Treatment of the practice of granting indulgences

Indulgences. The word indulgence (Lat. indulgentia, from indulgeo, to be kind or tender) originally meant kindness or favor; in post-classic Latin it came to mean the remission of a tax or debt. In Roman law and in the Vulgate of the Old Testament (Is., lxi, 1) it was used to express release from captivity or punishment. In theological language also the word is sometimes employed in its primary sense to signify the kindness and mercy of God. But in the special sense in which it is here considered, an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. Among the equivalent terms used in antiquity were pax, remissio, donatio, condonatio.

WHAT AN INDULGENCE IS NOT.—TO facilitate explanation, it may be well to state what an indulgence is not. It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power. It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven. It is not an exemption from any law or duty, and much less from the obligation consequent on certain kinds of sin, e.g., restitution; on the contrary, it means a more complete payment of the debt which the sinner owes to God. It does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of subsequent lapses into sin. Least of all is an indulgence the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer's salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory. The absurdity of such notions must be obvious to any one who forms a correct idea of what the Catholic Church really teaches on this subject.

WHAT AN INDULGENCE is.—An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive. Regarding this definition, the following points are to be noted: (I) In the Sacrament of Baptism not only is the guilt of sin remitted, but also all the penalties attached to sin. In the Sacrament of Penance the guilt of sin is removed, and with it the eternal punishment due to mortal sin; but there still remains the temporal punishment required by Divine justice, and this requirement must be fulfilled either in the present life or in the world to come, i.e., in Purgatory (q.v.). An indulgence offers the penitent sinner the means of discharging this debt during his life on earth. (2) Some writs of indulgence—none of them, however, issued by any pope or council (Pesch, Tr. Dogm., VII, 196, §464)—contain the expression, "indulgentia a culpa et a paena", i.e. release from guilt and from punishment; and this has occasioned considerable misunderstanding (cf. Lea, "History" etc. III, 54 sqq.). The real meaning of the formula is that, indulgences presupposing the Sacrament of Penance, the penitent, after receiving sacramental absolution from the guilt of sin, is afterwards freed from the temporal penalty by the indulgence (Bellarmine, "De Indulg"., I, 7). In other words, sin is fully pardoned, i.e. its effects entirely obliterated, only when complete reparation, and consequently release from penalty as well as from guilt, has been made. Hence Clement V (1305-1314) condemned the practice of those purveyors of indulgences who pretended to absolve "a culpa et a poena" (Clement, I, v, tit. 9, c. ii); the Council of Constance (1418) revoked (Sess. XLII, n. 14) all indulgences containing the said formula; Benedict XIV (1740-1758) treats them as spurious indulgences granted in this form, which he ascribes to the illicit practices of the "quaestores" or purveyors (De Syn. diceces., VIII, viii. 7). (3) The satisfaction, usually called the "penance", imposed by the confessor when he gives absolution is an integral part of the Sacrament of Penance; an indulgence is extra-sacramental; it presupposes the effects obtained by confession, contrition, and sacramental satisfaction. It differs also from the penitential works undertaken of his own accord by the repentant sinner—prayer, fasting, alms-giving in that these are personal and get their value from the merit of him who performs them, whereas an indulgence places at the penitent's disposal the merits of Christ and of the saints, which form the "Treasury" of the Church. (4) An indulgence is valid both in the tribunal of the Church and in the tribunal of God. This means that it not only releases the penitent from his indebtedness to the Church or from the obligation of performing canonical penance, but also from the temporal punishment which he has incurred in the sight of God and which, without the indulgence, he would have to undergo in order to satisfy Divine justice. This, however, does not imply that the Church pretends to set aside the claim of God's justice or that she allows the sinner to repudiate his debt. As St. Thomas says (Suppl., xxv. a. 1 ad Dim), " He who gains indulgences is not thereby released outright from what he owes as penalty, but is provided with the means of paying it." The Church therefore neither leaves the penitent helplessly in debt nor ac-quits him of all further accounting; she enables him to meet his obligations. (5) In granting an indulgence, the grantor (pope or bishop) does not offer his personal merits in lieu of what God demands from the sinner. He acts in his official capacity as having jurisdiction in the Church, from whose spiritual treasury he draws the means wherewith payment is to be made. The Church herself is not the absolute owner, but simply the administratrix, of the superabundant merits which that treasury contains. In applying them, she keeps in view both the design of God's mercy and the demands of God's justice. She therefore determines the amount of each concession, as well as the conditions which the penitent must fulfill if he would gain the indulgence.

VARIOUS KINDS OF INDULGENCES.—An indulgence that may be gained in any part of the world is universal, while one that can be gained only in a specified place (Rome, Jerusalem, etc.) is local. A further distinction is that between perpetual indulgences, which may be gained at any time, and temporary, which are available on certain days only, or within certain periods. Real indulgences are attached to the use of certain objects (crucifix, rosary, medal); personal are those which do not require the use of any such material thing, or which are granted only to a certain class of individuals, e.g. members of an order or confraternity. The most important distinction, however, is that between plenary indulgences and partial. By a plenary indulgence is meant the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is required in Purgatory. A partial indulgence commutes only a certain portion of the penalty; and this portion is determined in accordance with the penitential discipline of the early Church.

To say that an indulgence of so many days or years is granted means that it cancels an amount of purgatorial punishment equivalent to that which would have been remitted, in the sight of God, by the performance of so many days or years of the ancient canonical penance. Here, evidently, the reckoning makes no claim to absolute exactness; it has only a relative value. God alone knows what penalty remains to be paid and what its precise amount is in severity and duration. Finally, some indulgences are granted in behalf of the living only, while others may be applied in behalf of the souls departed. It should be noted, however, that the application has not the same significance in both cases. The Church in granting an indulgence to the living exercises her jurisdiction; over the dead she has no jurisdiction and therefore makes the indulgence available for them by way of suffrage (per modum suffragii), i.e. she petitions God to accept these works of satisfaction and in consideration thereof to mitigate or shorten the sufferings of the souls in Purgatory (see Purgatory).

WHO CAN GRANT INDULGENCES.—The distribution of the merits contained in the treasury of the Church is an exercise of authority (potestas jurisdictionis), not of the power conferred by Holy orders (potestas ordinis). Hence the pope, as supreme head of the Church on earth, can grant all kinds of indulgences to any and all of the faithful; and he alone can grant plenary indulgences. The power of the bishop, previously unrestricted, was limited by Innocent III (1215) to the granting of one year's indulgence at the dedication of a church and of forty days on other occasions. Leo XIII (Rescript of July 4, 1899) authorized the archbishops of South America to grant eighty days (Acta S. Sedis, XXXI, 758). Pius X (August 28, 1903) allowed cardinals in their titular churches and dioceses to grant 200 days; archbishops, 100; bishops, 50. These indulgences are not applicable to the souls departed. They can be gained by persons not belonging to the diocese, but temporarily within its limits; and by the subjects of the granting bishop, whether these are within the diocese or outside—except when the indulgence is local. Priests, vicars-general, abbots, and generals of religious orders cannot grant indulgences unless specially authorized to do so. On the other hand, the pope can empower a cleric who is not a priest to give an indulgence (St. Thomas, "Quodlib.", II, q. viii, a. 16).

DISPOSITIONS NECESSARY TO GAIN AN INDULGENCE.—The mere fact that the Church proclaims an indulgence does not imply that it can be gained with-out effort on the part of the faithful. From what has been said above, it is clear that the recipient must be free from the guilt of mortal sin. Furthermore, for plenary indulgences, confession and Communion are usually required, while for partial indulgences, though confession is not obligatory, the formula corde saltem contrito, i.e. "at least with a contrite heart", is the customary prescription. Regarding the question discussed by theologians whether a person in mortal sin can gain an indulgence for the dead, see Purgatory. It is also necessary to have the intention, at least habitual, of gaining the indulgence. Finally, from the nature of the case, it is obvious that one must perform the good works—prayers, alms deeds, visits to a church, etc.—which are prescribed in the granting of an indulgence. For details see "Raccolta".

AUTHORITATIVE TEACHING OF THE CHURCH.—The Council of Constance condemned among the errors of Wyclif the proposition: "It is foolish to believe in the indulgences granted by the pope and the bishops" (Sess. VIII, May 4, 1415; see Denzinger-Bannwart, "Enchiridion", 622). In the Bull "Exsurge Domine", June 15, 1520; Leo X condemned Luther's assertions that "Indulgences are pious frauds of the faithful"; and that "Indulgences do not avail those who really gain them for the remission of the penalty due to actual sin in the sight of God's justice" (Enchiridion, 758, 759). The Council of Trent (Sess. XXV, 3-4, December, 1563) declared: "Since the power of granting indulgences has been given to the Church by Christ, and since the Church from the earliest times has made use of this Divinely given power, the holy synod teaches and ordains that the use of indulgences, as most salutary to Christians and as approved by the authority of the councils, shall be retained in the Church; and it further pronounces anathema against those who either declare that indulgences are useless or deny that the Church has the power to grant them" (Enchiridion, 989). It is therefore of faith (I) that the Church has received from Christ the power to grant indulgences, and (2) that the use of indulgences is salutary for the faithful.

BASIS OF THE DOCTRINE.—An essential element in indulgences is the application to one person of the satisfaction performed by others. This transfer is based on: (I) The Communion of Saints.—"We being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another' (Rom., xii, 5). As each organ shares in the life of the whole body, so does each of the faithful profit by the prayers and good works of all the rest—a benefit which accrues, in the first instance, to those who are in the state of grace, but also, though less fully, to the sinful members. (2) The Principle of Vicarious Satisfaction.—Each good action of the just man possesses a double value: that of merit and that of satisfaction, or expiation. Merit is personal, and therefore it cannot be transferred; but satisfaction can be applied to others, as St. Paul writes to the Colossians (i, 24) of his own works: "Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the Church." (See Satisfaction.) (3) The Treasury of the Church.—Christ, as St. John declares in his First Epistle (ii, 2), "is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." Since the satisfaction of Christ is infinite, it constitutes an inexhaustible fund which is more than sufficient to cover the indebtedness contracted by sin. Besides, there are the satisfactory works of the Blessed Virgin Mary undiminished by any penalty due to sin, and the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints vastly exceeding any temporal punishment which these servants of God might have incurred. These are added to the treasury of the Church as a secondary deposit, not independent of, but rather acquired through, the merits of Christ. The development of this doctrine in explicit form was the work of the great Schoolmen, notably Alexander of Hales (Summa, IV, Q. xxiii, m. 3, n. 6), Albertus Magnus (In IV Sent., dist. xx, art. 16), and St. Thomas (In IV Sent.., dist. xx, q. i, art. 3, sol. 1). As Aquinas declares (Quodlib., II, q. vii art. 16): "All the saints intended that whatever they did or suffered for God's sake should be profitable not only to themselves but to the whole Church." And he further points out (Contra Gent., III, 158) that what one endures for another, being a work of love, is more acceptable as satisfaction in God's sight than what one suffers on one's own account, since this is a matter of necessity. The existence of an infinite treasury of merits in the Church is dogmatically set forth in the Bull "Unigenitus", published by Clement VI, January 27, 1343, and later inserted in the "Corpus Juris" (Extray. Coln., lib. V, tit. ix, c. ii): "Upon the altar of the Cross", says the pope, "Christ shed of His blood not merely a drop, though this would have sufficed, by reason of the union with the Word, to redeem the whole human race, but a copious torrent thereby laying up an infinite treasure for mankind. This treasure He neither wrapped up in a napkin nor hid in a field, but entrusted to Blessed Peter, the key-bearer, and his successors, that they might, for just and reasonable causes, distribute it to the faithful in full or in partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sin." Hence the condemnation by Leo X of Luther's assertion that "the treasures of the Church from which the pope grants indulgences are not the merits of Christ and the saints" (Enchiridion, 757). For the same reason, Pius VI (1794) branded as false, temerarious, and injurious to the merits of Christ and the saints, the error of the synod of Pistoia that the treasury of the Church was an invention of scholastic subtlety (Enchiridion, 1541).

According to Catholic doctrine, therefore, the source of indulgences is constituted by the merits of Christ and the saints. This treasury is left to the keeping, not of the individual Christian, but of the Church. Consequently, to make it available for the faithful, there is required an exercise of authority, which alone can determine in what way, on what terms, and to what extent, indulgences may be granted.

THE POWER TO GRANT INDULGENCES.—Once it is admitted that Christ left the Church the power to forgive sins (see Penance), the power of granting indulgences is logically inferred. Since the sacra-mental forgiveness of sin extends both to the guilt and to the eternal punishment, it plainly follows that the Church can also free the penitent from the lesser or temporal penalty. This becomes clearer, however, when we consider the amplitude of the power granted to Peter (Matt., xvi, 19): `I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." (Cf. Matt., xviii, 18, where like power is conferred on all the Apostles.) No limit is placed upon this power of loosing, "the power of the keys", as it is called; it must, therefore, extend to any and all bonds contracted by sin, including the penalty no less than the guilt. When the Church, therefore, by an indulgence, remits this penalty, her action, according to the declaration of Christ, is ratified in heaven. That this power, as the Council of Trent affirms, was exercised from the earliest times, is shown by St. Paul's words (II Cor., ii, 5-10) in which he deals with the case of the incestuous man of Corinth. The sinner had been excluded by St. Paul's order from the company of the faithful, but had truly repented. Hence the Apostle judges that to such a one "this rebuke is sufficient that is given by many", and adds: "To whom you have pardoned any thing, I also. For what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned any thing, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ." St. Paul had bound the guilty one in the fetters of excommunication; he now releases the penitent from this punishment by an exercise of his authority—"in the person of Christ." Here we have all the essentials of an indulgence.

