Indulgence  – The word indulgence (Latin indulgentia, from indulgeo, to be kind or tender) originally meant kindness or favor; in post-classic Latin it came to mean the remission of a tax or debt. In Roman law and in the Vulgate of the Old Testament (Isaiah 61:1) it was used to express release from captivity or punishment. In theological language also the word is sometimes employed in its primary sense to signify the kindness and mercy of God. But in the special sense in which it is here considered, an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. Among the equivalent terms used in antiquity were pax, remissio, donatio, condonatio.

What an indulgence is not

To facilitate explanation, it may be well to state what an indulgence is not. It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power. It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven. It is not an exemption from any law or duty, and much less from the obligation consequent on certain kinds of sin, e.g., restitution; on the contrary, it means a more complete payment of the debt which the sinner owes to God. It does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of subsequent lapses into sin. Least of all is an indulgence the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer’s salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory. The absurdity of such notions must be obvious to any one who forms a correct idea of what the Catholic Church really teaches on this subject.

What an indulgence is

An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God’s justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive. Regarding this definition, the following points are to be noted:

In the Sacrament of Baptism not only is the guilt of sin remitted, but also all the penalties attached to sin. In the Sacrament of Penance the guilt of sin is removed, and with it the eternal punishment due to mortal sin; but there still remains the temporal punishment required by Divine justice, and this requirement must be fulfilled either in the present life or in the world to come, i.e., in Purgatory. An indulgence offers the penitent sinner the means of discharging this debt during his life on earth.
Some writs of indulgence—none of them, however, issued by any pope or council (Pesch, Tr. Dogm., VII, 196, no. 464)—contain the expression, “indulgentia a culpa et a poena”, i.e. release from guilt and from punishment; and this has occasioned considerable misunderstanding (cf. Lea, “History” etc. III, 54 sqq.). The real meaning of the formula is that, indulgences presupposing the Sacrament of Penance, the penitent, after receiving sacramental absolution from the guilt of sin, is afterwards freed from the temporal penalty by the indulgence (Bellarmine, “De Indulg”., I, 7). In other words, sin is fully pardoned, i.e. its effects entirely obliterated, only when complete reparation, and consequently release from penalty as well as from guilt, has been made. Hence Clement V (1305-1314) condemned the practice of those purveyors of indulgences who pretended to absolve “a culpa et a poena” (Clement, I. v, tit. 9, c. ii); the Council of Constance (1418) revoked (Sess. XLII, n. 14) all indulgences containing the said formula; Benedict XIV (1740-1758) treats them as spurious indulgences granted in this form, which he ascribes to the illicit practices of the “quaestores” or purveyors (De Syn. dioeces., VIII, viii. 7).
The satisfaction, usually called the “penance”, imposed by the confessor when he gives absolution is an integral part of the Sacrament of Penance; an indulgence is extra-sacramental; it presupposes the effects obtained by confession, contrition, and sacramental satisfaction. It differs also from the penitential works undertaken of his own accord by the repentant sinner — prayer, fasting, alms-giving — in that these are personal and get their value from the merit of him who performs them, whereas an indulgence places at the penitent’s disposal the merits of Christ and of the saints, which form the “Treasury” of the Church.
An indulgence is valid both in the tribunal of the Church and in the tribunal of God. This means that it not only releases the penitent from his indebtedness to the Church or from the obligation of performing canonical penance, but also from the temporal punishment which he has incurred in the sight of God and which, without the indulgence, he would have to undergo in order to satisfy Divine justice. This, however, does not imply that the Church pretends to set aside the claim of God’s justice or that she allows the sinner to repudiate his debt. As St. Thomas says (Supplement.25.1 ad 2um), “He who gains indulgences is not thereby released outright from what he owes as penalty, but is provided with the means of paying it.” The Church therefore neither leaves the penitent helplessly in debt nor acquits him of all further accounting; she enables him to meet his obligations.
In granting an indulgence, the grantor (pope or bishop) does not offer his personal merits in lieu of what God demands from the sinner. He acts in his official capacity as having jurisdiction in the Church, from whose spiritual treasury he draws the means wherewith payment is to be made. The Church herself is not the absolute owner, but simply the administratrix, of the superabundant merits which that treasury contains. In applying them, she keeps in view both the design of God’s mercy and the demands of God’s justice. She therefore determines the amount of each concession, as well as the conditions which the penitent must fulfill if he would gain the indulgence.
Various kinds of indulgences

An indulgence that may be gained in any part of the world is universal, while one that can be gained only in a specified place (Rome, Jerusalem, etc.) is local. A further distinction is that between perpetual indulgences, which may be gained at any time, and temporary, which are available on certain days only, or within certain periods. Real indulgences are attached to the use of certain objects (crucifix, rosary, medal); personal are those which do not require the use of any such material thing, or which are granted only to a certain class of individuals, e.g. members of an order or confraternity. The most important distinction, however, is that between plenary indulgences and partial. By a plenary indulgence is meant the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is required in Purgatory. A partial indulgence commutes only a certain portion of the penalty; and this portion is determined in accordance with the penitential discipline of the early Church. To say that an indulgence of so many days or years is granted means that it cancels an amount of purgatorial punishment equivalent to that which would have been remitted, in the sight of God, by the performance of so many days or years of the ancient canonical penance. Here, evidently, the reckoning makes no claim to absolute exactness; it has only a relative value.

God alone knows what penalty remains to be paid and what its precise amount is in severity and duration. Finally, some indulgences are granted in behalf of the living only, while others may be applied in behalf of the souls departed. It should be noted, however, that the application has not the same significance in both cases. The Church in granting an indulgence to the living exercises her jurisdiction; over the dead she has no jurisdiction and therefore makes the indulgence available for them by way of suffrage (per modum suffragii), i.e. she petitions God to accept these works of satisfaction and in consideration thereof to mitigate or shorten the sufferings of the souls in Purgatory.

Who can grant indulgences

The distribution of the merits contained in the treasury of the Church is an exercise of authority (potestas iurisdictionis), not of the power conferred by Holy orders (potestas ordinis). Hence the pope, as supreme head of the Church on earth, can grant all kinds of indulgences to any and all of the faithful; and he alone can grant plenary indulgences. The power of the bishop, previously unrestricted, was limited by Innocent III (1215) to the granting of one year’s indulgence at the dedication of a church and of forty days on other occasions. Leo XIII (Rescript of 4 July. 1899) authorized the archbishops of South America to grant eighty days (Acta S. Sedis, XXXI, 758). Pius X (28 August, 1903) allowed cardinals in their titular churches and dioceses to grant 200 days; archbishops, 100; bishops, 50. These indulgences are not applicable to the souls departed. They can be gained by persons not belonging to the diocese, but temporarily within its limits; and by the subjects of the granting bishop, whether these are within the diocese or outside–except when the indulgence is local. Priests, vicars general, abbots, and generals of religious orders cannot grant indulgences unless specially authorized to do so. On the other hand, the pope can empower a cleric who is not a priest to give an indulgence (St. Thomas, “Quodlib.”, II, q. viii, a. 16).

Dispositions necessary to gain an indulgence

The mere fact that the Church proclaims an indulgence does not imply that it can be gained without effort on the part of the faithful. From what has been said above, it is clear that the recipient must be free from the guilt of mortal sin. Furthermore, for plenary indulgences, confession and Communion are usually required, while for partial indulgences, though confession is not obligatory, the formula corde saltem contrito, i.e. “at least with a contrite heart”, is the customary prescription. Regarding the question discussed by theologians whether a person in mortal sin can gain an indulgence for the dead, see PURGATORY. It is also necessary to have the intention, at least habitual, of gaining the indulgence. Finally, from the nature of the case, it is obvious that one must perform the good works — prayers, alms deeds, visits to a church, etc. — which are prescribed in the granting of an indulgence. For details see “Raccolta”.

