Catholic Doctrine on Indulgences
The Sacrament of Baptism gives us such great graces that, whenever a person is baptized, he is washed clean of all sins by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and is freed from the punishment that each man deserves on account of his sins.
Temporal and Eternal Punishments for Sin
When we commit sin after Baptism, however, we deserve punishment for our sins. If we commit a mortal sin, then we deserve the punishment of hell. Yet the Lord Jesus Christ has mercifully granted us the grace of absolution through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, also commonly referred to as Confession. Whenever a person sincerely repents of his sins and confesses his sins to an authorized priest in the Sacrament of Penance, the Lord Jesus, by means of the words of absolution spoken by the priest, wipes away all of the penitent’s sins and frees him from the eternal punishment of hell.
Nevertheless, whenever one has sincerely confessed his sins and received absolution, he must still make atonement for his sins so as to take away what the Church calls the “temporal punishment” due to sin. Ordinarily, our temporal punishment due to sin is taken away by prayer, penance, and doing good for the poor. Every time we pray or do works of charity, we are making atonement for our sins and thus doing away with the temporal punishment due to sin. By our prayer and works of charity, the grace of the Lord Jesus is healing the damage that we have done to our relationship with him by sin. (For Biblical examples of God taking away eternal punishment and still imposing temporal punishments, see e.g. 2 Samuel 12:13-14; 1 Chronicles 21:9-10; Hebrews 12:6-11)
What an Indulgence Is and Is Not
The Church also comes to our aid to bestow God’s grace in atonement for our sins. Because she has the use of the “keys of the kingdom” that Christ bestowed upon Blessed Peter the Apostle (see Matthew 16:19), she unlocks for us the infinite treasury of graces that have been earned for us by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ and the graces merited by the virtues and the suffering of all the saints throughout history. One of the ways in which the Church dispenses these graces to us for making atonement for our sins is called an “indulgence.”
The idea of indulgences is frequently misunderstood, especially because of the history of the abuse of indulgences in the Middle Ages and at the time of the Protestant Reformation. An indulgence is not a permission to commit sin. It is not a permission to indulge in some behavior that would ordinarily be considered sinful. It is not something that you pay for to get forgiveness.
An indulgence is simply the action of the Church by which she opens the treasury of graces for us and bestows the grace of Christ and the saints upon us as a means of making atonement for our sins. In this way, the Church wipes away the temporal punishment that we deserve for committing sin. These indulgences are granted to Catholics whenever they say a specific prayer or do some other pious exercise specified by the Church for the obtaining of an indulgence. There is no decree granting an indulgence. There is no application made for an indulgence. The Church simply promises to Catholics that, if they pray certain prayers, she will open the treasury of graces for them.
God’s Grace Cannot Be Earned
Ultimately, we cannot earn God’s grace. Jesus won for us the grace of forgiveness of sins on the Cross. There is no means to salvation other than the grace of Christ. Nevertheless, Jesus inspires us to do penance in atonement for our sins. It is the way in which we mend the damage done to our relationship with God by committing sin. If we do not sufficiently atone for our sins while on earth, we will have to do so in Purgatory.
Two Kinds of Indulgences
There are two kinds of indulgences: partial and plenary. A partial indulgence is the remission of part of the temporal punishment that a person deserves on account of his sins. A plenary indulgence is the remission of all of the temporal punishment that a person deserves for his sins.
What are some things that a person can do to obtain a partial indulgence? Here are a few examples:
- Devoutly make a brief prayer to God in the midst of your daily work
- Led by the Holy Spirit, give of yourself or from your possessions for the good of others
- Voluntarily abstain from something that you enjoy (e.g. a favorite food or activity, etc.)
- Voluntarily give witness to your faith before others
- Study Catholic doctrine
- Visit the Blessed Sacrament for Adoration
- Devoutly recite Psalm 51 or Psalm 130 as an act of contrition for sins
- Devoutly use a devotional item that has been blessed by a priest or deacon (e.g. a blessed rosary)
- Spend time in mental prayers (i.e., Christian meditation)
- Devoutly recite five decades of the Holy Rosary
- Devoutly recite the Hail, Holy Queen or the Memorare
- Devoutly recite the Angelus at dawn, noon, or evening time
- Devoutly pray the prayer to one’s guardian angel (i.e., Angel of God, my guardian dear, etc.)
- Renew one’s baptismal promises
- Devoutly recite an Act of Faith, Hope, and Charity
- Devoutly recite the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed
- Devoutly pray the blessing before meals (i.e., Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, etc.)
Anytime that a Catholic in the state of grace performs one of these actions with a contrite heart and with the intention of receiving an indulgence, the Church grants a partial indulgence. How much is a partial indulgence? Only God knows. It’s totally up to him. The more devoutly we pray, the more graces we receive.
What are some things that a person can do to obtain a plenary indulgence? Here are a few examples:
- Visit the Blessed Sacrament for Adoration for thirty continuous minutes
- Devoutly participate in a Eucharist procession, especially on Corpus Christi
- Spend three entire days in retreat
- Devoutly participate in the adoration of the Cross at the Good Friday Liturgy
- Devoutly recite five decades of the Rosary in a church or with your family members or any other group of people
- Participate in the renewal of baptismal promises during the Easter Vigil
- Reverently and prayerfully read the Bible for thirty minutes as a means of spiritual reading
It is important to note, however, that to obtain a plenary indulgence for one of the above specified prayers, there are four other conditions:
- Go to confession several days before or after
- Receive holy communion
- Pray for the intentions of the Pope (e.g., an Our Father and a Hail Mary for his intentions)
- Be completely detached from all sin, even venial sin.
That last condition is the most challenging. Most of us have not striven enough to be detached from all our or sins, including venial sins. If, however, you do not fulfill that last condition, then the Church still grants to you a partial indulgence.
It is easy to begin to think about indulgences as a kind of transaction, but this is a serious mistake. God’s grace is a free gift that no human being can earn. Even when we merit God’s grace, it is because his grace was there prompting us to do so. Even though the Church dispenses grace by means of indulgences, the grace comes from the free gift of Jesus Christ.
For more information on Indulgences, see:
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1471-1479
- Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 310, 312
- Manual of Indulgences (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006)
- E. Peters, A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often Misinterpreted Teaching (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2008)
- “Primer on Indulgences” from Catholic Answers
- “A Primer on Indulgences” from CNA
- “Myths about Indulgences” from Catholic Answers
- K. Broussard, “Are Indulgences Biblical?” from Catholic Answers
- H. Kent, “Indulgences” in the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912
- J. Akin, “A Primer on Indulgences” from Catholic Answers
Author: James Clark, J.C.L.