Church

A Primer on Indulgences, Part 1

The Church still believes in indulgences? Even after Martin Luther?

  1. What is an indulgence?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an indulgence as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (CCC 1471). Indulgences can be obtained by faithful Catholics who carry out certain pious or charitable acts specified by the Holy Father.

  1. Why would a merciful God allow “temporal punishment” for forgiven sins?

To understand what the term “temporal punishment” means in this context, we need to keep in mind that there is a distinction between receiving God’s forgiveness of our sins and the necessity of contending with our sins’ consequences. Sins are not only the breaking of God’s commandments, but are also a cause of discord in both God’s benevolent ordering of the universe as well as in his providential guidance of our lives. While our sins are truly and fully forgiven in the sacrament of penance, our souls can still suffer the spiritual damage caused by our offenses.

There are several ways we can repair this damage, or “remit the temporal punishment” that our sins deserve. For instance, we can do good works or patiently suffer the trials of life. If we are not able to properly atone for our sins in this way during the course of our time on earth, our souls would ultimately need to be healed and purified through the sufferings of purgatory.

Yet there are some saints who, through their lives of heroic patience and charity, have already done more than enough to ready their own souls for heaven. Because of this, the Church effectively has a surplus of goodness, which is referred to as the “treasury of the Church” (cf. CCC 1467). Given the Church’s doctrine on the communion of saints (the Church’s teaching that all Christians share a deep spiritual bond with each other), it is possible for one Christian’s overabundant merit to be applied to the spiritual healing of another soul still in need of purification. As the Catechism states: “In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others” (CCC 1465).

We can recall that Christ told St. Peter, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). Therefore, Catholics believe that the Holy Father, as the successor to St. Peter, has the power to distribute this excess grace to faithful Christians. An indulgence is the act through which this sharing of grace happens.

  1. Didn’t indulgences cause problems in the past?

In one form or another, indulgences have always been a valued and legitimate part of our Catholic tradition. Yet in the popular imagination, indulgences — or more specifically, the sale of indulgences — are often associated with the ecclesiastical corruption that prompted the Protestant Reformation.

Indulgences were never technically “sold,” but there were some points in history when indulgences were attached to the traditional good work of almsgiving (that is, the donation of money to support the poor or the Church’s wider mission in the world). But regrettably, this association of indulgences with material wealth often led to abuses and scandal. Consequently, as a result of the reforming Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, the Church absolutely forbid any system of granting indulgences which had even the appearance of a financial transaction.

More recently, prior to Vatican II, partial indulgences were often identified with a certain number of days. For example, a particular prayer might have had 100 days’ partial indulgence attached to it. The original intention behind this mode of quantifying indulgences was to reflect the grace that could be merited by observing a certain period of penance on earth.  Unfortunately, this convention was often misunderstood as literal “time off purgatory,” which was problematic as we know that purgatory is a state outside of time. Attaching specific lengths of time to partial indulges could also foster a tendency to “keep score” in an unhelpful way, which overshadowed the deeper spiritual meaning of indulgences.

But with the 1967 Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Pope Paul VI opted to do away with the system of counting indulgences in terms of days. While we still have partial indulgences, we now leave questions relating to the precise measurement of graces received to God’s own discretion.

  1. Are indulgences part of Catholic life today?

Yes, contemporary Catholics are encouraged to make use of opportunities for obtaining indulgences, whether for our own souls or on behalf of those who have died. In particular, the Jubilee Year of Mercy is an especially appropriate time to avail oneself of the Church’s treasury of grace. As Pope Francis tells us in Misericordiae Vultus: “To gain an indulgence is to experience the holiness of the Church, who bestows upon all the fruits of Christ’s redemption, so that God’s love and forgiveness may extend everywhere. Let us live this Jubilee intensely, begging the Father to forgive our sins and to bathe us in his merciful ‘indulgence.’”

[Editor’s note: check back for Part II, which will discuss how indulgences are obtained, especially during the Jubilee year of Mercy. Meanwhile, read how one Catholic came to better understand and seek indulgences.]

Jenna M. Cooper is a consecrated virgin of the Archdiocese of New York. She completed a licentiate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in 2014.