Authoritative teaching of the Church

The Council of Constance condemned among the errors of Wyclif the proposition: “It is foolish to believe in the indulgences granted by the pope and the bishops” (Sess. VIII, 4 May, 1415; see Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchiridion”, 622). In the Bull “Exsurge Domine”, 15 June, 1520, Leo X condemned Luther’s assertions that “Indulgences are pious frauds of the faithful”; and that “Indulgences do not avail those who really gain them for the remission of the penalty due to actual sin in the sight of God’s justice” (Enchiridion, 75S, 759), The Council of Trent (Sess, XXV, 3-4, Dec., 1563) declared: “Since the power of granting indulgences has been given to the Church by Christ, and since the Church from the earliest times has made use of this Divinely given power, the holy synod teaches and ordains that the use of indulgences, as most salutary to Christians and as approved by the authority of the councils, shall be retained in the Church; and it further pronounces anathema against those who either declare that indulgences are useless or deny that the Church has the power to grant them (Enchridion, 989). It is therefore of faith (de fide)

that the Church has received from Christ the power to grant indulgences, and
that the use of indulgences is salutary for the faithful.
Basis of the doctrine

An essential element in indulgences is the application to one person of the satisfaction performed by others. This transfer is based on three things: the Communion of Saints, the principle of vicarious satisfaction, and the Treasury of the Church.

The communion of saints

“We being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another” (Romans 12:5). As each organ shares in the life of the whole body, so does each of the faithful profit by the prayers and good works of all the rest—a benefit which accrues, in the first instance, to those who are in the state of grace, but also, though less fully, to the sinful members.

The principle of vicarious satisfaction

Each good action of the just man possesses a double value: that of merit and that of satisfaction, or expiation. Merit is personal, and therefore it cannot be transferred; but satisfaction can be applied to others, as St. Paul writes to the Colossians (1:24) of his own works: “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the Church.”

The treasury of the Church

Christ, as St. John declares in his First Epistle (2:2), “is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” Since the satisfaction of Christ is infinite, it constitutes an inexhaustible fund which is more than sufficient to cover the indebtedness contracted by sin, Besides, there are the satisfactory works of the Blessed Virgin Mary undiminished by any penalty due to sin, and the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints vastly exceeding any temporal punishment which these servants of God might have incurred. These are added to the treasury of the Church as a secondary deposit, not independent of, but rather acquired through, the merits of Christ. The development of this doctrine in explicit form was the work of the great Schoolmen, notably Alexander of Hales (Summa, IV, Q. xxiii, m. 3, n. 6), Albertus Magnus (In IV Sent., dist. xx, art. 16), and St. Thomas (In IV Sent., dist. xx, q. i, art. 3, sol. 1). As Aquinas declares (Quodlib., II, q. vii, art. 16): “All the saints intended that whatever they did or suffered for God’s sake should be profitable not only to themselves but to the whole Church.” And he further points out (Contra Gent., III, 158) that what one endures for another being a work of love, is more acceptable as satisfaction in God’s sight than what one suffers on one’s own account, since this is a matter of necessity. The existence of an infinite treasury of merits in the Church is dogmatically set forth in the Bull “Unigenitus”, published by Clement VI, 27 Jan., 1343, and later inserted in the “Corpus Juris” (Extrav. Com., lib. V, tit. ix. c. ii): “Upon the altar of the Cross”, says the pope, “Christ shed of His blood not merely a drop, though this would have sufficed, by reason of the union with the Word, to redeem the whole human race, but a copious torrent. . . thereby laying up an infinite treasure for mankind. This treasure He neither wrapped up in a napkin nor hid in a field, but entrusted to Blessed Peter, the key-bearer, and his successors, that they might, for just and reasonable causes, distribute it to the faithful in full or in partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.” Hence the condemnation by Leo X of Luther’s assertion that “the treasures of the Church from which the pope grants indulgences are not the merits of Christ and the saints” (Enchiridion, 757). For the same reason, Pius VI (1794) branded as false, temerarious, and injurious to the merits of Christ and the saints, the error of the synod of Pistoia that the treasury of the Church was an invention of scholastic subtlety (Enchiridion, 1541).

According to Catholic doctrine, therefore, the source of indulgences is constituted by the merits of Christ and the saints. This treasury is left to the keeping, not of the individual Christian, but of the Church. Consequently, to make it available for the faithful, there is required an exercise of authority, which alone can determine in what way, on what terms, and to what extent, indulgences may be granted.

The power to grant indulgences

Once it is admitted that Christ left the Church the power to forgive sins (see PENANCE), the power of granting indulgences is logically inferred. Since the sacramental forgiveness of sin extends both to the guilt and to the eternal punishment, it plainly follows that the Church can also free the penitent from the lesser or temporal penalty. This becomes clearer, however, when we consider the amplitude of the power granted to Peter (Matthew 16:19): “I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” (Cf. Matthew 18:18, where like power is conferred on all the Apostles.) No limit is placed upon this power of loosing, “the power of the keys”, as it is called; it must, therefore, extend to any and all bonds contracted by sin, including the penalty no less than the guilt. When the Church, therefore, by an indulgence, remits this penalty, her action, according to the declaration of Christ, is ratified in heaven. That this power, as the Council of Trent affirms, was exercised from the earliest times, is shown by St. Paul’s words (2 Corinthians 2:5-10) in which he deals with the case of the incest man of Corinth. The sinner had been excluded by St. Paul’s order from the company of the faithful, but had truly repented. Hence the Apostle judges that to such a one “this rebuke is sufficient that is given by many” and adds: “To whom you have pardoned any thing, I also. For what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ.” St. Paul had bound the guilty one in the fetters of excommunication; he now releases the penitent from this punishment by an exercise of his authority — “in the person of Christ.” Here we have all the essentials of an indulgence.

These essentials persist in the subsequent practice of the Church, though the accidental features vary according as new conditions arise. During the persecutions, those Christians who had fallen away but desired to be restored to the communion of the Church often obtained from the martyrs a memorial (libellus pacis) to be presented to the bishop, that he, in consideration of the martyrs’ sufferings, might admit the penitents to absolution, thereby releasing them from the punishment they had incurred. Tertullian refers to this when he says (To the Martyrs 1): “Which peace some, not having it in the Church, are accustomed to beg from the martyrs in prison; and therefore you should possess and cherish and preserve it in you that so you perchance may be able to grant it to others.” Additional light is thrown on this subject by the vigorous attack which the same Tertullian made after he had become a Montanist. In the first part of his treatise “De pudicitia”, he attacks the pope for his alleged laxity in admitting adulterers to penance and pardon, and flouts the peremptory edict of the “pontifex maximus episcopus episcoporum”. At the close he complains that the same power of remission is now allowed also to the martyrs, and urges that it should be enough for them to purge their own sins — sufficiat martyri propria delicta purgasse”. And, again, “How can the oil of thy little lamp suffice both for thee and me?” (c. xxii). It is sufficient to note that many of his arguments would apply with as much and as little force to the indulgences of later ages.

During St. Cyprian’s time (d. 258), the heretic Novatian claimed that none of the lapsi should be readmitted to the Church; others, like Felicissimus, held that such sinners should be received without any penance. Between these extremes, St. Cyprian holds the middle course, insisting that such penitents should be reconciled on the fulfillment of the proper conditions. On the one hand, he condemns the abuses connected with the libellus, in particular the custom of having it made out in blank by the martyrs and filled in by any one who needed it. “To this you should diligently attend”, he writes to the martyrs (Epistle 15), “that you designate by name those to whom you wish peace to be given.” On the other hand, he recognizes the value of these memorials: “Those who have received a libellus from the martyrs and with their help can, before the Lord, get relief in their sins, let such, if they be ill and in danger, after confession and the imposition of your hands, depart unto the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs” (Epistle 13). St. Cyprian, therefore, believed that the merits of the martyrs could be applied to less worthy Christians by way of vicarious satisfaction, and that such satisfaction was acceptable in the eyes of God as well as of the Church.

