I was recently a guest on our local Catholic radio morning show to talk about some basic things about plenary indulgences. Then a couple of days ago, a former student messaged me to ask for a simple explanation of what indulgences are. I took these two events as signs for a posting on indulgences. In this post, I will be very brief and to the point on what indulgences are and how they work. If you wish to know more about indulgences, I suggest a close reading of Paul VI’s work, Indulgentiarum Doctrina.
Many Catholics and Christians fear the term indulgence because of what happened with Luther and the Catholic Church in the early 1500’s. However, I believe that most of us have a very poor to completely erroneous understanding of indulgences. I hope here to clarify some common errors normally attached to indulgences.
In order for us to understand indulgences, we must first understand that in Catholic theology, there is a difference between forgiveness of a sin and the punishment for the sin. In other words, when a person is forgiven the sin, he still must undergo some punishment that is required by Divine justice, whether suffering in this life or in the next life as part of his purgatorial sufferings.
There are two sacraments crucial for the forgiveness of sins in the Catholic tradition. The Sacrament of Baptism breathes new life from the Holy Spirit into the baptized person and he receives complete forgiveness of original sin, both for the original sin and the temporal punishment that accompanies the sin. Thus, when person is baptized, we have a tabula rasa (clean slate), if you will, with regards to the punishment of his original sins. However, in the Sacrament of Penance, the person’s guilt is pardoned so that he would not suffer eternal damnation that results from mortal sins, but the punishment for his sin as required by Divine justice remains.
Indulgences are extra-sacramental and in no way replaces the Sacrament of Penance as normally and erroneously understood. Indulgences do not forgive sins since that is not their function. Indulgences are meant to take away the temporal punishment required by Divine justice. For this very reason, indulgences are granted and received only by those who have received the Sacrament of Penance and have been forgiven of their sins. Additionally, the merit (for grace) for indulgences is drawn from the treasury of the Church and of the holiness of the Saints and does not belong to and is completely different from the merits of the person’s own penitential work.
An (imperfect) Analogy To Help
Imagine that you are a murderer and have been condemned to death by the state. However, you’ve expressed genuine repentance for your own wrong-doing and the Governor is moved by your repentance, and thus grants you a pardon from death. However, because of the justice of the state, you are still required to serve 10 years in prison for your crime. But the people of the state thinks that you have done all you can and wish that you be released sooner than the 10 years, and so they request the court to remove some (or maybe all) of the years you are supposed to serve as time served.
In the above imperfect example, we can see that the indulgence is like the request by the people to mark some of the required time for you to be in prison as being served. But their request presupposes that you have been pardoned and that you are truly repentant. Their request is an addition and does not replace a pardon of your death.
Types Of Indulgences
In general, there are two kinds of indulgences: partial and plenary. Partial indulgences remove some time from the complete punishment that Divine justice requires of the sinner. Plenary indulgences remove all of the punishment time that is required of the sinner by Divine justice. Here I will briefly list what is required for each kind of indulgence:
- Do the work or say the prayer that is meant to grant the partial indulgence
- Be in a state of grace either before or by the completion of the work for the indulgence
- Must intend on receiving the indulgence since if the person was to complete everything else but did not intend on receiving the indulgence then he does not receive it.
- Do the work or say the prayer that is meant to grant the plenary indulgence
- Receive the Sacrament of Penance
- Must be in Eucharistic communion with the Church
- Must say a prayer in union with the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff – the Pope
- All attachments to sin must be absent (<- This last one is quite tough!)
Hope this helps!