As I wrote about in a recent post, I have increasingly taken to thinking of the Faith in the terms of Idealism (while also being wary of attempts to then distinguish between the "really real" and the "constructed real" given that Idealism properly understood admits of no reality outside construction; Prime Matter is nothing but pure potentiality until a Form is read into it).
One insight this helped me to make was in understanding the concept of Temporal Punishment. It is the teaching of the Church, of course, that even after a sin is forgiven (especially, after the eternal punishment of a mortal sin has been absolved..."temporal" punishment is still due to God's justice in this life or the next (ie, Purgatory).
However, the exact nature of temporal punishment, or how exactly it was said to occur even in this life, has been rather unclear or poorly explained I think. And yet this is part of the meaning of "temporal," after all. Although something like Hell as regards suffering, and something like Heaven in the sense that it is without the possibility of further merit or sin with salvation guaranteed, Purgatory is clearly most analogous to something like an extension of the "trajectory" of this earthly life, seeing as it is not an eternal state but a temporal state.
But what exactly is temporal punishment to be identified with? Many popular apologetics sources make an analogy to the wound that is left after a nail is removed, or the fact that a window still needs to be repaired even after you have apologized and been forgiven for breaking it. In other words, the temporal "consequences" of sin. Of course, however, the consequences referred to must needs be conceived of as spiritual (though that doesn't exclude things like needing to repair a window, as hopefully my explanation will show!)
But analogies like a wound left after something is removed I think are lacking. For one, they seem to imply that temporal punishment can be equated with concupiscence. Obviously, that is one "intrinsic" spiritual consequence of sin that remains after sin has been forgiven: even after the habit of sanctifying grace and infused virtue has been restored, through sinning we may still have inclined ourselves towards sin. A person who rages and then goes to confession won't suddenly have their wrath under perfect control, and neither will the perpetual porn user with their lust. Fuel is added to the fires of concupiscence, the passions are stirred up and disordered, by sin.
But this is not temporal punishment. The relationship between venial sin, mortal sin, temporal punishment, concupiscence, sanctifying grace, and virtue is something to be further reflected on, but it is clear that temporal punishment itself is not to be identified with concupiscence. It is popular nowadays to speak of purgatory almost as if it is primarily a cleansing of concupiscence, but this is not terribly traditional. Traditional theological texts speak of venial sin and temporal punishment as being the two objects of purgatory; concupiscence itself may end with death, nor is there any increase in virtue or merit. What's left are any deliberate acts of venial sin (which is different in nature and not just degree from mortal) and temporal punishment.
But then what is this temporal punishment? Traditional sources speak of it as a "debt" owed to God's justice. That even after one has been forgiven, restored to grace and saved from Hell (in the case of mortal sin), or sufficiently detached from some inordinate attachment to a created good and reoriented towards God with fully lustrous virtue (in the case of venial sin)...God still demands satisfaction, demands to punish us, to have us suffer, for the sake of His Justice.
This seems a rather hard teaching! For it seems very "extrinsic" and we are used to teachings being parsed nowadays as "intrinsic" (and, I think, rightly so). So, we now hear, God doesn't send people to Hell, it's the logical outcome of the nature of their own choice, etc. Yet here we are being told that God is punishing even after restoration to grace or detachment. What does this mean? Is there a way to phrase this "intrinsically"?
I was thinking about indulgences the other day and I had an interesting thought. I was also thinking about the concept of "imminent justice" which is essentially the notion that if a bad thing happens to a bad person (especially if it is a direct result of their sin), then this can be seen as a playing out of God's justice (and likewise good things happening to good people). On the other hand, when good things happen to bad people or, especially, bad things to good people...this is simply the mystery of iniquity.
This is where my notions of Idealism and construction come in. To me here, clearly, we are seeing meaning read into things. But this is not invalid. After all, "causation" itself is clearly a mental category, a metaphysical category. In a purely phenomenological analysis...things just happen, one after the other. Attributing "cause" and "effect" to an event that follows another, is a qualitative concept that exists in minds (albeit, that includes the mind of God). When we draw a line, then, between sin and suffering...we are reading a causation into it, a causation based on a notion of divine justice. Again, especially when we're talking about the workings of Providence, about the level of Final cause, there is no way to falsify this or say it is invalid. However, we ought to be very careful about making this judgment regarding other people. We don't know what is in the mind of God, and bad things happen to good people to in order to increase their merit.
But, the point is, "constructing" such a connection between sin and suffering is not invalid. In fact, reading such a causal relationship into things is perfectly natural. And though it is dangerous to draw this connection for others whose soul we cannot read, it is perfectly legitimate and necessary to see it for ourselves. There is obviously nothing wrong with a murderer, even after confession, seeing his prosecution and imprisonment (or even execution) as his just-deserts for murder. But, I would argue, there is likewise nothing wrong or superstitious with him feeling the same Justice, the same Wrath of God, in his house being struck by lightning and burning down (even though, on the order of material causation, there is no significant connection between that and the murder).
Even though his eternal punishment has been forgiven (inasmuch as, by appeal to the blood of Christ through the minister of the community He established, he has been restored to grace, to ultimately orientation or harmony with the Supreme Meaning)...I think that this causal construction of suffering with sin is what we mean by "temporal punishment." The meaning of our sufferings change after sin. Maybe his house was going to be struck by lightning and burn down either way, but the meaning of this event is radically changed in view of the murder he committed. If he had been an innocent man, it would have been the mystery of iniquity, a trial from which he could merit. But, in view of the murder, the meaning of this suffering becomes punishment, becomes satisfaction for the sin, becomes an outcome of divine justice for the offense (even though the meaning of his life as a whole has been restored to grace).
This, I think, is how we are to understand temporal punishment (in this life especially, but it is analogous in the next). It also explains how an indulgence can, by the application of the merits of Christ and the supererogatory merits of the saints, remit this temporal punishment. And how a plenary indulgence can exist even when someone (as long as they are detached from sin) can truly remit all temporal punishment even when a person still has a lot of ascetic and prayerful work to do in terms of taming the passions and growing in virtue for the sake of greater merit and holiness. The causality in remitting temporal punishment works in a different way than how Christ's passion and death enable the forgiveness of eternal punishment, hence the two-step process.
Because temporal punishment is not concupiscence or the fact that virtue loses something of its lustre through sin. Instead, the remission is something more like deconstructing the connection between past sins and future sufferings, severing the causal line drawn. Although full penance is always good both for ascetic purposes and satisfying divine justice, an indulgence is the Church (who has that authority) declaring that the meaning of future sufferings is no longer to be connected to past sins (or, at least, lessening the degree of that connection) through invoking instead the superabundant satisfaction of Christ and the saints (who suffered even without deserving it) and "diverting" the inevitable connection of a person's sin (and, indeed, the very concept of sin demands that someone suffer for it; it can never simply be waved away without being "resolved") to this supererogatory suffering and satisfaction instead.