These essentials persist in the subsequent practice of the Church, though the accidental features vary according as new conditions arise. During the persecutions, those Christians who had fallen away but desired to be restored to the communion of the Church often obtained from the martyrs a memorial (libellus pacis) to be presented to the bishop, that he, in consideration of the martyrs' sufferings, might admit the penitents to absolution, thereby releasing them from the punishment they had incurred. Tertullian refers to this when he says (Ad martyres, c. i, P.L., I, 621): "Which peace some, not having it in the Church, are accustomed to beg from the martyrs in prison; and therefore you should possess and cherish and preserve it in you that so you perchance may be able to grant it to others." Additional light is thrown on this subject by the vigorous attack which the same Tertullian made after he had become a Montanist. In the first part of his treatise "De pudicitia", he attacks the pope for his alleged laxity in admitting adulterers to penance and pardon, and flouts the peremptory edict of the "pontifex maximus episcopus episcoporum". At the close he complains that the same power of remission is now allowed also to the martyrs, and urges that it should be enough for them to purge their own sins—"Sufficiat martyri propria delicta purgasse". And, again, "How can the oil of thy little lamp suffice both for thee and me?" (c. xxii). It is sufficient to note that many of his arguments would apply with as much and as little force to the indulgences of later ages.

During St. Cyprian's time (d. 258), the heretic Novatian claimed that none of the lapsi should be readmitted to the Church; others, like Felicissimus, held that such sinners should be received without any penance. Between these extremes, St. Cyprian holds the middle course, insisting that such penitents should be reconciled on the fulfilment of the proper conditions. On the one hand, he condemns the abuses connected with the libellus, in particular the custom of having it made out in blank by the martyrs and filled in by any one who needed it. "To this you should diligently attend", he writes to the martyrs (Ep. xv), "that you designate by name those to whom you wish peace to be given." On the other hand, he recognizes the value of these memorials: "Those who have received a libellus from the martyrs and with their help can, before the Lord, get relief in their sins, let such, if they be ill and in danger, after confession and the imposition of your hands, depart unto the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs" (Ep. xiii, P.L., IV, 261). St. Cyprian, therefore, believed that the merits of the martyrs could be applied to less worthy Christians byway of vicarious satisfaction, and that such satisfaction was acceptable in the eyes of God as well as of the Church.

After the persecutions had ceased, the penitential discipline remained in force, but greater leniency was shown in applying it. St. Cyprian himself was reproached for mitigating the "Evangelical severity" on which he at first insisted; to this he replied (Ep. lii) that such strictness was needful during the time of persecution not only to stimulate the faithful in the performance of penance, but also to quicken them for the glory of martyrdom; when, on the contrary, peace was secured to the Church, relaxation was necessary in order to prevent sinners from falling into despair and leading the life of pagans. In 380 St. Gregory of Nyssa (Ep. ad Letojum) declares that the penance should be shortened in the case of those who showed sincerity and zeal in performing it—"ut spatium canonibus praestitum possit contrahere" (can. xviii; cf. can. ix, vi, viii, xi, xiii, xix). In the same spirit, St. Basil (379), after prescribing more lenient treatment for various crimes, lays down the general principle that in all such cases it is not merely the duration of the penance that must be considered, but the way in which it is performed (Ep. ad Amphilochium, c. lxxxiv). Similar leniency is shown by various Councils—Ancyra (314), Laodicea (320), Nicaea (325), Arles (330). It became quite common during this period to favor those who were ill, and especially those who were in danger of death (see Amort, "Historia", 28 sq.). The ancient penitentials of Ireland and England, though exacting in regard to discipline, provide for relaxation in certain cases. St. Cummian, e.g., in his Penitential (seventh century), treating (cap. v) of the sin of robbery, prescribed that he who has often committed theft shall do penance for seven years or for such time as the priest may judge fit, must always be reconciled with him whom he has wronged, and make restitution proportioned to the injury, and thereby his penance shall be considerably shortened (multum breviabit poenitentiam ejus). But should he be unwilling or unable (to comply with these conditions), he must do penance for the whole time prescribed and in all its details. (Cf. Moran, "Essays on the Early Irish Church", Dublin, 1864, p. 259.)

Another practice which shows quite clearly the difference between sacramental absolution and the granting of indulgences was the solemn reconciliation of penitents. These, at the beginning-of Lent, had received from the priest absolution from their sins and the penance enjoined by the canons; on Maundy Thursday they presented themselves before the bishop, who laid hands on them, reconciled them with the Church, and admitted them to communion. This reconciliation was reserved to the bishop, as is expressly declared in the Penitential of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury; though in case of necessity the bishop could delegate a priest for the purpose (lib. I, xiii). Since the bishop did not hear their confession, the "absolution" which he pronounced must have been a release from some penalty they had incurred. The effect, moreover, of this reconciliation was to restore the penitent to the state of baptismal innocence and consequently of freedom from all penalties, as appears from the so-called Apostolic Constitutions (lib. II, c. xli) where it is said: "Eritque in loco baptismi impositio manuum"—i.e. the imposition of hands has the same effect as baptism (cf. Palmieri, "De Poenitentia", Rome, 1879, 459 sq.).

In a later period (eighth century to twelfth) it became customary to permit the substitution of some lighter penance for that which the canons prescribed. Thus the Penitential of Egbert, Archbishop of York, declares (XIII, 11): "For him who can comply with what the penitential prescribes, well and good; for him who cannot, we give counsel of God's mercy. Instead of one day on bread and water let him sing fifty psalms on his knees or seventy psalms without genuflecting. But if he does not know the psalms and cannot fast, let him, instead of one year on bread and water, give twenty-six solidi in alms, fast till None on one day of each week and till Vespers on another, and in the three Lents bestow in alms half of what he receives." The practice of substituting the recitation of psalms or the giving of alms for a portion of the fast is also sanctioned in the Irish Synod of 807, which says (c. xxiv) that the fast of the second day of the week may be "redeemed" by singing one psalter or by giving one denarius to a poor person. Here we have the beginning of the so-called "redemptions" which soon passed into general usage. Among other forms of commutation were pilgrimages to well-known shrines such as that at St. Albans in England or at Compostela in Spain. But the most important place of pilgrimage was Rome. According to Bede (674-735) the "visitatio liminum", or visit to the tomb of the Apostles, was even then regarded as a good work of great efficacy (Hist. Eccl., IV, 23). At first the pilgrims came simply to venerate the relics of the Apostles and martyrs; but in course of time their chief purpose was to gain the indulgences granted by the pope and attached especially to the Stations. Jerusalem, too, had long been the goal of these pious journeys, and the reports which the pilgrims gave of their treatment by the infidels finally brought about the Crusades (q.v.). At the Council of Clermont (1095) the First Crusade was organized, and it was decreed (can. ii): "Whoever, out of pure devotion and not for the purpose of gaining honor or money, shall go to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God, let that journey be counted in lieu of all penance". Similar indulgences were granted throughout the five centuries following (Amort, op. cit., 46 sq.), the object being to encourage these expeditions which involved so much hardship and yet were of such great importance for Christendom and civilization. The spirit in which these grants were made is expressed by St. Bernard, the preacher of the Second Crusade (1146): "Receive the sign of the Cross, and thou shalt likewise obtain the indulgence of all thou hast confessed with a contrite heart" (ep. cccxxii; al., ccclxii).

Similar concessions were frequently made on special occasions, such as the dedication of churches, e.g., that of the old Temple Church in London, which was consecrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, February 10, 1185, by the Lord Heraclius, who to those yearly visiting it indulged sixty days of the penance enjoined them—as the inscription over the main entrance attests. The canonization of saints was often marked by the granting of an indulgence, e.g. in honor of St. Laurence O'Toole by Honorius III (1226), in honor of St. Edmund of Canterbury by Innocent IV (1248), and in honor of St. Thomas of Hereford by John XXII (1320). A famous indulgence is that of the Portiuncula (q.v.), obtained by St. Francis in 1221 from Honorius III. But the most important largess during this period was the plenary indulgence granted in 1300 by Boniface VIII to those who, being truly contrite and having confessed their sins, should visit the basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul (see Jubilee).

Among the works of charity which were furthered by indulgences, the hospital held a prominent place. Lea in his "History of Confession and Indulgences" (III, 189) mentions only the hospital of Santo Spirito in Rome, while another Protestant writer, Uhlhorn (Gesch. d. Christliche Liebesthatigkeit, Stuttgart, 1884, II, 244) states that "one cannot go through the archives of any hospital without finding numerous letters of indulgence". The one at Halberstadt in 1284 had no less than fourteen such grants, each giving an indulgence of forty days. The hospitals at Lucerne, Rothenberg, Rostock, and Augsburg enjoyed similar privileges (see also the list of concessions in Lallemand, "Hist. de la Charite", Paris, 1906, III, 99).

ABUSES.—It may seem strange that the doctrine of indulgences should have proved such a stumbling-block, and excited so much prejudice and opposition. But the explanation of this may be found in the abuses which unhappily have been associated with what is in itself a salutary practice. In this respect of course indulgences are not exceptional: no institution, however holy, has entirely escaped abuse through the malice or unworthiness of man. Even the Eucharist, as St. Paul declares, means an eating and drinking of judgment to the recipient who discerns not the body of the Lord (I Cor., xi, 27-9). And, as God's forbearance is constantly abused by those who relapse into sin, it is not surprising that the offer of pardon in the form of an indulgence should have led to evil practices. These again have been in a special way the object of attack because, doubtless, of their connection with Luther's revolt (see Martin Luther). On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the Church, while holding fast to the principle and intrinsic value of indulgences, has repeatedly condemned their misuse: in fact, it is often from the severity of her condemnation that we learn how grave the abuses were.

Even in the age of the martyrs, as stated above, there were practices which St. Cyprian was obliged to reprehend, yet he did not forbid the martyrs to give the libelli. In later times abuses were met by repressive measures on the part of the Church. Thus the Council of Clovesho in England (747) condemns those who imagine that they might atone for their crimes by substituting, in place of their own, the austerities of mercenary penitents (Haddan and Stubbs, "Councils", III, 373; cf, Lingard, "History and Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church", 2nd. ed., London, 1858, I, 311). Against the excessive indulgences granted by some prelates, the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) decreed that at the dedication of a church the indulgence should not be for more than a year, and, for the anniversary of the dedication or any other case, it should not exceed forty days, this being the limit observed by the pope himself on such occasions. The same restriction was enacted by the Council of Ravenna in 1317. In answer to the complaint of the Dominicans and Franciscans, that certain prelates had put their own construction on the indulgences granted to these Orders, Clement IV in 1268 forbade any such interpretation, declaring that, when it was needed, it would be given by the Holy See. In 1330 the brothers of the hospital of Haut-Pas falsely asserted that the grants made in their favor were more extensive than what the documents allowed: John XXII had all these brothers in France seized and imprisoned. Boniface IX, writing to the Bishop of Ferrara in 1392, condemns the practice of certain religious who falsely claimed that they were authorized by the pope to forgive all sorts of sins, and exacted money from the simple-minded among the faithful by promising them perpetual happiness in this world and eternal glory in the next. When Henry, Archbishop of Canterbury, attempted in 1420 to give a plenary indulgence in the form of the Roman Jubilee, he was severely reprimanded by Martin V, who characterized his action as "unheard-of presumption and sacrilegious audacity". In 1450 Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, Apostolic Legate to Germany, found some preachers asserting that indulgences released from the guilt of sin as well as from the punishment. This error, due to a misunderstanding of the words "a culpa et a poena", the cardinal condemned at the Council of Magdeburg. Finally, Sixtus IV in 1478, lest the idea of gaining indulgences should prove an incentive to sin, reserved for the judgment of the Holy See a large number of cases in which faculties had formerly been granted to confessors (Extray. Corn., tit. de poen. et remiss.).

Traffic in Indulgences.—These measures show plainly that the Church long before the Reformation, not only recognized the existence of abuses, but also used her authority to correct them. In spite of all this, disorders continued and furnished the pretext for attacks directed against the doctrine itself, no less than against the practice, of indulgences. Here, as in so many other matters, the love of money was the chief root of the evil; indulgences were employed by mercenary ecclesiastics as a means of pecuniary gain. Leaving the details concerning this traffic to a subsequent article (see The Reformation), it may suffice for the present to note that the doctrine itself has no natural or necessary connection with pecuniary profit, as is evident from the fact that the abundant indulgences of the present day are free from this evil association: the only conditions required are the saying of certain prayers or the performance of some good work or some practice of piety. Again, it is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place, while men would be induced by the same means to contribute to some pious cause such as the building of churches, the endowment of hospitals, or the organization of a crusade. It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded. Looked at in this light, it might well seem a suitable condition for gaining the spiritual benefit of an indulgence. Yet, however innocent in itself, this practice was fraught with grave danger, and soon became a fruitful source of evil. On the one hand there was the danger that the payment might be regarded as the price of the indulgence, and that those who sought to gain it might lose sight of the more important conditions. On the other hand, those who granted indulgences might be tempted to make them a means of raising money: and, even where the rulers of the Church were free from blame in this matter, there was room for corruption in their officials and agents, or among the popular preachers of indulgences. This class has happily disappeared, but the type has been preserved in Chaucer's "Pardoner", with his bogus relics and indulgences.

