Sunday, October 31, 2010

The catholic church sold indulgences and were historically corrupt. How do you know it is right?

Question: Hey Peter, I saw your blog and I think it's great! The one question I have that isn't really answered up there is this. Why Catholicism? I know I'm really firmly rooted in my Faith, I just don't really know what Faith that is, if that makes sense. Basically I guess just hearing about how corrupt the Catholic Church was and in some cases still is makes me wonder. I definitely believe in the Bible and that everything actually happened, it just seems like the Catholic Church has taken advantage of people and been hypocritical at times, at least from some of the conversations I've had with some of my Protestant friends. Maybe I just don't have the facts right? Take the example of indulgences. What I've heard from a fairly reliable friend was that the Catholic Church used to sell them, telling people that they'd go to Heaven sooner or at all as long as they bought these indulgences. Is this true?

Answer: Excelent question. I sort of did deal with that question, under the headimg "How do I know I am right"- However, that article does not address the historical aspects that you ask about.

This question is so complicated, with so many facets, that my answer will be long, and will likely only serve to raise more questions.

I think it should be first acknowledged that the Church does indeed have a scandalous past- and indeed, present. The Church is full of sinners, and their is corruption in every level. This does not necessarily mean that what they believe is wrong... don't judge the medicine by who it fails on, but by who it works on. Somehow the Church mannaged to produce Mother Teresa and John Paul II and Padre Pio.

Some people would sort of sidetrack the issue by saying the Church was really not that bad. Often you'll hear the Church described in say the crusades or the inquisition, in an eroneous (some times even maliciously eroneus) manner. When you hear this stuff, look up the real history- people like to repeat the most scandalous stuff! Consider that the Church was not only a spiritual, but also a worldy authority- and so there was a lot of money and power to be wielded by bishops, which would attract corrupt people. Looked at in their historical context, these things make a bit more sense. (I sometimes wonder if the Church won't some day be frowned upon for not doing enough to stop abortion...) But, we really did sin in the crusades, and arguably even more so in the inquisition.

So, I think we have a responsibility to do 2 things- first, learn about the mistakes we have made in the past. (For this I suggest you get some cds from Mastthew Arnold, They are fantastic!) Secondly, we need to see that the Church is infallible, not inscrutible.- that is to say that it cannot make an error in teaching, though the Pope or even the church as a whole can sin.

As for indulgences... I'll explain the teaching first, and the abuses you refered to later.

This is a hard teaching to grasp, in large part because we have a protestant mindset nowadays. We read the Bible like protestants, we seperate the spiritual world from the physical world, like protestants, we think that we can do nothing to work towards our own salvation (Phil 2:12-13), like protestants. Alot of Catholic do not even realize that they are doing this.

Protestants do not believe in purgatory, in part because it is not explicitly biblical, and in part because it does not agree with their idea of 'justification'. Luther essentially taught that we are 'justified by faith (Rom 3:28)'- meaning, by his definition, declared just by believeing in Christ. Catholics understand both justification and faith differently. We think justification means we are actually made just rather than just declared just, and that this is a process. It is by faith insofar as we have to trust God that He will do what he says he will do in us, and so we have to cooperate with grace- the thing that sancifies us, or makes us just.

So because it is a process, and not just a one off thing (this one off idea gives protestants all kinds of problems, as they then have to wonder about 'once saved always saved', etc)- I say, because it is a process, if the process of sanctification is incomplete in this world, we have to complete it in the next.

So this is what your friend meant by 'getting to Heaven faster'- the purification process gets sped up. However, people who would have otherwise gone to Hell, could not have changed their destination through indulgences.

The seperation of physical and spiritual plays in, because protestants do not understand things like sacraments and relics, or even statues, because they effectively don't get how the physical realm is linked with the spiritual realm. In fact, they don't even understand sex! This is why they don't see that birth control is wrong. Interestingly, most protestants still believe in water with baptism, but they don't know why besides that Jesus said to do it that way. The Catholic understanding is that a sacrament is a physical sign of a spiritual reality- that it effects what it signifies. In other words, a physical thing has a spiritual effect. You can see how this makes no sense to the protestant mind set.

Lastly, they do not think that the Church has any real authority. The Catholic Church claims to have authority from Christ to 'bind and loose',(Matt 16:19) which means (in part) to release graces and make decisions about them! This idea is totally ludicrous to the protestant mind set- just as the idea that the Church has the authority to forgive sins is ludicrous. I should point out though that Jesus' contemporaries thought it was ludicrous too(Mark 2:1-12)- yet Jesus did it, and gave authority to his diciples to do likewise. (John 20:23). The Church does not presume to have this power- rather it is invested in them through Christ.

So, amazingly, the Church has the authority to release graces, and to set conditions for the release! Moreover, another thing protestants don't understand, is that one persons suffering can benefit another, and so we can become a source of grace for each other. So I can meet the required conditions, achieve an indulgence, and even transmit those graces to the soul of another. Today is Halloween... in 2 days it is "All Souls Day". Within a week of all souls day, I can gain a plenary indulgence (get out of purgatory free card) by going to confession, attending Mass, praying in the graveyard, praying for the intentions of the Pope, and having no attachment tio sin. I can get another plenary indulgence every day for 8 days, and get 8 souls out of purgatory! (Again, I must reiterate, the reason this idea seems so incongruent with your ideas about God and your soul is because you are already thinking like a protestant, not like a Catholic. You'll notice, however, that the Catholic mode of thinking can make much better sense out of Jesus' death on the Cross and how it saves us.)

Historically, however, abuses set in. It stands to reason that if you can gain indulgences by saying certain prayers or going on a pilgrimage, likewise you could get them by giving money to charity. And it may be that that charity would be, say, the building of a Church. Around Luthers time, St Peters Basilica was being built in Rome. Pope Leo X offered indulgences to people who gave alms to rebuild St Peres. People started effectively selling indulgences, and pocketing some of the money. It should be noted that even before this, Popes had been trying to reign in abuses like the sale of indulgences... so it would be somewhat misleading to say 'the Church sold indulgences', since really it was people in the Church and not the Church per se. You cannot 'sell' anything blessed, because that is the sin of simony. Likewise, you can't sell the blessed sacrament, or graces. Indulgences for alms should not be seen as puschasing grace, but rather as being rewarded with grace for generosity. But agian, people abused it and 'sold' indulgences. Anyway, this was one of the major things that outraged Luther and started the reformation.

As it stands, the Church affirms the idea of indulgences, but recognizes that the practices at that time were abusive. Shortly after the reformation started, the council of Trent was called, and they looked at this whole practice. They said that only the magisterium could 'publish' induilgences, and eventually added that these could never involve any fees or financial transactions.

So, there you have it. Indulgences is one of a miriad of historical examples where people are outraged by partial information and understanding, but if you do the research, you find that the Catholic position actually makes sense- even if people in practice abused principles found in theology.

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