The Communion of Saints, Indulgences, and Luther: A Primer

[fbshare type=”button” float=”right” width=”100″] By Mary C. Moorman

In the Catholic Church’s practice of indulgences and in her claimed authority to distribute them, she expresses an intercessory and administrative authority that has been endowed to her for the benefit of her children. This notion has been radically imagined in the idea of a family storehouse of extrinsic merits, which the Church distributes and imputes to her needy penitents, so that they might offer the merits of another to God as though they were their own. Here we find a sense of juridical imputation that has persisted within the Church’s mission of reconciling her members to God; and this is the sort of juridical and covenantal aspect of the Church’s union with Christ that Aquinas would associate with nuptial “faith,” understood in terms of the justice by which the members of the Church render in bodily enactments that which is properly due to the Church’s Redeemer and Spouse.

Here we also recall the Catholic tradition’s understanding, in contrast with Luther, that the fundamental covenantal and juridical interaction that occurs between God and humanity for the imputation of satisfaction to the penitent is not an exchange between God and the individual member whereby the penitent directly attains God’s gracious imputation. Rather, given the premise of the mystical identity between Christ and His Church, this restorative exchange is best described as a covenant between God and the Church corporate. Within this covenant, each person’s dual vocation to conformity to Christ and incorporation in Christ requires both the sacramental, ontological influx of Christ’s grace, on the one hand, and personal participation in Christ’s covenantal self-offering to the Father, on the other.

In this way, the entire structure of the Church’s indulgences presumes that her members can receive Christ’s own merits for the remission of the temporal punishment that is due for their sins, not according to their own works or transactions with God, but according to the covenant which Christ has enacted with the whole Church. Inasmuch as each penitent demonstrates his own participation in this corporate covenant, as through indulgences, the benefits of that corporate covenant will be imputed to him personally, as though he had personally attained something valuable with which to bind God to his assistance.

Thus the Church celebrates her understanding that the saints may vicariously offer their own merits to God on behalf of those in need, on the traditional premise that all Christians are united covenantally and ontologically together with the Savior in the nuptial covenant that forms the Church. The Church’s magisterium explains in the Catechism that “the Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace is not alone.” Quoting from Indulgentiarum Doctrina §5, the same passage continues: “the life of each of God’s children is joined in Christ, and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person.”

The Catechism continues that, in this sort of communion, there is “a perennial link of charity” that is adequate to join the Church militant and the Church triumphant: “There is an abundant exchange of all good things, . . . [and] in this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others.” The medieval theology of Christian unity, covenant, and friendship found its most vivid instantiation within the Church, wherein the sorts of relationships that presume equity, concord, and a common will towards the good could flourish, and wherein the exercise of justice and charity makes friendship possible between otherwise disparate parties.

In the 1343 bull Unigenitus, Pope Clement VI explained that the penitent’s appropriations of Christ’s benefits in indulgences were conducive to friendship with God: “[Christ wished] to store up treasure for the sons of His holy Father, such that there might now be an infinite treasure for men, through which those who draw upon it are made friends of God.” Such considerations lead us to propose that the logic of friendship so frames the structure of satisfaction and merit in medieval theology that we may infer, from the evidence that is implicit in such understanding of satisfaction as we find in St. Thomas Aquinas, that the act of a penitent who is making satisfaction and offering his merits to God bears witness to the prior friendship that exists between the Church’s Head and the Church’s Members. This friendship consists of a union so profound that it allows for one member to extend his goods to another in the communion of saints. And this sort of summary underscores the true role of indulgences as instantiations of the Church’s corporate covenant with Christ, and the intimate communion that ensues.


Mary Moorman brings her combined interests in law and theology to the fore in her debut work, Indulgences: Luther, Catholicism, and the Imputation of Merit, on the legal and theological framework which undergirds the Church’s indulgences.