Plenary indulgences

Question: Can a specific deceased person receive the benefits of indulgences? In the case of a plenary indulgence (though difficult to obtain) this would seem to ensure a quick exit to heavenly glory. Personally, I have assumed such things are in the hands of God.

Joanne Capone, via email

Answer: Indulgences certainly can be applied to a specific individual and often are. Theoretically a plenary indulgence could fully loose a person from purgatory. But as you point out, they are difficult to obtain, and only God can fully know their impact and apply it accordingly.

The wording of your question hints at the possible objection that indulgences of this sort take the matter out of God’s hands to some degree. But this is not so. The notion of indulgence is simply based in God extending or magnifying his mercy in a certain case as a result of prayer. Prayer changes things.

But this is not an intrusion into God’s sovereignty since he, himself, set up the “economy of salvation” in this way. He is pleased that we pray and beseech him for our many needs. And indeed, some of his gifts presuppose that we ask for them.

The Book of James says, “You have not because you ask not” (4:2).

Further, God is not surprised by what we ask. He always has known what we will ask and eternally has set forth his providence based on that knowledge. Thus, nothing is being taken out of God’s hands.

The Incarnation

Question: At the Catholic University of Rome, it was reported that stem cells from a child remain in the mother up to 30 years after she gives birth. Would this imply that Mary physically shared in the Incarnation?

Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, New York

Answer: It depends on what “physically shared” means. Obviously, Mary shared in the Incarnation by supplying the basic genetic matter from which Jesus took his humanity. But if “physically shared” means that Mary’s person was synonymous in any way with the Incarnation, the answer is no. Jesus is a distinct (and divine) person, and Mary is a distinct person. Further, individual cells from a person are not the person, but merely parts or aspects of the person. Thus one cannot hold that Mary, or any mother for that matter, carry their children within them after the child has been born.

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Question: Are the people who commit suicide doomed? Should we pray for them?

Hugh Sweeney, Stoneham, Massachusetts

Answer: While suicide is a grave sin, objectively speaking, the culpability (blameworthiness) of an individual can be reduced, even to a minimum, by severe mental anguish or mental illness that affects their freedom or ability to carefully reflect on what they are doing. Thus, it is proper to pray for those who die by suicide. Physician-assisted suicide is, however, a growing area where many may actually incur full mortal sin by arranging their own death. Presumably, they reflect over a significant period of time and freely plan and execute their own death in violation of the teachings of the Church. Regarding these types of suicides, it is reasonable to be concerned they are, as you term it, “doomed.” Still, we should always pray!

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to