An indulgence is the remission of temporal punishment for sin in response to certain prayers or spiritual works. In common parlance an indulgence would reduce the time spent in purgatory if one should need to go there on one’s way to heaven. An indulgence does not take the place of a confession; confession and repentance of sin must have already taken place.

Just like when one goes to confession, God forgives the penitent (confessor) through the priest, it is God who remits the temporal punishment through the Church.

A person may gain an indulgence for themselves or apply it to one who has died who may be in purgatory. This is possible through the belief in the communion of saints.

Indulgences are rooted in the belief if the abundance of God’s forgiving love through Jesus. God’s love is endless and thus he would grant us remission of temporal punishment due to sin.

Kinds of Indulgences

A partial indulgence removes part of the temporal punishment due to sin. Some ways to gain a partial indulgence are by

A plenary indulgence removes all temporal punishment due to sin. The conditions for a plenary indulgence are

Some ways to gain a plenary indulgence are through

  • Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least one-half hour;
  • Reading Scripture for at least one-half hour;
  • Reciting the Way of the Cross; or
  • Praying the rosary in a church or with a family group or religious community.

There may be other ways not listed here that the pope or a local bishop could authorize as a means to gain a partial or plenary indulgence.

The History of Indulgences

Indulgences have a controversial place in the history of the Catholic Church. The buying and selling of indulgences is what helped to launch the Reformation.

Indulgences began in about the ninth century A.D. as a means to substitute a set of tasks for a difficult to fulfill penance. For example, pray so many prayers instead of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Travel was very difficult back in those days. This type of practice expanded to other penances and created a sort of Church currency by which people could exchange a difficult penance for a calculated number of prayers or alms.

During the Crusades under Pope Urban II (1088-1099) Christians who could not participate in the Crusades personally could do so vicariously by almsgiving. Those who personally took part received a plenary indulgence upon death.

In 1343 Pope Clement VI officially sanctioned the view that Christ had left the Church a treasury of satisfactions that Church officials could dispense (an indulgence) for the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. One obtained an indulgence, usually granted by the Pope, by performing some good work, often a donation of money. Official doctrine always required internal repentance by the recipient, even if it was not the common practice.

Martin Luther objected to indulgences because the common practice of his day did not fit well with his view that good works could not remit temporal punishment due to sin. With the abuses of indulgences in his day, often the only thing that was officially preached by Church leaders was offering indulgences in exchange for making a donation to the church with no emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice and the forgiveness of sin which only comes from God. Luther did not seek to strike down indulgences altogether, but challenged the common practice at the time. The practice of trading indulgences for money wrongly de-emphasizes the need for interior conversion and repentance.

Pope Paul VI changed the norms around indulgences by seeking to eliminate the commercial aspect they had acquired over the centuries. Treasury of satisfactions was changed to a treasury of merits. Indulgences are now designed to spur Christians to spiritual tasks such as devotion, penance, and charity.


  1. says

    I am confused as to how come you can apply indulgences to those in purgatory, but you can’t apply them to those that are living? Our Lady of Fatima said to make sacrifices for offenses against her Immaculate Heart that others do and for the conversion of sinners. Isn’t this a form of applying indulgences to the living?

    • says

      I do not know the official answer, but if I had to guess it would be that while living on earth a person may gain an indulgence for themselves, but having passed away persons in purgatory do not have that opportunity.

  2. Alicia says

    Catholicism seems so confusing. I am a Protestant and it seems to me that the Catholic faith is all about works, not grace. It is true what James says, that faith without works is dead. I read that scripture and I see that if you have faith and you believe, you will want to do the works because you love Jesus, not because it will get you into heaven. I look at your article and I see that this has to be done to achieve this and that. Christianity is a relationship, it is God coming down to man, not man going to God. That’s what every other religion in the world is. No other religion has a means of eternal salvation.

    • Karen says

      Are you certain that your statement is “what every other religion in the world is”? Because I can tell you that not ALL the other religions of the world are that.
      There is also a noticeable difference between Protestantism and Catholicism termed ‘Pre-destiny vs. Free Will. Man going to God would be free will. God coming “down” to man would be pre-destiny….in a very simplified analogy to what you were saying 🙂
      There are differences, but if we all required the same spiritual path then we would all be the exact same…..and that doesn’t seem to be what God’s creation is like. At least from what I see.

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