It was Dominican friar Johann Tetzel who gave indulges a bad rap when he began selling them in Germany, which gave Luther more fuel to stoke the Reformation fire.
Perhaps you’ve heard this rhyme by Tetzel: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
No, the Catholic Church does not sell indulgences nor does an indulgence give you a “get out of hell card” or lessen time in purgatory.
An indulgence, which is closely linked to the sacrament of Penance, is release from the temporal consequences of a sin that has already been forgiven.
A very simplistic example is being forgiven for breaking the neighbor’s window with a baseball.
You might receive forgiveness from that neighbor, but the forgiveness does not immediately remove all the consequences of the sin (window needs to be replaced, the mess cleaned up, trust between friends is broken).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides an explanation of the practice and theology of indulgences.
“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 through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.
“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.” (§1471)
Ryan Hanning, diocesan director of parish leadership and support, said under her authority, the Church can grant forgiveness of the temporal consequences of sin by evaluating or prescribing a particular act of the faithful, sort of like a judge.
“For example while Jesus, and Jesus alone, can atone for my sins and cover the eternal consequences of my sin, there are also still temporal consequences for my sin that justice requires be satisfied,” he said.
He explained that some of the temporal consequences of our sin go undetected by us, or cause a ripple effect that we cannot control or directly resolve.
“In this case I turn to God’s mercy and ask that through particular acts of penance, or faith on my part, be applied for the remission of the temporal consequences. The Church in her authority evaluates and prescribes these acts.”
Franciscan Renewal Center Director, Fr. Joe Schwab, OFM, said the Bible denotes some punishments last forever, that is, they are eternal, but others are temporal.
When we repent, God removes eternal punishment, but temporal penalties may remain. Fr. Schwab referred to 2 Samuel 12: although David was forgiven for sinning with Bathsheba, he had to suffer the death of his son.
“Temporal punishment is trying to clean up [your] act in a positive way through charity, works of mercy, prayer and other charitable works. If you stole something, it may not be possible to restore what you took, but you can do something charitable for the past,” Fr. Schwab said.
The Church can remove temporal punishments either partially or totally. A total removal is a plenary indulgence.
Of course, it’s important to do these acts with a sincerity of heart.
Pope Paul VI taught about indulgences in the document, Indulgentiarum Doctrina.
“It is a divinely revealed truth that sins bring punishments inflicted by God’s sanctity and justice. These must be expiated either on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and calamities of this life and above all through death, or else in the life beyond through fire and torments or ‘purifying’ punishments,” he wrote.
“Therefore it has always been the conviction of the faithful that the paths of evil are fraught with many stumbling blocks and bring adversities, bitterness and harm to those who follow them,” Pope Paul wrote.
Basically, think of an indulgence as a grace, a generous way God offers us to repair the damage of sin in our lives.
“It is really about God’s mercy and how He wants and wills each of us to be saved,” Hanning said. ✴
Gina Keating, a regular contributor to The Catholic Sun, leads children’s faith formation and sacramental preparation at St. Theresa Parish.