The Basics on Indulgences

Holy Rosary

Holy Rosary

Indulgences! The very name stirs up emotions about Martin Luther and the initial cause of the Reformation. While the Council of Trent way back in the sixteenth century corrected some local German abuses about the selling of indulgences, the Catholic Church has never done away with granting indulgences. Selling holy things, like indulgences, is the sin of simony, and is strictly forbidden. The confusion came about during Luther’s time when a priest was promising that souls would be freed from Purgatory if alms were given to help rebuild the Vatican. Almsgiving has always been a holy thing–the Bible even talks about the relationship between almsgiving and the remission of sin:

  • Tobit 12:9: “For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fullness of life.”
  • Sirach 3:30: “Water extinguishes a blazing fire: so almsgiving atones for sin.”
  • Luke 12:23: “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.”
  • Acts 10:1-4: “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.  About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ And he stared at him in terror, and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ And he said to him, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.'”

Unfortunately, as a result of the Reformation and the “selling of indulgences,” most priests and bishops never talk from the pulpit about the importance of receiving indulgences, or of Purgatory, either. However, it is official Church doctrine that the faithful can and should try to receive all of the indulgences in this life that they can, because they will mitigate and maybe eliminate a lot of pain and suffering of Purgatory.

What Are Indulgences?

So what are indulgences anyway? From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.

In other words, indulgences are basically spiritual credits from the sacred storehouse that is the Catholic Church, for the reduction of Purgatory time after the sin has been forgiven in confession, to be used by the Church Militant (us here on earth) or the Church Suffering (the poor souls in Purgatory). I discussed the biblical basis of Purgatory in an earlier article, available here. Purgatory is basically the abode of the dead who are already saved (instead of damned), but who are not yet perfected. The Bible talks about Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison in 1 Peter 3:19; those spirits are obviously not the damned, because preaching to them would do no good, since the damned are in Hell forever. This temporary place of suffering in the Old Testament was known as Hades, or Sheol. According to Revelation 20:13-14, it is still here and will be until the end of time. Saints throughout history have offered up their sufferings, mortifications, alms, and good works to God and His Church as spiritual capital, and put them into the Church’s spiritual storage house for our later withdrawal. It is all there for OUR benefit. The Church also teaches that we can add our present sufferings to this repository, by “offering it (our suffering) up.” Paul talks about this in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” We know that in reality nothing is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, but here Paul means to say that His sufferings are lacking only in the sense that ours can be added to His, in the imitation of Christ.

Two Components to Sin

The Bible and the Church teach that sin has 2 components: the guilt of the sin, and the temporal punishment for the sin. The best example of this in Scripture is in 2 Samuel 12:13-14 when Nathan told David that God had forgiven his sin of killing Uriah and stealing his wife Bathsheeba, but that his punishment would be the death of his son. And even though David’s sin was forgiven, God also said the sword would never leave the House of David, as a result. We see this with David’s son Absalom trying to kill him later on. Adam and Eve were also forgiven for their sin, but they had to endure the temporal punishment of toiling in the sun and the pain of childbirth. Paul was forgiven for his sins against the Church, but had to undergo a lot of suffering as a result of those sins.

Of the two components, guilt is the most important component, because if the guilt isn’t removed (going to confession is the best way to have that removed), then the punishment could be permanent (in Hell), not temporal (in Purgatory). This guilt and punishment concept is also true in the secular world: if you wreck someone’s car, the owner can forgive you, but you still owe the debt of fixing his car, and you may face jail time as well.

The “Good” Thief Example

The most famous biblical example of someone getting a plenary indulgence is when Jesus, from the cross in Luke 23:43, gave the Good Thief (known in tradition as St. Dismas) complete remission for his sins, promising him that he would be in paradise that day. This happened after the Good Thief expressed remorse for his sins and his belief in Jesus as the Messiah. He also underwent a lot of suffering on his cross for his sins before the indulgence was granted by Christ. This power of binding and loosing sins, guilt, and punishment was given to the Church by Jesus, in Matthew 18:18, when he said: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” “Whatever” means anything, including the forgiveness of sins, guilt of sins, and punishment for sins.

