What is an Indulgence?

what is an indulgence catholic

The word “indulgence” always made me feel a little uncomfortable. Growing up Catholic, I knew it was something Martin Luther got upset about when he separated himself from Catholicism back in 1517. But the reality is that the Church’s practices of giving indulgences are a great gift to us, are part of the living Tradition of the Church, and are Scripturally backed! And Martin Luther? His complaint about the giving of indulgences happened at a time when people were using them wrongly—trying to sell them for profit—these were not indulgences at all!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines indulgences like this:

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. -CCC 1471

Okay, so you might be thinking, “What does that even mean?” So, let’s break it down.

What is Temporal Punishment?

When we sin we harm our relationship with God in two ways (see CCC 1472).

First, if we sin gravely we separate ourselves entirely from God and from the life of grace. This is when:

  1. the matter is a serious one;
  2. we are fully aware of the seriousness of it and what it is; and
  3. we freely consent to it anyway.

Were we to die in this state the punishment would be eternal separation from God. We can be reconciled to God by receiving the Sacrament of Confession.

The second way we harm our relationship with God is the fact that because we choose to sin (mortally or venially—less seriously) we are attached to serving ourselves more than serving God. We show a love of things of this world more than things of Heaven.

Temporal punishment is God’s just response to all of our sins. For in order to be ready to enter into the eternal happiness of Heaven we need to be purified of our worldly attachment. Even after our sins have been Sacramentally forgiven. This happens through temporal punishment either on earth or through the purification of purgatory. Further, as our sins cause disorder in nature and do not give God the glory that is due, our earthly sufferings work to bring about the restoration of the moral order and the glory of God.

The Origin of Temporal Punishment

Genesis 3:16-19, after the Fall of Adam and Eve, gives us a scriptural basis for this understanding of sin:

To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, `You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Even though we have been baptized and are forgiven regularly in Confession, we still experience the pains of childbirth, conflicts between each other, and we have to work hard for our basic necessities of life. These are part of our temporal punishment for sin.

The Church has shown us how these toils can be used for our purification if we bear them patiently and with love for God. Then they help purify our souls and make us more like Jesus and the Saints. When we bear our sufferings well, we contribute to building up the whole Body of Christ.

The Treasury of the Church

Scripture tells us that all Christians are a part of the Body of Christ. When one part suffers, we all suffer. When one part rejoices, we all can rejoice (see 1 Corinthians 12:26). Our good works and prayers help the whole Body of Christ since we are all united in Him through the Holy Spirit.

Pope Leo XIII talked about the Communion of Saints as:

the mutual communication of help, expiation, prayers, blessings, among all the faithful, who, whether they have already attained to the heavenly country, or are detained in the purgatorial fire, or are yet exiles here on earth, all enjoy the common franchise of that city whereof Christ is the head, and the constitution is charity. –Mirae Caritatis, 12

All of the prayers and good works (spiritual goods) of the Communion of Saints are united together in the Body of Christ. We pray for each other and the souls in purgatory. The saints in Heaven pray for us.

This Treasury of the Church contains all of the infinite merits of Christ’s suffering and prayers, the good works and prayers of the Blessed Mother and all of us on earth and all the Saints in Heaven (see CCC 1474-1477). It is like the circulatory system of the Body of Christ filled with the infinite merit of Christ’s suffering which we add to through our own offerings.

Saint Paul gives us an example of offering his own sufferings for the rest of the Church:

I rejoice now in the sufferings I bear for your sake; and what is lacking of the suffering of Christ I fill up in my flesh for his body, which is the Church. -Colossians 1:24

The Church’s Authority to Distribute Graces

When Jesus established the Church, He told St. Peter, our first pope:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. -Matthew 16:19

This is one of the scriptural foundations for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but it also is the basis of the Church’s authority to distribute graces from the treasury of the Church, ie. decide what actions give one the special graces of indulgences.

In the early Church there were very often hard, long penances prescribed for particular sins. As the Church’s understanding of grace developed, she began to emphasize good works, prayers, and acts of piety as sources of sanctification. She saw that, as the Body of Christ, we could offer these things for each other. All of the graces we received from our own good works and prayers came from the treasury of the spiritual goods of the Church.

From this understanding, the Church has decreed certain prayers and good works in particular as ways for us to know we are receiving the graces of purification that take away our need for temporal punishment.

What is an Indulgence? And How to Get One.

Basically, an indulgence is the grace we receive from the Treasury of the Church through performing a specific good act or praying specific prayers specified by the Church. The grace is specifically for the freeing of us from temporal punishment. The Enchiridion of Indulgences (enchiridion means “manual”) has a complete list of all the indulgenced prayers.

Indulgences have been divided into two kinds:

  • Partial – gives one a partial remission of temporal punishment
  • Plenary – gives one a full remission of temporal punishment

In the past the Church used to attach a number of days or years off purgatory to each partial indulgence. But now she wants us to understand that the amount of freedom we receive from temporal punishment is based on our own level of devotion. The more charity and devotion we have in prayer, the greater the remission we receive. For example, one of the indulgenced prayers is simply this: saying the Sign of the Cross devoutly and crossing oneself properly.

