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Church History Forum: Popes and mistakes...

by Catherine Frakas 27 Nov 2001

Popes and mistakes... QUESTION from Alejandro October 25, 2001 Deat, Did popes ever made mistakes? If so, what happened to their holy decisions? In the middle ages we all know that some catholic priests was selling place from heaven. What do you think about this matter? I will be glad if you can answer my questions. Thank you. Alejandro
ANSWER by Q & A Staff on October 29, 2001 Dear Alejandro,
please don't think that the Popes never made mistakes or led sinful lives. You must not confuse impeccability (sinlessness) with infallibility (protection by the Holy Spirit from teaching error). Some of the popes (about half a dozen in fact) were a terrible scandal to the Church. The popes as fallen human beings are subject to the same sinful tendencies as everyone else, though we pray with each election that a holy Pope is elected. In many cases, this is in fact what happens (over 30% of popes have been canonized, and many other led very holy lives), but not always.
As regards what happens when a pope makes a mistake, please see my earlier answer . Please note that that the charism of infallibility extends only to faith and morals, and not at all to disciplinary or political decisions.
On the subject of indulgences, it would be useful first of all to learn what exactly an indulgence is and is not. An indulgence is NOT: release from the guilt of sin; permission to commit sin; nor a purchase of a place in heaven. Rather an indulgence relates to the temporal punishment that remains for sin when the guilt has been removed in the Sacrament of Confession. An indulgence has nothing whatsoever to do with the GUILT of sin, but with the TEMPORAL PUNISHMENT. And, just as the Church has been given the authority from Christ to remit the guilt and eternal punishment of sin in the Sacrament of Confession (and Baptism), so she has been given the authority to remit the temporal punishment for sin also. Again, indulgences have nothing to do with the GUILT of sin, so it is impossible to suppose that anyone could buy their way into heaven with them. This being the case, nevertheless there were abuses in the past, with certain agents selling indulgences which promised to remith both the guilt and punishment of sin. This practise was of course never approved by the Church, and was condemned, among other places, by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa at a Council of Magdeburg, Germany.
The doctrinal basis for Indulgences is based on (i) the principle of vicaious satisfaction (as recorded by St. Paul's words in Colossians 1:24
now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the Church (In other words, the sufferings of St. Paul, in union with the infinite merits of Christ, can be used to remit the temporal punishment due to the sin of others.) and on (ii) the Treasury of the Church. From the Catholic Encyclopedia: Indulgences

Christ, as St. John declares in his First Epistle (ii, 2), is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. Since the satisfaction of Christ is infinite, it constitutes an inexhaustible fund which is more than sufficient to cover the indebtedness contracted by sin, Besides, there are the satisfactory works of the Blessed Virgin Mary undiminished by any penalty due to sin, and the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints vastly exceeding any temporal punishment which these servants of God might have incurred. These are added to the treasury of the Church as a secondary deposit, not independent of, but rather acquired through, the merits of Christ. For further reading, please see also the following links: A Primer on Indulgencs
Dave Armstrong: Martin Luther, Indulgences and the origins of the Protestant Revolt
Thanks Alejandro.
God bless,
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