Tag Archives: indulgences

What are indulgences?

The issue of indulgences is an area of difficulty for many people. In fact, it was one of the sparks that started the tragic blaze of the Protestant Reformation, a blaze that incinerated the cultural and religious unity of Christendom starting back in the 1500s.

Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC

An indulgence is simply a specific manifestation of God’s grace — one that the Church offers to us as a concrete way to show our love for the Lord and for our neighbor. An indulgence can only be attained with the intention of attaining it. So, if I were to lift my mind to God in the midst of my workday, I wouldn’t receive an indulgence for doing that unless I consciously intended to receive it. Through prayer and sacrifice, we become channels of God’s grace, and an indulgence is a manifestation of that grace.

In the first centuries of the Church, Confession and penance were much more public than than they are now. It wasn’t until the sixth century that Irish monks really began to popularize individual, private confession. Until that era, it was more common for Christians who had fallen into grave sin to make their confession in front of the bishop and the entire congregation — and to be assigned a visible penance.

For example, a public sinner might be required to wear some kind of penitential garb and stay at the back of the church during Mass for six months or even an entire year.

Even during those early centuries, however, the practice of indulgences was emerging. For example, if a believer caved in under pressure of persecution and publicly denied his faith, it was considered the grave sin of apostasy. If that believer repented, he would be given a hefty penance. But that penance could be lessened if he visited a future martyr or confessor who was imprisoned for their faith. He would get this holy person to sign an affidavit by which he would express his desire to apply the merits of his sacrifice to the believer’s penance. He then would bring this document to the bishop and some or all of his penance could be remitted.

After the period of the Roman persecutions, obtaining this kind of remission of penance through the merits of the saints continued. Thus, the practice of indulgences emerged. Until recently, the relative value of the different indulgences was still expressed by correlating them to certain amounts of days. This harkens back to the early Church and its public penances, which were assigned for specific periods of time. Today this method of expressing the relative value of indulgences has been simplified. Instead of specific numbers of days, we just have partial or full (plenary) indulgences.

FR. JOHN BARTUNEK, LC, is a former professional actor who became a Catholic priest in 2003. This column is printed with permission from his book Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions (Servant Books, 2014).

 

Catechism 101

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.

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.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1478-1479

Does the Church still give indulgences?

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.

Karl Keating

Karl Keating

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.

CATECHISM 101

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