Indulgences: The Most Neglected Practice in the Catholic Church Today

Saint Lawrence Liberates Souls from Purgatory by Lorenzo di Niccolo, 1393 1412

When I say the word “indulgence” I’ll bet that some of your first thoughts are of the Reformation, of Martin Luther, or of that classic line, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” I myself have often fallen victim to such imaginations when the topic of indulgences is brought up. Many Catholics cannot help but to be suspicious of indulgences, even if we do not admit it (though some readily decry them). The popular culture and every high school Western Civilization class rails against them. Moreover, they are one of the catalysts of the Protestant Reformation, as they were being abused and misunderstood during that time in certain places. When Luther wrote to Cardinal Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz, he said:

“Under your most distinguished name, papal indulgences are offered all across the land for the construction of St. Peter. Now, I do not so much complain about the quacking of the preachers, which I haven’t heard; but I bewail the gross misunderstanding among the people which comes from these preachers and which they spread everywhere among common men. Evidently the poor souls believe that when they have bought indulgence letters they are then assured of their salvation. They are likewise convinced that souls escape from purgatory as soon as they have placed a contribution into the chest (LW 48:45, cf. LW 60:172).”

Johann Tetzel is the villain of this story; the popular phrase is attributed to him, and while there is no primary source confirming he said it, his preaching pushed nearly identical ideas. The Catholic Encyclopedia puts the situation like this:

“The immediate cause [of the Protestant Reformation] was bound up with the odious greed for money displayed by the Roman Curia, and shows how far short all efforts at reform had hitherto fallen. Albert of Brandenburg, already Archbishop of Magdeburg, received in addition the Archbishopric of Mainz and the Bishopric of Hallerstadt, but in return was obliged to collect 10,000 ducats, which he was taxed over and above the usual confirmation fees. To indemnify him, and to make it possible to discharge these obligations Rome permitted him to have preached in his territory the plenary indulgence promised all those who contributed to the new St. Peter’s; he was allowed to keep one half the returns, a transaction which brought dishonour on all concerned in it. Added to this, abuses occurred during the preaching of the Indulgence. The money contributions, a mere accessory, were frequently the chief object, and the “Indulgences for the Dead” became a vehicle of inadmissible teachings. That Leo X, in the most serious of all the crises which threatened the Church, should fail to prove the proper guide for her, is clear enough from what has been related above. He recognized neither the gravity of the situation nor the underlying causes of the revolt. Vigorous measures of reform might have proved an efficacious antidote, but the pope was deeply entangled in political affairs and allowed the imperial election to overshadow the revolt of Luther; moreover, he gave himself up unrestrainedly to his pleasures and failed to grasp fully the duties of his high office.”

Obviously, the papacy mishandled indulgences at one time and caused great scandal. I will not deny this. As a result, the reputation of indulgences has been seriously harmed ever since. This is a grave misfortune though, because indulgences are actually very useful, virtuous, and pious, and Catholics need to be acquiring more of them, both for themselves and for the faithful departed.

All Saints, free illustration from Pixabay

In 1967, Pope St. Paul VI issued the Apostolic Constitution INDULGENTIARUM DOCTRINA, “whereby the revision of sacred indulgences is promulgated.” In this document Paul VI puts indulgences into context, defends the legitimacy of indulgences, and then sets out new norms for indulgences for the good of the faithful and the dignity of the indulgences themselves. Chapter One can be summed up by its final statement, “For all men who walk this earth daily commit at least venial sins; thus all need the mercy of God to be set free from the penal consequences of sin.” Chapter Two explains the Communion of Saints and the “treasury of the Church” which includes ” the truly immense, unfathomable and ever pristine value before God of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, who following in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have sanctified their lives and fulfilled the mission entrusted to them by the Father” alongside “the infinite and inexhaustible value the expiation and the merits of Christ Our Lord have before God, offered as they were so that all of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father.” The Third Chapter talks about how “the entire Church as a single body united to Christ its Head was bringing about [the] satisfaction” and remission of the sins of the faithful. Christ redeemed us, and the Church applies the fruits of that redemption to the individual faithful. Over time, this led to the development of indulgences, a progression of Church discipline, not a contradictory change, as the Fourth Chapter points out. This chapter also explains that an indulgence is “The remission of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven insofar as their guilt is concerned” and “the Church, making use of its power as minister of the Redemption of Christ, not only prays but by an authoritative intervention dispenses to the faithful suitably disposed the treasury of satisfaction which Christ and the saints won for the remission of temporal punishment.” Chapter Four notes that indulgences encourage the faithful to perform good works which help them grow in their faith and serve the common good. Chapter Four also acknowledges the abuse of indulgences at various times, leading to the humiliation of the keys, the weakening of the satisfaction, and even blasphemous defamation of indulgences. However, it reiterates that those who “maintain the uselessness of indulgences or deny the power of the Church to grant them” are anathema. In Chapter Five, Paul VI explains the reasoning for his reforms, summarized by three particular points:  “to establish a new measurement for partial indulgences; to reduce considerably the number of plenary indulgences; and, as for the so-called ‘real’ and ‘local’ indulgences, to reduce them and give them a simpler and more dignified formulation.”

