Catholic Teaching

WHAT IS AN INDULGENCE?

“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.” (Indulgentium doctrina, article 1, Pope Paul VI) Article two of the same document states: “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.”

By temporal punishment is meant the penalty inflicted by God, in His justice, either on Earth or in Purgatory for our sins, even though they have already been forgiven by means of Sacramental Confession. Our sins mark our souls, but we have been given the opportunity to cleanse our souls in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the Old Testament, Isaiah speaks of this: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” [Isaiah, 1:18] In this passage we can see how great the prophet Isaiah was; he foresaw the coming of the Messiah, Who was to suffer and die for our salvation, despite our sinful natures.

In the Psalms we also read of sins clinging to the soul; “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” And, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” [Psalm 51: 4 and 7]

Martin Luther claimed that our sins would be covered, as dung is covered with snow, as long as we professed faith in Jesus Christ, but this is not what our Holy Mother Church has taught since time immemorial; we must admit to our sins, be sorry for having committed them, confess them in Sacramental Confession, atone for them and do our best to avoid them in the future.

When we perform the penance given to us by our confessor the sins are removed from our souls, but there remains what is known as temporal punishment which must be satisfied before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This temporal punishment can be served while we are living, or in Purgatory, after our death. The Church does not teach how long a period of temporal punishment is required for atonement; this depends on God’s determination in each case. The old code for indulgences gave a particular length of time for each partial indulgence, such as 300 days for example, but the Church had no way of determining God’s wishes in this matter, so they are listed now as either partial or plenary (complete) indulgences.

When our loved ones die we pray for their souls, but our Church has also given us a means of shortening, or removing completely, the time required in Purgatory for their purification, so they may enter Heaven; it is known as an indulgence.

During the dark days of our Church, prior to the Reformation, indulgences were sold for money by some priests and bishops. The Church used the money mainly to build great cathedrals in Europe, but the practice bordered on what is known as simony, or the selling of prayers in exchange for money. The term simony comes from Simon Magus, who, in Acts, 8:18, tried to buy the power of the ‘laying on of hands’ from Peter. Simony was one of the main points of dissention used by Martin Luther when he broke away from the Catholic Church, for it was a bad practice and is not permitted under Canon Law. Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas Moore both spoke eloquently against the practice in the fifteenth century, attempting to reform the Church from within. Erasmus was an introvert, totally happy when engrossed in his vast library, but he came out in the open when he wrote “Praise of Folly”. ‘Folly’ was written as a satire, but addressed the issue of the selling of indulgences very forcefully. In this way, he could express his displeasure about the excesses of the Church at the time.

Most mainline Protestant denominations do not accept the validity of indulgences because they do not accept the existence of Purgatory. Therefore they see no need for indulgences. The term purgatory is derived from the Latin purgatio; cleansing or purifying, mentioned so many times in the Bible as being absolutely necessary before entering the eternal joy of Heaven.

Many non-Catholic, ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘sola scriptura’ apologists will claim that the Bible only mentions Heaven or Hell; not Purgatory. Technically, they are correct, for the word purgatory is not used per se. However, a reading of Matthew, 12:32 will indicate that there is a third place after death, for Jesus said: “….and whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come.” By this simple statement we are instructed that there is a third place where sins can be forgiven, for there is no need for forgiveness in Heaven, and there can be no forgiveness once a person is condemned to Hell for all eternity! The Catholic Church has known this since apostolic times, for ancient burial places were carved with the prayers of the faithful for their dearly departed dead. In the fourth century St. Monica requested prayers for remission of her temporal punishment in Purgatory. The request was made to her son, St. Augustine, after his conversion and ordination. She would not have made this request if she believed only in Heaven and Hell. In Corinthians 3:15 we read: “If any man’s work is burned up he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only through fire.” This verse very eloquently sums up Church teaching on Purgatory. It is a place where we will be purified, as by fire, before we can enter Heaven. This purification can be brought to an end by the prayers of the faithful on Earth to atone for the temporal punishment still remaining so that their departed loved ones will be allowed to share in the eternal joy and bliss of Heaven. This is done by applying indulgences, which we have gained, for their release from temporal punishment.

In order to gain a plenary indulgence it is required that one be baptized, not excommunicated, in the state of grace at least at the completion of the prescribed works, and a subject of the one granting the indulgence.

In order that one who is capable may actually gain the indulgence he or she must have at least a general intention to gain it, make a sacramental confession and receive Communion within a few days of the act, and recite prayers for the Pope.

Only one plenary indulgence can be acquired in one day, except for the moment of death, when another can be gained.

There are many false beliefs concerning indulgences which are held by Catholics as well as non-Catholics. The truth is that we cannot gain forgiveness of a sin with an indulgence. An indulgence only removes or lessens the temporal punishment attached to a sin which has already been forgiven in sacramental confession.

The truth is that we are not permitted to gain an indulgence for a sin not already committed. To gain an indulgence for a future sin might very conceivably result in our committing the sin of ‘presumption’.

The truth is that at one time in our Church history some prelates were guilty of the sin of simony, which is the ‘selling’ of indulgences. However, the Magisterial teaching on indulgences can be traced back many centuries before the problem of simony was addressed by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and by Pope Pius V in 1567, when he cancelled all grants of indulgences involving any money transaction. Christian ‘Fundamentalists’ often choose to ignore the teaching of the Council of Trent and Pope Pius V when discussing simony in relation to the granting of indulgences. We, as Catholics, are strengthened in our beliefs on this subject by the knowledge that the Holy Spirit will guide our Holy Mother Church in Her teachings forever.

Fred Paschall

 

 

Return to Top

Close this window to return to current Teachings page