“Indulgences are nothing more than a permission to sin. It is a money-making exercise through which Catholics think they can buy their way into heaven!”””
The doctrine of indulgences is probably the least understood teaching of the Catholic Church. Only the bigoted or prejudiced take it to mean that the Church grants a license or permission to sin.
What then is an indulgence?
An indulgence is simply a remission through the infinite merits of Jesus Christ and His Saints of the temporal punishment due for sins committed after guilt and eternal punishment have been remitted.
Sacred Scripture gives us an example of what is meant by “temporal punishment.” Mary, the sister of Moses, was forgiven by God for complaining against her brother. Nevertheless, despite such forgiveness, God imposed upon her the temporal punishment of leprosy and seven days exile from her people (Num. 12). A thief may be sorry for stealing a large sum of money from a gentleman, but he is still required to return the money taken and even do time in prison.
That Our Lord has given the Church the power of granting indulgences is implied in Scripture: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (St. Matt. 16, 19).
St. Paul provides a clear example of the Church using this power with respect to the incestuous Corinthian upon whom he had imposed a severe penance. After learning of the Corinthian’s fervent sorrow St. Paul absolved him of the penance which he had imposed saying: “For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ” (2 Cor. 2, 10 [Douai]).
In this example we have the elements of a true indulgence: (i) a penance (temporal punishment) imposed on the Corinthian by St. Paul; (ii) sorrow on the part of the sinner for his crime; (iii) the relaxation of the penance by St. Paul (the indulgence); (iv) the relaxation done in the “person of Christ.”
Further, Catholics believe that many of the faithful throughout the centuries – virgins, martyrs, confessors, saints etc. – have performed penances and good works far in excess of what was due as temporal punishment for their own sins. Their merits, in union with the infinite merits of Jesus Christ, form a “spiritual treasury” which the Church can draw upon to assist other members of the Church in general or, in particular, pay the debt of temporal punishment both for the living and the dead:
“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1, 24);
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ;…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12, 12-26).
Therefore, by virtue of the Communion of Saints the faithful can assist each other with their prayers, masses, almsgivings to remit temporal punishment due to sin, most particularly, to offer mass for the deceased to remit temporal punishment due in purgatory.
An indulgence may be plenary or partial according as to whether it removes either all or part of the temporal punishment due to sin. The requirements for gaining a plenary indulgence are (1) performance of the indulgence work – for example, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least one half an hour, devout reading of the Sacred Scriptures for at least one half an hour, or praying the Marian Rosary in a church, public oratory or family group, etc.; (2) sacramental confession; (3) eucharistic communion, and (4) prayer for the Pope’s intentions. The last three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after the performance of the prescribed work. However, it is fitting that communion be received and the prayer for the Pope’s intentions be said on the same day the work is performed. If any of these conditions are not fulfilled the indulgence gained will only be partial.
A partial indulgence is gained by any of the faithful who either, in the performance of their duties and bearing the trials of life, raise their mind with humble confidence to God, adding some pious invocation; or in a spirit of faith and mercy, give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need; or in a spirit of penance, voluntarily deprive themselves of what is licit and pleasing to them. Works which can be performed for partial indulgences include reciting any of the following prayers: Profession of Faith, De Profundis, Magnificat, Sub Tuum Praesidium, Memorare, Salve Regina, Grace before and after meals, Adoro Te Devote, Angelus, Anima Christi, Te Deum, Litanies, the Sign of the Cross, etc.
Indulgences are a great aid to true devotion, fostering a spirit of prayer and sacrifice in the name of Christ, not just for one’s own benefit, but for the benefit of all the faithful.
St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Lapsed (251 A.D.):
“The Lord alone is able to have mercy. He alone, who bore our sins, who grieved for us, and whom God delivered up for our sins, is able to grant pardon for the sins which have been committed against Him…Certainly we believe that the merits of the martyrs and the works of the just will be of great avail with the Judge – but that will be when the day of judgment comes, when, after the end of this age and of the world, His people shall stand before the tribunal of Christ.”
St. Ambrose of Milan, Penance (C. 387-390 A.D.):
“For he is purged as if by certain works of the whole people, and is washed in the tears of the multitude; by the prayers and tears of the multitude he is redeemed from sin, and is cleansed in the inner man. For Christ granted to His Church that one should be redeemed through all, just as His Church was found worthy of the coming of the Lord Jesus so that all might be redeemed through one.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the Gospel of John (416 et 417 A. D.):
“…man is obliged to suffer, even when his sins are forgiven,…for the penalty is of longer duration than the guilt, lest the guilt should be accounted small, were the penalty also to end with it. It is for this reason…that man is held in this life to the penalty, even when he is no longer held to the guilt unto eternal damnation.”
St. Caesarius of Arles (+542 A.D.), Sermon 261:
“Considering the number of sins, he sees that he is incapable of himself alone to make satisfaction for such grave evils; and so he is anxious to seek out the assistance of the whole people.”
Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566):
No reference was made to Indulgences in the Catechism of the Council of Trent. The question of Indulgences was dealt with by the Council itself in its Decree Concerning Indulgences, Session XXV, December 3 and 4, 1563:
“Whereas the power of conferring indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church; and she has, even in the most ancient times, used the said power, delivered unto her of God; the sacred, holy synod teaches and enjoins that the use of indulgences for the Christian people, most salutary and approved of by the authority of sacred councils, is to be retained in the Church; and it contemns with anathema those who either assert that they are useless, or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992):
No. 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…
No. 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.