Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Treasury of Merits and Indulgences

The doctrine of the Treasury of Merits and Indulgences is perhaps the Roman Catholic teaching that is most offensive to Protestant and Eastern Orthodox ears. This is largely because it is tied up with so many popular conceptualisations that are unnecessary and misleading. So, I will begin my (qualified) defence of the doctrine with a list of what it does NOT mean.

The doctrine is:

NOT to be dogmatically interpreted through the lens of all popular or common theological imagery. The vast majority of this is not dogma, as the strictly dogmatic content of the doctrine is quite small, and open to various interpretations.

NOT a claim that we merit condignly of ourselves or that our works are perfect and worthy of eternal life in themselves. Merit is based on the Justice of the Covenant, not on the Justice of strict Equity. God freely promises rewards for our works. Hence we have a “right” to the reward by grace. (See Luke 12:29-34, 1 Corinthians 3:14, Galatians 6:8-9, and 2 Timothy 4:8. See also the section on Merit in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2006-2011, and Aquinas' Summa Theologica, as quoted here.)

NOT a claim of a simple transfer (in indulgences) from the finite merits of the Saints to Christians here or in Purgatory, where that would mean they would be diminished over time for all or some Saints, and thus even “run out” from particular sources. No such woodenly literal claim has ever been made, that I am aware of. Instead, Pope John Paul II said in an address to a General Audience (29th September 1999): “The Church has a treasury, then, which is "dispensed" as it were through indulgences. This "distribution" should not be understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were speaking of "things". It is instead the expression of the Church's full confidence of being heard by the Father when - in view of Christ's merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints - she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace. In the unfathomable mystery of divine wisdom, this gift of intercession can also benefit the faithful departed, who receive its fruits in a way appropriate to their condition.”

NOT a claim that the merits of the Saints increase those of Christ's, properly speaking. Why not? All the Saints' merits are seen to be based on and subsist in Christ's Merits, since he alone earned the sanctifying grace that allowed the saints to merit at all, according to Tridentine teaching. Also, one cannot increase an infinite quantity by addition, and Christ's Merits are taught to be infinite. This insight can be seen in the Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences of Pope Paul VI: “Thus is explained the "treasury of the Church" which … [is] ... the infinite and inexhaustible value the expiation and the merits of Christ Our Lord have before God, offered as they were so that all of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. It is Christ the Redeemer Himself in whom the satisfactions and merits of His redemption exist and find their force.[21] This treasury also includes the truly immense, unfathomable and ever pristine value before God of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints” (emphasis added).

NOT a claim that the merits of the saints are the basis of our forgiveness. Instead, the merit of the saints is seen as dependent on their own forgiveness and renewal through Christ's Merits (see my previous essay on Justification). And our own forgiveness (and remission of the punishment of eternal condemnation) is also based on Christ's Merits alone. It is not the forgiveness of sin but the reduction of any purifying, disciplinary punishment remaining after forgiveness which is the object of indulgences. That such a process can be necessary after forgiveness is taught in the Scriptures, as I have argued before in a previous essay on this subject, and as the previous Pope argued well in the address already quoted, in a passage which is also worth quoting: “At first sight, to speak of punishment after sacramental forgiveness might seem inconsistent. The Old Testament, however, shows us how normal it is to undergo reparative punishment after forgiveness. God, after describing himself as "a God merciful and gracious ... forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin", adds:  "yet not without punishing" (Ex 34: 6-7). In the Second Book of Samuel, King David's humble confession after his grave sin obtains God's forgiveness (cf. 2 Sm 12: 13), but not the prevention of the foretold chastisement (cf. ibid., 12: 11; 16: 21). God's fatherly love does not rule out punishment, even if the latter must always be understood as part of a merciful justice that re-establishes the violated order for the sake of man's own good (cf. Heb 12: 4-11).” However, since God is never limited to such means, due to his omnipotent and sovereign mercy, he can repair the damage and remove the interior obstacles to our growth in grace and charity in other ways, which is effectively what the Church confidently requests from God in an Indulgence.

