Common Misunderstanding: That the Catholic Church has thrown out indulgences or that indulgences are not helpful to the life of the faithful.
Response: Indulgences are naturally part of both family life and the judicial system. They have also been consistently present in the spiritual discipline of the Church from the very beginning (see Acts 8:18-24.)
"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 prescribed conditions ..."
"An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead. (CCC 1471)
Sources: CCC 1471-1484,1498; Catholic Answers, "Indulgences"; Apostolic Consitution on the Revision of Indulgences, Paul VI, Jan. 1967, in Flannery, Vatican Council II, pp 62ff; James Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers; Rumble & Carty, Radio Replies (3); Adam, Roots of the Reformation.
The Witness of Scripture:
Matthew 16:18-19 The power of binding and loosing. It is clear that God delegated His power to forgive sins to the Church (see also Jn 20:22-23). When the faithful commit sins, there are both eternal and temporal consequences. Through the sacrament of reconciliation one gains the remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins, damnation to hell and the guilt of sin. There are also temporal consequences that remain. Ordinarily the sinner is expected to do something to atone for or to make up for what he has done. The Church can also lessen these temporal consequences through indulgences.
Examples of such indulgences from God in Scripture include (although the word, “indulgences” is not used, these are examples of indulgences):
God’s mercy to Adam and Eve after their first sin (Gen 3:16-20).
Moses gained an indulgence for the people of Israel when they refused to enter into the Promised Land (Num. 14:1-38).
King David received an indulgence from God mediated through Nathan (2 Sam 12:13).
St. Paul on behalf of the incestuous Corinthian (I Cor 5:5, II Cor 2:6-10). This second reference seems to imply that, without indulgences as acts of mercy, Satan may gain advantage over us.
Scripture makes clear that prayers and good works, when done for the sake of others, also can atone for one’s sins (Js 5:19-20, I Pet 4:8)
The Witness of the Early Church:
These indulgences were first applied to the penalties given by the early bishops to canonical penances given to serious criminals (See Gibbons 307- 313). “These penalties were sometimes mitigated or canceled by the Church,… for a society that can inflict a punishment can also remit it.” This was seen as part of the power to “loose.”
Development of the Doctrine:
From about the middle of the fifteenth century the Popes began to distribute indulgences for the dead. This led to considerable problems in its administration because the duration of a person’s time in purgatory was not known clearly. The current guidelines discourage any relationship of the forgiveness of a certain length of time for a particular action (see Adam, p 23).
The Good News of Indulgences
We, as Christians, are not alone in working out our salvation (Phil. 2:12). Rather, we have the support of the entire communion of saints. This includes the treasury of merit of Christ (which is infinite) as well as the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as the prayers and good works of all the saints who have cooperated in the salvation of their brothers who are also part of the Mystical Body of Christ. (see CCC 1476; Js 5:13-18).
According to the guidelines given by Paul VI in his Apostolic Constitution: The Doctrine of Indulgences, in order to gain a plenary indulgence, one must complete the prescribed works to which the indulgence is attached and be free from all attachment to any sin, even venial sin. There are three additional requirements for receiving such an indulgence: 1) absolution through sacramental confession; 2) Eucharistic Communion: and 3) prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father.
“The three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after the performance of the prescribed work; nevertheless it is fitting that Communion be received and the prayers for the intention of the Supreme Pontiff be said the same day the work is performed” (Norm #8).
“A single sacramental confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences, but Communion must be received and prayers for the Supreme Pontiff’s intentions recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence” (Norm #9).
Additional Practical Reflections:
It is not true that the Catholic Church no longer grants indulgences. The Holy Father has especially encouraged them as part of the piety of the Jubilee Year and preparation for the Third Millennium.
It is true that the guidelines for indulgences have been adapted so as to improve their administration. This includes the abolishment of the former determination of days and years (Norm #4).
What about “earning” indulgences by the giving of money? Jesus himself tells us to redeem our sins by almsgiving (Lk 11:41; 12:33; Acts 10:4).
But what happened at the time of the Reformation? “Some of those deputed to collect donations toward charitable works became more anxious about the revenue than about spiritual considerations. And they adopted unwarranted means to obtain that revenue. In their preaching they went far beyond the doctrines of the Church… These abuses then were on a par with those of today amongst many engaged in charitable causes” (Radio Replies, Vol 3, p. 228).