After the persecutions had ceased, the penitential discipline remained in force, but greater leniency was shown in applying it. St. Cyprian himself was reproached for mitigating the “Evangelical severity” on which he at first insisted; to this he replied (Epistle 52) that such strictness was needful during the time of persecution not only to stimulate the faithful in the performance of penance, but also to quicken them for the glory of martyrdom; when, on the contrary, peace was secured to the Church, relaxation was necessary in order to prevent sinners from falling into despair and leading the life of pagans. In 380 St. Gregory of Nyssa (Ep. ad Letojum) declares that the penance should be shortened in the case of those who showed sincerity and zeal in performing it — “ut spatium canonibus praestitum posset contrahere (can. xviii; cf. can. ix, vi, viii, xi, xiii, xix). In the same spirit, St. Basil (379), after prescribing more lenient treatment for various crimes, lays down the general principle that in all such cases it is not merely the duration of the penance that must be considered, but the way in which it is performed (Ep. ad Amphilochium, c. lxxxiv). Similar leniency is shown by various Councils–Ancyra (314), Laodicea (320), Nicaea (325), Arles (330). It became quite common during this period to favor those who were ill, and especially those who were in danger of death (see Amort, “Historia”, 28 sq.). The ancient penitentials of Ireland and England, though exacting in regard to discipline, provide for relaxation in certain cases. St. Cummian, e.g., in his Penitential (seventh century), treating (cap. v) of the sin of robbery, prescribed that he who has often committed theft shall do penance for seven years or for such time as the priest may judge fit, must always be reconciled with him whom he has wronged, and make restitution proportioned to the injury, and thereby his penance shall be considerably shortened (multum breviabit poenitentiam ejus). But should he be unwilling or unable (to comply with these conditions), he must do penance for the whole time prescribed and in all its details. (Cf. Moran, “Essays on the Early Irish Church”, Dublin, 1864, p. 259.)

Another practice which shows quite clearly the difference between sacramental absolution and the granting of indulgences was the solemn reconciliation of penitents. These, at the beginning of Lent, had received from the priest absolution from their sins and the penance enjoined by the canons; on Maundy Thursday they presented themselves before the bishop, who laid hands on them, reconciled them with the Church, and admitted them to communion. This reconciliation was reserved to the bishop, as is expressly declared in the Penitential of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury; though in case of necessity the bishop could delegate a priest for the purpose (lib. I, xiii). Since the bishop did not hear their confession, the “absolution” which he pronounced must have been a release from some penalty they had incurred. The effect, moreover, of this reconciliation was to restore the penitent to the state of baptismal innocence and consequently of freedom from all penalties, as appears from the so-called Apostolic Constitutions (lib, II, c. xli) where it is said: “Eritque in loco baptismi impositio manuum”–i.e. the imposition of hands has the same effect as baptism (cf. Palmieri, “De Poenitentia”, Rome, 1879, 459 sq.).
In a later period (eighth century to twelfth) it became customary to permit the substitution of some lighter penance for that which the canons prescribed. Thus the Penitential of Egbert, Archbishop of York, declares (XIII, 11): “For him who can comply with what the penitential prescribes, well and good; for him who cannot, we give counsel of God’s mercy. Instead of one day on bread and water let him sing fifty psalms on his knees or seventy psalms without genuflecting …. But if he does not know the psalms and cannot fast, let him, instead of one year on bread and water, give twenty-six solidi in alms, fast till None on one day of each week and till Vespers on another, and in the three Lents bestow in alms half of what he receives.” The practice of substituting the recitation of psalms or the giving of alms for a portion of the fast is also sanctioned in the Irish Synod of 807, which says (c. xxiv) that the fast of the second day of the week may be “redeemed” by singing one psalter or by giving one denarius to a poor person. Here we have the beginning of the so-called “redemptions” which soon passed into general usage. Among other forms of commutation were pilgrimages to well-known shrines such as that at St. Albans in England or at Compostela in Spain. But the most important place of pilgrimage was Rome. According to Bede (674-735) the “visitatio liminum”, or visit to the tomb of the Apostles, was even then regarded as a good work of great efficacy (Hist. Eccl., IV, 23). At first the pilgrims came simply to venerate the relics of the Apostles and martyrs; but in course of time their chief purpose was to gain the indulgences granted by the pope and attached especially to the Stations. Jerusalem, too, had long been the goal of these pious journeys, and the reports which the pilgrims gave of their treatment by the infidels finally brought about the Crusades. At the Council of Clermont (1095) the First Crusade was organized, and it was decreed (can. ii): “Whoever, out of pure devotion and not for the purpose of gaining honor or money, shall go to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God, let that journey be counted in lieu of all penance”. Similar indulgences were granted throughout the five centuries following (Amort, op. cit., 46 sq.), the object being to encourage these expeditions which involved so much hardship and yet were of such great importance for Christendom and civilization. The spirit in which these grants were made is expressed by St. Bernard, the preacher of the Second Crusade (1146): “Receive the sign of the Cross, and thou shalt likewise obtain the indulgence of all thou hast confessed with a contrite heart (ep. cccxxii; al., ccclxii).

Similar concessions were frequently made on occasions, such as the dedication of churches, e.g., that of the old Temple Church in London, which was consecrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 10 February, 1185, by the Lord Heraclius, who to those yearly visiting it indulged sixty days of the penance enjoined them — as the inscription over the main entrance attests. The canonization of saints was often marked by the granting of an indulgence, e.g. in honor of St. Laurence O’Toole by Honorius III (1226), in honor of St. Edmund of Canterbury by Innocent IV (1248), and in honor of St. Thomas of Hereford by John XXII (1320). A famous indulgence is that of the Portiuncula, obtained by St. Francis in 1221 from Honorius III. But the most important largess during this period was the plenary indulgence granted in 1300 by Boniface VIII to those who, being truly contrite and having confessed their sins, should visit the basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul (see JUBILEE).

Among the works of charity which were furthered by indulgences, the hospital held a prominent place. Lea in his “History of Confession and Indulgences” (III, 189) mentions only the hospital of Santo Spirito in Rome, while another Protestant writer, Uhlhorn (Gesch. d. Christliche Liebesthatigkeit, Stuttgart, 1884, II, 244) states that “one cannot go through the archives of any hospital without finding numerous letters of indulgence”. The one at Halberstadt in 1284 had no less than fourteen such grants, each giving an indulgence of forty days. The hospitals at Lucerne, Rothenberg, Rostock, and Augsburg enjoyed similar privileges.


It may seem strange that the doctrine of indulgences should have proved such a stumbling-block, and excited so much prejudice and opposition. But the explanation of this may be found in the abuses which unhappily have been associated with what is in itself a salutary practice. In this respect of course indulgences are not exceptional: no institution, however holy, has entirely escaped abuse through the malice or unworthiness of man. Even the Eucharist, as St. Paul declares, means an eating and drinking of judgment to the recipient who discerns not the body of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). And, as God’s forbearance is constantly abused by those who relapse into sin, it is not surprising that the offer of pardon in the form of an indulgence should have led to evil practices. These again have been in a special way the object of attack because, doubtless, of their connection with Luther’s revolt (see LUTHER). On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the Church, while holding fast to the principle and intrinsic value of indulgences, has repeatedly condemned their misuse: in fact, it is often from the severity of her condemnation that we learn how grave the abuses were.
Even in the age of the martyrs, as stated above there were practices which St. Cyprian was obliged to reprehend, yet he did not forbid the martyrs to give the libelli. In later times abuses were met by repressive measures on the part of the Church. Thus the Council of Clovesho in England (747) condemns those who imagine that they might atone for their crimes by substituting, in place of their own, the austerities of mercenary penitents. Against the excessive indulgences granted by some prelates, the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) decreed that at the dedication of a church the indulgence should not be for more than year, and, for the anniversary of the dedication or any other case, it should not exceed forty days, this being the limit observed by the pope himself on such occasions. The same restriction was enacted by the Council of Ravenna in 1317. In answer to the complaint of the Dominicans and Franciscans, that certain prelates had put their own construction on the indulgences granted to these Orders, Clement IV in 1268 forbade any such interpretation, declaring that, when it was needed, it would be given by the Holy See. In 1330 the brothers of the hospital of Haut-Pas falsely asserted that the grants made in their favor were more extensive than what the documents allowed: John XXII had all these brothers in France seized and imprisoned. Boniface IX, writing to the Bishop of Ferrara in 1392, condemns the practice of certain religious who falsely claimed that they were authorized by the pope to forgive all sorts of sins, and exacted money from the simple-minded among the faithful by promising them perpetual happiness in this world and eternal glory in the next. When Henry, Archbishop of Canterbury, attempted in 1420 to give a plenary indulgence in the form of the Roman Jubilee, he was severely reprimanded by Martin V, who characterized his action as “unheard-of presumption and sacrilegious audacity”. In 1450 Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, Apostolic Legate to Germany, found some preachers asserting that indulgences released from the guilt of sin as well as from the punishment. This error, due to a misunderstanding of the words “a culpa et a poena”, the cardinal condemned at the Council of Magdeburg. Finally, Sixtus IV in 1478, lest the idea of gaining indulgences should prove an incentive to sin, reserved for the judgment of the Holy See a large number of cases in which faculties had formerly been granted to confessors (Extrav. Com., tit. de poen. et remiss.).

