Indulgences do not take up a lot of space in Catholic theology. (The Catechism, for example, devotes only 8 of its 2,865 sections to discussing them – a total of about one standard, typed page). However, due to their abuses in the 16th Century (which were acknowledged and dealt with in the same century), the very mention of “indulgences” often makes Christians on both sides of the Reformation uncomfortable.
Complicating the issue is that indulgences flow from a theology that is generally foreign to Protestants, and so is often misunderstood and misrepresented. So in this brief summary I hope to address the major concerns – namely:
- What are indulgences?
- Are indulgences biblical?
- What is the difference between plenary and partial indulgences?
- How does someone gain an indulgence?
What are Indulgences?
The Church teaches that sin is not simply doing something bad. Sin is an offense against God, a denial of justice, and an act that harms relationships as well as one’s own soul. While venial sins harm one’s relationship with God, mortal sins separate one from God’s grace (“mortal” means “death” which means separation).
The result of unconfessed / unforgiven mortal sin, therefore, is eternal death – separation from God (= Hell). Venial sins do not, by themselves, result in this loss of grace and eternal separation. The result of venial sins are therefore temporal and can be dealt with either in this life or, if one dies in a state of grace, after death (= Purgatory) prior to entering the state of eternal life (= Heaven).
It is of supreme importance to understanding indulgences to remember that they relate directly to Purgatory and not to Heaven or Hell. Indulgences do not (and have never) gotten anyone out of Hell or into Heaven. Rather, the Church – under the same authority by which it communicates God’s salvation in the eternal realm – acts as an instrument of penance in the temporal realm. When the Church exercises this authority to proclaim the lessening or complete removal of sin’s temporal punishment, it is called an indulgence.
Suppose that one night a teenage boy decides to steal his neighbor’s car for a joyride and ends up wrecking it. The neighbor could, in all justice, have the boy arrested and sent to jail. However, suppose the boy goes to the neighbor and begs her for forgiveness and she, seeing his contrite heart, forgives him.
Is that it?
While the boy may have avoided jail time and an arrest record, if he simply says, “Great, thanks!” and walks away, his relationship with his neighbor will not be completely healed. Further, it doesn’t pay for the damage to her car. Finally, the harm done to the teen’s soul by his committing such an act will not be fixed simply by avoiding charges. On both a relational level and according to simple justice, the teenager needs to make restitution for damaging the car. If he does so, justice is restored.
Suppose, though, that the teen works all summer and can only come up with half of the repair costs. The neighbor might, after seeing the teen’s effort, decide to exercise mercy by paying the remaining costs with money she earned at her own job. In this way, the wounds caused by the offender’s injustice can be healed even though they are paid for by the one offended.
Such acts are analogous to an indulgence – where spiritual restitution for temporal evil is gained by oneself or by another for acts done in piety. (Again, it is critical to remember that this “merit” does not apply to eternal salvation.) Whether or not such an idea can be supported biblically is another question.
Are Indulgences Biblical?
Like many theological terms, indulgences are not named as such in Scripture. The theological “ingredients” in indulgences, however, can be found once one understands them.
Mortal and Venial Sin
As to sin, the basic division between mortal sin (which leads to death) and venial sin (which does not lead to death) is found in 1 John 5:16-17.
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (ESV)
Note that St. John expressly says not to pray about mortal sin. The Church teaches that this is because – in normative cases – mortal sins require sacramental confession to forgive.
Church Authority to Forgive Sin
Of course, it is not as though the Church causes forgiveness – that is through God alone (Lk. 5:21). However, Scripture is clear that Jesus gave the apostolic Church the authority of “binding” or “loosing” sin (Mt. 16:19, 18:17-19) and to forgive sin (John 20:23). God delegated the authority to communicate His forgiveness from heaven to people on earth.
Application of Merit
The idea that one can apply another’s merit to one’s own life is an essential part of Christian theology (e.g., Romans chapter 5). The prime example is that of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness of sin was made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection which provided satisfaction for the sin of others. In essence, Jesus did something which (when applied) affected the salvation of people who did not do that thing.
We also see this in the Old Testament where God told Abraham that if he could find just ten righteous men in Sodom, the massively sinful city would not be destroyed (Gen. 18). Another New Testament example is found in Luke 5:17-20 where the faith of a man’s friends saved him. With indulgences, the Church is simply applying the same concept of spiritual merit to temporal rather than eternal consequences.
