing and contrasting two markedly different points of view, say, scientific realism and instrumentalism, and I will ask them to conclude the essay by explaining which view, in their opinion, is more tenable and why. Students are rather notorious for their wishy-washiness when it comes to saying what they think and why, so these essays often end up by claiming that the correct view is actually neither of the proposed views, but a new hybrid view that combines the very best parts of both of the old views. It doesn't matter that the new, hybrid view is logically incoherent, totally novel, and intellectually bankrupt, it has, for them, the virtue of suiting their needs at the moment.

Regarding indulgences, then, it is interesting to note that our author explains the history of the institution rather accurately, and concludes the Appendix with a set of discussion questions with his suggested answers:
* How can an indulgence, which is of a legal nature, heal the ravages of sin?
o It can't.
o One is never a better person by virtue of having gained an indulgence.
o One can only presume that the process of sanitization at the particular judgement is "instantaneous" if one has no "temporal debt" to discharge.

* If an indulgence only remits "temporal debt", then why is anything to be remitted after absolution?
o Once contrition is achieved, further temporal punishment aimed at eliciting repentance is superfluous.
o However, one still has an obligation to "make up for" the mess one has caused.
o This expiation can be expected to be hard, painful and distressing work.
o An indulgence frees the repentant sinner from the unpleasant task of discharging his/her "temporal debt".
o It is a means of solidarity.
o The Church as a body, and Jesus in particular, shoulders the responsibility of binding up the painful wounds of the Cosmos, rather than insisting that those who caused the hurt do so.

* Is not the modern condition for the reception of an indulgence silly?
o A total distancing from sin is required.
o This disposition is symptomatic of complete spiritual health.
o It would seem to be sufficiently meritorious in itself so as to discharge any obligation to expiate one's sins.
o On the other hand, it is not clear that the condition is quite so meritorious.
o Nevertheless, this prevents exactly that class of person who is most in need of an indulgence from obtaining one.
o It is therefore pastorally inept!
With regards to the first question, I think I am in agreement with our author: I myself do not see how any system of retribution can be interpreted as actually setting wrongs right. This is a point often made by those who argue against the old lex talionis by pointing out that "executing a murderer does not bring his victim back to life". Such a crime cannot be "made right", all one can do is hope that the demands of justice are met in meting out punishment, but there doesn't seem to be any a priori reason to think that it is a necessary condition on justice that reparation for an act take on some sort of physical manifestation of the sort suggested by the traditional understanding of "temporal debt" due to sin. Indeed, it raises the rather uncomfortable question of why the kosmos should be constituted in the particular way that it is.

In this regard, I think that our author does a fairly good job of giving a plausible account in his discussion of the second question. I particularly like the bit about Christ and his Body the Church shouldering "the responsibility of binding up the painful wounds of the Cosmos, rather than insisting that those who caused the hurt do so." This appears to be what Calvary is all about, and if we are to believe that Calvary was necessary in any sense, surely this is the sense in which it was necessary.

The final question draws attention to a historical dissonance: the institution of indulgences grew out of a time when penances were public, extreme, and to be done prior to being recognized by the Bishop as readmitted to Communion. Historically, there were certain sorts of cases where the penitent would be readmitted earlier than was ordinarily permitted according by the Canons. In some cases the penance could be waived entirely and readmittance granted as soon as Confession was made. At this time, the public penance prior to readmittance just was the "temporal punishment due to sin", hence to have it lessened or waived was to be granted an "indulgence" in a rather straightforward and ordinary way. Only much later, when the Rite of Readmittance was no longer in use, did the practice of granting indulgences fall prey to the objection raised here: what's the point of having a certain part of one's penance lessened, or waived entirely, if one has already been forgiven for the sin? Well, the standard answer goes, you've been forgiven for your sin, but you haven't "paid the penalty for it" yet. This raises some rather uncomfortable questions about what it means to have one's sins "forgiven": when the Prodigal Son returned, his Father welcomed him with open arms as soon as he said the words "Father, I have sinned against you". We hear nothing in that story about that Prodigal Son having to say five Our Fathers before he can have any of that fatted calf.

For that matter, given that the early penances were so strict (in some cases involving exclusion from the Church for up to nine years, no readmittance to Communion for three more years after that, with lots of going about in public with sackcloth and ashes), one can only look at modern penances with a raised eyebrow. My parish priest routinely asks me to "go out into the Church and say a short prayer for...". And that's my "temporal punishment due to sin". One begins to wonder why anyone would seek an indulgence for something like that. Gee, I can't believe I have to pray for something today! That's so burdensome, it's like being punished for something! Even if we imagine that the idea is supposed to be that we are giving up a part of ourselves for a little while to do something that otherwise we would not do, it is hard to see why that is a punishment due to sin rather than just an everyday Christian obligation.