While it cannot be denied that these abuses were widespread, it should also be noted that, even when corruption was at its worst, these spiritual grants were being properly used by sincere Christians, who sought them in the right spirit, and by priests and preachers, who took care to insist on the need of true repentance. It is therefore not difficult to understand why the Church, instead of abolishing the practice of indulgences, aimed rather at strengthening it by eliminating the evil elements. The Council of Trent in its decree "On Indulgences" (Sess. XXV) declares: "In granting indulgences the Council desires that moderation be observed in accordance with the ancient approved custom of the Church, lest through excessive ease ecclesiastical discipline be weakened; and further, seeking to correct the abuses that have crept in ... it decrees that all criminal gain therewith connected shall be entirely done away with as a source of grievous abuse among the Christian people; and as to other disorders arising from superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or any cause whatsoever—since these, on account of the widespread corruption, cannot be removed by special prohibitions—the Council lays upon each bishop the duty of finding out such abuses as exist in his own diocese, of bringing them before the next provincial synod, and of reporting them, with the assent of the other bishops, to the Roman Pontiff, by whose authority and prudence measures will be taken for the welfare of the Church at large, so that the benefit of indulgences may be bestowed on all the faithful by means at once pious, holy, and free from corruption." After deploring the fact that, in spite of the remedies prescribed by earlier councils, the traders (quaestores) in indulgences continued their nefarious practice to the great scandal of the faithful, the council ordained that the name and method of these quaestores should be entirely abolished, and that indulgences and other spiritual favors of which the faithful ought not to be deprived should be published by the bishops and bestowed gratuitously, so that all might at length understand that these heavenly treasures were dispensed for the sake of piety and not of lucre (Sess. XXI, c. ix). In 1567 St. Pius V cancelled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions.

Apocryphal Indulgences.—One of the worst abuses was that of inventing or falsifying grants of indulgence. Previous to the Reformation, such practices abounded and called out severe pronouncements by ecclesiastical authority, especially by the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) and that of Vienna (1311). After the Council of Trent the most important measure taken to prevent such frauds was the establishment of the Congregation of Indulgences. A special commission of cardinals served under Clement VIII and Paul V, regulating all matters pertaining to indulgences. The Congregation of Indulgences was definitively established by Clement IX in 1669 and reorganized by Clement XI in 1710. It has rendered efficient service by deciding various questions relative to the granting of indulgences and by its publications. The "Raccolta" (q.v.) was first issued by one of its consultors, Telesforo Galli, in 1807; the last three editions 1877, 1886, and 1898 were published by the Congregation. The other official publication is the "Decreta authentica", containing the decisions of the Congregation from 1668 to 1882. This was published in 1883 by order of Leo XIII. See also "Rescripta authentica" by Joseph Schneider (Ratisbon, 1885). By a Motu Proprio of Pius X, dated January 28, 1904, the Congregation of Indulgences was united to the Congregation of Rites, without any diminution, however, of its prerogatives.

SALUTARY EFFECTS OF INDULGENCES.—Lea (History, etc., III, 446) somewhat reluctantly acknowledges that "with the decline in the financial possibilities of the system, indulgences have greatly multiplied as an incentive to spiritual exercises, and they can thus be so easily obtained that there is no danger of the recurrence of the old abuses, even if the finer sense of fitness, characteristic of modern times, on the part of both prelates and people, did not deter the attempt." The full significance, however, of this "multiplication" lies in the fact that the Church, by rooting out abuses, has shown the vigor of her spiritual life. She has maintained the practice of indulgences, because, when these are used in accordance with what she prescribes, they strengthen the spiritual life by inducing the faithful to approach the sacraments and to purify their consciences of sin. And further, they encourage the performance, in a truly religious spirit, of works that redound, not alone to the welfare of the individual, but also to God's glory and to the service of the neighbor.


Primer on Indulgences

Those who claim that indulgences are no longer part of Church teaching have the admirable desire to distance themselves from abuses that occurred around the time of the Protestant Reformation. They also want to remove stumbling blocks that prevent non-Catholics from taking a positive view of the Church. As admirable as these motives are, the claim that indulgences are not part of Church teaching today is false.

This is proved by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states, "An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishment due for their sins." The Church does this not just to aid Christians, "but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity" (CCC 1478).

Indulgences are part of the Church’s infallible teaching. This means that no Catholic is at liberty to disbelieve in them. The Council of Trent stated that it "condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them"(Trent, session 25, Decree on Indulgences). Trent’s anathema places indulgences in the realm of infallibly defined teaching.

The pious use of indulgences dates back into the early days of the Church, and the principles underlying indulgences extend back into the Bible itself. Catholics who are uncomfortable with indulgences do not realize how biblical they are. The principles behind indulgences are as clear in Scripture as those behind more familiar doctrines, such as the Trinity.

Before looking at those principles more closely, we should define indulgences. In his apostolic constitution on indulgences, Pope Paul VI said: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints" (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 1).

This technical definition can be phrased more simply as, "An indulgence is what we receive when the Church lessens the temporal (lasting only for a short time) penalties to which we may be subject even though our sins have been forgiven." To understand this definition, we need to look at the biblical principles behind indulgences.


Principle 1: Sin Results in Guilt and Punishment

When a person sins, he acquires certain liabilities: the liability of guilt and the liability of punishment. Scripture speaks of the former when it pictures guilt as clinging to our souls, making them discolored and unclean before God: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool" (Is. 1:18). This idea of guilt clinging to our souls appears in texts that picture forgiveness as a cleansing or washing and the state of our forgiven souls as clean and white (cf. Ps. 51:4, 9).

We incur not just guilt, but liability for punishment when we sin: "I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless" (Is. 13:11). Judgment pertains even to the smallest sins: "For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Eccl. 12:14).

Principle 2: Punishments are Both Temporal and Eternal

The Bible indicates some punishments are eternal, lasting forever, but others are temporal. Eternal punishment is mentioned in Daniel 12:2: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt."

We normally focus on the eternal penalties of sin, because they are the most important, but Scripture indicates temporal penalties are real and go back to the first sin humans committed: "To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children (Gen. 3:16).

Principle 3: Temporal Penalties May Remain When a Sin is Forgiven

When someone repents, God removes his guilt (Is. 1:18) and any eternal punishment (Rom. 5:9), but temporal penalties may remain. One passage demonstrating this is 2 Samuel 12, in which Nathan the prophet confronts David over his adultery:

"Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan answered David: ‘The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin; you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die’" (2 Sam. 12:13-14). God forgave David but David still had to suffer the loss of his son as well as other temporal punishments (2 Sam. 12:7-12). (For other examples, see: Numbers 14:13-23; 20:12; 27:12-14.)

Protestants realize that, while Jesus paid the price for our sins before God, he did not relieve our obligation to repair what we have done. They fully acknowledge that if you steal someone’s car, you have to give it back; it isn’t enough just to repent. God’s forgiveness (and man’s!) does not include letting you keep the stolen car.

Protestants also admit the principle of temporal penalties for sin, in practice, when discussing death. Scripture says death entered the world through original sin (Gen. 3:22-24, Rom. 5:12). When we first come to God we are forgiven, and when we sin later we are able to be forgiven, yet that does not free us from the penalty of physical death. Even the forgiven die; a penalty remains after our sins are forgiven. This is a temporal penalty since physical death is temporary and we will be resurrected (Dan. 12:2).

Principle 4: God Blesses Some People As a Reward to Others

In Matthew 9:1-8, Jesus heals a paralytic and forgives his sins after seeing the faith of his friends. Paul also tells us that "as regards election [the Jews] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers" (Rom. 11:28).

When God blesses one person as a reward to someone else, sometimes the specific blessing he gives is a reduction of the temporal penalties to which the first person is subject. For example, God promised Abraham that, if he could find a certain number of righteous men in Sodom, he was willing to defer the city’s temporal destruction for the sake of the righteous (Gen. 18:16-33; cf. 1 Kgs. 11:11-13; Rom. 11:28-29).

Principle 5: God Remits Temporal Punishments through the Church

God uses the Church when he removes temporal penalties. This is the essence of the doctrine of indulgences. Earlier we defined indulgences as "what we receive when the Church lessens the temporal penalties to which we may be subject even though our sins have been forgiven." The members of the Church became aware of this principle through the sacrament of penance. From the beginning, acts of penance were assigned as part of the sacrament because the Church recognized that Christians must deal with temporal penalties, such as God’s discipline and the need to compensate those our sins have injured.

In the early Church, penances were sometimes severe. For serious sins, such as apostasy, murder, and abortion, the penances could stretch over years, but the Church recognized that repentant sinners could shorten their penances by pleasing God through pious or charitable acts that expressed sorrow and a desire to make up for one’s sin.

The Church also recognized the duration of temporal punishments could be lessened through the involvement of other persons who had pleased God. Scripture tells us God gave the authority to forgive sins "to men" (Matt. 9:8) and to Christ’s ministers in particular. Jesus told them, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:21-23).

If Christ gave his ministers the ability to forgive the eternal penalty of sin, how much more would they be able to remit the temporal penalties of sin! Christ also promised his Church the power to bind and loose on earth, saying, "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 18:18). As the context makes clear, binding and loosing cover Church discipline, and Church discipline involves administering and removing temporal penalties (such as barring from and readmitting to the sacraments). Therefore, the power of binding and loosing includes the administration of temporal penalties.

Principle 6: God Blesses Dead Christians As a Reward to Living Christians

From the beginning the Church recognized the validity of praying for the dead so that their transition into heaven (via purgatory) might be swift and smooth. This meant praying for the lessening or removal of temporal penalties holding them back from the full glory of heaven. For this reason the Church teaches that "indulgences can always be applied to the dead by way of prayer" (Indulgentarium Doctrina 3). The custom of praying for the dead is not restricted to the Catholic faith. When a Jewish person’s loved one dies, he prays a prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish for eleven months after the death for the loved one’s purification.

In the Old Testament, Judah Maccabee finds the bodies of soldiers who died wearing superstitious amulets during one of the Lord’s battles. Judah and his men "turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out" (2 Macc. 12:42).

The reference to the sin being "wholly blotted out" refers to its temporal penalties. The author of 2 Maccabees tells us that for these men Judah "was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness" (verse 45); he believed that these men fell asleep in godliness, which would not have been the case if they were in mortal sin. If they were not in mortal sin, then they would not have eternal penalties to suffer, and thus the complete blotting out of their sin must refer to temporal penalties for their superstitious actions. Judah "took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this . . . he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin" (verses 43, 46).

Judah not only prayed for the dead, but he provided for them the then-appropriate ecclesial action for lessening temporal penalties: a sin offering. Accordingly, we may take the now-appropriate ecclesial action for lessening temporal penalties— indulgences—and apply them to the dead by way of prayer.

These six principles, which we have seen to be thoroughly biblical, are the underpinnings of indulgences. But, the question of expiation often remains. Can we expiate our sins—and what does "expiate" mean anyway?

Some criticize indulgences, saying they involve our making "expiation" for our sins, something which only Christ can do. While this sounds like a noble defense of Christ’s sufficiency, this criticism is unfounded, and most who make it do not know what the word "expiation" means or how indulgences work.

Protestant Scripture scholar Leon Morris comments on the confusion around the word "expiate": "[M]ost of us . . . don’t understand ‘expiation’ very well. . . . [E]xpiation is . . . making amends for a wrong. . . . Expiation is an impersonal word; one expiates a sin or a crime" (The Atonement [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983], 151). The Wycliff Bible Encyclopedia gives a similar definition: "The basic idea of expiation has to do with reparation for a wrong, the satisfaction of the demands of justice through paying a penalty."

Certainly when it comes to the eternal effects of our sins, only Christ can make amends or reparation. Only he was able to pay the infinite price necessary to cover our sins. We are completely unable to do so, not only because we are finite creatures incapable of making an infinite satisfaction, but because everything we have was given to us by God. For us to try to satisfy God’s eternal justice would be like using money we had borrowed from someone to repay what we had stolen from him. No actual satisfaction would be made (cf. Ps. 49:7-9, Rom. 11:35). This does not mean we can’t make amends or reparation for the temporal effects of our sins. If someone steals an item, he can return it. If someone damages another’s reputation, he can publicly correct the slander. When someone destroys a piece of property, he can compensate the owner for its loss. All these are ways in which one can make at least partial amends (expiation) for what he has done.

An excellent biblical illustration of this principle is given in Proverbs 16:6, which states: "By loving kindness and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil" (cf. Lev. 6:1-7; Num. 5:5-8). Here we are told that a person makes temporal atonement (though never eternal atonement, which only Christ is capable of doing) for his sins through acts of loving kindness and faithfulness.

NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004

IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004



Myths about Indulgences

Indulgences. The very word stirs up more misconceptions than perhaps any other teaching in Catholic theology. Those who attack the Church for its use of indulgences rely upon—and take advantage of—the ignorance of both Catholics and non-Catholics.