This is one “ingredient” in the theology of indulgences: we can salvifically benefit from the acts (“merits”) of others. Being God, Jesus gained infinite merit by his death and resurrection. This salvation brings people into the Church – Jesus’ body, and what the Church’s members do affect each other as well (1 Cor. 12:26). In some mysterious way, his Church plays a part in his suffering as well as sharing in his merits (Col. 1:24). Thus, there is an overflow – a “treasury” – of merit that can be shared with others. However, there is also value in suffering and not simply having the merit of others applied (Heb. 12:6). Therefore, this merit itself is “merited” (= justice) – just not to the same degree as it was earned (= mercy). Doing so is called penance.
Penance is acting in accord with justice in a manner that covers the temporal punishment due to sin. It ranges from simple prayer to extreme acts of piety depending on the severity of the sin being dealt with.
An example of penance is St. Paul’s imposed a punishment on a man in Corinth and later changed it (1 Cor. 5:3-5 cf. 2 Cor. 2:6-11). Note that St. Paul tells the elders of the Corinthians Church to forgive him even though his sin was not against against them – thus affirming the point about Church Authroity above.
it is also important to realize that St. Paul is writing this letter to the Church elders about a member of the Church – a Christian in other words. This means punishment for sin can still be expected even when one’s ultimate guilt is covered by God’s forgiveness.
Suffering After Salvation
Because eternal salvation (Heaven / Hell) is so often the focus of religious discussion, it is easy for the subject of temporal salvation to be forgotten. Moreover, objections to the idea of Purgatory or indulgences often confuse the two. The Church, however, is clear on this:
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Indulgentarium Doctrina, 1)
Scripture itself indicates that punishment for sin is not necessarily commuted even for those assured of final salvation. God forgave the people of Israel in the desert, yet did not let them enter the Holy Land (Num. 14). Another famous example is that of King David who was punished by the loss of his son for his adultery and murder with regard to Bathsheba (2 Sam.12 cf. Psalm 32 and 51).
What is the Difference Between Plenary and Partial Indulgences?
A plenary indulgence results in the complete remission of all temporal punishment due to one’s sin. Gaining a plenary indulgence is to venial sin what baptism is to mortal sin – the slate is wiped completely clean.
A partial indulgence is simply a remission of less-than-all temporal punishment due to one’s sin. It results in a lessening of suffering (how much is up to God), but it cannot be calculated in any mathematical way. Although common in popular speech, the Church does not assign any particular “time off” from Purgatory. Whether purgatorial suffering is extended temporally or experientially as degrees is not taught definitively.
Which kind of indulgence one gains depends on the person’s state as well as the act(s) done to gain the indulgence.
How Does Someone Gain An Indulgence?
First off – not buy buying them!
The idea that indulgences can be purchased is based on a misunderstanding (one that, given the abuses that threw indulgences into the limelight, is understandable). The confusion is caused by the pious act of giving of alms (monetary donations) as one of the means of (potentially) obtaining an indulgence. The distinction may seem slight, but it is real despite its misunderstanding and occasional misuse.
Rather, indulgences can be gained in a number of ways so long as one is properly disposed to receive them.
In order to gain an indulgence by any pious act, one must be a Catholic (to be under the Church’s authority), in a state of grace (because good works alone accomplish nothing), and posses the intent to gain an indulgence (all free acts involve both the intellect and will – they’re never accidental).
In addition to performing the act to which the indulgence is attached, one must go to confession, receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope’s intentions. For a plenary indulgence, all this must be done by one with a contrite heart and freedom from any attachment to sin. Otherwise, one gains a partial indulgence instead.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 revised the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum (Handbook of Indulgences). In doing so, all previous grants of indulgence were effectively suppressed unless repeated or restored by later Popes.
Numerous acts (about 70 by some counts) are considered “indulgenced” today including:
- Time spent in devout prayer.
- Reading Sacred Scripture under certain conditions.
- Reciting the rosary is recited in various locales or in certain groups.
- Making the Sign of the Cross.
- Going on pilgrimages to sacred sites.
There are many more listed HERE.
Indulgences are not “Get Out of Hell Free” cards, not can one gain enough indulgences to earn entrance to Heaven. Rather, indulgences have to do with avoiding the sufferings of Purgatory for temporal sins prior to entering Heaven. Scripture supports the theology of indulgences in seed form, even though (like many doctrines) it is not stated as such. Finally, the Church has clarified the requirements for – and rewards of – indulgences throughout its history and tradition. By understanding this teaching more clearly, the animosity generated by 500 year-old misunderstandings can be avoided.