Traffic in indulgences

These measures show plainly that the Church long before the Reformation, not only recognized the existence of abuses, but also used her authority to correct them.
In spite of all this, disorders continued and furnished the pretext for attacks directed against the doctrine itself, no less than against the practice of indulgences. Here, as in so many other matters, the love of money was the chief root of the evil: indulgences were employed by mercenary ecclesiastics as a means of pecuniary gain. Leaving the details concerning this traffic to a subsequent article (see REFORMATION), it may suffice for the present to note that the doctrine itself has no natural or necessary connection with pecuniary profit, as is evident from the fact that the abundant indulgences of the present day are free from this evil association: the only conditions required are the saying of certain prayers or the performance of some good work or some practice of piety. Again, it is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, alms giving would naturally hold a conspicuous place, while men would be induced by the same means to contribute to some pious cause such as the building of churches, the endowment of hospitals, or the organization of a crusade. It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded. Looked at in this light, it might well seem a suitable condition for gaining the spiritual benefit of an indulgence. Yet, however innocent in itself, this practice was fraught with grave danger, and soon became a fruitful source of evil. On the one hand there was the danger that the payment might be regarded as the price of the indulgence, and that those who sought to gain it might lose sight of the more important conditions. On the other hand, those who granted indulgences might be tempted to make them a means of raising money: and, even where the rulers of the Church were free from blame in this matter, there was room for corruption in their officials and agents, or among the popular preachers of indulgences. This class has happily disappeared, but the type has been preserved in Chaucer’s “Pardoner”, with his bogus relics and indulgences.
While it cannot be denied that these abuses were widespread, it should also be noted that, even when corruption was at its worst, these spiritual grants were being properly used by sincere Christians, who sought them in the right spirit, and by priests and preachers, who took care to insist on the need of true repentance. It is therefore not difficult to understand why the Church, instead of abolishing the practice of indulgences, aimed rather at strengthening it by eliminating the evil elements. The Council of Trent in its decree “On Indulgences” (Sess. XXV) declares: “In granting indulgences the Council desires that moderation be observed in accordance with the ancient approved custom of the Church, lest through excessive ease ecclesiastical discipline be weakened; and further, seeking to correct the abuses that have crept in . . . it decrees that all criminal gain therewith connected shall be entirely done away with as a source of grievous abuse among the Christian people; and as to other disorders arising from superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or any cause whatsoever–since these, on account of the widespread corruption, cannot be removed by special prohibitions—the Council lays upon each bishop the duty of finding out such abuses as exist in his own diocese, of bringing them before the next provincial synod, and of reporting them, with the assent of the other bishops, to the Roman Pontiff, by whose authority and prudence measures will be taken for the welfare of the Church at large, so that the benefit of indulgences may be bestowed on all the faithful by means at once pious, holy, and free from corruption.” After deploring the fact that, in spite of the remedies prescribed by earlier councils, the traders (quaestores) in indulgences continued their nefarious practice to the great scandal of the faithful, the council ordained that the name and method of these quaestores should be entirely abolished, and that indulgences and other spiritual favors of which the faithful ought not to be deprived should be published by the bishops and bestowed gratuitously, so that all might at length understand that these heavenly treasures were dispensed for the sake of piety and not of lucre (Sess. XXI, c. ix). In 1567 St. Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions.

Apocryphal indulgences

One of the worst abuses was that of inventing or falsifying grants of indulgence. Previous to the Reformation, such practices abounded and called out severe pronouncements by ecclesiastical authority, especially by the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) and that of Vienne (1311). After the Council of Trent the most important measure taken to prevent such frauds was the establishment of the Congregation of Indulgences. A special commission of cardinals served under Clement VIII and Paul V, regulating all matters pertaining to indulgences. The Congregation of Indulgences was definitively established by Clement IX in 1669 and reorganized by Clement XI in 1710. It has rendered efficient service by deciding various questions relative to the granting of indulgences and by its publications. The “Raccolta” was first issued by one of its consultors, Telesforo Galli, in 1807; the last three editions 1877, 1886, and 1898 were published by the Congregation. The other official publication is the “Decreta authentica”, containing the decisions of the Congregation from 1668 to 1882. This was published in 1883 by order of Leo XIII. See also “Rescripta authentica” by Joseph Schneider (Ratisbon, 1885). By a Motu Proprio of Pius X, dated 28 January, 1904, the Congregation of Indulgences was united to the Congregation of Rites, without any diminution, however, of its prerogatives.

Salutary effects of indulgences

Lea (History, etc., III, 446) somewhat reluctantly acknowledges that “with the decline in the financial possibilities of the system, indulgences have greatly multiplied as an incentive to spiritual exercises, and they can thus be so easily obtained that there is no danger of the recurrence of the old abuses, even if the finer sense of fitness, characteristic of modern times, on the part of both prelates and people, did not deter the attempt.” The full significance, however, of this “multiplication” lies in the fact that the Church, by rooting out abuses, has shown the rigor of her spiritual life. She has maintained the practice of indulgences, because, when these are used in accordance with what she prescribes, they strengthen the spiritual life by inducing the faithful to approach the sacraments and to purify their consciences of sin. And further, they encourage the performance, in a truly religious spirit, of works that redound, not alone to the welfare of the individual, but also to God’s glory and to the service of the neighbor.


BELLARMINE, De indulgentiis (Cologne, 1600); PASSERINI, De indulgentiis (Rome, 1672); AMORT, De origine……indulgentiarum (Venice, 1738); BOUVIER, Traité dogmatique et pratique des indulgences (Paris, 1855): SCHOOFS, Die Lehre vom kirchl. Ablass (Munster, 1857); GRONE, Der Ablass, seine Gesch. u. Bedeutung (Ratisbon, 1863).

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APA citation. Kent, W. (1910). Indulgences. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 10, 2015 from New Advent:

MLA citation. Kent, William. “Indulgences.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 10 Nov. 2015 <;.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Charles Sweeney, S.J.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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New Advent – Indulgence

The Historical Origin of Indulgences

by Fr. Enrico dal Covolo, S.D.B.

1. Introduction

The Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 explains in nn. 9 and 10 the true meaning of the Jubilee indulgence, while the Decree attached to the Bull sets out the conditions for gaining this indulgence.

It would be helpful to accompany our reflection on nn. 9 and 10 of the Bull with some historical observations. The catechetical treatment of indulgences (doubtlessly complex, given the contemporary cultural climate) will have to be historically based if it is to be pastorally effective.

Before beginning the historical discussion, we will make two observations, one bibliographical and the other methodological.

As regards bibliography, the most complete treatment of indulgences from the historical standpoint goes back to 1922-23. I am referring to an important monograph in three volumes by Nikolaus Paulus, entitled Geschichte des Ablasses im Mittelalter, published in Paderborn, on which subsequent research largely depends. In the period closer to our own, it is useful to consult the entries in the major encyclopedias and dictionaries currently in use.1

From the methodological standpoint, it is important to acknowledge and consistently employ Paulus’ historico-critical approach. His historical research started with a precise definition of indulgence in our current theological and canonical sense. Only in this way was he able to discern, among conflicting opinions, the historical presuppositions and actual origin of indulgences, eliminating doubtful references and clarifying ambiguous or misinterpreted terms.

We too should begin with a quick explanation of the term in its historical usage.

The Latin term indulgentia means condescension with the various nuances this implies.2

Historians of the Roman Empire use the word in the technical sense of remissio tributi or remissio poenae, concessions that the emperors customarily made on certain occasions. It was also used to indicate abolitio, a sort of amnesty decreed on joyful public occasions (thus in the Carolingian era indulgentia was still being used as the technical term for the remission of penalties or taxes).

