I must admit that this was the last and most difficult doctrine for me to understand. In fact, I’ve only understood it for a couple of months. As an Anglican, I always held the doctrine of the Treasury of Merit and Indulgences as a major obstacle to Rome. In fact, when Catholics asked, “Why not just become Catholic?” I would usually ask them about indulgences and the treasury of merit and watch them back down. It seems that even Catholics are confused about these teachings and may even be a little embarrassed of them. Luther. Tetzel. Catholics don’t want to go there.
And so it was my “get out of jail free” card. The “ridiculous” doctrine of the Treasury of Merit was something that enabled me to remain Anglican in good conscience. As I began to seriously pray about becoming Roman Catholic I still had a major objection to the Treasury of Merit. It seemed so obviously medieval and late. I saw no Scriptural basis. I decided that if the rest of Catholicism was consistent, this doctrine must fit the system, even if I didn’t understand it. So I decided to move forward and accept it as an act of the will.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this about the Treasury of Merit:
1476 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.”
1477 “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.”
After I made plans to be received into the Church, I was reading in the New Testament and crossed these words that I had read and heard hundreds of times:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.
The word “treasures” jumped off the page. Christ is teaching that we can indeed store up “treasure in heaven.” Everytime we do something good for God, we “lay up treasure in Heaven.” And thus there is truly a treasury of good deeds in Heaven.
And if we are full of charity in Heaven, then we would be willing to share this treasury with all, even our brethren not yet in Heaven. And thus we find that the gracious acts of Christ and all the Saints are indeed laid up in Heaven and can be shared.
The doctrine of the indulgences flows from this understanding. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1471 “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.”
An indulgence is therefore a sharing in those treasures “laid up in Heaven.”
It should be stated that the eternal guilt of a sinner is propitiated by the death of Christ alone. The Catholic Church does not teach that indulgences can get you out of Hell or save you. But the progressive sanctification of a Christian is accomplished by cooperation of the Christian with Christ in union with the whole Church. Indulgences do not affect whether we are saved, but once in a state of grace, the graces received through indulgences do assist us as we journey in holiness and Christian perfection.