What is an indulgence? The Church explains, "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints" (Indulgentarium Doctrina 1). To see the biblical foundations for indulgences, see the Catholic Answers tract A Primer on Indulgences.

Step number one in explaining indulgences is to know what they are. Step number two is to clarify what they are not. Here are the seven most common myths about indulgences:

Myth 1: A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences.

This charge is without foundation. Since indulgences remit only temporal penalties, they cannot remit the eternal penalty of hell. Once a person is in hell, no amount of indulgences will ever change that fact. The only way to avoid hell is by appealing to God’s eternal mercy while still alive. After death, one’s eternal fate is set (Heb. 9:27).

Myth 2: A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed.

The Church has always taught that indulgences do not apply to sins not yet committed. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes, "[An indulgence] is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power."

Myth 3: A person can "buy forgiveness" with indulgences.

The definition of indulgences presupposes that forgiveness has already taken place: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven" (Indulgentarium Doctrina 1, emphasis added). Indulgences in no way forgive sins. They deal only with punishments left after sins have been forgiven.

Myth 4: Indulgences were invented as a means for the Church to raise money.
Indulgences developed from reflection on the sacrament of reconciliation. They are a way of shortening the penance of sacramental discipline and were in use centuries before money-related problems appeared.

Myth 5: An indulgence will shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days.

The number of days which used to be attached to indulgences were references to the period of penance one might undergo during life on earth. The Catholic Church does not claim to know anything about how long or short purgatory is in general, much less in a specific person’s case.

Myth 6: A person can buy indulgences.

The Council of Trent instituted severe reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and, because of prior abuses, "in 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions" (Catholic Encyclopedia). This act proved the Church’s seriousness about removing abuses from indulgences.

Myth 7: A person used to be able to buy indulgences.

One never could "buy" indulgences. The financial scandal surrounding indulgences, the scandal that gave Martin Luther an excuse for his heterodoxy, involved alms—indulgences in which the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. There was no outright selling of indulgences. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "[I]t is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded."

Being able to explain these seven myths will be a large step in helping others to understand indulgences. But, there are still questions to be asked:

"How many of one’s temporal penalties can be remitted?"

Potentially, all of them. The Church recognizes that Christ and the saints are interested in helping penitents deal with the aftermath of their sins, as indicated by the fact they always pray for us (Heb. 7:25, Rev. 5:8). Fulfilling its role in the administration of temporal penalties, the Church draws upon the rich supply of rewards God chose to bestow on the saints, who pleased him, and on his Son, who pleased him most of all.

The rewards on which the Church draws are infinite because Christ is God, so the rewards he accrued are infinite and never can be exhausted. His rewards alone, apart from the saints’, could remove all temporal penalties from everyone, everywhere. The rewards of the saints are added to Christ’s—not because anything is lacking in his, but because it is fitting that they be united with his rewards as the saints are united with him. Although immense, their rewards are finite, but his are infinite.

"If the Church has the resources to wipe out everyone’s temporal penalties, why doesn’t it do so?"

Because God does not wish this to be done. God himself instituted the pattern of temporal penalties being left behind. They fulfill valid functions, one of them disciplinary. If a child were never disciplined, he would never learn obedience. God disciplines us as his children — "the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives" (Heb. 12:6) — so some temporal penalties must remain.

The Church cannot wipe out, with a stroke of the pen, so to speak, everyone’s temporal punishments because their remission depends on the dispositions of the persons who suffer those temporal punishments. Just as repentance and faith are needed for the remission of eternal penalties, so they are needed for the remission of temporal penalties. Pope Paul VI stated, "Indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God"(Indulgentarium Doctrina 11). We might say that the degree of remission depends on how well the penitent has learned his lesson.

"How does one determine by what amount penalties have been lessened?"

Before Vatican II each indulgence was said to remove a certain number of "days" from one’s discipline—for instance, an act might gain "300 days’ indulgence"—but the use of the term "days" confused people, giving them the mistaken impression that in purgatory time as we know it still exists and that we can calculate our "good time" in a mechanical way. The number of days associated with indulgences actually never meant that that much "time" would be taken off one’s stay in purgatory. Instead, it meant that an indefinite but partial (not complete) amount of remission would be granted, proportionate to what ancient Christians would have received for performing that many days’ penance. So, someone gaining 300 days’ indulgence gained roughly what an early Christian would have gained by, say, reciting a particular prayer on arising for 300 days.

To overcome the confusion Paul VI issued a revision of the handbook (Enchiridion is the formal name) of indulgences. Today, numbers of days are not associated with indulgences. They are either plenary or partial.

"What’s the difference between a partial and a plenary indulgence?"

"An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin" (Indulgentarium Doctrina 2, 3). Only God knows exactly how efficacious any particular partial indulgence is or whether a plenary indulgence was received at all.

"Don’t indulgences duplicate or even negate the work of Christ?"

Despite the biblical underpinnings of indulgences, some are sharply critical of them and insist the doctrine supplants the work of Christ and turns us into our own saviors. This objection results from confusion about the nature of indulgences and about how Christ’s work is applied to us.

Indulgences apply only to temporal penalties, not to eternal ones. The Bible indicates that these penalties may remain after a sin has been forgiven and that God lessens these penalties as rewards to those who have pleased him. Since the Bible indicates this, Christ’s work cannot be said to have been supplanted by indulgences.

The merits of Christ, since they are infinite, comprise most of those in the treasury of merits. By applying these to believers, the Church acts as Christ’s servant in the application of what he has done for us, and we know from Scripture that Christ’s work is applied to us over time and not in one big lump (Phil. 2:12, 1 Pet. 1:9).

"Isn’t it better to put all of the emphasis on Christ alone?"

If we ignore the fact of indulgences, we neglect what Christ does through us, and we fail to recognize the value of what he has done in us. Paul used this very sort of language: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col. 1:24).

Even though Christ’s sufferings were superabundant (far more than needed to pay for anything), Paul spoke of completing what was "lacking" in Christ’s sufferings. If this mode of speech was permissible for Paul, it is permissible for us, even though the Catholic language about indulgences is far less shocking than was Paul’s language about his own role in salvation.

Catholics should not be defensive about indulgences. They are based on principles straight from the Bible, and we can be confident not only that indulgences exist, but that they are useful and worth obtaining.

Pope Paul VI declared, "[T]he Church invites all its children to think over and weigh up in their minds as well as they can how the use of indulgences benefits their lives and all Christian society.... Supported by these truths, holy Mother Church again recommends the practice of indulgences to the faithful. It has been very dear to Christian people for many centuries as well as in our own day. Experience proves this" (Indulgentarium Doctrina, 9, 11).


To gain any indulgence you must be a Catholic in a state of grace. You must be a Catholic in order to be under the Church’s jurisdiction, and you must be in a state of grace because apart from God’s grace none of your actions are fundamentally pleasing to God (meritorious). You also must have at least the habitual intention of gaining an indulgence by the act performed.

To gain a partial indulgence, you must perform with a contrite heart the act to which the indulgence is attached.

To gain a plenary indulgence you must perform the act with a contrite heart, plus you must go to confession (one confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences), receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope’s intentions. (An Our Father and a Hail Mary said for the pope’s intentions are sufficient, although you are free to substitute other prayers of your own choice.) The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin.

If you attempt to receive a plenary indulgence, but are unable to meet the last condition, a partial indulgence is received instead.

Below are indulgences listed in the Handbook of Indulgences (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1991). Note that there is an indulgence for Bible reading. So, rather than discouraging Bible reading, the Catholic Church promotes it by giving indulgences for it! (This was the case long before Vatican II.)

• An act of spiritual communion, expressed in any devout formula whatsoever, is endowed with a partial indulgence.

• A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly spend time in mental prayer.

• A plenary indulgence is granted when the rosary is recited in a church or oratory or when it is recited in a family, a religious community, or a pious association. A partial indulgence is granted for its recitation in all other circumstances.

• A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read sacred Scripture with the veneration due God’s word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is done for at least one-half hour [provided the other conditions are met].

• A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who devoutly sign themselves with the cross while saying the customary formula: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

In summary, the practice of indulgences neither takes away nor adds to the work of Christ. It is his work, through his body the Church, raising up children in his own likeness. "The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace is not alone. ‘The life of each of God’s children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person’" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1474 [Indulgentarium Doctrina 5]).

NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004

IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004

What's Wrong with a Little Indulgence?

By Jimmy Akin

October 31, 1517, is sometimes celebrated as the birth date of the Protestant Reformation. It was on this day that Martin Luther reportedly nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, although there are no contemporary accounts of this event.

The Ninety-Five Theses were not a manifesto for the Protestant Reformation but a set of propositions for a public debate. They did not deal with any of the doctrines that came to be hallmarks of Protestant theology. For example, they make no reference to justification by faith alone or to theology by Scripture alone (sola scriptura).

Luther’s main concern was the Church’s penitential system, particularly the doctrine of indulgences. In fact, the official title of Luther’s posting is Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.

An indulgence had been issued to raise funds for construction on St. Peter’s Basilica, and when it was preached in Luther’s area, some of the common folk came away with erroneous ideas. Luther issued his proposition in response.

In a letter to the archbishop of Mainz (dated October 31, 1517), he explained:

I do not bring accusation against the outcries of the preachers, which I have not heard, so much as I grieve over the wholly false impressions that the people have conceived from them; to wit, the unhappy souls believe that if they have purchased letters of indulgence they are sure of their salvation; again, that so soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, souls fly out of purgatory; furthermore, that these graces are so great that there is no sin too great to be absolved, even, as they say—though the thing is impossible—if one had violated the Mother of God; again, that a man is free, through these indulgences, from all penalty and guilt.

Luther was right to be concerned about these opinions, for none of them are true or correspond to the Church’s teaching. Indulgences do not assure one’s salvation. Performing the external work of an indulgence (contributing money, in this case) does not automatically free souls from purgatory, nor do indulgences free one from the guilt or the penalties of sin.

The practice of indulgences has changed over the centuries and, like any institution regulated by men, it has been subject to abuse. There were real abuses at the time of the Reformation. In addition to superstitious understandings of what indulgences would do, some preachers were unscrupulous in the raising of money. (Contrary to popular legend, indulgences were never "sold" but were granted as an incentive to support charitable causes.)

It is unfortunate that Luther’s response spun out of control and led to progressively graver deviations from Catholic doctrine, in the end producing one of the gravest wounds to Christian unity. It is also unfortunate that the doctrine of indulgences has continued to be misrepresented and misunderstood by both Protestants and Catholics.

What Indulgences Are

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Indulgences are the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven" (q. 312). This shows the error of one of the misunderstandings that Luther reported: the idea that through indulgences "a man is free . . . from all penalty and guilt." Indulgences do not free one from guilt. They presuppose that the guilt of sin has already been forgiven.

Indulgences deal only with the "temporal punishment due to sins," a concept that many people today are not familiar with. There are consequences of sin that come to us in this world, the world of time. These are called "temporal punishments" in contrast to the eternal punishment of hell.

There is a tendency, particularly in Protestant circles, to think of sin as having only one consequence: guilt and the possibility of hell. If guilt is forgiven, one will go to heaven; if one’s guilt is not forgiven, one will go to hell. This is an incomplete view. Scripture tells us that that guilt is not the only result of sin. The book of Hebrews contains a meditation on the fact that God still rebukes and disciplines his children in order to produce holiness in them, stating that "he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness" even though "for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant" (Heb. 12:10–11).

The Nature of Punishment

Divine punishments—both temporal and eternal—have often been viewed as calamities deliberately inflicted by God on account of sin. God condemns people to hell the way a judge condemns people to prison. In the case of temporal punishments, God inflicts these the same way parents punish children.

Scripture uses similar images. The parable of the sheep and the goats depicts Jesus judging the nations and telling the goats to depart into eternal fire (Matt. 25:32–46), and Hebrews 12 compares the way that God disciplines us to the way our earthly fathers did. But parables contain symbolic elements, and these comparisons and metaphors have their limits. Recent reflection on the mercy of God has led some to question whether these images need to be understood differently.

In what may be a point of doctrinal development, the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns us away from understanding eternal or temporal punishment on the model of externally inflicted vengeance:

Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth or after death in the state called purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without but as following from the very nature of sin. (CCC 1472)

Eternal punishment results from being made "incapable of eternal life" by "the very nature" of grave sin. Temporal punishment is understood as a purification from the "unhealthy attachment to creatures" that even venial sin involves (e.g., too much attachment to food or drink or sex) and also flows from the nature of sin rather than the external imposition of a penalty.

The Role of Grace

One may well ask how, if divine punishments are not inflicted from without but are intrinsic to sin, they can be remitted. It is easy to see how a punishment can be remitted if it is being inflicted externally. If a judge sentences someone to prison, he can overturn the sentence. If parents ground their children, they can rescind the punishment. But if a penalty follows from the internal logic of the offense itself, how can it be remitted?

By God changing the person so that the consequence no longer follows.

In the case of eternal punishment, God gives sanctifying grace to the guilty person, making him again capable of eternal life. In the case of temporal punishments, God can cure the disordered attachment to created things that such punishments are meant to address, avoiding the need for a painful purification. Presumably, this is what indulgences do in the Catechism’s understanding.

