Indulgences, the Treasury of Merit and the Communion of Saints

 By Bryan Cross 

What is the basis for the “treasury of merit” and indulgences? These can be explained in the following ten steps.

 (1) On Judgment Day, every man will be judged and recompensed for each of his thoughts, words, and deeds, whether good or evil. “For we must all appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Cor 5:10) “[E]ach will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” (1 Cor 3:8) “With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.” (Eph 6:8-9) “I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.” (Rev 2:23) “[L]et the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and let the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.” (Rev 22:11-12)

(2) Some persons, by grace and agape, store up treasure in heaven. “But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” (Matt 6:20; cf. Rev 19:8) This is not a material treasure, but a treasure of merit, and it is made possible only by grace. The ability of any righteous man to merit anything comes from the merit of Christ. “It is a defined article of the Catholic Faith that man before, in, and after justification derives his whole capability of meriting and satisfying, as well as his actual merits and satisfactions, solely from the infinite treasure of merits which Christ gained for us on the Cross.”1 So all the merit of the saints is in this way merited by Christ.

(3) There is a communion of the saints, (1 Cor. 12, Job 1:5, Col. 1:24, Apostles’ Creed) by which we can aid one another in the Body of Christ through our prayers and sacrifices. All who are joined to Christ by sanctifying grace (and thus are sharers in His divine life) are united into one society by their participation in the one divine life. In the section on the “Communion of saints” in his Sermon-Conferences on the Apostles’ Creed, St. Thomas Aquinas explains this as follows:

Just as in a physical body the operation of one member redounds to the good of the whole body, so it works in a spiritual body, that is to say, in the Church. Since all the faithful are one body, the good of one is communicated to another. Paul writes: “Thus, we who are many are one body in Christ,] individuals, yet members one of the other” [Rom 12:5]. Thus, among other matters which should be believed that the apostles handed down, there remains the communion of goods in the Church. This [doctrine] is called “the communion of saints.” Among all the other members of the Church, however, the principal member is Christ, for He is the Head of the Church: “[And] He put down everything under His feet, and] He put himself as Head over the whole Church, which is His Body, [the fullness of Him who fulfills everything in everyone]” (Eph. [1:22-23]). Therefore the good of Christ is communicated to all Christians, as the wisdom of the Head is communicated to all the members. This communion comes about through the sacraments of the Church, in which the strength of the passion of Christ for conferring grace and for forgiving sins operates.

(4) The treasury of merit consists of the superabundant merits of Christ, as well as the merits of the saints; the treasury of merit is one because of the communion of saints in the Body, Christ being the Head.2 The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following about the treasury of merit:

We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury, which is “not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy. This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission in the unity of the Mystical Body.” (CCC 1476-1477)

(5) The injustice of sin has a two-fold directionality (both away from God, and toward a created good), which entails two sorts of debts of punishment, the former eternal, and the latter temporal, as I explained in more detail in “this section of “St. Thomas Aquinas on Penance.”

(6) Merit cannot be transferred, but meritorious acts can make satisfaction for another, by giving to God a gift of greater value than what was taken by the sin. This is how Christ’s own actions in His passion and death made satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. (See “Catholic and Reformed Conceptions of the Atonement.”) But it is also the way the meritorious acts of the saints can make satisfaction for others’ debt of temporal punishment. St. Thomas writes, “All the saints intended that whatever they did or suffered for God’s sake should be profitable not only to themselves but to the whole Church.”3

(7) Christ gave the power of the keys to St. Peter (Matthew 16:19), by which the Magisterium of the Church, as Christ’s authorized representative (in persona Christi, ἐν προσώπῳ Χριστοῦ [2 Cor 2:10]), can forgive sins (John 20:23) through the merit and satisfaction of Christ’s Passion. Pope Clement VI (1291 – 1352) wrote, “Upon the altar of the Cross Christ shed of His blood not merely a drop, though this would have sufficed, by reason of the union with the Word, to redeem the whole human race, but a copious torrent. . . thereby laying up an infinite treasure for mankind. This treasure He neither wrapped up in a napkin nor hid in a field, but entrusted to Blessed Peter, the key-bearer, and his successors, that they might, for just and reasonable causes, distribute it to the faithful in full or in partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.”4

(8) The debt of eternal punishment is forgiven only by the merits of Christ. This follows from the Council of Trent, which taught, “If anyone asserts that this sin of Adam … is taken away … by any remedy other than the merit of the one mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ …”5 In other words, the translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam to the state of grace and of the “adoption of the sons” of God through the second Adam, is only by the merit of Christ. And if a person falls from grace by way of mortal sin, his restoration to a state of sanctifying grace is again only by the merit of Christ. No saint can make satisfaction for anyone’s justification.

(9) The debt of temporal punishment for sins committed after baptism “must be expiated either on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and calamities of this life and above all through death, or else in the life beyond through fire and torments or “purifying” punishments.”6 That is because as explained in the first paragraph above, every sin must be recompensed, both in its vertical dimension against God and in its horizontal dimension against other creatures. It might seem that since Christ’s passion made sufficient satisfaction for all sins, therefore no debt of temporal punishment remains. That is true for baptism, but not for penance, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains here.

(10) The Church, by the authorization of Christ, and through the communion of saints, can draw from the one treasury of merit and satisfaction to reduce or remove the debt of temporal punishment for anyone united to the Body through sanctifying grace. And that is just what an indulgence is:

An indulgence is a remission before God 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 treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.7

St. Thomas says, “He who gains indulgences is not thereby released outright from what he owes as penalty, but is provided with the means of paying it.”8 It is salutary to make use of the treasury of merit for the debt of temporal punishment; it is even better to be a depositor, storing up treasure in heaven.

  1. Catholic Encyclopedia article on ‘Merit.’ cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, cap. xvi; Sess. XIV, cap. viii. []
  2. Protestantism’s extra nos notion of imputation and denial of venial sin does not allow it to acknowledge a treasury of merits to which saints have contributed, as I explained here. []
  3. Quodlib., II, q. vii, art. 16. []
  4. Corpus Juris. Extrav. Com., lib. V, tit. ix. c. ii. []
  5. Session V. []
  6. Indulgentarium Doctrina. See the footnotes at the link for the supporting evidence for this doctrine. []
  7. CCC 1471. []
  8. Supplement.25.1 ad 2um. []