Let’s do a little experiment. If I say the word “Indulgence” what (or who) comes to mind? If you don’t think of chocolate, I’m going to bet a lot of folks think of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. When the topic of Indulgences came up in my own life, that’s where my mind went. The infamous 95 theses nailed to the door of the church. It seems like the only thing people remember about the Reformation is the sale of indulgences.
As a result, the topic of indulgences is probably one of the most misunderstood (and criticized) in all of the Catholic Church. I hope to add a bit of clarity surrounding our view of indulgences and I pray that some good will come from it. I want to be clear at the outset, that I am by no means an expert in the matter. I want to share what I have found in my own research and study because I believe we are leaving graces on the table.
The main resource that I will refer to is the Handbook of Indulgences, previously titled the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum. It’s a relatively short book that basically has all of the details on indulgences in the Catholic Church. If you ask me, it should probably be on every Catholic family’s bookshelf, and referred to frequently. We’ll see why in a bit. First, we need to get some definitions.
So, what even is an indulgence? According to the Handbook: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.” For a short definition, there’s a lot to unpack there. A remission is the cancellation of a debt. So in our case, our sin has created a debt, or temporal punishment, that must be paid. An indulgence cancels that debt. Wonderful! Now, I know what you may be thinking here – isn’t that what confession is for? As you might guess, the two are closely related.
Both confession and indulgences address the consequences of sin. As the Catechism states, “To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence.” CCC 1472. Eternal punishment and temporal punishment.
“Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin.” That should make sense – grave, or mortal, sin severs our relationship with God. The final result of that is Hell, or eternal punishment as the Catechism puts it. The Catechism further teaches that “the forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains.” In other words, the Sacrament of Confession saves us from eternal punishment, but not necessarily from temporal punishment. Why not from temporal punishment? Here’s why: “Every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin.”
To summarize, Confession might save us from Hell, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re ready to be in Heaven. The fact that we must go to Confession regularly, and that we often struggle with the same sins proves this point. While through Confession our sins are forgiven, it doesn’t “fix” us. We’re sinful creatures with a fallen nature which must be restored. We must be made ready to withstand the Beatific Vision. The Catechism goes so far to say that “the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace.” And, what a grace indeed! What bride would not want to be made ready for her bridegroom.
Therefore, indulgences can reduce or eliminate our time (or other’s time) in Purgatory. And now, we get to the two kinds of indulgences that you may have heard of: plenary and partial. “An indulgence is either plenary or partial, that is, it frees a person either from all or from some of the temporal punishment due to sins.” With all of this, it’s fair to wonder: who is to say that the Church even has this power to grant indulgences? How can the Church grant remission? There are actually quite a few Scripture passages that you can turn to, but we have Christ’s own words to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Mt 16:19
Alright, we’ve covered what an indulgence is and what it does, but how do we actually get them? Simply put, an indulgence is attached to some prescribed work. The remission of punishment is the result of an action that we take. The official term for the work associated with indulgences is a grant. And, there are actually a good number of grants for partial indulgences: reciting certain prayers (many of them common like the Sign of the Cross), litanies, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the renewal of our Baptismal promises, works of charity and mercy, abstaining from some pleasure (or fasting), and even raising our minds to God in the daily duties and difficulties of life. As you can see, these grants range in what I might call intensity. Many of these grants are things we do regularly, even multiple times on a daily basis. Gaining the partial indulgence could be seen as a matter of intent.
Understandably, there’s a bit more to plenary indulgences. But first, grants for plenary indulgences include: Visiting a cemetery from November 1st through the 8th, Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday, attending the first Mass of newly ordained priests, even saying the Rosary and Stations of the Cross.
The Rosary and Stations might stick out to you here. It’s a good lead in to the massive asterisk next to these grants. A plenary indulgence is only gained when the prescribed work is done and along with three (really four) other conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion, and prayer for the Pope’s intentions. At first glance, these might just seem like a few more tasks to tack on to obtain this grace, but from these conditions, we can learn a lot about the state we must be in to gain a plenary indulgence. It’s not as easy as just checking off boxes. Obviously we need to be baptized, in a state of grace, in communion with the Church, and received the Eucharist that day. Plus, the fourth condition, that is probably the biggest kicker, is complete detachment from sin. If you ask me, the last condition is really the linchpin. Detachment from sin is a disposition, it’s internal, it’s truly known only to God. It’s the part of this that we won’t know until all is said and done. But regardless, the beauty is that if the conditions are not met fully, it just means the indulgence is partial.
Before I wrap up with some of my own thoughts, I want to point out one final and really amazing detail: not only can we gain indulgences and remit our own temporal punishment, but we can apply indulgences to souls in Purgatory. How amazing! Think of all those men and women who have gone before us, friends, family, complete strangers. What a tremendous opportunity! And, it’s something that we would certainly hope for should we find ourselves in Purgatory.
Alright, so where does that leave us? You may be thinking that it all sounds too good to be true, or like magical spells, or just plain weird. Here’s how I tend to think of it. We pray, fast, and offer sacrifices all the time. Sometimes for ourselves, sometimes for others. Indulgences give us a framework and a way to describe what’s actually happening when we take those actions and a way to approach them. Take for example committing to a daily Rosary. Even if we never quite make it to plenary level status, think of the impact of praying the Rosary for souls in Purgatory. Who knows how powerful that can be!
Furthermore, it presents us with an ideal to strive for. As I mentioned, complete detachment from sin is not something to quickly gloss over. God willing, all of us will reach that level of detachment in our lifetimes, but honestly, many people won’t. Understanding indulgences can help us to be more aware of what happens after we die. It can help us foster our own devotions and increase love and concern for the souls of others.
What we don’t want to do is bust out the calculator and tally up our scorecard. Only God knows what each of us owe, how partial a partial indulgence is, or whether a plenary indulgence is actually gained. We shouldn’t turn this into a numbers game. It’s an opportunity for grace, for ourselves and for others.
“In offering the gift of an indulgence, they [different grants] intend to lead the Christian faithful to perform works of devotion, charity, and penitence and to lead them by means of charity to closer union with the body of the Church and with Christ, its head.”