What’s an Indulgence?

Before you start reading, you need to know what purgatory is – if you don’t, click HERE.

SO – the way church documents usually put it, while God forgives our sins, that doesn’t change the fact that there is still a “temporal punishment” for our sins – that’s what purgatory is supposed to be.  That’s also what penance is supposed to be after we go to confession.


So what’s “temporal punishment”?  Well, I think God is like our parents, who have to punish us, even though they intend to forgive us.  Why do they have to punish us?  So that we’ll learn, that’s why.  And that jives with the way I defined purgatory last week, and it also fits with the penance that we get when we go to confession – its so we can LEARN not to sin in that way again.

Note that our parents DON’T punish us because we have offended their authority by disobeying them - at least they're not supposed to anyway – if that IS the reason the parent is punishing, then that parent is acting out of their EGO, that we've threatened their sense of control; punishment in this case is actually a form of ABUSE.  That's usually why I get mad at my dog - not because I need him to know better for his sake; but because I can't control him. God DOESN’T act that way. He doesn't get threatened by our rebellions - he isn't so insecure - but we do need to learn - for OUR sakes.

The other thing we know is that when we sin, there are consequences – in fact that’s why sins ARE sins – the consequences are damaging, to ourselves, to others, and therefore to God.  Sometimes we can avoid these consequences, but most of the time, we can’t.  And God seems to permit that this be so.  The consequences take place.  If I blow up a mailbox, it's gonna make a mess, people are going to be inconvenienced, or disappointed, or maybe even hurt.  If I choose to smoke, I’m gonna be weaker, or run out of breath more often, or catch emphysema, or lung cancer.  Or maybe someone I love will catch it through second hand smoke.  I have to face these consequences – there’s no getting around it.  I might try to run from them, but I will inevitably face the consequences. 

We can understand the words “temporal punishment” in this way as well – it’s the consequences.  And it’s ALSO the consequences that teach us, if we’re open to them – they can give us wisdom.


There are some church documents that say that this punishment is necessary so that God’s divine justice will be satisfied.  I have a number of problems with this statement:

1) God then has to be an ego-centric monarch, who’s pride we have offended by sinning against him – this isn’t the God that I believe in – see the above note, in black print, on abusive parents;

2) according to this language God has NO CHOICE but to exact justice on us, he CAN’T absolve us until his justice is satisfied – if God has NO CHOICE in ANY situation, he wouldn’t really be God, because God can do ANYTHING.  Such a statement denies God’s autonomy, as ALL POWERFUL, and as ALL MERCIFUL.  Such a viewpoint actually puts limits on God. 

3) This language arose largely through St. Anselm of Canterbury, and comes out of a medieval worldview, which was intent on maintaining a social hierarchy. 

Anselm of course finished off his concept of divine satisfaction by stating that Jesus, and ONLY Jesus, can satisfy God’s required justice.  Again, the problem here is that God is then REQUIRED to destroy his own Son, just to satisfy his own justice – troublesome view of God, if you ask me – that’s a God with multiple personality disorder.

But anyway, the point is, Jesus satisfied it.  He paid the price, according to Anselm.  But according to the doctrine of purgatory, stated IN THIS LANGUAGE, Jesus DIDN’T fully pay the price – and there is something remaining for us to pay.  To me, this is a heresy – to say that there was something lacking in the sacrifice of Christ – to say that what Jesus did WASN’T GOOD ENOUGH to save us.

And there will be a bunch of people, quoting Colossians 1:24, saying that this is what St. Paul said (actually Colossians is deutero-pauline).  For that one verse, I’ll find you ten more in St. Paul that make it clear that God’s grace, won through the blood of Christ, is more than sufficient to make atonement for our sins.

Fortunately, the problem is with this particularly medieval, Anselmian language, not with the doctrine itself.


So going back to the explanation, we know that our sins have consequences – those consequences being: our broken world.  Its not that God is punishing us – but God is permitting that those consequences, which WE CHOOSE by choosing to sin, should take place.

We also know that Jesus entered into that world, and even though he DIDN’T sin, he suffered the consequences anyway.  So we could say that he paid the same price we pay – with us – even FOR us.

But, we still have to learn.  What Jesus offers us is an opportunity to learn by witnessing him experiencing the consequences for us – by being MOVED by it, by growing from it, by being converted by it.  Or we can learn the hard way – penance, purgatory – facing the consequences on our own.

This is the GRACE of an indulgence – that conversion can take place in us, that we can be purified, not just through our own paying the consequences – but also through Jesus paying them for us.


Well, basically, we can understand an indulgence as an act of devotion that we perform that pays the temporal punishment of a sin that is ALREADY FORGIVEN, either for ourselves, or for someone who has died and in purgatory. 

Examples of indulgences are doing certain prayers every day for a certain amount of time, or going to confession and then to mass on certain feast days, or going to Rome or another pilgrimage site at certain times, things like that.

An indulgence can NOT be performed for someone else who is still alive.

Restating, an indulgence is an act that we do that pays the consequences for sins. 

The language that is often used is that the price or consequence is paid by the superabundance of grace that was won by Jesus, who paid the price of all of our sins, and also the grace won by the Saints, who also ended up paying more consequences than they deserved.

So, why do they work?  Why is it that I don’t still have to pay the price – so that I will learn?  How can it possibly make my purgatory journey easier?  How can I learn the lesson that I HAVE TO LEARN so that I can become perfect, so I can get to heaven, if someone else pays it for me?

