What are indulgences?

For some reason these days, we do not hear much about indulgences.  Although I can remember learning about them in my early education at St. Bernadette’s grade school.  Unfortunately, I think the word sometimes sparks to mind Martin Luther, the Protestant movement, and certain abuses of indulgences that existed.  Therefore, for some people indulgences are one of those “Catholic things” we have put to rest on the shelf.

Nevertheless, we do hold to the doctrine of indulgences and to the practice of granting them.  Perhaps motivated by doubts and confusion over indulgences after Vatican Council II, Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences (1967) stated, “They would appear to be solidly founded on divine Revelation, handed down from the Apostles.”  Even the Catechism has a section on indulgences.

Strictly speaking, “An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as minister of Redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints” (Norm #1).  Now, what does this mean?

We believe that when we sin, we commit a free-willed offense against God, ourselves, and our neighbor.  God in His love and mercy forgives the guilt of any sin for which we are truly sorry.  However, God in His justice requires that we expiate sin, or heal the hurt caused by sin.  We call this the temporal punishment for sin.  For example, if I damage my neighbor’s car, I can sincerely plead for forgiveness and my neighbor can genuinely forgive me; yet, I will also in justice have to pay for the repair of the car.  Well, during our life we perform penances here to expiate sin and purify our souls.  If we die with venial sins, we will expiate these sins in Purgatory.

Since sin has a communal dimension, i.e. sin affects the whole body of the Church, salvation also has a communal dimension.  This is why we pray for each other’s intentions at Mass or privately.  From the earliest days of the Church, individuals have offered prayers and good works for the salvation of sinners.  In those times when reconciliation was not complete until both confession and penance had been performed, martyrs facing death were asked by penitents for aid so that full reconciliation with the Church and re-admission to the sacraments could be obtained more speedily.

The communion of the Church, though, includes the faithful in purgatory and the saints in heaven.  These saints intercede on our behalf and pray for us.  The Treasury of the Church includes the infinite, inexhaustible value of the merits of our Lord’s death and resurrection, and the prayers and good works of the Blessed Mother and all of the saints.  Just as they aided those in the journey of salvation while living on this earth, they continue to do so now.  As the Minister of Redemption, the Church invokes their aid to help reconcile fully penitents and alleviate the temporal punishment due to sin.

Also, in the early Church, bishops allowed penances, which were oftentimes severe, to be substituted with other works (indulgences) which may have been easier to fulfill but which promoted piety and strengthened the person spiritually.  Eventually, Popes decreed that certain practices could replace imposed penances.  These practices must be performed by faithful individuals who have confessed their sins and are truly contrite; if so, then they will have totally alleviated punishment due to sin.  Note the Church has continually condemned any abuse of indulgences, and the person performing the indulgence must have a sincere, contrite, and humble heart.

An indulgence is considered plenary or partial according to whether it expiates all or part of the temporal punishment due for sin.  To gain a plenary indulgence, one must perform the work attached to the indulgence and make a sacramental confession, receive Holy Communion, and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father (reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary, or any other suitable prayer).  The conditions may be met several days before or after performing the work of the indulgence.  A partial indulgence is gained by doing the particular work sincerely.  The Enchiridion of Indulgences (1968) lists the norms and grants.

Nevertheless, we must not forget that, as Pope Paul VI asserted, the Church grants indulgences so that the faithful will expiate sins and also encourage them to do works of penance, charity, and piety, which lead to a spiritual growth and strengthening of the Church.