In the Theodosian Code3 the term indicates the pardons granted by Christian emperors especially at Easter: so much so that in many early medieval texts (various calendars, sacramentaries, ceremonials, etc.) Palm Sunday is called dominica indulgentia.

As for the question of remission, we find various terms which can refer both to indulgentia in the strict sense of the term (as we understand it today) and to other similar or related ideas.

This imprecision in terminology — as we already mentioned — has led to great confusion among scholars who are less careful in their research. In fact, the words absolutio, relaxatio, remissio, venia, condonatio and indulgentia can indicate, especially in the 11th-12th centuries, various forms of remission — whether sacramental-penitential or extrasacramental.

According to the current Code of Canon Law: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment for sins the guilt of which has already been forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful obtains under certain and definite conditions with the help of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”.4

In historical research, then, we must carefully determine whether indulgence refers to a strictly extrasacramental act, so that we can decide whether an indulgence in the proper sense is meant or some other form of penitential remission.

2. Antecedents of indulgences (reconciliation; mitigation, reduction and commutation of sacramental penance)

Thus, for example, the grace (charis) of which Paul speaks in 2 Cor 2:10 in relation to an unnamed member of the community should not be considered an indulgence in the strict sense but a reconciliation.

This form of reconciliation flourished in the Church from the second to the fourth centuries, and took place primarily through the intercession of the martyrs or confessors of the faith, or in danger of death; but it is essentially a question of readmitting penitents into the Church.

Relaxatio (or mitigation of penance), which is found for example in the Council of Epaon,5 is also the substitution of a previous, more severe penance with something new and milder. These mitigations of penitential discipline became necessary due to the changing times and social conditions of Christians.

From the seventh century on, beginning in Ireland and England, redemptio, a sort of commutation of penance to less demanding works, such as prayers, alms, fasts and even the payment of fixed sums of money depending on the various kinds of offences (tariff penances) became fashionable. But all this was applied in the context of sacramental discipline.6

A substantial reduction of penance, but still within the sacramental context, already appears in the tenth century in connection with pious donations, pilgrimages and similar meritorious works; it is always a question of the reduction of personal and individual penances. A pilgrimage to Rome was considered an especially meritorious work, so milder penances were imposed on a pilgrim who went to that city. For example, Benedict III (855-858), at the request of Bishop Solomon of Constance, imposed a lighter than usual penance on a pilgrim guilty of fratricide because of his pilgrimage. We know of these examples under Nicholas I, John VI, Stephen V and others. Bishops too were accustomed to imposing a lesser penance on pilgrims who visited shrines or other places of worship than they would have received, precisely because of their pilgrimage. A particular form of the commutation of penance was practised at the time of the Crusades, when the confessor required the penitent to go on a Crusade in place of some other penance.

From the 11th century on, such commutations became more and more frequent and were applied to whoever fulfilled the prescribed conditions. The rigor of the public and tariff forms of sacramental penance had become unbearable in the radically altered conditions of Christian society, and a way had to be found to mitigate this rigour.

Finally — beginning again in the 11th century — the possibility of providing for the multiple works of piety through the imposition of a donation as a condition for the remission of punishment, even outside the sacrament, led the way to indulgences in the strict sense of the term, i.e., apart from sacramental penance.

Among the antecedents of indulgences we should again mention the fact that in the 11th and 12th centuries the use of absolutio flourished in the West.

Towards the end of the Carolingian era and even later, the custom of seeking an absolution in every circumstance and on every occasion, and before any work, became widespread in medieval society. In other words, the faithful were administered a prayer formula — deprecative as well as indicative — so that God would forgive their sins. Absolutions entered the liturgy of the Mass and the Office (this is the meaning of the Confiteor), and were used on various other occasions not only for the living but also for the dead as a prayer on their behalf. We know of countless individual and general grants of these absolutions. They were used in religious houses and outside them on particular days, e.g., in the case of death (see the absolutio super tumbam even today); Popes, Bishops and Abbots granted an absolutio and promised a remission of sins through good works. Absolutions of this kind were more or less solemn blessings, with an authoritative declaration of the resulting merit. Synods and councils were closed with a solemn absolution and sermon; general absolution was given on Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday; it was granted for meritorious works, for observing the so-called “truce of God”, etc.

All this helped to give more and more concrete form to the practice of indulgences in the proper and strict sense. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to determine in a specific instance whether we are already dealing with a true and proper indulgence, or still with an advanced form of remission connected with Confession.

3. Transition to true and proper indulgences

Certainly, true indulgences granted for almsgiving or for devotional visits to churches, altars, etc. began in the 11th century — but still only a few — and became more common in the 12th century and later. Paulus7 gives a chronological list of these indulgences down to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

In any case, by the end of the 11th century indulgences in the strict sense of the word are found with all their essential elements. It remains difficult, however, to identify the precise point of transition from the reduction or commutation of sacramental penance to the extrasacramental remission of temporal punishment due to sins committed: with the 11th and 12th centuries it is still hard in many cases to determine whether we are dealing with one or the other practice.

It is helpful in this regard to quote an article — now rather dated as a whole — by Mons. Boudinhon, in which the scholar says: “The first offers of indulgences were made with conditions more or less equivalent to the exercises of penance itself. It would be difficult today to recognize their nature as indulgences. Nevertheless, they represent the first examples of our modern indulgences, i.e., good works offered to all in exchange for the temporal punishment due to sin”.8

In this problematic transition, however, the “Crusade” indulgences (which we mentioned earlier) were particularly significant, since to a great extent they led the way to the plenary indulgence. Paulus9 gives a complete and very informative list of them.

In 1063 Alexander II granted a remission of punishment for those who fought the Moors; in order to rouse Christians for the First Crusade, Urban II declared at the Council of Clermont in 1095 that participation in the Crusade was equivalent to a complete penance: “Paenitentiam totam peccatorum, de quibus veram et perfectam confessionem fecerint … auctoritate dimittimus”.

This was repeated by Eugene III in 1145, while Gregory VIII introduces something new in that the complete (plenary) indulgence could also be gained by those who provided someone to take their place or who contributed to the expense of a crusade. These indulgences were later granted for “Crusades” against the pagan Slavs, the Albigensians, etc.

It was precisely the plenary indulgence of the Crusades that led to the idea of the plenary indulgence for the Jubilee.

4. Plenary indulgence in danger of death and for the dead

As regards the plenary indulgence for the dying and the dead, in the 11th century we already find acts of reconciliation granted at the moment of death which leave unresolved the question of a complete remission. But after a plenary indulgence was granted to crusaders even when they were unable to complete the crusade but died because of it, the way was opened to the grant of a true plenary indulgence at the moment of death for everyone.

In the 14th century these grants were made with individual letters of penance: a priest was allowed to be designated as a confessor in danger of death with the faculty of granting the plenary indulgence.

But the faithful had already begun to apply the indulgences they had been granted to the souls of the dead as well. It is clear that around 1350 the practice of applying the Jubilee, Crusade and “Portiuncula” indulgences to the dead was widespread. The ecclesiastical authorities, however, did not yet grant these indulgences, although there was the practice of granting an indulgence to the living if they prayed for the dead. Only in 1457 did Callistus III grant King Henry IV of Castille a plenary indulgence for the living and, for those who would pay 200 maravedi (a former currency in the Iberian countries) for the Crusade against the Moors, an indulgence for the dead. But the Bull remained unknown outside Spain, where it in fact caused a great deal of surprise. In 1476 Sixtus IV granted a Bull for the cathedral of Saintes, France, valid for 10 years, with a plenary indulgence for the living and, in modum suffragii, also for the dead. Regarding the application of indulgences to the dead, there has been a long discussion as to whether the application to the person occurs with certainty or only if it is graciously accepted by God; the latter thesis prevailed.

As for the general doctrine of indulgences, the main difficulty lay in determining the reason why an indulgence could be granted or gained. This reason was found in God’s mercy, in the value of the Church’s prayers and in the merits of the saints. Some preferred to speak of a kind of substitution with the good works of the Church militant, i.e., of a sort of compensation on the part of the living; but around 1230 the Dominican Hugh of St-Cher proposed instead the idea of a “treasury” at the Church’s disposal, consisting of the infinite merits of Christ and the immeasurable abundance of the saints’ merits: a thesis which later prevailed and was soundly demonstrated by great scholastics such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas; today it is still the basis for the theological explanation of indulgences.