When remitting temporal punishments, the Church draws on the infinite merits of Jesus Christ. It also draws upon the prayers and good works of all the saints, for there is "a supernatural solidarity whereby the sin of one harms the others just as the holiness of one also benefits the others" (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 4).

The Role of the Church

God’s intervention through indulgences involves the action of the Church. God has made the Church his instrument for dispensing grace and regulating the spiritual lives of the faithful. He bestowed the power of the keys on Peter (Matt. 16:19) and gave him and the apostles the power of binding and loosing (Matt. 16:19; 18:18).

He also told them, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). God gave us the Church to get us to heaven; the power to forgive and retain sins is principally concerned with the remission of the eternal penalty for sin. But that is not its only function.

God also gave us the Church to help us cultivate holiness in this life. Over the course of time, the Church began to offer indulgences for pious actions, such as saying prayers, reading Scripture, making pilgrimages, and supporting causes such as the building of churches or the endowment of hospitals. These things are good in themselves, and by offering an indulgence as an incentive to do them, the Church gave individuals a reason to school themselves in holiness and grow in sanctification.

Although the history of indulgences is controversial and many misconceptions still exist, they remain one way the Church encourages Christians to cultivate "the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).



By James Akin

1471. The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of penance.

"An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints" (Indulgentarium Doctrina norm 1).

"An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin" (ibid. norm 2, norm 3).

Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.

1472. To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand, every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth or after death in the state called purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain (Council of Trent [1551]: Denzinger-Schonmetzer 1712-1713; [1563]: 1820).

1473. The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the "old man" and to put on the "new man" (Eph. 4:22, 24).

1474. The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God's grace is not alone. "The life of each of God's children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person" (Indulgentarium Doctrina 5).

1478. An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and losing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the metis of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity (Indulgentarium Doctrina 5).


The Faith of Our Fathers

XXVII. Indulgences

There are few tenets of the Catholic Church so little understood, or so grossly misrepresented by her adversaries, as her doctrine regarding Indulgences.

One of the reasons of the popular misapprehension of an Indulgence may be ascribed to the change which the meaning of that term has gradually undergone. The word Indulgence originally signified favor, remission or forgiveness. Now, it is commonly used in the sense of unlawful gratification, and of free scope to the passions. Hence, when some ignorant or prejudiced persons hear of the Church granting an Indulgence the idea of license to sin is at once presented to their minds.

An Indulgence is simply a remission in whole or in part, through the superabundant merits of Jesus Christ and His saints, of the temporal punishment due to God on account of sin after the guilt and eternal punishment have been remitted.

It should be borne in mind that, even after our guilt is removed, there often remains some temporal punishment to be undergone, either in this life or the next, as an expiation to Divine sanctity and justice. The Holy Scripture furnishes us with many examples of this truth. Mary, the sister of Moses, was pardoned the sin which she had committed by murmuring against her brother. Nevertheless, God inflicted on her the penalty of leprosy and of seven days' separation from the people.[Num. xii.]

Nathan, the prophet, announced to David that his crimes were forgiven, but that he should suffer many chastisements from the hand of God.[II Kings xii.]

That our Lord has given to the Church the power of granting Indulgences is clearly deduced from the Sacred Text. To the Prince of the Apostles He said: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven."[Matt. xvi. 19.] And to all the Apostles assembled together He made the same solemn declaration.[Ibid., xviii. 18.] By these words our Savior empowered His Church to deliver her children (if properly disposed) from every obstacle that might retard them from the Kingdom of Heaven. Now there are two impediments that withhold a man from the heavenly kingdom--sin and the temporal punishment incurred by it. And the Church having power to remit the greater obstacle, which is sin, has power also to remove the smaller obstacle, which is the temporal punishment due on account of it.

The prerogative of granting Indulgence has been exercised by the teachers of the Church from the beginning of her existence.

St. Paul exercised it in behalf of the incestuous Corinthian whom he had condemned to a severe penance proportioned to his guilt, "that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord."[I Cor. v. 5.] And having learned afterwards of the Corinthian's fervent contrition the Apostle absolves him from the penance which he had imposed: "To him, that is such a one, this rebuke is sufficient, which is given by many. So that contrariwise you should rather pardon and comfort him, lest, perhaps, such a one be swallowed up with over-much sorrow. ... And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes I have done it in the person of Christ."[II Cor. ii. 6-10.]

Here we have all the elements that constitute an Indulgence. First--A penance, or temporal punishment proportioned to the gravity of the offence, is imposed on the transgressor. Second--The penitent is truly contrite for his crime. Third--This determines the Apostle to remit the penalty. Fourth--The Apostle considers the relaxation of the penance ratified by Jesus Christ, in whose name it is imparted.

We find the Bishops of the Church, after the Apostle, wielding this same power. No one disputes the right, which they claimed from the very first ages, of inflicting canonical penances on grievous criminals, who were subjected to long fasts, severe abstinences and other mortifications for a period extending from a few days to five or ten years and even to a lifetime, according to the gravity of the offence. These penalties were, in several instances, mitigated or cancelled by the Church, according to her discretion; for a society that can inflict a punishment can also remit it. Our Lord gave His Church power not only to bind, but also to loose. This discretionary prerogative was often exercised by the Church at the intercession of those who were condemned to martyrdom, when the penitents themselves gave strong marks of fervent sorrow, as we learn from the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian.

The General Council of Nice and other Synods authorize Bishops to mitigate, or even to remit altogether, public penances, whenever, in their judgment, the penitent manifested special marks of repentance. Now, in relaxing the canonical penances, or in substituting for them a milder satisfaction, the Bishops granted what we call an Indulgence. This sentence of remission on the part of the Bishops was valid not only in the sight of the Church, but also in the sight of God. Although the Church imposes canonical penances no longer, God has never ceased to inflict temporal punishment for sin. Hence Indulgences continue to be necessary now, if not as substitute for canonical penances, at least as a mild and merciful payment of the temporal debt due to God.

An Indulgence is called plenary or partial, according as it remits the whole or part of the temporal punishment due to sin. An Indulgence, for instance, of forty days remits, before God, so much of the temporal punishment as would have been expiated in the primitive Church by a canonical penance of forty days.

Although the very name of Indulgence is now so repugnant to our dissenting brethren, there was a time when the Protestant Church professed to grant them. In the canons of the Church of England reference is made to Indulgences, and to the disposition to be made of the money paid for them.[Articuli pro Clero, a.d. 1584. Sparrow, 194. I admit, indeed, that Protestant canons have but a fleeting and ephemeral authority even among themselves, and that the canons must yield to the spirit of the times, not the times to the canons. I dare say that even few Protestant theologians are familiar with the canons to which I have referred. Some people have a convenient faculty of forgetting unpleasant traditions.]

From what I have said you may judge for yourself what to think of those who say that an Indulgence is the remission of past sins, or a license to commit sin granted by the Pope as a spiritual compensation to the faithful for pecuniary offerings made him. I need not inform you that an Indulgence is neither the one nor the other. It is not a remission of sin, since no one can gain an Indulgence until he is already free from sin. It is still less a license to commit sin; for every Catholic child knows that neither Priest nor Bishop nor Pope nor even God Himself--with all reverence be it said--can give license to commit the smallest fault.

But are not Indulgences at variance with the spirit of the Gospel, since they appear to be a mild and feeble substitute for alms-giving, fasts, abstinences and other penitential austerities, which Jesus Christ inculcated and practised, and which the primitive Church enforced?

The Church, as every one must know who is acquainted with her history, never exempts her children from the obligation of doing works of penance.

No one can deny that the practices of mortification are more frequent among Catholics than among Protestants. Where will you find the evangelical duty of fasting enforced, if not from the Catholic pulpit? It is well known that, among the members of the Catholic Church, those who avail themselves of the boon of Indulgences are usually her most practical, edifying and fervent children. Their spiritual growth far from being retarded, is quickened by the aid of Indulgences, which are usually accompanied by acts of contrition, devotion, self-denial and the reception of the Sacraments.

But, do what we will, we cannot please our opponents. If we fast and give alms; if we crucify our flesh, and make pilgrimages and perform other works of penance, we are accused of clinging to the rags of dead works, instead of "holding on to Jesus" by faith. If, on the other hand, we enrich our souls with the treasures of Indulgences we are charged with relying on the vicarious merits of others and of lightening too much the salutary burden of the cross. But how can Protestants consistently find fault with the Church for mitigating the austerities of penance, since their own fundamental principle rests on faith alone without good works?

But have not Indulgences been the occasion of many abuses at various times, particularly in the sixteenth century?

I will not deny that Indulgences have been abused; but are not the most sacred things liable to be perverted? This is a proper place to refer briefly to the Bull of Pope Leo X proclaiming the Indulgence which afforded Luther a pretext for his apostasy. Leo determined to bring to completion the magnificent Church of St. Peter, commenced by his predecessor, Julius II. With that view he issued a Bull promulgating an Indulgence to such as would contribute some voluntary offering toward the erection of the grand cathedral. Those, however, who contributed nothing shared equally in the treasury of the Church, provided they complied with the essential conditions for gaining the Indulgence. The only indispensable conditions enjoined by the Papal Bull were sincere repentance and confession of sins. D'Aubigne admits this truth, though in a faltering manner, when he observes that "in the Pope's Bull something was said of the repentance of the heart and the confession of the lips."[Vol. I. p. 214.] The applicants for the Indulgence knew well that, no matter how munificent were their offerings, these would avail them nothing without true contrition of heart.

No traffic or sale of Indulgences was, consequently, authorized or countenanced by the Head of the Church, since the contributions were understood to be voluntary. In order to check any sordid love of gain in those charged with preaching the Indulgence, "the hand that delivered the Indulgence," as D'Aubigne testifies, "could not receive the money: that was forbidden under the severest penalties."[Ibid.]

Wherein, then, was the conduct of the Pope reprehensible? Certainly not in soliciting the donations of the faithful for the purpose of erecting a temple of worship, a temple which today stands unrivalled in majesty and beauty!

"But thou of temples old, or altars new,
Standest alone, with nothing like to thee;
Worthiest of God, the holy and the true,
Since Sion's desolation, when that He
Forsook His former city, what could be
Of earthly structures, in His honor piled,
Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty,
Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty, all are aisled
In this eternal ark of worship undefiled."[Byron]

If Moses was justified in appealing to the Hebrew people, in the Old Law, for offerings to adorn the tabernacle, why should not the Pope be equally justified in appealing for similar offerings to the Christian people, among whom he exercises supreme authority, as Moses did among the Israelites?

Nor did the Pope exceed his legitimate powers in promising to the pious donors spiritual favors in exchange for their donations. For if our sins can be redeemed by alms to the poor,[Daniel iv. 24.] as the Scripture tells us, why not as well by offerings in the cause of religion? When Protestant ministers appeal to their congregations in behalf of themselves and their children, or in support of a church, they do not fail to hold out to their hearers spiritual blessings in reward for their gifts. It is not long since a Methodist parson of New York addressed these sacred words to Cornelius Vanderbilt, the millionaire, who had endowed a Methodist college: "Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thy alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God."[Acts x. 31.] The minister is more indulgent than even the Pope, to whom were given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; for the minister declares Cornelius absolved without the preliminary of confession or contrition, while even, according to D'Aubigne, the inflexible Pope insisted on the necessity of "repentance of the heart and confession of the lips" before the donor's offering could avail him to salvation.

John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, who had been appointed the chief preacher to announce the Indulgence in Germany, was accused by Luther of exceeding his powers by making them subservient to his own private ends. Tetzel's conduct was disavowed and condemned by the representative of the Holy See. The Council of Trent, held some time after, took effectual measures to put a stop to all irregularities regarding Indulgences and issued the following decree: "Wishing to correct and amend the abuses which have crept into them, and on occasion of which this signal name of Indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, the Holy Synod enjoins in general, by the present decree, that all wicked traffic for obtaining them, which has been the fruitful source of many abuses among the Christian people, should be wholly abolished."[Sess. xxv. Dec. de Indulgentia.]


 1. Introduction

The Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 explains in nn. 9 and 10 the true meaning of the Jubilee indulgence, while the Decree attached to the Bull sets out the conditions for gaining this indulgence.

It would be helpful to accompany our reflection on nn. 9 and 10 of the Bull with some historical observations. The catechetical treatment of indulgences (doubtlessly complex, given the contemporary cultural climate) will have to be historically based if it is to be pastorally effective.

Before beginning the historical discussion, we will make two observations, one bibliographical and the other methodological.

As regards bibliography, the most complete treatment of indulgences from the historical standpoint goes back to 1922-23. I am referring to an important monograph in three volumes by Nikolaus Paulus, entitled Geschichte des Ablasses im Mittelalter, published in Paderborn, on which subsequent research largely depends. In the period closer to our own, it is useful to consult the entries in the major encyclopedias and dictionaries currently in use.1

From the methodological standpoint, it is important to acknowledge and consistently employ Paulus' historico-critical approach. His historical research started with a precise definition of indulgence in our current theological and canonical sense. Only in this way was he able to discern, among conflicting opinions, the historical presuppositions and actual origin of indulgences, eliminating doubtful references and clarifying ambiguous or misinterpreted terms.

We too should begin with a quick explanation of the term in its historical usage.

