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.
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
- Praying the Magnificat or Hail, Holy Queen;
- Praying the Acts of Faith, Hope, and Love, and the Creed;
- Making the sign of the cross;
- Visiting the Blessed Sacrament; or
- Visiting a cemetery.
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.