After these chapters, Paul VI established the norms for indulgences. I encourage you to read through this list in full found in the Constitution. Some of the more important points are listed below:

  • 1—An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints.
  • 3—Partial as well as plenary indulgences can always be applied to the dead by way of suffrage.
  • 5—The faithful who at least with a contrite heart perform an action to which a partial indulgence is attached obtain, in addition to the remission of temporal punishment acquired by the action itself, an equal remission of punishment through the intervention of the Church.
  • 6—A plenary indulgence can be acquired only once a day, except for the provisions contained in n. 18 for those who are on the point of death. A partial indulgence can be acquired more than once a day, unless there is an explicit indication to the contrary.
  • 7—To acquire a plenary indulgence it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even to venial sin, be absent.
  • 13—The Enchiridion Indulgentiarium [collection of indulgenced prayers and works] is to be revised with a view to attaching indulgences only to the most important prayers and works of piety, charity and penance.
  • 17—The faithful who use with devotion an object of piety (crucifix, cross, rosary, scapular or medal) properly blessed by any priest, can acquire a partial indulgence.

    But if this object of piety is blessed by the Supreme Pontiff or any bishop, the faithful who use it devoutly can also acquire a plenary indulgence on the feast of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, provided they also make a profession of faith using any legitimate formula.
  • 18—To the faithful in danger of death who cannot be assisted by a priest to bring them the sacraments and impart the apostolic blessing with its attendant plenary indulgence (according to canon 468, para. 2 of the Code of Canon Law) Holy Mother Church nevertheless grants a plenary indulgence to be acquired at the point of death, provided they are properly disposed and have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime. To use a crucifix or cross in connection with the acquisition of this plenary indulgence is a laudable practice.

    This plenary indulgence at the point of death can be acquired by the faithful even if they have already obtained another plenary indulgence on the same day.

Perhaps my favorite one here is 18. A plenary indulgence removes all temporal punishment due sin, and the Church grants one to every member of the faithful who is in danger of death but cannot access a priest, who has a proper disposition, and who has “been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime.” I don’t know about you, but this is incredibly generous of the Church (as is the apostolic blessing and plenary indulgence granted when a priest is present to do last rites).

I also want to add some pieces of Canon Law that elucidate indulgences further:

“Can. 996 §1. To be capable of gaining indulgences, a person must be baptized, not excommunicated, and in the state of grace at least at the end of the prescribed works.

§2. To gain indulgences, however, a capable subject must have at least the general intention of acquiring them and must fulfill the enjoined works in the established time and the proper method, according to the tenor of the grant.”

The Communion of Saints tapestry by John Nava in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles

By all means, it is very easy to gain an indulgence. Even a plenary indulgence is not terribly hard to gain so long as you do not have an attachment to sin. Catholic Answers explains that attachment to sin is “when is when we do not detest a sin. We avoid the sin because we know it to be wrong or because we want to avoid punishment for the sin but we still have an attraction or desire of the sin (Matt. 26:41).” This can be difficult for many of us, and I myself have often struggled with attachments to sin, but it is not impossible, and it does not mean you have to be perfect or never sin, simply that you detest sins and do not want to sin. If you do not have an attachment to sin then all you have to do is go to confession sometime near the indulgence, go to mass that day, pray for the Pope (this can be done by saying one Hail Mary and one Our Father), and then complete the indulgenced act. Partial indulgences, while they do not remove all temporal punishment, still remove some, and you do not have to fulfill any of the requirements of plenary indulgences to gain them. You just have to be baptized, in communion with the Church, and in a state of grace. What I found most incredible and awesome is that you can gain as many as you want a day both for yourself and for people in Purgatory! Isn’t that awesome?

The reason I write all this is because earlier this month I purchased the newest edition of the New Saint Joseph People’s Prayer Book (a very fine prayer book which you should look into). In it, there is a chapter entitled ‘Prayers from the Enchiridion of Indulgences’ which contains an introduction to some of the recent history of indulgences, an explanation of what indulgences are, both partial and plenary, and the requirements for gaining such indulgences. After this there are three sections: the three general grants of indulgences, other grants of indulgences, pious invocations, and supplement of prayers.

