Indulgences are just as misunderstood as the doctrine of Purgatory. This is a closely related doctrine and, like Purgatory, rejected by most of our Protestant brethren. Even Catholics today don’t believe in indulgences mainly due to ignorance in what it is and prefer to believe that it’s a relic of the past that was abolished by the modern Church. Of course, indulgences are still valid today and can be used to reduce your time in Purgatory.
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The Protestant Reaction
The abuses of indulgences in the middle ages was a factor in the Protestant Reformers separation from the Catholic Church. The Church at various times sold indulgences to raise revenues. Pope Leo X (1513-1521) used the money from indulgences to construct St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. There were abuses by people like Friar Tetzel who claimed that “a soul is released from purgatory and carried to heaven as soon as the money tinkles in the box”. Martin Luther took advantage of this in launching his revolt against the Church.
In response to these issues, Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534) condemned those preachers who were using indulgences for commercial gain and not following the true teachings of Christ. Also, the Council of Trent (1545-1564) provided Catholics with a teaching on indulgences and what to do when problems occurred. It commanded bishops to record all abuses “and report them to the next provincial synod” (Sess. 25, Decree on Indulgences).
The doctrine of indulgences can be illustrated with a simple parable. A mischievous child was one day walking by the home of a man who treated him very badly, or so he thought. With his immature sense of justice, the child felt that he should punish the man by throwing a rock and shattering one of his windows. So he picked up a stone, hurled it, and watched with glee as it flew through the air and broke the glass. As soon as he heard the glass breaking, he began to think that this probably was not the wisest thing to do. The enraged home owner who came running out of the house towards him felt the same way as well. The child, in an act of perfect contrition, begged for forgiveness. The man, being very merciful, accepted his forgiveness and promised not to tell his parents what he did, thus sparing the child another painful lesson in morality. But the man said that even though he forgave what he did, the little rugrat would still have to pay for the damage.
When we sin and repent of our sin (repentance means asking for forgiveness with the intent of not repeating the sin), God will forgive us but we still have to pay for the damage we caused due to the sin. The damage is the “stain” we leave on our souls when we sin. Even though we are forgiven, the stain remains.
It should be understood that when we sin, it produces two effects on our souls: the debt of guilt and the debt of pain. We are both guilty and deserve pain (or chastisement). When we repent of our sin, the guilt is removed but the pain remains. The souls in Purgatory do not have any stain of guilt, but they have the stain of pain which must be removed in order to enter Heaven.
An indulgence, therefore, is the remission of the penalty due to sin, or in other words, it is a “payment” to remove the stain of pain from our souls. The payment is not in a monetary sense because we cannot purchase our salvation, but it can be made through prayers, acts of charity, and acceptance of the suffering one endures throughout their lives.
Partial and Plenary Indulgences
There are two types of indulgences that we can receive: partial and plenary. A partial indulgence is the easiest one to obtain. It will remit a part of the penalty of the sins we have committed, while a plenary indulgence will remove all of the stains of sin in our soul.
In order to get a partial indulgence, we must have the intent of obtaining the indulgence, we must be in a state of grace (repent of all of our sins), and say the prayer or perform the act which would lead to an indulgence. We are permitted by the Church to get as many partial indulgences each day as we wish.
A plenary indulgence is more difficult to obtain. In addition to the conditions attached to a partial indulgence, we must go to Confession and receive Holy Communion. We must also pray for the intentions of the Pope, which include world peace, the growth of the Church, and conversion of non-Catholics. A plenary indulgence can be obtained only once per day but those who are in danger of dying may receive a second plenary indulgence in the same day.
There are two ways in how the indulgences can be used. We can apply them to pay for the sins we have committed, or we can give the indulgences to remit the penalty of sins for the souls in Purgatory. When we give our indulgences to the holy souls, it will shorten their stay in Purgatory, give them some comfort, and may release them from Purgatory if their soul is completely purified from the stains of sin.
A partial indulgence given to the poor souls in Purgatory will shorten their time there, while a plenary indulgence has the great grace of completely purifying the soul and allowing them to immediately entering Heaven. Unfortunately, in order to be granted a plenary indulgence, we must be completely free from the stain of sin which is difficult to do. But we should try anyways. If the indulgence is not granted, it will at least be partial and will provide some benefit for the souls.
It is a great act of charity and mercy to pray for the dead. The holy souls will not forget what we have done for them and they will repay us a thousand times over for all we do. May God have mercy on them and may we pray for them every day.