Partial and Plenary Indulgences

There are two levels of indulgences, plenary (full remission of punishment), and partial (partial remission of punishment). To gain a plenary indulgence, you must fulfill all of the following conditions:

  • Perform the indulgenced act;
  • Have gone to confession 20 days before or after the indulgenced act;
  • Pray for the Pope and his intentions;
  • Go to Holy Communion 20 days before or after the indulgenced act (though most fittingly on the same day);
  • Have no attachment to sin (one must pray daily for this. Having an attachment to sin is not ever sinning again, but rather, to keep on repeating the same sin over and over, with no intent of ever giving it up);
  • Ask God for the indulgence when it is performed.

If all of the above conditions are not met, then you can get a partial indulgence. Any indulgence can be applied either to you or a dead loved one, based on your request. Only God knows the partialness of the indulgence. It may be plenary, or 90% or 50% or 20% remission. For sure, if we wind up in Purgatory when we die, we would want as many indulgences as possible. Some saints have told us that an hour in Purgatory is worse than a lifetime of suffering here on earth. A great sacrifice to make is to always offer up whatever your indulgence may be for the poor souls in Purgatory. This way, when those poor souls are released into Heaven, they will pray non-stop for you and your petitions.

There are four basic ways to get a plenary indulgence:

  • Visit the Blessed Sacrament for 30 minutes or more;
  • Say a public rosary (with family or in church) out loud (or in a whisper);
  • Read and meditate on scripture for 30 minutes;
  • Make the Stations of the Cross

There are other acts that carry a plenary indulgence, but these are less likely to be encountered, e.g. visiting a patriarchal basilica in Rome on its feast day, visiting a cemetery in the week after All Saints Day, or attending a Eucharistic Congress. Some ways to get partial indulgences are to say prayers during the day, give alms to the poor (or perform any spiritual or corporal works of mercy), abstaining from something that you find pleasurable (food, cigarettes, liquor, air conditioning, TV shows, etc.), visiting a cemetery and praying for the souls there at any time, adoring the Blessed Sacrament in Church for a short time, wearing a crucifix/scapular/medal around the neck, or reading the Bible for a short time. A complete list of indulgenced actions are here.

Pay Now, or Pay Later

We should all start today to get all of the indulgences we possibly can. None of us are guaranteed a tomorrow. And no one needs to die with all of the temporal punishment for all of their sins yet to be paid. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross opened the door to Heaven for us all, which had been closed since the sin of Adam and Eve; but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still something we need to do for our part to accept God’s gift of forgiveness and renew our relationship with God. Otherwise, why did Jesus give his priests the power to forgive individual sins in John 20:21ff, AFTER the crucifixion? Making a good confession (removing the guilt) combined with getting an indulgence (removing the temporal punishment) is the answer. A good analogy would be when one steps on a rusty nail. Getting the rusty nail out is the primary objective (that would be like going to confession). But the body is now infected from the rust, so a tetanus shot is also needed to remove the infection from the rest of the suffering body (that would be like getting the indulgence).

And even if one is hesitant to believe in the power of indulgences, going before the Blessed Sacrament for 30 minutes, or reading Scripture for 30 minutes, is certainly very beneficial to one’s soul!

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5 thoughts on “The Basics on Indulgences”

  1. christopherschaefer

    Note that “temporal” is not ‘defined’ in terms of Purgatory, since “time” as WE experience it is a human invention. This is why the old system of giving indulgences that had a number of days affixed was done away with, because people often mistakenly thought that’s how many “days” would be “deducted” from purgatory. The “days” in the former system ACTUALLY referred to an equivalence of time spent performing penitential acts, prescribed in ancient canons. A very detailed explanation and history can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

  2. Birgit Atherton Jones

    Thank you for clearly instructing your readers on a topic that has been neglected far too long. I’m sharing it with my family and friends.

  3. And even if one is hesitant to believe in the power of indulgences, going before the Blessed Sacrament for 30 minutes, or reading Scripture for 30 minutes, is certainly very beneficial to one’s soul!

    Brilliant, Ray. ( seriously ) Thank you for breaking on through the fog.

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