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A Primer on Indulgences

Primary Sources: The Handbook of Indulgences, 3rd Ed.; Manual of Indulgences (Handbook of Indulgences, 4th Ed.)
Just as the Church has the power, given by Christ, to forgive sins ["Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20:23)], she also has the power to remit the penalties to due sin. This is where indulgences come in. The following are some basic questions and answers regarding indulgences.

Q. What are Indulgences?
A. An indulgence remits temporal punishment due to sin which is already forgiven.

"An indulgence is the remission before God of temporal punishment for sins whose guilt is already forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful gains under certain and defined conditions by the assistance of the Church which as minister of redemption dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints" (1983 Code of Canon Law, 992).

"An indulgence is the remission in the eyes of God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose culpable element has already been taken away. The Christian faithful who are rightly disposed and observe the definite, prescribed conditions gain this remission through the effective assistance of the Church, which, as the minister of redemption, authoritatively distributes and applies the treasury of the expiatory works of Christ and the saints" (Enchiridion of Indulgences).

Q. Do indulgences forgive sin?
A. No. Indulgences do not forgive sin, but remit punishment due to already forgiven sin. 

Q. Why does one need indulgences?
A. We need indulgences because we commit numerous sins each day [as Scripture says, "For the just man falls seven times" (Prov 24:16)]. Even when we confess our sins, the slight penances given in Confession are not sufficient to remit the temporal punishment due to sin and leave a "debt of justice" to God. If this debt is not paid here, it must be paid after our death (e.g. in purgatory). Indulgences, drawn from the inexhaustible "Treasury" of the Church (which contains the merits of Christ, his blessed Mother, and the saints), are a relatively easy way of discharging the debt owed to God.

Q. How does one obtain an indulgence? What are the requirements?
A. One may obtain an indulgence by having the proper intention, being properly disposed, and properly performing the prescribed works (on specified days, if so required). If one seeks a plenary indulgence, one must also receive sacramental confession, worthily receive Holy Communion, pray for the pope's intentions (e.g. reciting the Our Father and Hail Mary for his intentions), and be free from all attachment to sin (even venial). If a visit to a church or oratory is prescribed, this may require a devout visit, including recitation of the Lord's Prayer and Creed (unless the indulgence requires otherwise).

As stated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law: "Can. 996 §1. To be capable of gaining indulgences, a person must be baptized, not excommunicated, and in the state of grace at least at the end of the prescribed works. §2. To gain indulgences, however, a capable subject must have at least the general intention of acquiring them and must fulfill the enjoined works in the established time and the proper method, according to the tenor of the grant." And: "Can. 997 As regards the granting and use of indulgences, the other prescripts contained in the special laws of the Church must also be observed." 

Q. What is the difference between a plenary and a partial indulgence?
A. A plenary indulgence is a complete remission of all temporal punishment due to sin. A partial indulgence frees a person from some of the temporal punishment due to sin. As stated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law: "Can. 993 An indulgence is partial or plenary insofar as it partially or totally frees from the temporal punishment due to sins."

Q. Where may I find a list of indulgences?
A. Kindly take time to read this.

Q. Are old indulgences still applicable?
A. Only currently approved indulgences are still applicable. Note that sweeping changes were made to the regulations for indulgences after the Second Vatican Council.

Q. What other changes were made since the Second Vatican Council?

A. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, various changes were made to the regulations for indulgences such as: a reduction in the number of plenary indulgences, the suppression of many traditional indulgences, the elimination of the distinction between real/personal indulgences, elimination of the measurement of days/years for partial indulgences, and the reduction of the comprehensive list of traditional & beautiful indulgenced prayers (e.g. in the Raccolta) to a small number of prayers, and an increased emphasis on good works.

Q. What does it mean when an indulgence is measured in days or years?
A. Traditionally, partial indulgences were measured in days or years. This time referred to an equivalent amount of days or years of penance that would be remitted. For example, a 300 days indulgence would cancel out the same amount of punishment that would have been remitted had one done 300 days of prescribed penance (e.g. the canonical penance in the early Church). [Note that this refers to days of penance - not days in purgatory.] This longstanding practice of measuring indulgences in days and years was - some argue, very sadly - eliminated in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

Q. Can a person in mortal sin obtain indulgences?
A. No. One must be in the state of grace to receive indulgences. As St. Thomas Aquinas states: "A dead member receives no inflow from the other members that are living. But one who is in mortal sin, is like a dead member. Therefore he receives no inflow, through indulgences, from the merits of living members." 