The reason it works for our own sins – is because of the nature of the indulgence itself.  An indulgence is always an ACT that exposes us in some way to the incredible activity of God in Christ.  It's always something that involves a lot of prayer, or going to confession at a certain time, or making some sacrifice for someone else, or going to Church on a certain day – it may show us how much Christ suffered for us – it may allow us to experience a taste of that suffering, so that we REALLY KNOW how much he suffered for us – it always EXPOSES us to how much God loves us in Christ, INFINITELY – so it penetrates us, transforms us, converts us. 

Why do they work for people in purgatory?  How can MY performance of an indulgence, help someone else who has died?  Well the answer is that they’re still connected with us, especially when we pray for them – I believe they can even be aware of us, somehow.

But we know that people in purgatory are there because they HAVE to be there – they have to learn certain things, see themselves, so that they can overcome their shortcomings and grow into perfect beings able to go to heaven.  But, them seeing us, the people they love, making sacrifices for them – seeing us LOVE them – that will have an affect on them – it will make it easier for them to accept God’s love – so it can speed up or even complete their time in purgatory.  That makes sense to me.

This is also why we can pray for those who have died, and even offer masses for them.

It should be noted that an indulgence applies to temporal punishment for FORGIVEN sins – that is, I have admitted them, confessed them, sought reconciliation for them, taken responsibility for them, etc.  It doesn’t give a person freedom to commit whatever sins they want.


A plenary indulgence is an indulgence that can remove the temporal punishment COMPLETELY either from oneself, or from someone in purgatory – in other words, it LETS THEM OUT of purgatory.  Pretty sweet deal.


The answer is that only Bishops can decide what acts of devotion can be considered to be partial indulgences, and only the Pope can decide what constitutes a plenary indulgence.  We believe this power to do so comes from Jesus’ commission to St. Peter, giving him authority to forgive and retain sins.  The Pope and Bishops are living manifestations of Christ’s delegation of his mission of love to the Church.

The reason ONLY THEY can decide what’s an indulgence and what isn’t one – is that otherwise indulgences can be really easy to abuse .  In fact they’re really easy to abuse anyway, as history testifies.


It’s true that the practice of indulgences finds itself at the very center of the Protestant Reformation – the break between the Catholic and Protestant Churches.  Martin Luther had a real problem with indulgences.  But the problem was that the conveyance of indulgences was being really badly abused.

Here are some examples of ways indulgences have been abused:

1) Mercenary Penitents – back in the middle ages and renaissance period, there were people that you could pay to do your penance for you.  You could also pay them to perform the acts of an indulgence for you, and for your dead aunt, and all your dead relatives.  They actually supported themselves performing indulgences for other people all day long, every day.  Not cool.

2) Indulgences were sometimes granted to soldiers for going on a crusade.  Not cool.

3) Indulgences were used to raise money.  In fact Pope Leo X raised a lot of money to build St. Peter’s Basilica through the selling of indulgences.  The people buying them had the right intent; their sacrifice was an act of love.  Unfortunately the one’s selling them didn’t – they used superstition and fear to raise money.  Not cool.

4) Various religious leaders (that weren’t Bishops) would decide on their own indulgences for various causes, various tasks they wanted completed for them, etc.  Not cool.

5) Maybe the biggest problem - a problem still present to this day, and not just with indulgences, but with many acts of devotion - is that the indulgence can presents us with a reward for doing good, when doing good should be reward in itself. It can, when not properly understood, turn love and devotion into a selfish act. It presents a backward theological picture, where God rewards us for being good, rather than the correct view, that we are to be good BECAUSE God loved us first.

A lot of these abuses were addressed AFTER the Protestant split.  In particular, indulgences cannot be bought AT ALL anymore, and they are always acts of devotion - so marching off to a holy war would no longer qualify.  Also, the power to designate indulgences has been restricted to Popes and Bishops.  Too bad these changes hadn’t been enacted BEFORE the split – there probably wouldn’t have been one.

One of the big criticisms Martin Luther raised was: if the Pope has the power to free souls from purgatory, having access to the superabundant grace of Christ and the saints in their sufferings, why doesn’t he just free EVERYBODY RIGHT NOW!?  I have to admit, that’s a good question – and I think this question points out why using language of “penal satisfaction,” as mentioned above, is such a problem.  Too much potential for misunderstanding, or reducing God to an ego-centric parent.

The answer, I think, is just as I’ve stated – the Pope doesn’t just free everybody from purgatory for the same reason that God doesn’t stop the consequences of our sins from happening.  Basically – we have to learn. Sometimes, especially when we're REALLY thick headed, only the consequences will teach us. Sometimes we have to hit, what they call in AA, "ROCK BOTTOM," before we can turn around.

And what’s more, by doing these indulgences, by making sacrifices, making acts of mercy, showing love for sinners, we get to PARTICIPATE WITH CHRIST in his saving work.  This isn’t to say that Christ’s saving work wasn’t good enough – it WAS good enough, and the sign that it was is that it inspires all of us to continue that work.

If you want another perspective on indulgences, check the online Catholic Encyclopedia – click HERE.  It uses a lot of that Anselmian language that I find troubling, but it shows a really good historical development of the doctrine, and its pretty honest about the abuses as well.


So, his Holiness, Pope Benedict, has issued a special Plenary Indulgence for this year, which honors St. Paul.  Archbishop Smith of Edmonton has applied that indulgence to the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, on Jan 25 (which is on a Sunday in 2009), for anyone who goes to confession, then prays for the pope’s intentions while in a state of grace (i.e. right after confession), and then attends mass that weekend, at a mass designated as a celebration of that feast day.  In my church, all the masses that weekend will be celebrated as the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.  To see the decree, click HERE.

If your not from the Archdiocese of Edmonton – TOO BAD!!

Just joking; check with your local Bishop’s office to see how this indulgence is applied in your diocese.