Throughout the month of November (and especially in the first eight days) the Church encourages her faithful children to offer indulgences on behalf of the poor souls in purgatory. Pope Paul VI states that this is a great work of charity and helps us to grow further in charity and in communion with the Church (cf. apostolic constitution, Indulgentiarum doctrina).
Still, we might wonder how it is that an indulgence can be applied to the holy souls. Since the Church on earth has no jurisdiction over the souls in purgatory, how can she provide an indulgence to ease their sufferings?
What is an indulgence?
“An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints.” (Paul VI, Indulgentiarum doctrina, norm 1)
The doctrine of indulgences is the affirmation of the communion of the saints and of all the members of the Church. Precisely because the Church is the one body of Christ, and each member is united to every other, the merits acquired by one are able to be applied to another. Most especially, the merits of Christ and of the saints can be shared in by all the members of the mystical body.
Communion with the Church makes a real difference in the world and in the spiritual life – the doctrine of indulgences is nothing more than the practical application of this point. If I am united (through the Church) with St. Thomas Aquinas, then I will be able to share in the graces which St. Thomas merited and offered to the Church for the sanctification of her children. And if this is true of the saints, how much more of Christ!
How does the Church grant indulgences?
The Church is able to grant indulgences on account of the fact that the saints have offered their lives and all their good works (principally, for the glory of God, but also) for the salvation of souls through the growth and sanctification of the Church. The granting of indulgences comes from the power of the keys, which is to say that it is not only a matter of sacramental power, but also a matter of jurisdiction.
Hence, while all priests can forgive sins through the sacrament of confession, not all priests (in fact, only bishops) can grant indulgences. Further, even bishops have a limited power when it comes to indulgences, since they do not have authority over the whole Church but only over their own diocese. Thus, the Holy Father has supreme control over all indulgences, while local bishops have a somewhat limited ability to grant indulgences as well.
We must recognize that an indulgence is more than simply a prayer – in addition to the prayer of the individual, the Church herself adds further merits (those of Christ and the saints). Now, our Mother the Church can only grant the additional merits of an indulgence to those over whom she exercises the power of the keys. Hence, only those who are visibly united with the Church are able to receive indulgences.
A problem arises, however, when we consider after what manner indulgences may be offered for the poor souls in purgatory – they are no longer under the power of the keys as exercised by the Pope, and yet we are still able to offer indulgences in their behalf.
Indulgences for the poor souls, by mode of suffrage
When the Church grants an indulgence to the living, it is made per modum absolutionis (by the mode of absolution). What we mean here is not that the indulgence is itself the absolution of sin, but rather that the granting of the remission of the temporal punishment of sin through the indulgence is effected through the same juridical power by which the Church forgives sin. Stated most simply: When she gives an indulgence to the living, it is through the fact that the Church is able to forgive their sins.
However, it is obvious that the Church cannot grant indulgences to the poor souls in purgatory per modum absolutionis, because she has no power to absolve the dead! Rather, the Church teaches that indulgences are granted to the dead per modum suffragii (by means of intercession). Indulgences for the dead, then, are not applied to the poor souls directly (by means of absolution), but only indirectly (by means of supplication).
While we are certain that, if the soul be in purgatory, the indulgence will be granted by God according to the prayer of the Church; it is good to recognize this difference between the way in which indulgences are applied to the living and to the dead.
Why this an important point
At one time, there was some controversy over whether or not it was necessary to be in the state of grace in order to gain an indulgence for the dead. While it is obvious that, to gain an indulgence for oneself, the state of grace is required; it was not quite so clear whether the same holds for indulgences gained for the dead.
Some theologians (including Suarez) held that one need not be in the state of grace, but could even be in mortal sin when gaining an indulgence for the dead. In the 15th century, this point was further obscured by certain theologians (especially Gabriel Biel) who held that the Pope exercised juridical authority over the souls in purgatory.
If the Pope was able to directly exercise the power of the keys over the poor souls, then he could grant indulgences to them per modum absolutionis, rather than according to the mode of suffrage and prayer. However, if indulgences can be granted to the dead by way of “absolution”, then it is not at all clear that the living person gaining the indulgence would need to be in the state of grace – the indulgence would no longer rest on the prayer of the individual performing the indulgenced work, but would rather rest upon the authoritative and legal power of the Pope. It was this errant theology which led some to believe that it was possible for people to purchase indulgences for the dead, without being in the state of grace or offering any authentic prayers.
Precisely because indulgences offered in behalf of the dead are offered by way of suffrage, it is necessary for the living individual to be in the state of grace when gaining the indulgence – since the offering of the indulgence rests upon the friendship with God which is gained through sanctifying grace. If we wish to apply an indulgence in behalf of the dead, we must pray well and unite our prayer to the prayer of the Church that it may be acceptable to God.