Indulgences Remind Us That Christians Who Seek Holiness Are Never Alone

‘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.’ (CCC 1471)

Giusto de' Menabuoi, Ceiling of the Padua Cathedral Baptistery, c. 1377
Giusto de' Menabuoi, Ceiling of the Padua Cathedral Baptistery, c. 1377 (photo: Giusto de' Menabuoi, Ceiling of the Padua Cathedral Baptistery, c. 1377 / Public Domain)

There are very few words in Christian theology that spark as much confusion and controversy as the word “indulgence,” and yet not one person in 100,000 who rejects it can accurately explain it.

The concepts of Purgatory and indulgences are inextricably linked, as the blessed in Heaven do not need our prayers. It is us, in fact, who need their prayers. The common misconception is that indulgences wipe away sins. This is flatly incorrect. The sacrament of Reconciliation does that. Instead, indulgences are a remission of the temporal punishment due for sins that have already been forgiven through sacramental confession.

The example I was taught as a child was if a nail is driven into a piece of wood, the nail could be retracted but the hole would remain. Similarly, if someone is punched in the face, breaking his nose and glasses and blackening his eye, the puncher could be truly remorseful and that remorse could drive him to the sacrament of Reconciliation through which he would surely be forgiven of his sin. Unfortunately, this does the punchee very little good. The man who was the target of the puncher’s wrath still has a bruised and broken nose, a nonfunctioning pair of glasses and a swollen eye. Is it fair to suggest that once the sinner has been forgiven in confession he has no obligations to the man he attacked? This is horrendous psychology and sociology, as well as bad theology and spirituality.

Forgiveness is assured by Christ’s sacrifice and the mediation of the Church of God’s grace, but the debt accrued by one’s sin is still present. Would Bernie Madoff, the American businessman who perpetrated the largest investor fraud ever committed in world history, stealing an estimated $50 billion, be forgiven simply because he threw himself at the mercy of the court? His actions caused the collapse of several businesses and charitable concerns and the death of his son and at least one of his investors, René-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet. Despite the horrendous evil he’s committed, including the lies, wire fraud, securities fraud, mail fraud and money laundering, would it be spiritually acceptable and theological “accurate” for Madoff to apologize while keeping the money? If he has no intention of helping those he hurt, can anyone say he is truly remorseful? If he isn’t remorseful, why bother asking for forgiveness?

Thus, indulgences themselves don’t wipe away sins. They’re not a “get-out-of-Purgatory-free card.” They are, instead, a means by which the faithful may make full amends for their sins and be inspired to a love for others — the opposite of sinfulness. Sacred Scripture backs up the need for indulgences by pointing out the pernicious and perfidious nature of sin (James 1:14-15):

But we are tempted when we are drawn away and trapped by our own evil desires. Then our evil desires conceive and give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

There are two kinds of sins humans can commit: mortal, which is a grave offense that is committed knowingly and freely, and venial. All sin is serious and “represents an unhealthy attachment to creatures,” that is, the material world, and is thus, a rejection of God.

Indulgences can be full or partial and are granted for specific good works and prayers. They are granted after the penitent has confessed and received absolution from the Church. The Church teaches that indulgences draw upon the storehouse of grace accrued by Christ’s sacrifice and the virtues and penances of all Christians — those in Heaven, in Purgatory and upon earth.

As we are united to all Christians, whether dead or alive, it is believed that the living can assist souls in Purgatory through our prayers and indulgences performed with the expressed desire to assist them. Due to revisions made during Vatican II, Pope Paul VI clarified the Church’s position of indulgences as not only a way to make amends for their sins but also to inspire the faithful to greater love of Christ but showing their sorrow for their sins. As the Pope wrote in his Indulgentarium Doctrina: “Indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God.”

The Church recognizes two types of indulgences: plenary and partial. To gain a plenary indulgence, which remits all temporal punishment until that point, the faithful must:

  • eschew all attachment to sin,
  • perform the indulgenced act,
  • receive the sacramental of Penance,
  • receive Holy Communion,
  • and pray for the Holy Father’s intentions.

To gain a partial indulgence, the faithful must:

  • be contrite and sorrowful for their sins
  • perform the act of mercy/penance.

Plenary indulgences can be gained in several ways, including:

  • praying before the Blessed Sacrament for at least half an hour,
  • praying the Stations of the Cross,
  • praying the Rosary in a church, with one’s family, a religious community, or group,
  • reading Sacred Scripture for at least half an hour,
  • receiving a papal Urbi et Orbi blessing in person, by radio or television on Jan. 1 of every year,
  • participating in a spiritual retreat of at least three full days, and
  • participating in the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in Northern Spain and walking at least 61 miles (100 kilometers) along it.

By God’s grace, our prayers are efficacious in helping others. Certainly, all Christians understand that our prayers can help others who are currently alive. Catholic, Orthodox and many other Christians believe that our prayers for the deceased have the same effect.