5. Esteem for indulgences

One aspect of indulgences deserves special mention: the piety of the faithful saw much greater value in indulgences when they were still very rare.

On the other hand, medieval piety was expressed in a countless number of particular devotions, confraternities and associations, all of which led to the request for more and more indulgences. Singing the Salve Regina, reciting the Angelus, praying for the dead in cemeteries, visiting particular sacred images or relics, listening to a sermon, accompanying the Blessed Sacrament when it was brought to the sick or on the feast of Corpus Christi and other occasions, attending Mass, the celebration of patron saints, anniversaries and the dedication of churches, visiting particular altars, chapels, shrines, places of worship or attending the meetings of a confraternity: so many occasions were enriched with indulgences, and the piety of the faithful continued to ask for more.

As a result there were forgeries. But there is more.

Indulgences were attached to many works that were not only good but also served the common good, both religious and civil. Many churches were built or restored — at least in part — with the revenue from indulgences; this also explains the impressive architectural and artistic activity of the Middle Ages. Moreover, hospitals, leprosariums, charitable institutions and schools were built with support from the receipts of special indulgences. Along the same lines is the well-known construction of roads and bridges. Sometimes an indulgence was also granted for certain reclamation projects.

6. Abuses

But the granting of indulgences in connection with almsgiving also led to deplorable abuses.

After an indulgence was announced for making a contribution to a certain project, quaestores were sent to collect the related alms. Unfortunately, in many cases the preaching of these quaestores, out of ignorance or shrewdness, went far beyond dogmatic truth; some of them even dared to promise that the damned would be released from hell.

But another aspect of indulgences was connected with almsgiving. Permission began to be granted to Catholic kings and princes, particularly on the occasion of Crusades, to retain for themselves a rather considerable part of the alms collected for the gaining of indulgences. Later on, similar permission was frequently granted for many other projects, and princes were not always too scrupulous. The most well-known and debated question is the indulgence granted for building the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

No one can deny the existence of abuses, some very serious. However, it must be acknowledged that ecclesiastical authority tried — perhaps not always with the necessary zeal —to curb evil practices. Unfortunately, only the Council of Trent, after the sad Lutheran schism, suppressed for ever the collecting of money for indulgences. But in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council had already suppressed some abuses connected with indulgences: in this regard, the extent of the grants was spelled out and it was determined, for example, that only a one-year indulgence would be granted for the consecration of churches and no more than a 40-days indulgence for other occasions. But very soon these limits were widely exceeded. In fact, false documents were circulated with indulgences surpassing all bounds: indulgences of hundreds or even thousands of years.

7. Tridentine and post-Tridentine legislation

Following the Councils of Lyons and Vienne (1245, 1274 and 1311-1312), the Council of Trent again took up the issue of indulgences, particularly in view of the battle waged against them by the Lutheran Reformation. In the 21st session, chapter nine, the institution of the quaestores, i.e., those who collected the revenue from indulgences, was suppressed, and the publication of indulgences was reserved to Ordinaries. Lastly, in the 25th session, the famous Decree De indulgentiis was issued, defining that the Church received from Christ the Lord the right to grant indulgences, approving their use as christiano populo maxime salutarem, again abolishing any kind of collection for indulgences and enjoining Bishops to be on guard against possible abuses in their Dioceses and to report them to Provincial Synods and the Supreme Pontiff. After the Council of Trent, Clement VIII established a commission of Cardinals to deal with indulgences according to the mind of the Council. It continued its work during the pontificate of Paul V and published various bulls and decrees on the matter. But only Clement IX established a true Congregation of Indulgences (and Relics) with a Brief of 6 July 1669. In a Motu Proprio of 28 January 1904, Pius X joined the Congregation of Indulgences with that of Rites, but with the restructuring of the Roman Curia in 1908 all matters regarding indulgences was assigned to the Holy Office. In a Motu Proprio of 25 March 1915, Benedict XV transferred the Holy Office’s Section for Indulgences to the Apostolic Penitentiary, but maintained the Holy Office’s responsibility for matters regarding the doctrine of indulgences.

8. Why the Jubilee indulgence?

Historical reflection on the phenomenon of indulgences shows how the Church has acquired an ever clearer awareness of a basic conviction: in the spiritual realm “everything belongs to everyone”.

In this perspective (certainly the most fruitful for a catechetical and pastoral presentation of the historical theme), the witness and intercession of the martyrs and confessors of the faith, as well as the prayers and good works of the faithful can be seen as genuine “sources of indulgence”, because they add to that treasury of holiness ness from which the Church draws in order to grant the indulgence itself.

In fact, the believer’s faith journey and his various experiences of grace can never be considered a private possession. Among the faithful, John Paul II explains, there is established “a marvellous exchange of gifts…. There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others. This is the reality of ‘vicariousness’, upon which the entire mystery of Christ is founded. His superabundant love saves us all. Yet it is part of the grandeur of Christ’s love not to leave us in the condition of passive recipients, but to draw us into his saving work…. Everything comes from Christ, but since we belong to him, whatever is ours also becomes his and acquires healing power. This is what is meant by ‘the treasures of the Church’, which are the good works of the saints. To pray in order to gain the indulgence means to enter into this spiritual communion and therefore to open oneself totally to others. In the spiritual realm, too, no one lives for himself alone. And salutary concern for the salvation of one’s own soul is freed from fear and selfishness only when it becomes concern for the salvation of others as well. This is the reality of the communion of saints, the mystery of ‘vicarious life’, of prayer as the means of union with Christ and his saints. He takes us with him in order that we may weave with him the white robe of the new humanity, the robe of bright linen which clothes the Bride of Christ” (Bull of Indiction, n. 10).

Ultimately, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observes in speaking of the Portiuncula indulgence, “we have to pass through the meanderings of history and theological ideas to something simple: the prayer by which we abandon ourselves and enter into the communion of saints, in order to cooperate with them in the excess of good compared to the apparent omnipotence of evil, knowing that in the end all is grace”.10

But why — we might ask — does the Church want to attach an indulgence to the celebration of the Jubilee? The objection has its validity, since indulgences belong permanently to God’s mercy,11 and the faithful can draw on the Church’s treasury, which are the prayers and good works of the saints, without 25-year, 100-year or 1,000-year time limits.

To answer the question we need to reflect on the spiritual and theological significance of these time frames. For Christians the flow of time is never something random. It is the epiphany of God’s salvation in human history. The end and beginning of a year, such as the various Jubilee celebrations, mark significant stages in the unfolding of God’s love for his people. They are stages which remind people of the duty to respond faithfully and to purify themselves, somewhat in the way a wedding anniversary commits a couple to continue and renew their journey of love. Thus the Jubilee, with its indulgence, marks in many respects a “new beginning” in the love story between God and men.

Although this way of thinking may seem very foreign to us, we must recognize that the viewpoint of the true believer, who undertook a Crusade, and who went himself or supported someone else in the same undertaking, was a sort of “going forth in order to follow”: the departure marked a “new beginning”. The crusader left his safety and security to follow Jesus and to liberate his land. The indulgence granted by the Church effectively accompanied this “consecration” of one’s life.

Today the indulgence, connected with the end of the millennium, accompanies and supports a journey of deep spiritual renewal which begins with sacramental absolution but is not meant to stop there. The forgiveness of sins, in fact, does not make the existential process of conversion superfluous at all. On the contrary, the celebration of the sacrament of Penance in a life which is not “in practice” striving for conversion remains very formal and one can even question its validity. The visits and pilgrimages, the good works and spiritual exercises that the Church proposes as “the required conditions for gaining the Jubilee indulgence” (Decree) should be seen as so many “road signs” for an authentic journey of inner purification, or even better, as “effective signs” of a true conversion to Christ in our lives.

In this sense the Jubilee indulgence smooths the way for anyone who wants to rekindle his love for God. It is possible to “burn away sin” and leave the past behind. It is possible to set out again for a new season of grace which prepares and anticipates the final liberation.

We can walk together towards “a new heaven and a new earth”, towards the “new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rv 21:1-2).


