What are indulgences and why do we need them?

September 7, 2011

Faith and Reasons

kids climbing

Indulgences give us the chance to receive a "hand up" from Christ and the saints as we seek remission of punishment for our sins. Photo by Jo Guldi. Licensed under Creative Commons.

What if the government worked out this solution to the personal debt crisis:  All Americans would contribute everything they made, beyond their personal needs, to a common treasury. The wealthy would put in their billions, and everyone else in lower tax brackets would put in what they had.

A trustworthy administrator with authority would give those who had maxed out their credit cards the opportunity to pay off their debts from the common pot if they showed remorse and determination to learn better financial habits. The treasury would always be full because of one super contributor and because others were constantly adding to it.

This may sound like a great socialist scheme but in reality, it’s an image that helps describe how indulgences work in the Church. By drawing on the merits of Christ and the saints, an indulgence enables us to obtain remission of the temporal punishment (which has a beginning and end, unlike eternal punishment) we incur when we sin.

When we confess our sins to a priest in confession, receive absolution and do the penance we’re given, our sins are forgiven. But just like sincere contrition alone wouldn’t fix a rear-ended car, forgiveness of sin alone doesn’t satisfy God’s justice, according to Church teaching.

All sin, including venial sin, involves unhealthy attachment to creatures, from which the sinner must be purified before entering heaven (CCC 1472). That purification of temporal punishment happens either on earth or in Purgatory.

Inexhaustible storehouse of merits

Typically combining works of piety, prayer and the sacraments, indulgences are granted by the Pope, who presides over the Church’s treasury of satisfaction: her inexhaustible  storehouse of the merits of Christ, the Blessed Mother and the saints.

Indulgences are not permission to commit sin, pardon of past sin or forgiveness of guilt. They suppose that sin is already forgiven. They’re not an exemption from any law or duty but a more complete payment of debt owned to God.  And above all, they’re not an attempt to purchase pardon in order to secure salvation or release a soul from Purgatory.

“He who gains indulgences is not thereby released outright from what he owes as penalty, but is provided with the means of paying it,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas.

Besides being in the state of grace, those who seek indulgences must do the works prescribed for the indulgence, love God, place their trust in Christ’s merits and believe strongly in the great assistance they receive from the Communion of Saints, Pope Paul VI wrote in his Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences.

There are two types of indulgences: A plenary indulgence removes all temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven. To obtain it, a Catholic must do the work attached to the indulgence, go to confession, receive Holy Communion and pray for the Holy Father’s intentions (at least one Our Father and one Hail Mary).  A partial indulgence removes part of the punishment and requires that the act attached to the indulgence be performed contritely.

Facts about indulgences

  • A Catholic can obtain one plenary indulgence per day, but more than one when at the point of death.
  • It’s possible to gain more than one partial indulgence per day.
  • The faithful can obtain plenary indulgences quite easily at least twice a year, once for their church’s titular saint day and for Portiuncula (August 2), the first plenary  indulgence granted in the Church.
  • A plenary indulgence, applicable only for the dead, can be acquired on November 2.
  • See the Catholic Answers website for more information on how to obtain indulgences.

Knowing the great wealth Christ and the saints have deposited in our Church’s treasury of satisfaction–and how much we need it–we have good incentive to take the grace of indulgences seriously.

 

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About Susan Klemond

I'm a freelance writer who enjoys writing about the Catholic Faith, local issues and people. I love the challenge of learning about the Church and discovering the reasons behind her teachings.

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