The Latin term indulgentia means condescension with the various nuances this implies.2

Historians of the Roman Empire use the word in the technical sense of remissio tributi or remissio poenae, concessions that the emperors customarily made on certain occasions. It was also used to indicate abolitio, a sort of amnesty decreed on joyful public occasions (thus in the Carolingian era indulgentia was still being used as the technical term for the remission of penalties or taxes).

In the Theodosian Code3 the term indicates the pardons granted by Christian emperors especially at Easter: so much so that in many early medieval texts (various calendars, sacramentaries, ceremonials, etc.) Palm Sunday is called dominica indulgentia.

As for the question of remission, we find various terms which can refer both to indulgentia in the strict sense of the term (as we understand it today) and to other similar or related ideas.

This imprecision in terminology — as we already mentioned — has led to great confusion among scholars who are less careful in their research. In fact, the words absolutio, relaxatio, remissio, venia, condonatio and indulgentia can indicate, especially in the 11th-12th centuries, various forms of remission — whether sacramental-penitential or extrasacramental.

According to the current Code of Canon Law: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment for sins the guilt of which has already been forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful obtains under certain and definite conditions with the help of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints".4

In historical research, then, we must carefully determine whether indulgence refers to a strictly extrasacramental act, so that we can decide whether an indulgence in the proper sense is meant or some other form of penitential remission.

2. Antecedents of indulgences (reconciliation; mitigation, reduction and commutation of sacramental penance)

Thus, for example, the grace (charis) of which Paul speaks in 2 Cor 2:10 in relation to an unnamed member of the community should not be considered an indulgence in the strict sense but a reconciliation.

This form of reconciliation flourished in the Church from the second to the fourth centuries, and took place primarily through the intercession of the martyrs or confessors of the faith, or in danger of death; but it is essentially a question of readmitting penitents into the Church.

Relaxatio (or mitigation of penance), which is found for example in the Council of Epaon,5 is also the substitution of a previous, more severe penance with something new and milder. These mitigations of penitential discipline became necessary due to the changing times and social conditions of Christians.

From the seventh century on, beginning in Ireland and England, redemptio, a sort of commutation of penance to less demanding works, such as prayers, alms, fasts and even the payment of fixed sums of money depending on the various kinds of offences (tariff penances) became fashionable. But all this was applied in the context of sacramental discipline.6

A substantial reduction of penance, but still within the sacramental context, already appears in the tenth century in connection with pious donations, pilgrimages and similar meritorious works; it is always a question of the reduction of personal and individual penances. A pilgrimage to Rome was considered an especially meritorious work, so milder penances were imposed on a pilgrim who went to that city. For example, Benedict III (855-858), at the request of Bishop Solomon of Constance, imposed a lighter than usual penance on a pilgrim guilty of fratricide because of his pilgrimage. We know of these examples under Nicholas I, John VI, Stephen V and others. Bishops too were accustomed to imposing a lesser penance on pilgrims who visited shrines or other places of worship than they would have received, precisely because of their pilgrimage. A particular form of the commutation of penance was practised at the time of the Crusades, when the confessor required the penitent to go on a Crusade in place of some other penance.

From the 11th century on, such commutations became more and more frequent and were applied to whoever fulfilled the prescribed conditions. The rigor of the public and tariff forms of sacramental penance had become unbearable in the radically altered conditions of Christian society, and a way had to be found to mitigate this rigour.

Finally — beginning again in the 11th century — the possibility of providing for the multiple works of piety through the imposition of a donation as a condition for the remission of punishment, even outside the sacrament, led the way to indulgences in the strict sense of the term, i.e., apart from sacramental penance.

Among the antecedents of indulgences we should again mention the fact that in the 11th and 12th centuries the use of absolutio flourished in the West.

Towards the end of the Carolingian era and even later, the custom of seeking an absolution in every circumstance and on every occasion, and before any work, became widespread in medieval society. In other words, the faithful were administered a prayer formula — deprecative as well as indicative — so that God would forgive their sins. Absolutions entered the liturgy of the Mass and the Office (this is the meaning of the Confiteor), and were used on various other occasions not only for the living but also for the dead as a prayer on their behalf. We know of countless individual and general grants of these absolutions. They were used in religious houses and outside them on particular days, e.g., in the case of death (see the absolutio super tumbam even today); Popes, Bishops and Abbots granted an absolutio and promised a remission of sins through good works. Absolutions of this kind were more or less solemn blessings, with an authoritative declaration of the resulting merit. Synods and councils were closed with a solemn absolution and sermon; general absolution was given on Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday; it was granted for meritorious works, for observing the so-called "truce of God", etc.

All this helped to give more and more concrete form to the practice of indulgences in the proper and strict sense. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to determine in a specific instance whether we are already dealing with a true and proper indulgence, or still with an advanced form of remission connected with Confession.

3. Transition to true and proper indulgences

Certainly, true indulgences granted for almsgiving or for devotional visits to churches, altars, etc. began in the 11th century — but still only a few — and became more common in the 12th century and later. Paulus7 gives a chronological list of these indulgences down to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

In any case, by the end of the 11th century indulgences in the strict sense of the word are found with all their essential elements. It remains difficult, however, to identify the precise point of transition from the reduction or commutation of sacramental penance to the extrasacramental remission of temporal punishment due to sins committed: with the 11th and 12th centuries it is still hard in many cases to determine whether we are dealing with one or the other practice.

It is helpful in this regard to quote an article — now rather dated as a whole — by Mons. Boudinhon, in which the scholar says: "The first offers of indulgences were made with conditions more or less equivalent to the exercises of penance itself. It would be difficult today to recognize their nature as indulgences. Nevertheless, they represent the first examples of our modern indulgences, i.e., good works offered to all in exchange for the temporal punishment due to sin".8

In this problematic transition, however, the "Crusade" indulgences (which we mentioned earlier) were particularly significant, since to a great extent they led the way to the plenary indulgence. Paulus9 gives a complete and very informative list of them.

In 1063 Alexander II granted a remission of punishment for those who fought the Moors; in order to rouse Christians for the First Crusade, Urban II declared at the Council of Clermont in 1095 that participation in the Crusade was equivalent to a complete penance: "Paenitentiam totam peccatorum, de quibus veram et perfectam confessionem fecerint ... auctoritate dimittimus".

This was repeated by Eugene III in 1145, while Gregory VIII introduces something new in that the complete (plenary) indulgence could also be gained by those who provided someone to take their place or who contributed to the expense of a crusade. These indulgences were later granted for "Crusades" against the pagan Slavs, the Albigensians, etc.

It was precisely the plenary indulgence of the Crusades that led to the idea of the plenary indulgence for the Jubilee.

4. Plenary indulgence in danger of death and for the dead

As regards the plenary indulgence for the dying and the dead, in the 11th century we already find acts of reconciliation granted at the moment of death which leave unresolved the question of a complete remission. But after a plenary indulgence was granted to crusaders even when they were unable to complete the crusade but died because of it, the way was opened to the grant of a true plenary indulgence at the moment of death for everyone.

In the 14th century these grants were made with individual letters of penance: a priest was allowed to be designated as a confessor in danger of death with the faculty of granting the plenary indulgence.

But the faithful had already begun to apply the indulgences they had been granted to the souls of the dead as well. It is clear that around 1350 the practice of applying the Jubilee, Crusade and "Portiuncula" indulgences to the dead was widespread. The ecclesiastical authorities, however, did not yet grant these indulgences, although there was the practice of granting an indulgence to the living if they prayed for the dead. Only in 1457 did Callistus III grant King Henry IV of Castille a plenary indulgence for the living and, for those who would pay 200 maravedi (a former currency in the Iberian countries) for the Crusade against the Moors, an indulgence for the dead. But the Bull remained unknown outside Spain, where it in fact caused a great deal of surprise. In 1476 Sixtus IV granted a Bull for the cathedral of Saintes, France, valid for 10 years, with a plenary indulgence for the living and, in modum suffragii, also for the dead. Regarding the application of indulgences to the dead, there has been a long discussion as to whether the application to the person occurs with certainty or only if it is graciously accepted by God; the latter thesis prevailed.

As for the general doctrine of indulgences, the main difficulty lay in determining the reason why an indulgence could be granted or gained. This reason was found in God's mercy, in the value of the Church's prayers and in the merits of the saints. Some preferred to speak of a kind of substitution with the good works of the Church militant, i.e., of a sort of compensation on the part of the living; but around 1230 the Dominican Hugh of St-Cher proposed instead the idea of a "treasury" at the Church's disposal, consisting of the infinite merits of Christ and the immeasurable abundance of the saints' merits: a thesis which later prevailed and was soundly demonstrated by great scholastics such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas; today it is still the basis for the theological explanation of indulgences.

5. Esteem for indulgences

One aspect of indulgences deserves special mention: the piety of the faithful saw much greater value in indulgences when they were still very rare.

On the other hand, medieval piety was expressed in a countless number of particular devotions, confraternities and associations, all of which led to the request for more and more indulgences. Singing the Salve Regina, reciting the Angelus, praying for the dead in cemeteries, visiting particular sacred images or relics, listening to a sermon, accompanying the Blessed Sacrament when it was brought to the sick or on the feast of Corpus Christi and other occasions, attending Mass, the celebration of patron saints, anniversaries and the dedication of churches, visiting particular altars, chapels, shrines, places of worship or attending the meetings of a confraternity: so many occasions were enriched with indulgences, and the piety of the faithful continued to ask for more.

As a result there were forgeries. But there is more.

Indulgences were attached to many works that were not only good but also served the common good, both religious and civil. Many churches were built or restored — at least in part — with the revenue from indulgences; this also explains the impressive architectural and artistic activity of the Middle Ages. Moreover, hospitals, leprosariums, charitable institutions and schools were built with support from the receipts of special indulgences. Along the same lines is the well-known construction of roads and bridges. Sometimes an indulgence was also granted for certain reclamation projects.

6. Abuses

But the granting of indulgences in connection with almsgiving also led to deplorable abuses.

After an indulgence was announced for making a contribution to a certain project, quaestores were sent to collect the related alms. Unfortunately, in many cases the preaching of these quaestores, out of ignorance or shrewdness, went far beyond dogmatic truth; some of them even dared to promise that the damned would be released from hell.

But another aspect of indulgences was connected with almsgiving. Permission began to be granted to Catholic kings and princes, particularly on the occasion of Crusades, to retain for themselves a rather considerable part of the alms collected for the gaining of indulgences. Later on, similar permission was frequently granted for many other projects, and princes were not always too scrupulous. The most well-known and debated question is the indulgence granted for building the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

No one can deny the existence of abuses, some very serious. However, it must be acknowledged that ecclesiastical authority tried — perhaps not always with the necessary zeal —to curb evil practices. Unfortunately, only the Council of Trent, after the sad Lutheran schism, suppressed for ever the collecting of money for indulgences. But in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council had already suppressed some abuses connected with indulgences: in this regard, the extent of the grants was spelled out and it was determined, for example, that only a one-year indulgence would be granted for the consecration of churches and no more than a 40-days indulgence for other occasions. But very soon these limits were widely exceeded. In fact, false documents were circulated with indulgences surpassing all bounds: indulgences of hundreds or even thousands of years.

7. Tridentine and post-Tridentine legislation

Following the Councils of Lyons and Vienne (1245, 1274 and 1311-1312), the Council of Trent again took up the issue of indulgences, particularly in view of the battle waged against them by the Lutheran Reformation. In the 21st session, chapter nine, the institution of the quaestores, i.e., those who collected the revenue from indulgences, was suppressed, and the publication of indulgences was reserved to Ordinaries. Lastly, in the 25th session, the famous Decree De indulgentiis was issued, defining that the Church received from Christ the Lord the right to grant indulgences, approving their use as christiano populo maxime salutarem, again abolishing any kind of collection for indulgences and enjoining Bishops to be on guard against possible abuses in their Dioceses and to report them to Provincial Synods and the Supreme Pontiff. After the Council of Trent, Clement VIII established a commission of Cardinals to deal with indulgences according to the mind of the Council. It continued its work during the pontificate of Paul V and published various bulls and decrees on the matter. But only Clement IX established a true Congregation of Indulgences (and Relics) with a Brief of 6 July 1669. In a Motu Proprio of 28 January 1904, Pius X joined the Congregation of Indulgences with that of Rites, but with the restructuring of the Roman Curia in 1908 all matters regarding indulgences was assigned to the Holy Office. In a Motu Proprio of 25 March 1915, Benedict XV transferred the Holy Office's Section for Indulgences to the Apostolic Penitentiary, but maintained the Holy Office's responsibility for matters regarding the doctrine of indulgences.

8. Why the Jubilee indulgence?

Historical reflection on the phenomenon of indulgences shows how the Church has acquired an ever clearer awareness of a basic conviction: in the spiritual realm "everything belongs to everyone".

In this perspective (certainly the most fruitful for a catechetical and pastoral presentation of the historical theme), the witness and intercession of the martyrs and confessors of the faith, as well as the prayers and good works of the faithful can be seen as genuine "sources of indulgence", because they add to that treasury of holiness ness from which the Church draws in order to grant the indulgence itself.

