An indulgence is the remission (removal) 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 (removes) the temporal punishment through the Church. Temporal punishment will end in time; it is not eternal punishment.

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 in 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.

In the Bible, it is clear that just because God forgives someone’s sin does not mean he removes the consequences of that sin. David, the king of Israel, committed adultery with Bathsheba and then killed her husband, Uriah, to cover up his sin. The prophet Nathan affirms to David, “The Lord has removed your sin,” but warns him that as a consequence of his sin, the child he has with Bathsheba will die (2 Samuel 12:13-14). God has forgiven David, but there are still consequences to David’s sin.

Kinds of Indulgences

Partial Indulgence

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.

Plenary Indulgence

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. Often plenary indulgences are attached to actions Catholics can do appropriate to particular feast days.

Note that the ways to obtain an indulgence all involve prayer or an act of piety. This is because our sins hurt the world, and our prayers can help the world heal from the hurt our sins cause.

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. Since the time of the early Church, penance for sins was usually long, difficult, and severe. Someone might do penance for years. So sometimes praying a particular prayer or performing an act of piety could substitute for a penance altogether or take some time off the assigned penance. This type of practice  created a sort of Church currency by which people could exchange a difficult penance for a calculated number of prayers or alms. Indulgences showed the mercy of God, exercised through the authority of the Church.

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. By this point indulgences usually were associated with time in Purgatory rather than public penance on earth. One obtained an indulgence, usually granted by the Pope, by performing some good work, sometimes a donation of money. Official doctrine always required internal repentance by the recipient, even if the practice of donating money was often abused.

The Controversy Surrounding Indulgences

Martin Luther objected to indulgences because the common practice of his day did not fit well with his view that good works could not take away the punishment due to sin. Indulgences also set up the Church as a mediator of God’s grace, a role that Martin Luther thought the Church could not and should not play. Furthermore, although Catholics would disagree with Martin Luther’s theology, it is undeniable that abuses were occurring at the time.

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. Often there was little emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice and the forgiveness of sin which only comes from God. Luther did not initially seek to strike down indulgences altogether (although by the end of his theological career he was entirely against indulgences), but he challenged the common practice at the time.

The practice of trading indulgences for money wrongly de-emphasizes the need for interior conversion and repentance. Although donating money is a pious action, it is easy to see how this practice devolved into people believing they could buy their way out of Purgatory.

The Council of Trent, which was held to respond to the challenges of the Reformation, addressed indulgences. The Council affirmed that the Church has the right and the power to grant indulgences. However, the Council agreed with the Protestant reformers that there were many abuses surrounding indulgences that needed to be corrected.

Later History of Indulgences

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

6 thoughts on “Indulgences”

  1. Where are the biblical references to support indulgences. There is so much detail on them here – exactly what one needs to do to get one. Where did you find this in the bible?
    Luther did not “object to indulgences because the common practice of his day did not fit well with his view that good works could not take away the punishment due to sin. ” He objected because he read the bible, and indulgences – weren’t in it.
    “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23
    Only God can forgive sin, and only by his grace through Jesus Christ – nothing that we can do. Making up all these rules to ‘pray this’ and ‘read scripture for at least a half hour’ makes a mockery of the free gift that Jesus gives.

  2. 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?

    1. About Catholics

      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. The Bible doesn’t teach anything about indulgences. They were made up by the Catholics, Popes. The Bible teaches that Jesus is the only way to be saved from hell. Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. There is no limbo, we can not earn our salvation we can only plead the blood of Christ. May God bless us all as we seek truth.


  3. 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.

    1. 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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