When I first read through this chapter, I was thoroughly astonished and wondered why I hadn’t been getting indulgences sooner. They are so simple! The “To You, O Blessed Joseph Prayer” can get you a partial indulgence. So can the 21 word “Mary, Mother of Grace” prayer. And the Magnificat. And various Psalms like Psalm 51 and Psalm 130. Heck, you can even get a partial indulgence by taking part in ” teaching or in learning of Christian doctrine” (which you are actually doing right now).

There are so many others, too, many of them quite short and easy, others longer and more specific. Then there are the pious invocations, which are meant to accompany an action and are the key to the first general indulgence. Essentially, the first general indulgence is gained when, in the performance of some duty or in the endurance of life’s trials, the faithful raises his mind to God and makes a pious invocation, even mentally. As the People’s Prayer Book says, “a pious invocation perfects the inward elevation; both together are as a precious jewel joined to one’s ordinary actions to adorn them, or as salt added to them to season them properly.” Some pious invocations include “Father”, “I love you”, “All for you”, “Thanks be to God”, “Your Will be done”, “Comfort me”, and “Hail, Mary” among many, many others. Is this not beautiful? By simply saying “Thanks be to God” while enduring an inconvenience, trial, or when you are doing some normal task, you can get a partial indulgence.

The second general indulgence is “granted to the faithful who, in a spirit of faith and mercy, give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need.” The third general indulgence is a partial indulgence “granted to the faithful who, in a spirit of penance, voluntarily deprive them-selves of what is licit and pleasing to them.” So, basically, when you give to a poor person or donate to a worthy charity, in a spirit of faith and mercy, you are getting a partial indulgence. When you voluntarily deprive yourself of things which are not prohibited, as penance, you get a partial indulgence. An example of the third one might be that you decide to avoid soda for a few days out of penance, or that you fast on a day which you are not obligated to, or even that you decide to deprive yourself of social media or a video game as penance even when you don’t have to. These general grants are so simple, yet so powerful. They provide very accessible ways for the faithful to gain indulgences, and they make us better Christians in the process.

A few of my favorite indulgences include the partial indulgence given to “the faithful, who piously spend some time in mental prayer”, the “Eternal Rest” prayer which is a partial indulgence applicable only to the souls in purgatory, and then the two indulgences attached to the reading of Sacred Scripture; the first indulgence is a partial one granted to the faithful who “with the veneration due the Divine Word makes a spiritual reading from Sacred Scriptures” and the second indulgence is a plenary one granted if that reading is continued for at least a half hour (and with the necessary conditions of plenary indulgences being fulfilled).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the Church has given us such wonderous gifts in the form of indulgences. Through simple acts and prayers, you can gain the removal of the temporal punishments for your sins already forgiven, and you cultivate healthy and virtuous habits befitting a Christian. Catholic Bible 101 put it well when it ended its article on indulgences, saying:

“Truly smart people will start today to get all of the indulgences they possibly can. None of us are guaranteed a tomorrow.  And no one needs to die with all of the punishment for all of their sins yet to be paid.  Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross opened the door to heaven for us all, which had been closed since the sin of Adam and Eve; it did not pay the penalty for our individual sins, like some Protestants think (In fact, some protestants teach that their sins are forgiven ahead of time, because of the sacrifice of Jesus, and that they therefore are assured of heaven.  That sounds a LOT like an indulgence). In other words, Jesus’ dying on the cross is not a “get out of jail free” card for us sinners.  We still need to confess our sins, and we still need to pay back the punishment due those sins (Matthew 5:26).  Making a good confession (removing the guilt) combined with getting indulgences (removing the temporal punishment) is the answer.”

As we go forward in 2022, let us make a habit of gaining indulgences, both partial and plenary. Indulgences remind us of the debt we owe to God; they keep our mind, body, and soul set on our eternal life; they increase in us piety, charity, and faith; they help those in purgatory, and they allow us to develop a consistent prayer life. Next time you’re doing work or having a difficult time, make a pious invocation. Try every day to gain at least one partial indulgence. Work towards freeing yourself of attachments to sin so that you can gain plenary indulgences. The Church has blessed us with the gift of indulgences, let us take advantage of them! If you would like to view every indulgence and other information concerning them, here is the full Enchiridion of Indulgences in English.

I also want to include the New Advent article on Indulgences, this Primer on Indulgences from Catholic Answers, and Questions 25, 26, and 27 from the Summa Theologiae, all of which concern indulgences. You may find these helpful if you have questions about indulgences or want to deepen your knowledge of them.


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