But I don't want to gripe too much about contemporary penitential practices lest my parish priest read this and decide to have me start standing in front of the Church every Sunday in Lent singing songs from Glory and Praise. I'm much more interested in the question of the relationship between Absolution and "being in debt". To be absolved from sin is literally to be "set free from" the sin, "acquitted" of it: one ceases to be charged with the wrong. If sin is a broken relationship with God, then being set free from that brokenness is to have that brokenness somehow healed. But we, obviously, cannot do the healing ourselves, sins it is precisely due to an act of our own will that the brokenness is there in the first place. We express a certain cooperativeness by repenting and turning to God for forgiveness, but that in itself does not reestablish the relationship as it was before the sin. To accomplish that, God must be in on the deal. Hence, the healing is miraculous precisely because a sin against God can be fully wiped away only by God. There is no natural power that can accomplish such a thing since there is no natural power to which God is subject (hence the miracle stories in the Gospels that depict Christ as controlling natural events may be read as metaphors for God's greatest power of all, the power to forgive sin).

So I go to Confession and receive Absolution. My relationship with God is fully restored. Oh, except now I have to "pay the penalty". Why? What is accomplished by that? Why should I pay the price? Because that's how God ordered the kosmos? Suppose you have a headache, and you ask a friend for help. He gives you ibuprofen, you take it, and your headache goes away. You say "Wow, how did that work? How did that pill make my headache go away?" Your friend says "It did it by means of its headache-relieving powers." Talk about your unsatisfying, insufficient explanations. And yet, to say that a price must be paid because that's how God ordered the kosmos is no better, as explanations go.

Fortunately there is another explanation that is a little better, though only a little. Penance is a kind of virtue: the virtue of being disposed to hatred of sins one has committed. Every virtue is a capacity, that is, a potentiality to act in a certain way as a matter of habit. Hence, to perform a penance is to actualize a potentiality, and actuality is ontologically prior to potentiality. In short, when one performs a penance, one manifests a virtue and is, hence, actually virtuous, as opposed to merely having a disposition to act virtuously and thus being merely potentially virtuous but not actually so. Repentance is clearly a necessary condition for genuine forgiveness of sin, but repentance as such is an internal mental state; penance is the outward manifestation of that inner state. One can only dismiss the necessity of having outward signs of inner states if one dismisses the whole notion of Sacramentality, and that's not likely to happen in our religion. To this we may add that, if properly understood, it seems that to be doing penance is in itself to be actually hating sin and, hence, being actually (rather than merely potentially) free from sin, because it seems that a sound mind cannot at one and the same time genuinely hate and genuinely will the same act. So our penance is not only an outward manifestation of our inward hatred of sin--a sacramental aspect that, arguably, carries first-person deixis--it is also an outward manifestation of our own sinlessness (however temporary), which is clearly a sacramental aspect with second-person deixis, that is, it is a form of evangelization.


Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ said...

a very good explanation although i'm confused re the SSA description..

Pontificator said...

Thanks, Scott, for blogging on this. I've been thinking a lot about indulgences and Purgatory the past two weeks, because of a number of threads devoted to Luther's 95 theses over at

I am finding that the notion of "temporal punishments" is difficult to expound and defend in a cogent and persuasive way. The problem, I think, is the legal-forensic framework in which it is traditionally presented. Within a legal framework, temporal punishments always sounds as punishments externally imposed upon the sinner by God: Christ's atonement frees us from eternal judgment, yet there are still there are other debts to be paid, and if they aren't paid in the here-and-now, then they must be paid in the hereafter. See, e.g., Jimmie Akin's discussion of indulgences.

I am sympathetic to Orthodox and Protestant critique of this legal-forensic interpretation of temporal punishment. As you note, back in the days of canonical penance, temporal punishments were simply the (often severe) penances imposed upon serious sinners as conditions for readmission to the Holy Eucharist. Indulgences were truly ecclesial acts of mercy. But once canonical penance was replaced by the Irish penitential model, it almost became inevitable that the assigned penance would come to be seen as a work to be performed or punishment to be endured in order to satisfy the justice of God. And so the miraculous mercy of God is moved into the background.

The way forward, I think, is to tie penance and indulgences more closely to our need for sanctification and purification, both in this life and in the hereafter. Sin damages the soul. It is this damage that is the temporal punishment (see CCC 1472). If this damage is not healed before our death, then it will and must be healed in Purgatory. The grant of indulgence is not the Church letting us off from paying a debt, but is rather the application of the prayers and good works of the communion of saints to our needed sanctification and purification.

I think Peter Kreeft helpfully points the way:

"The reason for purgagory is not the past, not an external, legal punishment for past sins, as if our relationship with God were still under the old law. Rather, its reason is the future; it is our rehabilitation; it is training for heaven. For our relationship with God has been radically changed by Christ; we are adopted as his children, and our relationship is now fundamentally filial and familial, not legal. Purgatory is God's loving parental discipline (see Heb 12:5-14)" (Catholic Christianity, pp. 149-151).

What do you think?

CPKS said...

I think you're on to something with the thought that embracing the enactment of penance is making penitence (something potential) into something actual.

It corresponds to something less systematic that I've been groping towards, that in willingly embracing and performing a penance, one is signifying and effecting contrition, so that the penance is actually a sacramental gift, a ladder mercifully thrust down so that we can climb out of the pit; and by being allowed to participate and cooperate in the work of our own restoration to grace, we can be aware that we are not merely forgiven or exonerated, but so loved that God will readopt us into the redeeming sonship of Christ.