Indulgences: What they mean

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

One of the most misunderstood doctrines in the history of the Church, by both Protestants and Catholics, is the doctrine of indulgences. The mere mention of the word to Protestants conjures ideas of the worst corruptions of the Roman Church, the heights of decadence and depravity and abuse. For it’s well known that indulgences were the root of the Protestant Reformation.

But there’s much more to the story than most people realize. There is a lot of misinformation and misconception. In this post and the posts to follow, I will go back to the original sources, from both the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers, to present a better understanding about what the Catholic Church taught, and teaches, about indulgences; what exactly Martin Luther’s dispute with the Church over indulgences was; and why it’s not as big a deal as you think.

I am not expecting to convince anybody, here, of the truth of the doctrines of indulgences or Purgatory. My only aim is to clarify what the Church teaches and what the dispute in the Reformation was actually about. Whether you agree with the Church’s teachings or not, I hope you will at least learn something about them. Also bear in mind that I am new to these doctrines, too. I will strive to the best of my ability to explain them with the utmost clarity, accuracy, and honesty, but I doubtless will make some mistakes. If anyone catches them, I hope you will correct me.

Before I begin, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Martin Luther; and through the study I have conducted in the writing of this post, I have come to respect him even more. The Protestant Reformation is the most tragic event in the history of the Christian Church: the rending of Christ’s spotless Bride — and it makes it all the more tragic to read Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and realize that he was right: to recognize, through this window into the past, the terrible abuses that were taking place in the Renaissance Church, that Luther spoke out to reform. Yes, in many ways the practices of the Church of Luther’s day were decadent and corrupt. Yes, indulgences were one of the focal points of that corruption. If the Church had cooperated more readily with Luther and other critics, rather than condemning them, and if the matter hadn’t so quickly erupted out of control, our schism might have been averted.

What an indulgence is not

It is important, first of all, to realize what an indulgence is not:

  1. An indulgence is not a permission to commit sin, or a pardon of future sin.
  2. An indulgence is not, and does not offer, forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it presupposes that the sin has already been forgiven.
  3. An indulgence is not an exemption or immunity from any law or duty, and does not in itself make restitution for sin.
  4. An indulgence does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of falling into sin.
  5. Most of all, an indulgence does not purchase one’s salvation or the release of another’s soul from Purgatory (Indulgences in Catholic Encyclopedia).

What is an indulgence?

The clearest, most succinct definition I’ve read comes from Indulgentiarum doctrina (1967), the Papal Constitution of Pope Paul VI on the doctrine of indulgences (Norm 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.

This sounds more complicated than it is. Let me take it apart. When we sin, by our actions, by our guilt, we harm and weaken our relationship with God. Grave or mortal sin in particular can separate us from God and completely break our communion with Him — because we have turned away from Him, done what is evil in His sight, and brought judgment on ourselves. This is what it means by the guilt due for sins. This is what Christ’s grace and forgiveness sets us free from: He justifies us, makes us righteous before God, and returns us to communion with Him.

But sin does something else, too. The wages of (mortal) sin is death (Romans 6:23) (that’s why it’s called “mortal”) — but all sins have wages. Even our venial sins and peccadilloes lead us into “an unhealthy attachment” to earthly things — a strengthening of our sinful habits and inclinations; the darkening of our minds; the harm sin itself does to our souls — the real, day-to-day consequences of our sin that we have to deal with even after we are forgiven. This is the temporal punishment of our sin: the temporal effects of the sin itself (CCC 1472; see also Sin in the Catholic Encyclopedia). God’s grace may wipe away our guilt, but we are still left with our sinful inclinations. From these we have to be purified — through pursuing the life of grace, especially the Sacrament of Penance; through prayer; through acts of charity and mercy — through being conformed more to Christ.

If we live and die in God’s grace, our eternal salvation is assured (CCC 1030). But if we die with these temporal effects of sin still hanging on — if we still need to be purified — then we enter a state of purification after death. The Church calls this Purgatory. Purgatory is not a place of punishment for the guilt of our sins — all the souls in Purgatory have already had their sins forgiven in full, had the eternal punishment of their sins bought and paid by the Blood of Christ; their eternal salvation is assured. But they still need to be purified, repaired, molded — to do what they didn’t finish doing in life (CCC 1031, cf. 1 Cor 3:15, 1 Pet 1:7).

This is where indulgences come in. The doctrine of indulgences (Latin indulgentia, from indulgeo, to be kind or tender; to concede, allow, grant, bestow as a favor) is an ancient teaching of the Church, the roots of which extend all the way back to the Apostles. It intersects with a number of other ancient and often misunderstood doctrines, including the “treasury” of merit and the communion of saints. It would take a while to convey a full understanding of all of these, but I will attempt to simplify things below.

The Communion of Saints and the Treasury of Merit

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

All people are connected, in that the sin of one person harms others and the holiness of one person benefits others: we affect each other. Just as all humans have suffered through the original sin of Adam, through communion with Christ we can all share in His righteousness and reap the rewards of His sacrifice. Likewise, we are connected to each other in that through charity we can lift each other up in prayer; we can help bear each other’s crosses; we can share with each other spiritual “goods” (i.e. good things) — our prayer, our charity, our penitence. And because all believers are connected through the Body of Christ — those of us sojourning on earth; those saints receiving their reward in heaven; and those souls being purified in Purgatory — all can share with each other spiritual “goods,” even across the barriers of life and death. This is at the heart of the idea that saints can pray for us, and share with us the satisfaction earned by the merits they have obtained before God. By this same idea, we can reach the departed souls being purified in Purgatory, to pray for them and share with them our spiritual “goods” (CCC 1474-1475; Indulgentiarum doctrina 4-5).

