One of the most misunderstood teachings of the Catholic Church – both by Catholics and non-Catholics alike – is the doctrine of indulgences. Granting indulgences is an ancient practice of the Church that was given, as a right by divine authority, for the remittance of the punishment due to sin. However, over the centuries, for various reasons, much confusion grew around this practice.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Constitution, called Indulgentiarum Doctrina, with the purpose of clearing up confusion, re-working and clarifying the norms, and renewing and reinvigorating the practice for the lay faithful to use the gift. Before I get into the nuts and bolts of indulgences, I do want to point out that, in his letter, Pope Paul VI did acknowledge the source of some of the past issues with indulgences saying, “Unfortunately, the practice of indulgences has at times been improperly used either through ‘untimely and superfluous indulgences’ by which the power of the keys was humiliated and penitential satisfaction weakened, or through the collection of ‘illicit profits’ by which indulgences were blasphemously defamed,” (Ch. 4 Par. 8). He then further explains that those actions, performed by sinful men and not sanctioned by the Church, were condemned and corrected. However, some of their stigma remained, hence, the need for further clarification on the matter.
I’m going to first provide the two-part definition of indulgences found in the Catechism (CCC #1471), which is taken directly from Pope Paul VI’s letter and then I’ll explain what it all means.
"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.
When we commit sins, against God or man, we have to pay for those sins. Yes, of course we are forgiven and of course Jesus paid the ultimate price for our sins on the cross, but we are not alleviated from the consequences of our sin. Think of a little boy throwing a baseball through a neighbor’s window. The neighbor forgives the boy and his father pays for the broken window to be repaired, but the boy still has to do yardwork for his father or neighbor in order to pay off the debt he incurred through his careless actions.
In other words, he doesn’t learn his lesson if he doesn’t have some sort of participation in repairing the damage that was done. Likewise, all of our sins come with their own consequences that cause us some sort of suffering that is meant to be joined to the cross and applied as reparation for those sins. We also suffer in other ways that are completely out of our control like illness, injury, and other calamities that we join to the cross as acts of reparation for sin. To be clear, I am not saying that God made you sick or to suffer because of some horrible sin you committed. What I am saying is, that when sin entered into humanity in the Garden of Eden, so did suffering, and humanity as a whole endures all of that suffering as reparation for the sins of all mankind. God did not create suffering, but in His infinite mercy, He allows our sufferings to be useful on our journey to salvation as we pay the debts we owe for the times we have not been at our best.
As we live our lives here on earth, our sufferings purify our souls. Then, whatever has not been purged out of us in this life will continue in the afterlife in Purgatory – another merciful gift – because “Nothing unclean will ever enter it [heaven]…” (Rev 21:27). Like the boy in my previous example, we are forgiven for our sins. Jesus paid our debt for those sins on the cross, but we need to suffer the consequences of sin so that we are purified and cleansed to the point when we are finally able to enter heaven.
Now, going back to the first part of the definition, an indulgence is something the Church grants to an individual that removes that temporal punishment that we all owe. The Church was given this authority directly by Jesus to Peter, the first pope, when He said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” (Mat 16:19). The Church, headed by the pope, and always guided by the Holy Spirit, is able to issue us indulgences as a merciful act for our poor, suffering, child-like souls.
The second part of the definition says we may receive either partial or plenary (complete) indulgences. In other words, it can be decided that we’ve either paid our debt in part or in full. When we receive a partial indulgence, only God knows how much or how little of that debt has been paid and the Church does not have some secret insight into our soul and relationship with God. While a plenary indulgence sounds like a really great deal, indulgences do come with one small catch – complete detachment from sin, even venial sin. For the average human being, while this is something to always strive for, it can be very difficult. Therefore, when someone seeks out a plenary indulgence, unless they are already a great saint, they will likely only receive a partial indulgence, and a partial indulgence may be diminished by some unknown amount. Pope Paul VI addresses this in his letter saying, “For indulgences cannot be acquired without a sincere conversion of mentality (“metanoia”) and unity with God, to which the performance of the prescribed work is added,” (Ch. 4 Par. 11).
So, even the effects indulgences have on our souls require significant cooperation on our part and are not like little “get out of jail free” cards, as some may think. Additionally, it is important to note, as stated in the definition, you can ask the Lord to apply your indulgences to those suffering in Purgatory, either specifically or generally. This is because we are all part of the same mystical body of Christ, and we can assist the other members of the body in alleviating their suffering. There could be no more charitable act than that!
Ultimately, there are many ways to gain indulgences which are prescribed to us by the Church. They include things like pilgrimages to holy places, practicing particular devotions, praying certain prayers, and even in the offerings of your daily sufferings for the remittance of sin. There is a stipulation that to receive an indulgence, you must be actively and intentionally seeking one (Norm 21). In other words, you can’t receive one if you don’t ask. Along with all of the options, you must also go to the Sacrament of Penance, receive the Eucharist, and pray for the Pope’s intentions (all while working on that detachment to sin, of course!).
If you are now inspired to find more opportunities to take advantage of this wonderful gift, I recommend a book, The Handbook of Indulgences: Norms and Grants, which is published by the Catholic Book Publishing Corp. In it, you will find the norms laid out by Pope Paul VI as well as many of the prescriptions already given to us by the Church. You can also find some online from good Catholic resources. You might be surprised by how many of these things you do regularly already, but were unaware that they could be intentionally applied for obtaining indulgences for yourself and your loved ones in Purgatory.