The Use and Misuse of Indulgences

By Brooks Ward

Indulgences. It’s a term that’s become somewhat of a dirty word among modern Catholics, stained as it has been by the scandalous profiteering of centuries ago. Even if you remove those connotations, the word still brings to mind the image of a spoiled child being raised by lax parents. Now, clearly those are not meanings that the Church intends. So, why do we call them indulgences, and what are they?

The word “indulgence” comes from the Latin “indulgeo”, meaning “to be kind or tender”. In Roman law, however, it came to mean “forgiveness of a debt”. What debt do indulgences forgive, you might ask? When you or I commit a sin, that sin has both temporal and eternal consequences. We know this from experience. If I lie to a friend, then even after that sin has been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance (that is, the eternal consequences removed), I still have to deal with the fact that my friendship with that person has been damaged (the temporal consequences). If I steal something, no matter how sincerely sorry I am, I still need to make restitution. Imagine it like this: Every time you commit a sin, you’re pounding a nail into a board. Even if you remove the nails (Confession), the holes still need to be filled in. Indulgences are one of the ways the Church provides to enable us to close those holes. They “remit the temporal punishment due to sin.” In other words, the debt which indulgences forgive is a period of time one would spend in Purgatory being purified, before passing into Heaven. Any indulgence which removes only a portion of that time is called partial, while one which removes all of that time is termed plenary.

It should be no surprise that over the many centuries since Christ established the Church, indulgences have often been poorly understood, and sometimes even abused. The most serious abuses were perpetrated by those engaged in the sin of simony, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical privileges, including indulgences. These cases often had well-intentioned beginnings, such as the granting of indulgences for giving alms to the poor, but eventually came to be treated as a means of “paying your way to heaven”. Several Church councils attempted to deal with the issue, such as the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Trent (1562), going so far as to instruct that “all evil gains for the obtaining of [indulgences] be wholly abolished”. Even so, the problem became so widespread that in 1567, Pope Pius V took the drastic step of ceasing all indulgences attached in any way to money or financial transactions.

Today, it is possible to gain indulgences through many pious actions you probably already participate in. These include spending time in mental prayer, praying the Rosary, reading Sacred Scripture, and even simply making the Sign of the Cross! It’s important to remember that indulgences are not simply magic “get out of Purgatory free” cards. In order to gain them, we must perform the actions devoutly, with a contrite heart. In addition, plenary indulgences require us to go to Confession, receive the Eucharist, and pray for the intentions of the Pope, all within 20 days of the indulgenced action, as well as possessing the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin. What are you waiting for? Get out there, be holy, and gain indulgences along the way!


Brooks Ward is a Junior majoring in Philosophy and Classics, and can be found at Joe’s Diner during breakfasts and Chipotle the rest of the time