It blows my mind when people claim to be orthodox Catholics while claiming loyalty to ideas which conflict with Church teaching. It’s the sort of self-righteousness people concerned with heaven all partake in. You’re likely as guilty as I am.
That being said, I have to admit that I’m one of those people too. There are things the Church teaches that I don’t believe and I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t work to understand these teachings better. When I say, “I don’t believe in these things,” all I mean is that I don’t understand how these teachings work. Sometimes my issue is logical. Sometimes my issue is that I’m just not smart enough to understand the logic. Sometimes the issue is I’m just a bad person and I don’t want to accept the teaching. In all cases I want to be very clear in saying that I am wrong and the Church is right. I just don’t understand why the Church is right, and therefore I can’t honestly say “yes, I believe this.”
What the Church Teaches
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1471
“An indulgence is a remission before G-d of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasure of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”
So we have to talk about the different effects of sin. Basically, you have the guilt of the sin and the temporal effects of the sin. My favorite explanation, and one you might have heard before, goes like this: Sin is like driving a nail into a plank of wood. In confession, through the redemption of Christ won for us, we are absolved of sin (or the guilt of the sin). This is like pulling the nail out. Even with the nail removed, there is still a hole in the wood. Even though the sin is gone, something remains. The hole represents the temporal effects/punishments of sin. (I prefer to call them, “effects.”)
It’s not that I don’t think it’s possible that the Church has the authority to remit temporal punishments due to sin. I mean, she has the power of the keys after all. I guess I have two problems with the concept of temporal punishments due to sin and their remission through indulgences.
The only way I can understand the idea is as… temporal. If I have sex outside of marriage and the sin is absolved, I still have the memories and I can’t just absolve myself of that. I’ll have to live with the temptation or the psychological guilt that comes with those memories. When I think of temporal punishments, that’s what I think of. Confession takes care of our spiritual consequences from sin, but we have to live with what’s left in the material world. Like, in our brains and stuff.
If that’s the way temporal punishment works, then what effect would a spiritual act have on these psychological, mental phenomena? I’ve received indulgences and they didn’t magically do away with my memories. Either my understanding of temporal punishments is wrong or indulgences are ineffective. Obviously, my understanding has to be wrong.
Second, if my understanding of temporal punishments are incorrect and they have more to do with spiritual (immaterial) realities, then why doesn’t sacramental absolution work on these effects? Why do we need an indulgence following the sacrament to get rid of these effects? See what I mean? I don’t get it.
What the Church Teaches
From Catechism of the Catholic Church
“To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting G-d’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with G-d and the blessed is called ‘hell.’
…The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from G-d in home alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”
Oh boy. First of all, my opposition to the concept of Hell is not emotional. I’m not saying, “I can’t imagine how G-d could send someone to Hell.” I totally get that part. I don’t even reject the idea that there could be a place for souls who choose against heaven. Why would a person who doesn’t want to be in heaven be forced to stay there? I just can’t believe that place would be experiential.
My understanding of existence involves participation in G-d’s existence. Being is a participation in his nature. We can only exist in relationship to and communion with him. So if there is a way to be totally apart from him, “Hell,” wouldn’t we cease to exist by going there? If Hell is eternal and total separation from G-d, Hell has to refer to a state of non-existence. But that’s not what the Church teaches. The Church teaches that souls do exist in Hell and that they experience its punishments. Either we are still united to G-d somehow in Hell, or existence is not tied to G-d. Or… I’m missing something.
There it is. Two of my honest hang ups with Catholicism. Lest anyone claim that I’m blindly loyal to the faith. I’m not blindly loyal. I’ve been convinced that there is something like G-d, that the Christian G-d is the true one, and that he established a Church to commune with his faithful. If those things are true, then the Church has to be right. Even when I don’t get it. Especially when I don’t get it.
If I was big enough to completely understand G-d, what point would there be in worshipping him?