The combined merits of Christ and all the saints — all the good that anyone has ever done through God’s grace, and all the reward that it has ever received — creates a “treasury” of merit in heaven. This “treasury” contains, most of all, the infinite and inexhaustible value of Christ’s mercy and sacrifice, together with the wealth of all the prayers and good works of all the saints of all the ages (CCC 1476-1477).

The Doctrine of Indulgences

The Delivery of the Keys (Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Rome)

The Delivery of the Keys (Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Rome).

We believe that the Church, by the power of the keys Christ entrusted to Peter — the power to “bind and loose on earth and in heaven” — has the power to unlock this “treasury” of merit and dispense its spiritual “goods,” to apply them to truly penitent sinners for the expiation of the temporal punishments of their sins. Only God can forgive the guilt of sins — but the Church, which administers penance for the expiation of the temporal punishments, can also apply the satisfaction of this treasury of merit to remit those punishments, for those who are penitent and properly disposed.

And this is the idea of indulgences. By the Middle Ages, the Church was granting indulgences — the remission of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven — in reward for certain, approved good works that were deemed for the good of the penitent, or for the good of all the faithful and the Church. Some examples of these works include making a devout pilgrimage to a holy site, praying the Rosary or Stations of the Cross, or the pious use of devotional objects such as a Crucifix or medal. Earning an indulgence could be applied to either one’s own temporal punishments, or to those of a departed soul in Purgatory, to shorten the time he or she might spend there (CCC 1478-1479, Indulgentiarum Doctrina 6-7).

Of indulgences, Pope Paul VI wrote (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 8):

The aim pursued by ecclesiastical authority in granting indulgences is not only that of helping the faithful to expiate the punishment due sin but also that of urging them to perform works of piety, penitence and charity — particularly those which lead to growth in faith and which favor the common good.

I fear this may be a crass metaphor — but as I have studied this, I’ve thought of indulgences as the rewards system of a kindergarten classroom. In order to promote good citizenship, virtue, and praiseworthy behavior, the teacher grants to her students gold or silver stars on a board. She may also give them certain rewards if they achieve enough stars. The Church, which has the power to dispense these rewards for the expiation of temporal punishment, chooses to offer them as incentives for good works that are beneficial to the penitent or the entire Christian community — to raise them up to do those things as a matter of habit.

A Church with Authority

The doctrine of indulgences only makes sense if you believe in a Church with authority in both heaven and earth — if you believe the Gospels at their word (Matthew 16:19):

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Despite the Word of the Gospel, the idea of the Church having real spiritual authority is foreign to most Protestants — many of whom deny the very idea of authority beyond the letter of Scripture and the individual conscience. But when we acknowledge that Christ invested his Church with exactly this kind of authority, and with the authority to remit sins (John 20:21-23) — when we acknowledge that the Church is more than just a temporal, manmade institution, but a divinely-appointed spiritual authority, existing both on earth and in heaven — then this doctrine commands a great deal more weight.

I recognize the difficulty of presenting this doctrine to anyone adhering to a sola scriptura viewpoint; but Tradition and the writings of the Church Fathers support that the whole Church held and believed the doctrine of indulgences in some form for nearly 1,500 years. I do not expect the explanation above to be convincing, but I do hope that it is at least illuminating about what the Catholic Church actually teaches regarding indulgences, and helps clear up some misconceptions.

Indulgences, properly taught, have nothing to do with forgiveness of the guilt of sins, and nothing to do with eternal salvation. The very idea of indulgences is that the guilt for one’s sins has already been forgiven. Indulgences have only to do with the temporal punishments for sin that still remain and with the need for purification from them, either in life or in the hereafter in Purgatory. All souls being purified in Purgatory are already guaranteed salvation in heaven, with or without indulgences.

Indulgences, however, weren’t always properly taught. By the late Middle Ages, abuses were creeping into some areas of the Church regarding the teaching of indulgences. By the Renaissance, these abuses were becoming widespread and flagrant. It is in this context that Martin Luther protested in 1517, and produced his Ninety-Five Theses — initially only proposals for critical, academic discussion — but soon igniting the fires of Reformation across Europe.

(Next time: Luther and his theses — what he protested and why.)

4 thoughts on “Indulgences: What they mean

  1. This was very informative. I have been confused about indulgences and I really like the idea that the goal is “of urging them to perform works of piety, penitence and charity — particularly those which lead to growth in faith and which favor the common good.” If this is the case, I think we need to get back to indulgences so we can learn to really be “Catholic” and work as a community for good. Thanks-

    • Thanks! And you’re welcome. Your comment echoes something I read while I was researching. Check out this page on Catholic-Pages, at the very bottom: “Needless to say, there is a great need and benefit in the restoration of the importance of the teachings on indulgences in the modern Church!”

  2. Pingback: Luther and Indulgences « The Lonely Pilgrim

  3. Pingback: Indulgences: It’s about healing | The Lonely Pilgrim

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