Indulgences

A number of popular devotions have indulgences attached to them. Indeed, the fact that a particular devotion has an indulgence attached to it is an indication that this devotional practice has proven itself within the Church to be helpful in bringing people closer to God. Because of the close association between popular devotions and indulgences, a clear understanding of the Church’s teaching on indulgences is necessary to appreciate the role of popular devotional practices in the life of the Church.

i. What are indulgences?

An indulgence does not confer grace. An indulgence is not a remission of the guilt due to sin. The guilt due to sin is ordinarily taken away by the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance (confession), in which we receive forgiveness for sins through Jesus Christ. Although guilt is taken away, and with it the eternal penalty that is due to sin—namely, damnation, the eternal loss of the presence of God—there remain consequences for sins that those who have committed them must bear. There is what is traditionally called the temporal punishment for sin.

By its very nature, every sin inevitably causes suffering for the one who has committed it. Every sinful act creates a disorder within the soul of the human person; it distorts our desires and affections, leaving us with “an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory.”57 Furthermore, sin disrupts one’s relationships with God, with the Church, with other people, and with the world as a whole. The communion intended by God is damaged or lost. Those who have received forgiveness for their sins still have an obligation to undergo a difficult and painful process (the temporal penalty for sin) to be purified of the consequences of their sins and to restore the disrupted relationships. “While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace.”58 The necessary and painful process that brings restoration and purification can take place either in this life or in Purgatory, as whatever part of the process remains unfinished at death must be completed in Purgatory.59

Through an indulgence, God grants the prayer of the Church that the temporal penalty for sin due to someone be reduced (or possibly eliminated). By God’s grace, participation in a prayer or action that has an indulgence attached to it brings about the necessary restoration and reparation without the suffering that would normally accompany it. The granting of an indulgence by the Church is “the expression of the Church”s full confidence of being heard by the Father when—in view of Christ’s merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints—she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace.”60

ii. How can indulgences remove some or all of the temporal punishment for sin?

It is because of the Communion of Saints that some or all of the temporal punishment for sin is removed. Although we always have to face the consequences of our sins in the form of the temporal punishment for sin—that is, the painful process of restoration and reparation—as members of the Body of Christ we are never simply on our own. We are linked with Christ and with the martyrs and saints and can benefit from their holiness in such a way as to be freed from at least a portion of the temporal punishment for sin. “In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others.”61

As a result of the communion that exists between Christ and all the members of the Church, the Church has a treasury of spiritual goods that is inexhaustible. The source of these spiritual goods is Christ. Pope Paul VI taught that this treasury of the Church

is not to be likened to a centuries-old accumulation of material wealth. It means rather the limitless and inexhaustible value that the expiations and merits offered by Christ have in the eyes of God for the liberation of all humanity from sin and for the creation of communion with the Father. The treasury of the Church is Christ the Redeemer himself: in him the atonement and merit of his redemption exist and are at work.62

Since the martyrs and saints have accomplished all that they have in union with Christ, this treasury also includes the value of all their prayers and good works. “As they followed Christ through the power of his grace, they became holy and they have accomplished a work pleasing to the Father. As a result, in working out their own salvation they have also contributed to the salvation of their co-members in Christ’s Mystical Body.”63

Through her union with Christ, the Church has the authority to dispense this treasury. When the Church does this, in order to spur people to acts of piety and charity, the Church requires those who seek an indulgence to perform some good work or act of devotion.64 Furthermore, for reception of a plenary indulgence, which grants the remission of all temporal punishment due to sin, in addition to this good work or act of devotion, the Church specifies four conditions: (1) sacramental confession, (2) reception of Holy Communion, (3) prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father, and (4) complete detachment from all sin, even venial sin.65 It must not be thought, however, that such acts of ours are somehow of themselves sufficient to earn the remission of the temporal punishment for sins. Our efforts, themselves the work of God’s grace, express our openness to receive God’s mercy. In the work of our salvation, it is always God’s grace that is primary, with a power that far exceeds all our efforts.

iii. How can we help the deceased through indulgences?

Just as it is because of the Communion of Saints within the Body of Christ that the Church can grant an indulgence to someone, it is likewise because of the Communion of Saints that one person can obtain an indulgence for someone who has died in order to reduce his or her temporal punishment in Purgatory. We the living are not separated from the faithful departed by death and can still do things for their benefit. As Pope John Paul II has pointed out, “the truth about the communion of saints which unites believers to Christ and to one another, reveals how much each of us can help others—living or dead—to become ever more intimately united with the Father in heaven.”66 At the same time, all of us in the Communion of Saints need to recognize that whatever help we can give each other ultimately comes not from ourselves but from Christ. “For when the faithful gain indulgences they realize that by their own powers they cannot atone for the evil that they have afflicted upon themselves and the entire community by sinning; they therefore are moved to a healthy humility.”67

More at the USCCB website (PDF)

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