In fact, the believer's faith journey and his various experiences of grace can never be considered a private possession. Among the faithful, John Paul II explains, there is established "a marvellous exchange of gifts.... There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others. This is the reality of 'vicariousness', upon which the entire mystery of Christ is founded. His superabundant love saves us all. Yet it is part of the grandeur of Christ's love not to leave us in the condition of passive recipients, but to draw us into his saving work.... Everything comes from Christ, but since we belong to him, whatever is ours also becomes his and acquires healing power. This is what is meant by 'the treasures of the Church', which are the good works of the saints. To pray in order to gain the indulgence means to enter into this spiritual communion and therefore to open oneself totally to others. In the spiritual realm, too, no one lives for himself alone. And salutary concern for the salvation of one's own soul is freed from fear and selfishness only when it becomes concern for the salvation of others as well. This is the reality of the communion of saints, the mystery of 'vicarious life', of prayer as the means of union with Christ and his saints. He takes us with him in order that we may weave with him the white robe of the new humanity, the robe of bright linen which clothes the Bride of Christ" (Bull of Indiction, n. 10).

Ultimately, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observes in speaking of the Portiuncula indulgence, "we have to pass through the meanderings of history and theological ideas to something simple: the prayer by which we abandon ourselves and enter into the communion of saints, in order to cooperate with them in the excess of good compared to the apparent omnipotence of evil, knowing that in the end all is grace".10

But why — we might ask — does the Church want to attach an indulgence to the celebration of the Jubilee? The objection has its validity, since indulgences belong permanently to God's mercy,11 and the faithful can draw on the Church's treasury, which are the prayers and good works of the saints, without 25-year, 100-year or 1,000-year time limits.

To answer the question we need to reflect on the spiritual and theological significance of these time frames. For Christians the flow of time is never something random. It is the epiphany of God's salvation in human history. The end and beginning of a year, such as the various Jubilee celebrations, mark significant stages in the unfolding of God's love for his people. They are stages which remind people of the duty to respond faithfully and to purify themselves, somewhat in the way a wedding anniversary commits a couple to continue and renew their journey of love. Thus the Jubilee, with its indulgence, marks in many respects a "new beginning" in the love story between God and men.

Although this way of thinking may seem very foreign to us, we must recognize that the viewpoint of the true believer, who undertook a Crusade, and who went himself or supported someone else in the same undertaking, was a sort of "going forth in order to follow": the departure marked a "new beginning". The crusader left his safety and security to follow Jesus and to liberate his land. The indulgence granted by the Church effectively accompanied this "consecration" of one's life.

Today the indulgence, connected with the end of the millennium, accompanies and supports a journey of deep spiritual renewal which begins with sacramental absolution but is not meant to stop there. The forgiveness of sins, in fact, does not make the existential process of conversion superfluous at all. On the contrary, the celebration of the sacrament of Penance in a life which is not "in practice" striving for conversion remains very formal and one can even question its validity. The visits and pilgrimages, the good works and spiritual exercises that the Church proposes as "the required conditions for gaining the Jubilee indulgence" (Decree) should be seen as so many "road signs" for an authentic journey of inner purification, or even better, as "effective signs" of a true conversion to Christ in our lives.

In this sense the Jubilee indulgence smooths the way for anyone who wants to rekindle his love for God. It is possible to "burn away sin" and leave the past behind. It is possible to set out again for a new season of grace which prepares and anticipates the final liberation.

We can walk together towards "a new heaven and a new earth", towards the "new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rv 21:1-2).


1. See especially — after the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, whose entry "Indulgences" (1927) alone fills 43 thick columns, a small monograph of its own — the relevant articles in the follow works: Enciclopedia Cattolica (1951); Dictionnaire de Droit Canonique (1953); Catholicisme (1962); Dictionnaire de Spiritualite (1971); Theologische Realenzyklopadie (1977); Lexikon des Mittelalters (1980); Lexikon fur Theologie und Kirche (1993, 3rd ed.); Dizionario storico del Papato (Ital. trans., 1996). Each of these entries, of course, includes a rather ample bibliography.

2. For a more thorough treatment, see Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, 7, coll. 1246-1259: indulgentia and indulgere.

3. 9, 38: De indulgentiis criminum.

4. So says canon 992. As everyone knows, for its definition of indulgentia, the third edition of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum (18 May 1986; cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, 10, 632ff.), which is the Holy See's most recent document on the subject, refers to the same Code of Canon Law.

5. It was one of the so-called Merovingian Councils, held in 517; cf. canon 29.

6. For a more systematic treatment of this question, see H. Karpp, La Penitenza: Fonti sull orgine della penitenza nella Chiesa antica [= Traditio Christiana, 1], Turin 1975, pp. ix-xxxi; bibliography pp. xxxv-xl.

7. Geschichte del Ablasses im Mittalter, 1, pp. 132-194.

8. "Les premieres propositions [de l'indulgence] sont faites a des conditions a peu pres equivalentes aux exercises de la penitence elle-meme; on aurait de la peine a leur reconnaitre ajuourd'hui le caractere d'indulgences; elles n'en constituent pas moins les premiers exemples de nos modernes indulgences, oeuvres offertes a tous en echange de la peine temporelle due au peche" ("Sur l'histoire des indulgences a propos d'un livre recent", Revue d'histoire et de literature religieuses, 3 [1898], pp. 435-455), p. 443.

9. Geschichte del Ablasses im Mittalter, 1, pp. 195-211.

10. J. Ratzinger, Bilder de Hoffnung: Wanderungen im Kirchenjahr, Freiburg-Basel-Vienna 1997, p. 100.

11. But see R. Fisichella, "L'indulgenza e la misericordia di Dio", Communio, 160-161 (1998), pp. 28-37.

© L'Osservatore Romano, Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.


Question 25. Indulgences

  1. Does an indulgence remit any part of the punishment due for the satisfaction of sins?
  2. Are indulgences as effective as they claim to be?
  3. Should an indulgence be granted for temporal assistance?

Article 1. Whether an indulgence can remit any part of the punishment due for the satisfaction of sins?

Objection 1. It would seem that an indulgence cannot remit any part of the punishment due for the satisfaction of sins. Because a gloss on 2 Timothy 2:13, "He cannot deny Himself," says: "He would do this if He did not keep His word." Now He said (Deuteronomy 25:2): "According to the measure of the sin shall the measure also of the stripes be." Therefore nothing can be remitted from the satisfactory punishment which is appointed according to the measure of sin.

Objection 2. Further, an inferior cannot absolve from an obligation imposed by his superior. But when God absolves us from sin He binds us to temporal punishment, as Hugh of St. Victor declares (Tract. vi Sum. Sent. [Of doubtful authenticity]). Therefore no man can absolve from that punishment, by remitting any part of it.

Objection 3. Further, the granting of the sacramental effect without the sacraments belongs to the power of excellence. Now none but Christ has the power of excellence in the sacraments. Since then satisfaction is a part of the sacrament of Penance, conducing to the remission of the punishment due, it seems that no mere man can remit the debt of punishment without satisfaction.

Objection 4. Further, the power of the ministers of the Church was given them, not "unto destruction," but "unto edification" (2 Corinthians 10:8). But it would be conducive to destruction, if satisfaction, which was intended for our good, inasmuch as it serves for a remedy, were done away with. Therefore the power of the ministers of the Church does not extend to this.

On the contrary, It is written (2 Corinthians 2:10): "For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ," and a gloss adds: i.e. "as though Christ Himself had pardoned." But Christ could remit the punishment of a sin without any satisfaction, as evidenced in the case of the adulterous woman (John 8). Therefore Paul could do so likewise. Therefore the Pope can too, since his power in the Church is not less than Paul's.

Further, the universal Church cannot err; since He Who "was heard for His reverence" (Hebrews 5:7) said to Peter, on whose profession of faith the Church was founded (Luke 22:32): "I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not." Now the universal Church approves and grants indulgences. Therefore indulgences have some value.

I answer that, All admit that indulgences have some value, for it would be blasphemy to say that the Church does anything in vain. But some say that they do not avail to free a man from the debt of punishment which he has deserved in Purgatory according to God's judgment, and that they merely serve to free him from the obligation imposed on him by the priest as a punishment for his sins, or from the canonical penalties he has incurred. But this opinion does not seem to be true. First, because it is expressly opposed to the privilege granted to Peter, to whom it was said (Matthew 16:19) that whatsoever he should loose on earth should be loosed also in heaven. Wherefore whatever remission is granted in the court of the Church holds good in the court of God. Moreover the Church by granting such indulgences would do more harm than good, since, by remitting the punishment she had enjoined on a man, she would deliver him to be punished more severely in Purgatory.

Hence we must say on the contrary that indulgences hold good both in the Church's court and in the judgment of God, for the remission of the punishment which remains after contrition, absolution, and confession, whether this punishment be enjoined or not. The reason why they so avail is the oneness of the mystical body in which many have performed works of satisfaction exceeding the requirements of their debts; in which, too, many have patiently borne unjust tribulations whereby a multitude of punishments would have been paid, had they been incurred. So great is the quantity of such merits that it exceeds the entire debt of punishment due to those who are living at this moment: and this is especially due to the merits of Christ: for though He acts through the sacraments, yet His efficacy is nowise restricted to them, but infinitely surpasses their efficacy.

Now one man can satisfy for another, as we have explained above (Question 13, Article 2). And the saints in whom this super-abundance of satisfactions is found, did not perform their good works for this or that particular person, who needs the remission of his punishment (else he would have received this remission without any indulgence at all), but they performed them for the whole Church in general, even as the Apostle declares that he fills up "those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ . . . for His body, which is the Church" to whom he wrote (Colossians 1:24). These merits, then, are the common property of the whole Church. Now those things which are the common property of a number are distributed to the various individuals according to the judgment of him who rules them all. Hence, just as one man would obtain the remission of his punishment if another were to satisfy for him, so would he too if another's satisfactions be applied to him by one who has the power to do so.

Reply to Objection 1. The remission which is granted by means of indulgences does not destroy the proportion between punishment and sin, since someone has spontaneously taken upon himself the punishment due for another's guilt, as explained above.

Reply to Objection 2. He who gains an indulgence is not, strictly speaking, absolved from the debt of punishment, but is given the means whereby he may pay it.

Reply to Objection 3. The effect of sacramental absolution is the removal of a man's guilt, an effect which is not produced by indulgences. But he who grants indulgences pays the debt of punishment which a man owes, out of the common stock of the Church's goods, as explained above.

Reply to Objection 4. Grace affords a better remedy for the avoidance of sin than does habituation to (good) works. And since he who gains an indulgence is disposed to grace through the love which he conceives for the cause for which the indulgence is granted, it follows that indulgences provide a remedy against sin. Consequently it is not harmful to grant indulgences unless this be done without discretion. Nevertheless those who gain indulgences should be advised, not, on this account, to omit the penitential works imposed on them, so that they may derive a remedy from these also, even though they may be quit of the debt of punishment; and all the more, seeing that they are often more in debt than they think.

Article 2. Whether indulgences are as effective as they claim to be?

Objection 1. It would seem that indulgences are not as effective as they claim to be. For indulgences have no effect save from the power of the keys. Now by the power of the keys, he who has that power can only remit some fixed part of the punishment due for sin, after taking into account the measure of the sin and of the penitent's sorrow. Since then indulgences depend on the mere will of the grantor, it seems that they are not as effective as they claim to be.

Objection 2. Further, the debt of punishment keeps man back from the attainment of glory, which he ought to desire above all things. Now, if indulgences are as effective as they claim to be, a man by setting himself to gain indulgences might become immune from all debt of temporal punishment. Therefore it would seem that a man ought to put aside all other kinds of works, and devote himself to gain indulgences.

Objection 3. Further, sometimes an indulgence whereby a man is remitted a third part of the punishment due for his sins is granted if he contribute towards the erection of a certain building. If, therefore, indulgences produce the effect which is claimed for them, he who gives a penny, and then another, and then again another, would obtain a plenary absolution from all punishment due for his sins, which seems absurd.

Objection 4. Further, sometimes an indulgence is granted, so that for visiting a church a man obtains a seven years' remission. If, then, an indulgence avails as much as is claimed for it a man who lives near that church, or the clergy attached thereto who go there every day, obtain as much indulgence as one who comes from a distance (which would appear unjust); moreover, seemingly, they would gain the indulgence several times a day, since they go there repeatedly.

Objection 5. Further, to remit a man's punishment beyond a just estimate seems to amount to the same as to remit it without reason; because in so far as he exceeds that estimate, he limits the compensation. Now he who grants an indulgence cannot without cause remit a man's punishment either wholly or partly, even though the Pope were to say to anyone: "I remit to all the punishment you owe for your sins." Therefore it seems that he cannot remit anything beyond the just estimate. Now indulgences are often published which exceed that just estimate. Therefore they do not avail as much as is claimed for them.

On the contrary, It is written (Job 13:7): "Hath God any need of your lie, that you should speak deceitfully for Him?" Therefore the Church, in publishing indulgences, does not lie; and so they avail as much as is claimed for them.

Further, the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 15:14): "If . . . our preaching is vain, your faith is also vain." Therefore whoever utters a falsehood in preaching, so far as he is concerned, makes faith void. and so sins mortally. If therefore indulgences are not as effective as they claim to be, all who publish indulgences would commit a mortal sin: which is absurd.