1. See especially — after the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, whose entry “Indulgences” (1927) alone fills 43 thick columns, a small monograph of its own — the relevant articles in the follow works: Enciclopedia Cattolica (1951); Dictionnaire de Droit Canonique (1953); Catholicisme (1962); Dictionnaire de Spiritualite (1971); Theologische Realenzyklopadie (1977); Lexikon des Mittelalters (1980); Lexikon fur Theologie und Kirche (1993, 3rd ed.); Dizionario storico del Papato (Ital. trans., 1996). Each of these entries, of course, includes a rather ample bibliography.

2. For a more thorough treatment, see Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, 7, coll. 1246-1259: indulgentia and indulgere.

3. 9, 38: De indulgentiis criminum.

4. So says canon 992. As everyone knows, for its definition of indulgentia, the third edition of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum (18 May 1986; cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, 10, 632ff.), which is the Holy See’s most recent document on the subject, refers to the same Code of Canon Law.

5. It was one of the so-called Merovingian Councils, held in 517; cf. canon 29.

6. For a more systematic treatment of this question, see H. Karpp, La Penitenza: Fonti sull orgine della penitenza nella Chiesa antica [= Traditio Christiana, 1], Turin 1975, pp. ix-xxxi; bibliography pp. xxxv-xl.

7. Geschichte del Ablasses im Mittalter, 1, pp. 132-194.

8. “Les premieres propositions [de l’indulgence] sont faites a des conditions a peu pres equivalentes aux exercises de la penitence elle-meme; on aurait de la peine a leur reconnaitre ajuourd’hui le caractere d’indulgences; elles n’en constituent pas moins les premiers exemples de nos modernes indulgences, oeuvres offertes a tous en echange de la peine temporelle due au peche” (“Sur l’histoire des indulgences a propos d’un livre recent”, Revue d’histoire et de literature religieuses, 3 [1898], pp. 435-455), p. 443.

9. Geschichte del Ablasses im Mittalter, 1, pp. 195-211.

10. J. Ratzinger, Bilder de Hoffnung: Wanderungen im Kirchenjahr, Freiburg-Basel-Vienna 1997, p. 100.

11. But see R. Fisichella, “L’indulgenza e la misericordia di Dio”, Communio, 160-161 (1998), pp. 28-37.

© L’Osservatore Romano, Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.

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Myths about Indulgences

Indulgences. The very word stirs up more misconceptions than perhaps any other teaching in Catholic theology. Those who attack the Church for its use of indulgences rely upon—and take advantage of—the ignorance of both Catholics and non-Catholics.

What is an indulgence? The Church explains, “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 defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints” (Indulgentarium Doctrina 1). To see the biblical foundations for indulgences, see the Catholic Answers tract A Primer on Indulgences.

Step number one in explaining indulgences is to know what they are. Step number two is to clarify what they are not. Here are the seven most common myths about indulgences:

Myth 1: A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences.
This charge is without foundation. Since indulgences remit only temporal penalties, they cannot remit the eternal penalty of hell. Once a person is in hell, no amount of indulgences will ever change that fact. The only way to avoid hell is by appealing to God’s eternal mercy while still alive. After death, one’s eternal fate is set (Heb. 9:27).

Myth 2: A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed.
The Church has always taught that indulgences do not apply to sins not yet committed. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “[An indulgence] is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power.”

Myth 3: A person can “buy forgiveness” with indulgences.
The definition of indulgences presupposes that forgiveness has already taken place: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Indulgentarium Doctrina 1, emphasis added). Indulgences in no way forgive sins. They deal only with punishments left after sins have been forgiven.

Myth 4: Indulgences were invented as a means for the Church to raise money.
Indulgences developed from reflection on the sacrament of reconciliation. They are a way of shortening the penance of sacramental discipline and were in use centuries before money-related problems appeared.

Myth 5: An indulgence will shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days.
The number of days which used to be attached to indulgences were references to the period of penance one might undergo during life on earth. The Catholic Church does not claim to know anything about how long or short purgatory is in general, much less in a specific person’s case.

Myth 6: A person can buy indulgences.
The Council of Trent instituted severe reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and, because of prior abuses, “in 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions” (Catholic Encyclopedia). This act proved the Church’s seriousness about removing abuses from indulgences.

Myth 7: A person used to be able to buy indulgences.
One never could “buy” indulgences. The financial scandal surrounding indulgences, the scandal that gave Martin Luther an excuse for his heterodoxy, involved alms—indulgences in which the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. There was no outright selling of indulgences. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “[I]t is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded.” 

Being able to explain these seven myths will be a large step in helping others to understand indulgences. But, there are still questions to be asked:

“How many of one’s temporal penalties can be remitted?”

Potentially, all of them. The Church recognizes that Christ and the saints are interested in helping penitents deal with the aftermath of their sins, as indicated by the fact they always pray for us (Heb. 7:25, Rev. 5:8). Fulfilling its role in the administration of temporal penalties, the Church draws upon the rich supply of rewards God chose to bestow on the saints, who pleased him, and on his Son, who pleased him most of all.

The rewards on which the Church draws are infinite because Christ is God, so the rewards he accrued are infinite and never can be exhausted. His rewards alone, apart from the saints’, could remove all temporal penalties from everyone, everywhere. The rewards of the saints are added to Christ’s—not because anything is lacking in his, but because it is fitting that they be united with his rewards as the saints are united with him. Although immense, their rewards are finite, but his are infinite.

“If the Church has the resources to wipe out everyone’s temporal penalties, why doesn’t it do so?”

Because God does not wish this to be done. God himself instituted the pattern of temporal penalties being left behind. They fulfill valid functions, one of them disciplinary. If a child were never disciplined, he would never learn obedience. God disciplines us as his children — “the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6) — so some temporal penalties must remain.

The Church cannot wipe out, with a stroke of the pen, so to speak, everyone’s temporal punishments because their remission depends on the dispositions of the persons who suffer those temporal punishments. Just as repentance and faith are needed for the remission of eternal penalties, so they are needed for the remission of temporal penalties. Pope Paul VI stated, “Indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God”(Indulgentarium Doctrina 11). We might say that the degree of remission depends on how well the penitent has learned his lesson.

“How does one determine by what amount penalties have been lessened?”

Before Vatican II each indulgence was said to remove a certain number of “days” from one’s discipline—for instance, an act might gain “300 days’ indulgence”—but the use of the term “days” confused people, giving them the mistaken impression that in purgatory time as we know it still exists and that we can calculate our “good time” in a mechanical way. The number of days associated with indulgences actually never meant that that much “time” would be taken off one’s stay in purgatory. Instead, it meant that an indefinite but partial (not complete) amount of remission would be granted, proportionate to what ancient Christians would have received for performing that many days’ penance. So, someone gaining 300 days’ indulgence gained roughly what an early Christian would have gained by, say, reciting a particular prayer on arising for 300 days.

To overcome the confusion Paul VI issued a revision of the handbook (Enchiridion is the formal name) of indulgences. Today, numbers of days are not associated with indulgences. They are either plenary or partial.

“What’s the difference between a partial and a plenary indulgence?”

“An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin” (Indulgentarium Doctrina 2, 3). Only God knows exactly how efficacious any particular partial indulgence is or whether a plenary indulgence was received at all.

“Don’t indulgences duplicate or even negate the work of Christ?”

Despite the biblical underpinnings of indulgences, some are sharply critical of them and insist the doctrine supplants the work of Christ and turns us into our own saviors. This objection results from confusion about the nature of indulgences and about how Christ’s work is applied to us.

Indulgences apply only to temporal penalties, not to eternal ones. The Bible indicates that these penalties may remain after a sin has been forgiven and that God lessens these penalties as rewards to those who have pleased him. Since the Bible indicates this, Christ’s work cannot be said to have been supplanted by indulgences.

The merits of Christ, since they are infinite, comprise most of those in the treasury of merits. By applying these to believers, the Church acts as Christ’s servant in the application of what he has done for us, and we know from Scripture that Christ’s work is applied to us over time and not in one big lump (Phil. 2:12, 1 Pet. 1:9).

“Isn’t it better to put all of the emphasis on Christ alone?”

If we ignore the fact of indulgences, we neglect what Christ does through us, and we fail to recognize the value of what he has done in us. Paul used this very sort of language: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).

