Hey, how about indulgences?
Indulgences, like Purgatory, didn't actually disappear after Vatican II, we just stopped hearing a lot about them. What, after all, is an indulgence? First, let’s review (courtesy of the Catholic Encyclopedia) what an indulgence is NOT, because lots of people tend to be confused: It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin (both of these are impossible, of course). It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin, because it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven. It is not an exemption from the duty of restitution; on the contrary, it means a more complete payment of the debt that the sinner owes to God. It does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of subsequent lapses into sin. And it definitely is not the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer's salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory.
So, that's all fine and good, you say, but that doesn't answer the question of what an indulgence IS. For that, let’s turn to Lesson 33 of our trusty Baltimore Catechism (page 206 for those of you following along at home):
435. What is an indulgence?
An indulgence is the remission granted by the Church of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.
So, if I have a sin, and I go and confess my sin and repent for it, and get absolution, my sin is forgiven, but I still have that temporal punishment coming, right? Through an indulgence, the Church remits, takes away, all or some part of that temporal punishment that I had coming.
Notice, for instance, that an indulgence then can’t make the difference between me going to Heaven or Hell – I have to have repented and been forgiven for the sin before I can get an indulgence; damnation is a result of a lack of repentance, and is therefore outside the purview of indulgences. An indulgence can help me get to Heaven if I’m on the way already, but can’t turn me around if I’m going in the wrong direction.
How, you ask, does the Church manage this? The Church grants indulgences by bestowing on individuals “spare grace” that makes up the Spiritual Treasury of the Church. This is grace is the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin and the saints, who got SO much grace during their lifetimes that they didn’t need it all, and who not needing grace in heaven, allow the Church to dispense this “spare grace” to those in need. The ability to act as a mediator between God and the faithful regarding the dispensation of grace is easily demonstrated by looking at the sacraments. The Church has been charged by God with providing individuals with the grace that flows from Christ's open side, through the hands of Mary, to the Church. With an indulgence, we gain some of the same grace that we would receive through penance, the sacraments, or the suffering of purgatory.
Thus, when the Church grants an indulgence, it does not convince God to cancel the debt we owe Him because of sin, nor allow the sinner to repudiate his debt and walk off. Rather, as Aquinas says, "He who gains indulgences is not thereby released outright from what he owes as penalty, but is provided with the means of paying it." The Church gives us the grace to fulfill the debt – instead of going to prison and working it off (ie, in Purgatory), the Church gives us the currency of salvation, the "money," we owe, and we use it to pay God back.
So, what kinds of indulgences are there? Two kinds – partial and plenary.
Partial indulgences are just what they sound like: a remission of part of the temporal punishment we owe because of our sins. You often see them in older publications expressed in terms of time: “300 days,” “10 years,” etc. These designations were not, as is sometimes thought, “the amount of time off from Purgatory,” because Purgatory exists outside of space/time and days and years are meaningless there. Rather, the length of time was the number of days’ worth of severe physical penance that the indulgence was worth. So if I got an indulgence of “20 days,” I fulfill the same amount of the temporal punishment due my sins that I would fulfill by doing 20 days worth of the severe bodily penances that were common in the early Church. Since most of us don't spend a month fasting and wearing sackcloth with ashes on our heads, we should therefore by interested in indulgences.
However, Paul VI thought all the matter of days and years was too complicated and too easily lent itself to confusion, so he removed the quantifications from partial indulgences. Now it’s just a “partial indulgence,” and only God knows how much punishment is actually being remitted. Why this is easier to understand, or how the Church dispenses grace without knowing how much it is dispensing, I don’t know -- but I imagine God and maybe the Pope do.
Plenary indulgences are lots more fun, because they remit the ALL temporal punishment that we owe. All of these are listed in the document that stipulates the norms for indulgences, the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, issued in 1968 and revised in 1999 by John Paul II – both are online (and linked here), but nobody has bothered to translate the 1999 edition out of Latin.
So, now that we've learned that indulgences are pretty nifty things, you probably want to know how to get one, right? Partial indulgences are really simple to get – just a) be in a state of grace, b) have at least some intention of gaining the indulgence (ie, say the prayer with the right intention), and d) do what’s required. Most new prayer cards and books don’t say whether or not a prayer is indulgenced, and not all of the pre-Vatican II indulgences still apply, so it can be hard to tell whether (or what) the indulgence for a particular prayer is. On the other hand, the Church has granted blanket indulgences to whole categories of behavior, like reading the Bible or praying while you work, so it’s not all that hard to gain one.
Plenary indulgences are a little more difficult: they can only be granted by the Pope (partial indulgences can at times be declared by other bishops), and they have to be earned under what are known as the “usual conditions” (you’ll also see that on prayers that carry a plenary indulgence: “with the conditions”). These "conditions" are:
- Sacramental Confession
- Reception of the Eucharist
- The offering of prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father (one Our Father and One Hail Mary qualify as the minimum)
- and the hard one: complete detachment from all forms of sin
Of course, you also have to do some other task, like say a prayer, or go to a shrine and say a prayer, or say a prayer in public, etc. to get the plenary indulgence. The “usual conditions” have to be fulfilled within a “few days” of the indulgenced act. The Enchidirion also lists governing the conditions -- like whether you have to confess for each indulgence or whether one confession counts for multiple indulgences. If you fail to fulfill all of conditions (and only God knows if you did the last one properly), the indulgence is simply partial.
What about buying indulgences? For many years, the paying of Peter’s Pence – as well as many other acts of charity and alms-giving for the support of the poor or the religious orders – was indulgenced. This was not really the same thing as “buying” an indulgence, which has never technically been permitted. Because it promoted corruption and misunderstanding, Pius V abolished all financially related indulgences in 1567.
The example that most people hear about of how “horrible” indulgences are and how we supposedly “sold” them for so long is John Tetzel, the German monk who sold all those supposed indulgences in Germany in the early 16th century. But remember that Tetzel was himself a minor heretic, and that the abuses he perpetrated were not in accordance with Catholic teaching. So, if you see him in a history book being used to smear the Church, think "heretic -- not what the Church teaches -- this is a lousy book."
You can earn an indulgence for yourself, or you can earn it for a soul in purgatory. You can gain as many partial indulgences as you like, as often as you like, but you can only gain one plenary indulgence per day (that is, if you manage the "no attachment to sin" part). The souls in purgatory are helpless, and rely upon the graces that the saints, Our Blessed Mother, and ourselves gain for and offer to God for them to ease their sufferings.
We can help the souls in purgatory through indulgences, or other good acts, such as sacrifice or prayer – all are methods of gaining grace, and we can ask God to apply that grace to them. Sacramental grace, though, is non-transferable. Furthermore, we have an obligation to pray for those in purgatory, because they are helpless (and also because many of them are our friends, family, or people we have promised to pray for) – it has been seriously suggested by many theologians that our OWN sufferings in Purgatory will be increased to include the sufferings we would have spared those who we ought to have prayed for but did not. Likewise, as clerical readers might know, priests who neglect the cure of souls may suffer the pains of those to whom they did not minister adequately.
File Under: Doctrine