A plenary, full, indulgence is harder to get. One has to:

  1. do the prescribed prayer or action, for example, pray the Stations of the Cross at legitimately erected stations (ie. in a church or grotto);
  2. pray for the intentions of the Pope;
  3. receive Holy Eucharist and go to the Sacrament of Confession within 8 days or so of the indulgenced act or prayer; and
  4. be free of all attachment to even venial sin.

If one is not able to meet all these conditions, then one can still earn a partial indulgence.

General Grants of Indulgences

A super cool way to earn partial indulgences is to follow the three “general grants” of indulgences. These are given to certain kinds of acts.

The first is to patiently go about your daily works and sufferings and pause to unite them to God through a short prayer. The Enchiridion lists a number of ideas of what prayers one could say.

The second is to serve those in need with faith and mercy, such as providing for the poor.

The third is to voluntarily take on a penance of giving up some good thing, such as fasting on non-penitential days.

All of these actions, when done devoutly and with God’s love in our hearts work to purify our hearts!

The Heart of Indulgences

To earn any indulgence we need to be aware that the prayer earns you an indulgence, have the desire to earn it while praying it, and have the further desire for that action to free us from our attachments to sin.

I highly recommend reading through the list of indulgences in the Enchiridion to know exactly how you can earn them. You may find you could be earning partial indulgences all day long just doing what you have been doing! If you do them all well, you will become super holy. Basically, the manual on indulgences is a manual on how to get holy.

Do indulgences confuse you? What are some of your big questions surrounding this tradition? Have you ever done anything extra-ordinary to receive a plenary or partial indulgence? 

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Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and serves as the Theological Editor of Blessed is She, and lives with her husband and four kids in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She loves reading theology, attending beautiful liturgies, cooking delicious food, reading good books, raising her children, casually following baseball, talking to her philosopher husband, and writing all about it at her blog. You can find out more about her here.

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  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    This article helped a lot but i am definitely still confused by indulgences. In my CCD classes we were always just taught that confession erases our sin – basically end of story. The first time i learned indulgences are still a thing in the Church was this year. The fact that you have to be aware that something is an indulgence for it to count confuses me even more – that seems like then you’re doing it out of fear, not love or devotion to God.

    • Reply
      Susanna S.
      May 4, 2018 at 4:00 pm

      Confession does erase your sin! God forgives it, but it does not correct the disorder in the world. But if you think about how awful sin truly is, how we disobey the God who created us, who holds us in existence even when we go against His will, the sufferings we experience on earth are very little compared to the offense we give to God by even the smallest sin. Jesus would have had to come and die if only one sin of ours was committed. Even when we go to confession and our forgiven, we still experience the toil that Adam and Eve and all their descendants were given as punishment for the Original Sin.

      So, the document on indulgences says this: “IN order that one who is capable may actually gain indulgences, one must have at least a general intention to gain them and must in accordance with the tenor of the grant perform the enjoined works at the time and manner prescribed.” So, really saying any prayer and offering any suffering with a general intention of gaining an indulgence if the Church has decided that that prayer is one which earns one an indulgence is enough.

      And these acts are not to be done out of fear, but truly out of love. It is love that should drive us to want to make up for the injustice of our sins against God. If I have caused disorder in the world by sinning, then I should out of love and thankfulness to my God want to make up for it as best I can. Our offering of sufferings, our good works, our purposeful penances are all for the sake of loving God, and they all are good for us to do and add to the treasury of the Church’s merits. The Church attaching an indulgence to certain acts and prayers is like bonus grace. It is not necessary, but it is a gift to us to receive and earn even more grace.

      I know that the particulars sound nit-picky, but aren’t the Sacraments similar. For Baptism we HAVE to have water and HAVE to say the right words. For Eucharist there HAS to be wheat flour in the bread and HAS to be wine from grapes. For Confession the Priest HAS to say, “I Absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The prescriptions which God has given the Church authority to decree gives us surety that we do received grace through these things. It is the same thing with indulgences. The Church gives specific guidelines so that we know we are doing it the right way to receive grace. It is not to be hard and rigid, but to make the gift accessible to us.

      Does that make sense?

  • Reply
    May 4, 2018 at 2:08 am

    Hi Susanna. Your article have been quite helpful in deepening my understanding of indulgences. But i do agree with Jessica that why do we have to be aware that we are earning indulgences for it to work? For example, if a person is offering his/her suffering to God constantly, can’t he/she gain indulgences as well? And indulgences feel like alot of human effort than God-given grace through the church… Could you help to shed light to my perspective of indulgences?

  • Reply
    Susanna S.
    May 4, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    Hi Denise, I put a long response above to Jessica, please check it out. Following on what I said to Jessica, offering our sufferings to God constantly is meritorious and beautiful. Knowing and intending to earn an indulgences is like getting bonus grace, grace that our own acts our insufficient to earn because we cannot do them perfectly, so it is even better. And like I said to Jessica, our human effort will never make up for the divide sin puts between God and humanity. Only God could make up for it for us, which is why He became Man and died. Our human effort and suffering is so little compared to the debt we owe because of our disobedience to God and the suffering He undertook for us.

    Indulgences are God’s way of taking our human acts and raising them up to the level of grace. Knowing about and following indulgences gives us surety that we are receiving grace, much like following the guidelines of the Sacraments gives us surety that we are in fact receiving the Sacraments.

    Does that make sense?

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