A Mormon Discusses Indulgences
An Associated Press article of July 19, 2013, reported that the Vatican was offering “indulgences” to Catholics who joined in the spirit of the Pope’s World Youth Day appearance in Rio de Janeiro by participating on social media.
- Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, warned Friday that merely checking the pope’s Twitter feed won’t result in an indulgence, the ancient (Catholic) church tradition related to the forgiveness of sins that roughly amounts to a “get out of Purgatory free” card.
- Rather, Celli told The Associated Press, a Catholic seeking an indulgence for participating in Rio either physically or virtually must truly be contrite and have a moment of deepening faith….
- The Vatican earlier this month announced, as it does ahead of every World Youth Day, that participants in the July 22-28 Rio edition would be eligible for indulgences. The criteria are tough: Catholics in Rio must go to confession, receive Communion, pray and “be truly contrite.”
- But in a blending of new technology with old theology, the decree approved by Pope Francis specified that even people who couldn’t make it to Rio could be eligible for a partial indulgence. The same conditions must be met, but sinners following the Rio event can score an indulgence by participating “spiritually” and following the events on “television, radio or, always with the necessary devotion, via new means of social communication.” 
What Are Indulgences?
Catholics and members of some other Christian faiths believe in both temporal (temporary) and eternal punishment and suffering for sins. Temporal suffering may occur here on earth as a natural consequence of sin or in “purgatory,” a place or condition after death but before judgment. Most Catholics consider purgatory not to be a place of temporary suffering for the truly wicked, but for those who are not yet sufficiently purified to enter God’s presence. An “indulgence” shortens or does away with this temporary punishment or suffering. Two aspects of indulgences touch the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often inadvertently called the Mormon Church) first, that there is a space between death and final judgment during which spirits can make decisions, repent, and learn, and second, that the prayers and good deeds of the living may influence the temporal situation of the dead.
There was a time in the history of the Catholic Church when indulgences were sold for money, first to the living, and then on behalf of the dead.
- In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The aggressive marketing practices of Johann Tetzel in promoting this cause provoked Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses, condemning what he saw as the purchase and sale of salvation. 
Abuses abounded during the sale of indulgences, and they soon became associated with complete forgiveness of sins and a ticket into heaven. Certain members of religious orders “falsely claimed that they were authorized by the pope to forgive all sorts of sins, and exacted money from the simple-minded among the faithful by promising them perpetual happiness in this world and eternal glory in the next.”  Although decried by leaders of the Catholic Church, the obviously unholy practice of essentially selling salvation not only peeved Martin Luther, but launched the Protestant Reformation. The practice of selling indulgences was later banned by the Catholic Church. Now, acts of kindness, penance, and confession are required in order to receive an indulgence.
Confession and Penance vs. Confession and Repentance
Certain practices of Catholics make the idea of indulgences seem logical — the emphasis on confession as the most important aspect of repentance, and the idea of penance. Penance, once a sin is confessed to the proper authority, involves assigned tasks that turn a person back toward God and good behavior. Penance may include reciting certain prayers a prescribed number of times and other tasks, possibly not related to the nature of the sin or the natural consequences of that sin.
In Mormonism, the process of repentance is different. Minor sins may be confessed to God in private prayer and meditation, while more serious sins (both religions differentiate between minor and serious sins) must be confessed to one’s bishop (congregational leader) and possibly to higher leaders. No Mormon leader absolves a person of sin, nor will a Mormon leader make any promise concerning what will happen in the spirit world. But a Mormon leader can help a person through the repentance process and (as moved upon by the Spirit) restore the ability to once again partake of the sacrament (Eucharist) and enter a Mormon temple, and can also restore lost priesthood.
Confession in Mormonism comes after the recognition that one has sinned, righteous regret for one’s actions, and the desire to repent. These are the initial steps in a Mormon’s repentance process. There is no concept of “penance” in Mormonism. Instead, the next step is to make restitution to people injured by the sin to the point that this is possible, and then to forsake the behavior, and from then on to keep God’s commandments, thus reconciling with God. In some serious cases, disfellowshipment or excommunication becomes part of this process, with an eye to a complete return to fellowship and righteous living. Prayer is an important part of repentance, as it can be a difficult spiritual journey. This is especially true because a baptized member of The Church of Jesus Christ enjoys the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, and once a serious sin is committed, the Spirit departs, leaving the person alone for a time.
The Catholic Concept of Purgatory and the Mormon Concept of the Spirit World
As mentioned above, Catholics view purgatory as a place where the essentially righteous are refined in preparation for resurrection and salvation into a place of glory in heaven. This idea is based on ancient truth, in which part of that truth has been lost over the millennia. Because Mormons have modern prophets to guide them, and these prophets receive truths through revelation, Mormons know more about the space between death and resurrection.
Late Mormon prophet Joseph F. Smith received a revelation about the “Spirit World,” the place we go when we die to await resurrection and judgment. There are two basic areas in the Spirit World Paradise (for the righteous) and Spirit Prison (for the wicked and those who have never received the gospel of Jesus Christ. Leading up to this revelation, the Prophet had been studying certain verses in the Holy Bible —
- I opened the Bible and read the third and fourth chapters of the first epistle of Peter, and as I read I was greatly impressed, more than I had ever been before, with the following passages: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” (1 Peter 3:18–20). (See Doctrine and Covenants 138:6-9.)
As he pondered on these verses, he wondered how Christ could have visited the spirit world and taught there in just three short days, the time that His body lay in the tomb. A vision opened up to him wherein he saw the spirits of the dead. The righteous were rejoicing that the time of their resurrection was nigh. Prophet Smith saw that Jesus did not visit Spirit Prison Himself, but that He called and set apart missionaries to Spirit Prison, many of them having been great prophets and disciples during their earthly lives. The doctrine behind this is that God "levels the playing field" for all of His children after death, thus providing every single one of them the opportunity to hear the gospel, repent, and lay hold of saving ordinances performed for them on earth by those still living in mortality—
- And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
- And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets.
- And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit….
- Among the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous were Father Adam, the Ancient of Days and father of all, And our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages and worshiped the true and living God. (See Doctrine and Covenants 138:29 – 39.)
Mormon doctrine holds that those who reject the Savior in the Spirit World, some of whom are hearing of Him for the first time, and others who have already rejected Him on earth, must suffer for their own sins in the Spirit World. This suffering can be called Hell, but it is temporary. Said the Savior:
- For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-19).
It is fairly easy to see the similarities between the revealed doctrine and truths regarding the Spirit World and what happens there, and the concept of “purgatory.” Only the Lord, however, can judge us in the Spirit World, whether to absolve us or condemn us — no earthly authority has the ability to do that, although the Lord has lain out in scripture the rewards for what we have done and who we have become on earth:
- There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated— And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated (Doctrine and Covenants 130:20, 21).
Mormon doctrine teaches that after our sojourn in the Spirit World, where we may also enjoy the companionship of our deceased loved ones, nearly all of us will be resurrected and assigned to a kingdom of glory in heaven. A vision of the three degrees of glory (1 Corinthians 15:40-42) was granted to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. The vision was clear in defining who will inherit the kingdoms of heaven. Only Satan, his minions, and those who have seen Christ and then denied Him (called “the sin against the Holy Ghost”) will be cast into hell, also called Outer Darkness.
What a loving plan this is. We are grateful for modern revelation, which has cast more light on our knowledge of the afterlife. Because of it, nearly all of God's children can look forward to life after death with a perfect brightness of hope.