You don’t hear much about indulgences anymore — at least not in Catholic circles. If it could be said that at one time they were overemphasized, it’s certainly true that today they are underemphasized.
Many Catholics simply don’t know what indulgences are. A few Christians even believe indulgences are “permits for indulging in sin.” They aren’t trying to be cute with the language. They really think popes have given the OK for licentious activity — provided the right amount of cash is laid down first, of course.
Here we get back to the Reformation. As every schoolboy knows, the Reformation was all about the “sale of indulgences,” right? Wrong. The main issues were quite different. The use of indulgences just happened to be a side issue that allowed the movement to get off the ground.
To learn what indulgences are, there is no better place to turn than Echiridion of Indulgences — the Church’s official handbook on what acts and prayers carry indulgences. An indulgence is defined as “the remission before God of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned.” The first thing to note is that forgiveness of a sin is separate from punishment for the sin. Through sacramental Confession we obtain forgiveness, but we aren’t let off the hook as far as punishment goes.
Indulgences are of two kinds: partial and plenary. A partial indulgence removes part of the temporal punishment due for sins. A plenary indulgence removes all of it. This punishment may come either in this life in the form of various sufferings — or in the next life in purgatory. What we don’t get rid of here, we suffer there.
If you uncover an old holy card or prayer book, you’ll notice pious acts or recitations of prayers might carry an indication of time. If you perform a pious act labeled as “300 days’ partial indulgence,” then you’d spend 300 fewer days in purgatory. Misinformed Catholics might scurry around for years, toting up indulgences, keeping a little register in which they add up the days so they can go straight to heaven. That’s a waste of time because there are no days or years in purgatory — or in heaven or hell, for that matter.
The indication of days or years attached to partial indulgences never meant you’d get that much time off in purgatory. What it meant was that you’d get a partial indulgence commensurate with what the early Christians got for doing penances for a certain length of time. But there has never been any way for us to measure how much “good time” that represents. All the Church could say, and all it ever did say, was that your temporal punishment would be reduced — as God saw fit.
KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” Ignatius Press.
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.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1472