The concept of indulgences is understood best in the light of the Christian life of faith. Indulgences require some form of prayer, penance, good works such as works of charity, pilgrimages which renew oneís faith or special prayers during holy years which are occasions for renewal of the entire Church. Isnít that basically what Christian living is all about?
The early Church often gave severe public penances to make up for the harm done by serious sins such as apostasy, murder and adultery, even though the guilt for sin was erased by repentance and forgiveness.
A shortening of this penance was possible when those being martyred interceded for their weaker brothers and sisters. Therefore reducing short-term punishment for sin was for the living. It was only in 1476 that Pope Sixtus IV declared that indulgences could be applied to those in purgatory.
An indulgence (a favour granted) reduces temporal punishment for sin by the grace which comes from Christís redemptive suffering, as well as the prayers and good works of the saints. It is to be noted that indulgences never were meant to work automatically; they must be accompanied by the proper dispositions and the removal of guilt through forgiveness of sin.
Historically, there appears to be no clear evidence for indulgences, as we have known them, before the 11th century. Plenary indulgences, that is, full remission of temporal punishment for sin, were granted first to the Crusaders who went to free the Holy Land. By the 13th century, the Church formalized indulgences as part of Church law.
Indulgences for almsgiving began as early as the 11th century. Unfortunately, what started out as a good practice was abused by a sale of indulgences to raise money for church building.
These abuses were among those which 16th century reformers condemned. The Council of Trent also condemned these practices in 1563, but defended Church doctrine on indulgences.
Reducing penances by a certain number of days made sense when prolonged public penances were imposed in the early Church. However the practice that developed of counting days off in purgatory was considered inappropriate.
Therefore, a revision of indulgences in a 1967 document by Paul VI called The Doctrine and Practice of Indulgences and a 1968 Handbook of Indulgences eliminated the use of days for partial indulgences.
It is clear that indulgences are not to be regarded as automatic with no consideration of the personís spiritual condition and intentions. Both plenary and partial indulgences must be accompanied by repentance and forgiveness for the guilt of sin, as well as the proper disposition towards God and neighbour while fulfilling the requirements with the intention of gaining the indulgence.
An approach where one tries to accumulate spiritual ďcreditsĒ is contrary to Christís teaching and the spirit of indulgences. Instead, indulgences are meant to teach us to live as followers of Christ with a continued spiritual connection to our loved ones and our community of faith.
While valuing indulgences, the above-mentioned 20th century documents, as well as the Catholic Catechism, emphasize prayer and voluntary works of charity within the bond that exists in the communion of saints, both living and dead.
Do plenary indulgences remove all temporal punishment for sin?
It is important to remember only God can determine where we stand at the end of our lives. All we can do is rely on God. After all, God has taken the initiative and gives us grace and salvation freely; our role is to gratefully respond to that gift and live as the redeeming and healing presence of Christ to the world.