Bring on indulgences Print
Year of Faith
Written by Paul Matenaer, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

The Schoenstatt Shrine, located on the east side of Madison, was recently designated by Bishop Robert C. Morlino as a place of pilgrimage for the Year of Faith. For more information, visit their Web site here. The shrine is located at Schoenstatt Heights, 5901 Cottage Grove Rd., Madison. The Founder Shrine is open 6:30 am to 8:45 pm seven days a week, with Mass on Saturdays at 6:45 a.m. except for the first Saturday of the month when the Mass is at 7:30 a.m. in the main building with the Rosary to follow in the Founder Shrine .

To read the decree, click here. (Catholic Herald file photo)

Since nothing unclean enters heaven (Rev 21:27), Sacred Scripture refers to a purification after death, that somehow repairs the damage caused by our offenses (Mt 12:32, 18:34-35).

Furthermore, the practice of praying and offering sacrifice for the dead who have need of this purification is considered honorable (2 Mc 12:39-43). Based on Scripture, the pious practice of praying for the deceased and offering sacrifice for their sake has been with the Church since her origin.

Yet, even though indulgences are firmly rooted in Scripture and closely connected to Catholic soteriology, is anything as widely misunderstood in the Church today, even among Catholics?

In this article, I hope to give an overview of the doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Catholic Church and give context for understanding the new indulgences granted for the Year of Faith. Unfortunately, there is not enough room to provide an exhaustive explanation.

If you desire to learn more, I recommend Ed Peters’ A Modern Guide to Indulgences, Scott Hahn’s Signs of Life, and Dave Armstrong’s A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, alongside the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which remains an indispensable resource for Catholic doctrine.

Sin’s double consequence

An indulgence is an antidote to an ailment which we all have contracted: sin. Since it is impossible to understand any cure without understanding the disease, it is impossible to understand indulgences without understanding sin and its effects.

Every sin, mortal or venial, has a double consequence. First, the sin itself, an offense against God, drives a wedge between us and God, harming our relationship with Him.

This offense is forgiven through absolution in sacramental confession. But, every sin also entails an unhealthy attachment to the created world, an attachment which arises from the very nature of our sinful acts. This attachment, also called temporal punishment, is not expunged through confession, but persists and must be purified before our entrance into the blessedness of heaven (CCC 1472).

Purification by suffering

Upon completing his fictional tour of hell in the Inferno, the poet Dante is brought to the shores of a distant land “where the human spirit is purged and becomes fit to ascend to Heaven” (Purgatorio, Canto I). Perhaps the greatest contribution of the second book of his Divine Comedy is the imaginative depiction of the period of purification from our attachment to earthly things which is required before we can meet God face-to-face.

This is Purgatory, the final purification of those who have died in God’s friendship and are destined for heaven. It is a purifying fire which, unlike the punishment of hell, contains the joy and hope of knowing that one is drawing nearer to God (CCC 1031). The unhealthy attachment accrued through sin can also be purified by our sufferings here on earth, when we unite them with the sufferings of Jesus.

Purification by indulgence

The whole Church, on earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven, is united in a Communion of the Saints. Just as the sins of one person harm the whole body, even more can the sufferings and good works of one person benefit the whole body. The Church is a guardian of a great “treasury” containing the merits of Christ and the saints, which she can dispense to all the faithful through indulgences.

To encourage the faithful, the Church attaches indulgences to actions that are already good in themselves. 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).

In other words, it is a participation in that purifying fire already here on earth through the spiritual treasury of the Church, which contains the boundless love and mercy of Christ, along with the prayers and works of the saints throughout history. The effect of an indulgence is the cleansing of those unhealthy attachments which remain even after the sin has been forgiven. We can apply this purification to ourselves or to the souls of the deceased (c. 994).

Proper disposition required

As with all the graces which Christ wishes to give us, we need a proper disposition to receive indulgences. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that everything is received according to the mode of the receiver (ST I, q. 84, a. 1), meaning that if we are not properly disposed to receive God’s grace, we will not receive it.