Even though Christ’s sufferings were superabundant (far more than needed to pay for anything), Paul spoke of completing what was “lacking” in Christ’s sufferings. If this mode of speech was permissible for Paul, it is permissible for us, even though the Catholic language about indulgences is far less shocking than was Paul’s language about his own role in salvation.

Catholics should not be defensive about indulgences. They are based on principles straight from the Bible, and we can be confident not only that indulgences exist, but that they are useful and worth obtaining.

Pope Paul VI declared, “[T]he Church invites all its children to think over and weigh up in their minds as well as they can how the use of indulgences benefits their lives and all Christian society…. Supported by these truths, holy Mother Church again recommends the practice of indulgences to the faithful. It has been very dear to Christian people for many centuries as well as in our own day. Experience proves this” (Indulgentarium Doctrina, 9, 11).


To gain any indulgence you must be a Catholic in a state of grace. You must be a Catholic in order to be under the Church’s jurisdiction, and you must be in a state of grace because apart from God’s grace none of your actions are fundamentally pleasing to God (meritorious). You also must have at least the habitual intention of gaining an indulgence by the act performed.

To gain a partial indulgence, you must perform with a contrite heart the act to which the indulgence is attached.

To gain a plenary indulgence you must perform the act with a contrite heart, plus you must go to confession (one confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences), receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope’s intentions. (An Our Father and a Hail Mary said for the pope’s intentions are sufficient, although you are free to substitute other prayers of your own choice.) The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin.

If you attempt to receive a plenary indulgence, but are unable to meet the last condition, a partial indulgence is received instead.

Below are indulgences listed in the Handbook of Indulgences (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1991). Note that there is an indulgence for Bible reading. So, rather than discouraging Bible reading, the Catholic Church promotes it by giving indulgences for it! (This was the case long before Vatican II.)

• An act of spiritual communion, expressed in any devout formula whatsoever, is endowed with a partial indulgence.

• A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly spend time in mental prayer.

• A plenary indulgence is granted when the rosary is recited in a church or oratory or when it is recited in a family, a religious community, or a pious association. A partial indulgence is granted for its recitation in all other circumstances.

• A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read sacred Scripture with the veneration due God’s word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is done for at least one-half hour [provided the other conditions are met].

• A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who devoutly sign themselves with the cross while saying the customary formula: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

In summary, the practice of indulgences neither takes away nor adds to the work of Christ. It is his work, through his body the Church, raising up children in his own likeness. “The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace is not alone. ‘The life of each of God’s children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1474 [Indulgentarium Doctrina 5]).

NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004

IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004

Myth about Indulgence Catholic Answers


Martin Luther, the Sale of Indulgences, and the Reformation

The Sale of Indulgences

A few words are in order regarding the Sale of Indulgences that Martin Luther so much decried. The clergy were authorized by the Catholic Church to absolve penitents from the guilt of his sins and from punishment in the hellish inferno of the hereafter, but it did not absolve them from doing penance on earth. We must remember that the substitution of monetary fines for punishment of a crime was a well established practice in secular European courts in the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church was following coeval practices.Sale of Indulgences

By making a monetary contribution to the church, a penitent would receive a partial indulgence not to commit further sins, while at the same time, diminishing the time period that he/she was to suffer in PURGATORY for remission of his sins. Most people do not understand that an indulgence did not cancel sins. Only a priest during a confession session could absolve a truly repentant penitent.

The best source I have found to understand this much maligned concept is Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, The Reformation: “An Indulgence, therefore, was the remission, by the church, of part of all of the temporal (i.e., not eternal) penalties incurred by sins whose guilt had been forgiven in the sacrament of penitence.”

For those who are not familiar with Will Durant, he was a former priest who lost his faith and became a superb historian and scholar. If anything, in later life, he was most influenced by Baruch Spinoza, the French philosophes, and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. I have read his complete, 12-volume series, The Story of Civilization, not once but twice. I detect between the lines that try as he might, he could not quite completely discard his Catholic learning and teaching. And so, in particular I recommend, Durant’s “Epilogue in Elysium” between Voltaire and Pope Benedict XIV. It is a magnificent intellectual exchange!

Some further thoughts on the Reformation…

The problem began with the obvious and what everybody knows, Martin Luther’s (photo, below) objections to the Church doctrine on the sale of indulgences and the Holy See’s spiritual power to remit sins, Martin Lutherwhich Luther vehemently opposed when he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the formidable Castle Church at Wittenberg on November 1, 1517. But there was also Luther’s own spiritual crisis, doubts about his own salvation,  the belief that inner faith alone, without the performance of good works, was all that is necessary to attain salvation (i.e., Justification by Faith). He ended up condemning priest celibacy, holy pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and sacred images, and the doctrine of infallibility of popes and general church councils.  Luther also jettisoned the old sacramental rites, except baptism and the eucharist.

A few years later he would defend the sacrament of the eucharist from the attack of another reformer at the Colloquy of Marburg (1529), by which he hoped to bring unity to the reformers, instead, it only sharpened his differences with Zwingli and the other dissenters. On the eucharist, Luther continued to insist in the literal interpretation of transubstantiation, while Zwingli insisted that it was only a symbolic, metaphorical ritual.

Let us also  consider the troubling matter of economics. There was much wealth moving from the thriving Germanic north, now just beginning their Renaissance, to the Italian south, Rome. This transfer of wealth was highly resented. And so, in addition to theological arguments, Luther provided the northern Germanic principalities, led by princes, dukes, bishops, and other Electors, with an effective weapon to staunch this loss of wealth going on pilgrimages down south, used among other things to build St Peter’s Cathedral, numerous churches, and generally adorn Rome and Italy with architectural and artistic beauties that awed the devout Christian pilgrims then and enchant the secular tourists today!

There was also the issue of marriage and celibacy: Luther was soon ready to get married and work for a living. He married a 26-year-old ex-Cistercian nun and settled into a more comfortable existence and a large family. Truth be known, the meandering celibate and sometimes mendicant monks in Spain, Italy, and France were also highly resented by those in the northern European countries, who had developed their own work ethic and wanted their own clergy to marry, have families, and work for a living.

Luther had been protected by the Elector of Saxony, Frederic III, and soon the Reformation was fought by the secular German principalities, but Luther remained in touch with the German nobility who had supported him. And so when the issue of the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse came up, Luther and his right hand man, Phillip Melanchthon gave their consent. Obstinacy and the exigencies of the moment, on the part of Pope Clement VII (1523-1534), had resulted in a bitter dispute and the conflict of the Reformation reaching the British Isles in 1527.

The English Reformation (briefly)

And this brings us to the matter of Henry VIII, King of England, who was initially the DefenderHenry VIII and his six wives of the Faith (Catholic) against Luther and the Reformation. But once he found that he could not obtain an annulment or a papal dispensation to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon,  the aunt of Charles V Holy Roman Emperor, he began to have second thoughts about remaining a faithful defender of the Catholic faith.

And so, when King Henry VIII also discovered that he could make a lot of money for himself and his nobility by seizing and confiscating the land and property of the Catholic Church in England, and at the same time divorce his wife who had not provided him with an heir, he jumped on the bandwagon of the “Reformation.” He became a “Protestant” as well, and acquired a new, sprightly young wife, Anne Boleyn, who he, not long after, had beheaded for imaginary and concocted sins and “treason.” By 1534, Henry VIII had the English Parliament pass the Act of Supremacy that established the Church of England as the religion of the realm and completed the formal dissolution of the remaining  ties to the Catholic church.

Henry VIII ended up with six wives, two of whom he had executed. He also ended up immensely rich from all the stolen property and land taken from the Catholic churches and monasteries in the realm. If there was ever one king who needed beheading, it was this porcine monarch, Henry VIII (another was King Philip” the Fair” of France, but that’s for another lesson). Henry VIII established the Church of England, the Anglican Church, and made it the official state religion of England. It was in reference to this established state religion that the American Founding Fathers framed the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, not as a separation of church and state, but as “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Written by Dr. Miguel Faria

This article was published exclusively for on November 25, 2011. The article can be cited as: Faria MA. Martin Luther, the Sale of Indulgences, and the Reformation., November 25, 2011. Available from:…

Copyright ©2011 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.


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