I answer that, on this point there are many opinions. For some maintain that indulgences have not the efficacy claimed for them, but that they simply avail each individual in proportion to his faith and devotion. And consequently those who maintain this, say that the Church publishes her indulgences in such a way as, by a kind of pious fraud, to induce men to do well, just as a mother entices her child to walk by holding out an apple. But this seems a very dangerous assertion to make. For as Augustine states (Ep. ad Hieron. lxxviii), "if any error were discovered in Holy Writ, the authority of Holy Writ would perish." In like manner, if any error were to be found in the Church's preaching, her doctrine would have no authority in settling questions of faith.

Hence others have maintained that indulgences avail as much as is claimed for them, according to a just estimate, not of him who grants it--who perhaps puts too high a value on it--nor of the recipient--for he may prize too highly the gift he receives, but a just estimate according to the estimate of good men who consider the condition of the person affected, and the utility and needs of the Church, for the Church's needs are greater at one time than at another. Yet, neither, seemingly, can this opinion stand. First, because in that case indulgences would no longer be a remission, but rather a mere commutation. Moreover the preaching of the Church would not be excused from untruth, since, at times, indulgences are granted far in excess of the requirements of this just estimate, taking into consideration all the aforesaid conditions, as, for example, when the Pope granted to anyone who visited a certain church, an indulgence of seven years, which indulgence was granted by Blessed Gregory for the Roman Stations.

Hence others say that the quantity of remission accorded in an indulgence is not to be measured by the devotion of the recipient, as the first opinion suggested, nor according to the quantity of what is given, as the second opinion held; but according to the cause for which the indulgence is granted, and according to which a person is held deserving of obtaining such an indulgence. Thus according as a man approached near to that cause, so would he obtain remission in whole or in part. But neither will this explain the custom of the Church, who assigns, now a greater, now a lesser indulgence, for the same cause: thus, under the same circumstances, now a year's indulgence, now one of only forty days, according to the graciousness of the Pope, who grants the indulgence, is granted to those who visit a church. Wherefore the amount of the remission granted by the indulgence is not to be measured by the cause for which a person is worthy of an indulgence.

We must therefore say otherwise that the quantity of an effect is proportionate to the quantity of the cause. Now the cause of the remission of punishment effected by indulgences is no other than the abundance of the Church's merits, and this abundance suffices for the remission of all punishment. The effective cause of the remission is not the devotion, or toil, or gift of the recipient; nor, again, is it the cause for which the indulgence was granted. We cannot, then, estimate the quantity of the remission by any of the foregoing, but solely by the merits of the Church--and these are always superabundant. Consequently, according as these merits are applied to a person so does he obtain remission. That they should be so applied demands, firstly, authority to dispense this treasure. secondly, union between the recipient and Him Who merited it--and this is brought about by charity; thirdly, there is required a reason for so dispensing this treasury, so that the intention, namely, of those who wrought these meritorious works is safeguarded, since they did them for the honor of God and for the good of the Church in general. Hence whenever the cause assigned tends to the good of the Church and the honor of God, there is sufficient reason for granting an indulgence.

Hence, according to others, indulgences have precisely the efficacy claimed for them, provided that he who grants them have the authority, that the recipient have charity, and that, as regards the cause, there be piety which includes the honor of God and the profit of our neighbor. Nor in this view have we "too great a market of the Divine mercy" [St. Bonaventure, Sent. iv, D, 20, as some maintain, nor again does it derogate from Divine justice, for no punishment is remitted, but the punishment of one is imputed to another.

Reply to Objection 1. As stated above (Question 19, Article 3) there are two keys, the key of orders and the key of jurisdiction. The key of orders is a sacramental: and as the effects of the sacraments are fixed, not by men but by God, the priest cannot decide in the tribunal of confession how much shall be remitted by means of the key of orders from the punishment due; it is God Who appoints the amount to be remitted. On the other hand the key of jurisdiction is not something sacramental, and its effect depends on a man's decision. The remission granted through indulgences is the effect of this key, since it does not belong to the dispensation of the sacraments, but to the distribution of the common property of the Church: hence it is that legates, even though they be not priests, can grant indulgences. Consequently the decision of how much punishment is to be remitted by an indulgence depends on the will of the one who grants that indulgence. If, however, he remits punishment without sufficient reason, so that men are enticed to substitute mere nothings, as it were, for works of penance, he sins by granting such indulgences, although the indulgence is gained fully.

Reply to Objection 2. Although indulgences avail much for the remission of punishment, yet works of satisfaction are more meritorious in respect of the essential reward, which infinitely transcends the remission of temporal punishment.

Reply to Objection 3. When an indulgence is granted in a general way to anyone that helps towards the building of a church, we must understand this to mean a help proportionate to the giver: and in so far as he approaches to this, he will gain the indulgence more or less fully. Consequently a poor man by giving one penny would gain the full indulgence, not so a rich man, whom it would not become to give so little to so holy and profitable a work; Just as a king would not be said to help a man if he gave him an "obol."

Reply to Objection 4. A person who lives near the church, and the priest and clergy of the church, gain the indulgence as much as those who come perhaps a distance of a thousand days' journey: because the remission, as stated above, is proportionate, not to the toil, but to the merits which are applied. Yet he who toils most gains most merit. This, however, is to be understood of those cases in which an indulgence is given in an undeterminate manner. For sometimes a distinction is expressed: thus the Pope at the time of general absolution grants an indulgence of five years to those who come from across the seas, and one of three years to those who come from across the mountains, to others an indulgence of one year. Nor does a person gain the indulgence each time he visits the church during the term of indulgence, because sometimes it is granted for a fixed time; thus when it is said, "Whoever visits such and such a church until such and such a day, shall gain so much indulgence," we must understand that it can be gained only once. on the other hand if there be a continual indulgence in a certain church, as the indulgence of forty days to be gained in the church of the Blessed Peter, then a person gains the indulgence as often as he visits the church.

Reply to Objection 5. An indulgence requires a cause, not as a measure of the remission of punishment, but in order that the intention of those whose merits are applied, may reach to this particular individual. Now one person's good is applied to another in two ways: first, by charity; and in this way, even without indulgences, a person shares in all the good deeds done, provided he have charity: secondly, by the intention of the person who does the good action; and in this way, provided there be a lawful cause, the intention of a person who has done something for the profit of the Church, may reach to some individual through indulgences.

Article 3. Whether an indulgence ought to be granted for temporal help?

Objection 1. It would seem that an indulgence ought not to be granted for temporal help. Because the remission of sins is something spiritual. Now to exchange a spiritual for a temporal thing is simony. Therefore this ought not to be done.

Objection 2. Further, spiritual assistance is more necessary than temporal. But indulgences do not appear to be granted for spiritual assistance. Much less therefore ought they to be granted for temporal help.

On the contrary, stands the common custom of the Church in granting indulgences for pilgrimages and almsgiving.

I answer that, Temporal things are subordinate to spiritual matters, since we must make use of temporal things on account of spiritual things. Consequently an indulgence must not be granted for the sake of temporal matters as such, but in so far as they are subordinate to spiritual things: such as the quelling of the Church's enemies, who disturb her peace; or such as the building of a church, of a bridge, and other forms of almsgiving. It is therefore evident that there is no simony in these transactions, since a spiritual thing is exchanged, not for a temporal but for a spiritual commodity.

Hence the Reply to the First Objection is clear.

Reply to Objection 2. Indulgences can be, and sometimes are, granted even for purely spiritual matters. Thus Pope Innocent IV granted an indulgence of ten days to all who prayed for the king of France; and in like manner sometimes the same indulgence is granted to those who preach a crusade as to those who take part in it.

The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas
Second and Revised Edition, 1920
Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province
Online Edition Copyright © 2008 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat. F. Innocentius Apap, O.P., S.T.M., Censor. Theol.
Imprimatur. Edus. Canonicus Surmont, Vicarius Generalis. Westmonasterii.
Nihil Obstat. F. Raphael Moss, O.P., S.T.L. and F. Leo Moore, O.P., S.T.L.
Imprimatur. F. Beda Jarrett, O.P., S.T.L., A.M., Prior Provincialis Angliæ


What is an Indulgence?

The Decree of Indulgence for Divine Mercy Sunday grants a plenary or full indulgence to those who satisfy certain conditions established by the Church and a partial (incomplete) indulgence to those who fulfill some but not all or the conditions.

A plenary indulgence means that by the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the full remission of the temporal punishment due to sacramentally forgiven sins is obtained. The person becomes as if just baptized and would fly immediately to heaven if he died in that instant. A partial indulgence means that a portion of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sin is remitted. Partial indulgences are received either by doing some act to which a partial indulgence is attached (e.g. praying a partially indulgenced prayer), or by the incomplete fulfillment of the conditions attached to a plenary indulgence. 

Eternal and Temporal Punishment or Guilt

There are two kinds of punishment attached to sin, eternal and temporal. If the sin is mortal (serious, grave) sin, the person loses the friendship of God and with it the life of divine grace within. This punishment is eternal. If the person is not restored to grace before death he will be punished forever in hell, since serious sin is an infinite insult to an All-Holy God and thus deserves a like punishment. It was to repair for such sin that Jesus became man and was crucified. As God His sacrifice was infinitely meritorious, as Man He was able to represent us. He thus could expiate for our mortal sins, which are not just beyond our power of expiation but infinitely beyond it.

Mortal sin, and also venial sin (which has no eternal punishment attached to it), both disturb the right order within us and in the order of justice in general. We all experience these temporal (or in-time, in-this-world) consequences of sin, both both personally and socially. Sin changes us (or rather we sin because we are not what we are supposed to be), and like a pebble in a pond these changes have  effects beyond us. Not only must we be sorry for our sins, but we must be more thoroughly converted to the Lord, and demonstrate that conversion (Acts 26:20) by our actions. So, while sacramental absolution forgives the eternal guilt of sin, which requires the infinite merits of Christ, it does not necessarily remove all the temporal punishment, since they are somewhat within our power to repair (and somewhat unknown to us). Depending on our degree of sorrow, absolution may result in the expiation of all the temporal guilt of sin. However, for that which it does not repair, we must offer further expiation through prayer, penance, carrying the Cross etc., or after death be purified in purgatory (Rev 21:27). 

What an Indulgence does is to take an occasion of such expiation (a certain prayer, penance, charity or other designated work) and add to its intrinsic merit  before God an additional value based on the treasury of merits of Jesus Christ, and those perfectly united to Him in heaven (the saints). This can either partially, or under certain conditions, totally remit the temporal punishment due to sin. This depends, naturally, on our openness to God's grace. A mechanical performance of an indulgenced work would not have effect. Performing an indulgenced work should have the consequence of fixing our will away from our sins and entirely on God. This is why among the most important of the conditions for receiving a plenary indulgence, and the hardest to satisfy, is the complete detachment or detestation of our sins. By detesting our sins we orient our will away from creatures (to the degree we love them inordinately), towards God. In this way we open our will to the action of His mercy flowing into our souls, which alone is able to effect the complete remission of the temporal punishment to our sins. 

An example will perhaps better illustrate these points. A boy playing ball breaks a window of his home. Contrite and sorrowful he goes to his father, who forgives him. However, despite the forgiveness the window is still broken and must be repaired. Since the boy's personal resources are insufficient to pay for a new window, the father requires him to pay a few dollars from his savings and forego some of his allowance for several weeks, but that he, the father, will pay the rest. This balances justice and mercy (generous love). To ask the boy to do nothing, when it is possible for him to make some reparation, would not be in accordance  with the truth, or even the boy's good. Yet, even this temporal debt is beyond the boy's possibilities. Therefore, from his own treasury the father generously makes up what the child cannot provide. This is indulgence. Unlike the theologies that say "we are washed it the blood of the Lamb and there is nothing left to do," Catholic teaching respects the natural order of justice, as Jesus clearly did in the Gospels, yet recognizes that man cannot foresee or undo all the temporal  consequences of his sin. However, God in His mercy will satisfy justice for what we cannot repair.

Note on Partial Indulgences (days and years)

In the past partial indulgences were "counted" in days (e.g. 300 days) or years (e.g. 5 years). Catholics often mistakenly thought that this meant "time off of purgatory." Since there is no time in purgatory, as we understand it, it meant instead the remission of temporal punishment analogous to a certain amount of penitence as practiced in the early Church. This was a very generous standard, since the penitence required for sacramental absolution in the early centuries was arduous, indeed. However, with Pope Paul VI's 1968 revision of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum (Collection or Handbook of Indulgences), this confusing way of counting partial indulgences was suppressed, and the evaluation of a partial indulgence left to God. 

There are many prayers still circulating on prayer cards and in prayer books which have partial indulgences in days and years attached to them. However, all grants of indulgence issued prior to 1968, unless re-issued in the Enchiridion or specifically exempted by papal decree or privilege, were suppressed by Pope Paul VI. Thus, these many specific prayers with their attached indulgences, as well as the manner of measuring partial indulgences, are no longer valid. Some of them may still receive an indulgence, though, because of being re-issued in the new Enchiridion (e.g. the Anima Christi, the Prayer before a Crucifix and many other formal prayers). All other prayers previously indulgenced could, nonetheless, receive a partial indulgence under the general grants of indulgence which Pope Paul VI, and Pope John Paul II in his 1999 revision of the Enchiridion, established. These general grants establish partial indulgences for devout prayer, penitence and charity, and are a new and very generous inclusion in the Church's grants of indulgence. They have made it unnecessary to grant specific indulgences to prayers and other pious acts, as was done in the past.