Q. Do indulgences eliminate the need for Confession?
A. Indulgences do not eliminate the need for or substitute for Confession, but rather presuppose that one has already received sacramental absolution in Confession (for those who were in a state of mortal sin).

Q. Do indulgences eliminate the need for restitution?
A. No. Indulgences do not eliminate the requirement of restitution, but should be obtained in addition to making restitution. For example, if someone were to steal an item from another, he should go to Confession (and receive sacramental absolution), restore the item (or otherwise make full restitution), and obtain indulgences.

Q. Can indulgences be applied to others, either living or dead?
A. One may be able to apply indulgences to the dead (if allowed), but one cannot apply indulgences to other living persons. As stated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law: "Can. 994 Any member of the faithful can gain partial or plenary indulgences for oneself or apply them to the dead by way of suffrage." It should be noted that it is an act of charity to gain indulgences for those in purgatory and may even be considered our Christian duty to assist the poor souls (especially one's deceased friends and relatives who may be languishing in the pains of purgatory, unable to help themselves.) 

Q. What does a "toties quoties" indulgence refer to?
A. A "toties quoties" indulgence is one that may be gained as often as one desires (and does the required works).

Q. Can one obtain an indulgence in advance of sinning?
A. No. Indulgences remit punishment only for already forgiven sin. Indulgences do not pardon future sin!

Q. Can indulgences be bought?
A. Usually, indulgences consist in a certain work. In the past, indulgences have allowed the giving of certain sums for various causes (e.g. to build churches). Although such practices may have led to abuse, the concept of giving money for an indulgence is not contrary to reason - just as a criminal might have to pay a fine rather than perform community service. It is important to remember that the sins were already forgiven and any money paid was not to forgive sins.

Q. Who in the Church is authorized to grant indulgences?
A. Generally, the pope grants indulgences. Bishops (or others, if permitted by the pope) may be allowed to authorize certain, limited indulgences. As stated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law: "Can. 995 §1. In addition to the supreme authority of the Church, only those to whom this power is acknowledged in the law or granted by the Roman Pontiff can bestow indulgences. §2. No authority below the Roman Pontiff can entrust the power of granting indulgences to others unless the Apostolic See has given this expressly to the person." Note that, In the Vatican, the Apostolic Penitentiary handles matters regarding indulgences.

Q. What can one do to help ensure that he/she gets all indulgences that may be available on any given day?
A. To obtain as many indulgences as possible each day, it is a good habit to include with one's morning prayers a request for all that day's indulgences. Remember that one must have at least a general intention of gaining the indulgences in order to receive them. It is also advisable to pray for the pope's intentions at that time. Of course, it will also be necessary to perform the necessary works and satisfy the other conditions to obtain the indulgences (see above).

Q. What are some other facts / requirements concerning indulgences?
A. The following are some additional facts / requirements concerning indulgences:

  • The language of prayers for indulgences is not limited to English or Latin, but the translation must be suitable and in accordance with the official guidelines for indulgences.
  • One may be limited to the gaining of a single plenary indulgence per day (except at death).
  • One may obtain multiple partial indulgences per day.
  • Acts a person is already obliged to perform may not be indulgenced.
  • Indulgences may be adjusted for those with impediments.
  • The Church may change, suspend, cancel, or transfer indulgences, limit them to certain areas or periods of time, change the requirements, etc.
  • Indulgences may be limited to the living only or may be limited to those in purgatory.
  • The term "usual conditions" may refer to: "doing the good works prescribed...receiving the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist and...praying for the intentions of the pope" (Catholic Dictionary).
  • Generally, Confession may be made and Holy Communion may be received within a certain number of day(s) before or after the day in which the works are to completed.
  • For prayers, it may be necessary to "articulate them with the lips" (but not necessary aloud).
  • Traditionally, the intentions of the pope "are ordinarily; the common good of the Church, the spread of the faith, conversion of sinners, heretics and schismatics, and peace; it is not necessary to advert to these in detail" (Catholic Dictionary).

1 comment

  1. Hi, Congratulations for this site!
    I also have a blog, about philately: http://www.albumdeestampillas.blogspot.com.ar/
    I Intend to get a visit from every country and I would really apreciate a visit from the Vatican.
    Thanks in advance,
    Pablo from Argentina


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