Indulgences. This very word most times 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? As the Church explains, “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. Through this, 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 gain an 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. 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, 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.
Note that 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). Also, note that there is an indulgence when you read the Bible. 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 to 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]).
More questions and answers according to the Catechism. “What is an indulgence?”
1471 “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.”
“An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.” The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
The next logical question is what is temporal punishment?
Lucky for us, the Catechism also answers this question with lots of emphases.
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.
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.”
In other words, we still must be purified before we enter into heaven. If we are not made ready to enter into Heaven before we die, then the purification process will take place in Purgatory. This is why the Apostle John writes in Revelation 21:27 “nothing unclean will enter it (heaven).” We must be made clean to enter into Heaven.
The good thing is that we are all connected to The Body and Blood of Christ – the Church. Thus, every Christian is tied to every other Christian by all of us being united to Christ and His Church. We are blessed to lift others up by our deeds and prayers. This means we are able to help the souls in Purgatory or lessen our own temporal punishment, by tapping into the holiness of The Church and the storehouse of grace that is given access to us by the merits of Christ and the Saints. The Catechism says:
1478 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 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.
1479 Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.