To receive an indulgence, one must be baptized, not excommunicated, in a state of grace at least at the end of the prescribed work, be inwardly contrite for sins, and have the general intention of acquiring an indulgence (c 996).

Types of indulgences

There are two types of indulgences, plenary and partial. A plenary indulgence, from the Latin for “full,” removes all the temporal punishment due to sin, whereas a partial indulgence removes only part (CCC 1471). In order to gain a plenary indulgence, besides the dispositions listed above, one must also be free of all affection for sin, even venial sin. This requirement, which makes the reception of a plenary indulgence most difficult, is more than just a commitment to avoid sin.

Rather, it means a true freedom from affection for sin, the elimination of all fondness to sin, and the exclusion of any openness to sin. St. Francis de Sales defines affection for sin as “sundry inclinations and tendencies to venial sin” (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part I, Chap. 22). Freedom from any affection for sin does not come easily or quickly. This should not be a cause for despair, however, since even if we have some affection for sin, we still receive a partial indulgence, which is certainly salutary.

Obtaining an indulgence

The pope, as Successor of St. Peter, to whom Jesus entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven for binding and loosing (Mt 16:19), has the authority to open the treasury of Christ and the saints by attaching an indulgence to certain prayers or works of piety. Currently, this power has been delegated to the Apostolic Penitentiary for the universal Church, and it also belongs to bishops for the faithful entrusted to their care.

To obtain an indulgence, besides having the proper dispositions, we must do four things.

First, we must carry out the pious work to which the indulgence is attached (e.g., praying the Rosary with our family).

Secondly, we must go to sacramental confession within 20 days before or after performing the indulgenced work. One sacramental confession, though, suffices for gaining several indulgences.

Thirdly, we must devoutly receive the Eucharist.

Finally, we must pray for the intentions of the Roman Pontiff, which can be satisfied by one Our Father and one Hail Mary, or by any other prayer according to individual devotion. It is preferable that reception of Communion, prayer for the pope, and the indulgenced work occur on the same day.

Examples of indulgences

The current legislation regarding indulgences is contained in the 1999 Enchiridion Indulgentiarum from the Apostolic Penitentiary, an approved translation of which can be found in the USCCB’s Manual of Indulgences. This book contains the norms regarding indulgences mentioned above, plus a complete list of indulgenced prayers and works. Some examples of plenary indulgences include:

  • Spending at least an hour in Eucharistic Adoration (n. 7)
  • Participating in the Way of the Cross (n. 13)
  • Reciting a Rosary in a church or oratory, or in a family or religious community (n. 17)
  • Assisting at the first Mass of a newly ordained priest (n. 27)
  • Visiting a cemetery to pray for the departed between November 1 and 8 (n. 29, 1°)
  • Visiting a church or oratory to pray for the faithful departed on All Souls’ Day (n. 29, 2°)
  • Reading of Sacred Scripture for at least 30 minutes (n. 30)

There are many more plenary indulgences contained in the Enchiridion, in addition to a whole host of partial indulgences. Furthermore, in the Year of Faith, the Apostolic Penitentiary has promulgated even more indulgences, which can be obtained until November 24, 2013. You can find a listing of these indulgences in Bishop Morlino’s decree which is printed in this week's edition of the Catholic Herald.

Bring on indulgences!

It is fitting to close with the words of His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York and one of the first members of the newly created Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, who referred to an indulgence as, “a beautiful, tender, powerful, tangible sign of God’s potent mercy” and a “classic component of the Church’s arsenal against sin” which “has been ridiculed and forgotten the last four decades”. Instead of relegating these gifts of God’s mercy to the past, Cardinal Dolan exclaims, “Bring on indulgences!”


Paul Matenaer holds an M.T.S. from Ave Maria University, is currently studying canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario, and is the defender of the marriage bond in the Diocese of Madison.