NOT a claim that indulgences work automatically or ex opere operato. For a start, the recipient of the indulgence is benefited by it conditionally, in proportion to their sincere penitence and faith-alive-with-love. Too, the dispositions of the human minister are relevant, as the view that irresponsible doling out of indulgences undermines their effectiveness was voiced and not rejected at the Council of Trent. Also, while the granting of indulgences to the living was said there to be “per modum absolutionis”, that is, performed by the Church using its juridical authority to bind and loose, the question of whether this applied only to the (now hypothetical) canonical penance the Church once applied for particular sins, or to whatever disciplinary punishment God would apply as well, was not settled authoritatively and continues to be debated to this day. Cajetan in that age and Rahner in our own are examples of RC theologians who have denied that the Church had jurisdiction over how God deals with the punishments or intrinsic “remains” of sin, as opposed to its own extrinsic penalties. Thus it is perfectly permissible for a RC to believe that not only are the benefits to the dead of indulgences due to intercessory prayer (“per modum suffragii”), as Trent explicitly taught, but that the benefits to the living are based on exactly the same principle outside the realm of now defunct ecclesiastical penances. These facts are important because they mean that it is NOT being claimed that, inasmuch as “satisfaction” or Purgatorial disciplines are seen as primarily healing the internal effects of sin on the soul rather than paying off an external debt of punishment (cf. Aquinas, S.T. II(1) Q87 A6), this medicinal process can be wholly or partly obviated by mere ecclesiastical fiat and an outward transfer of “merit” unrelated to the inward progress of the soul.

What then, is the significance of this RC doctrine? The Treasury of Merits benefits those Christians in via to glory, whether in the Church Militant or Church Expectant, by undergirding the whole Church's intercession out of mutual love. That is, the Merits are not a fund diminished by transfer and subject to direct manipulation, but like an infinite sea that allows intercessory prayer its power. If we read carefully John 15:7,16, Hebrews 4:15-16 & 10:19-22, James 5:16 and 1 John 3:22, we will discover abundant evidence that the fruitful, sacrificial obedience of first and foremost, Christ, and then, derivatively, that of the saints, is the basis of confident, priestly prayer among all Christians, including of course the Saints in Heaven. This flowering forth of, and this calling upon the Infinite Merit occurs in all effective Christian prayer, especially that of the Saints in Heaven. But it occurs in a public, episcopally authorised way for the specific purpose of diminishing purgatorial discipline, when Indulgences call on this Treasury of Merit, doing so deliberately in the context of and dependent upon the ongoing intercession of Christ and his whole Body.

Thus this doctrine and practice gives one possible ecclesial and official manifestation of the following truths:

  • God judges and disciplines his people.
  • Yet “mercy rejoices over judgement” (James 2:13) and “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
  • The prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:16b).
  • Christ's merits are infinite and the basis of all mercy.
  • The merits of the saints and their associated prayers are a flowering forth of Christ's merits.
  • While merits cannot literally be transferred from one Christian to another, the Merit of Christ, as exemplified in the Saints and empowering their prayers, does flow between the members of the Body of Christ, who are interconnected by these bonds of charity.


Pope Paul VI (1967) Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences. Available at:

Pope John Paul II (1999) “GENERAL AUDIENCE: Wednesday, 29 September 1999”. Available at:

Jesson, N. Paradise regained: Indulgences in light of the Joint Declaration. Available at:

Root, M. (2001) “The Indulgence Controversy, Again” First Things. Available at:

Beer, P.J. () “What Price Indulgences? Trent and Today” Theological Studies. Available at:

Rahner, K. (1975) “Indulgences” in K. Rahner, ed., Encyclopedia of theology: a concise Sacramentum mundi. London: Burns and Oates. American Edition Available at:


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