Indulgences, under the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, are grants given to individuals which reduce the duration of one's stay in Purgatory. According to this doctrine the punishment for sin is two-fold: eternal and temporal. In Christ the repentant sinner is forgiven and the merited eternal punishment in hell is totally removed, but the justice of God may (or may not) demand some appropriate temporal reparation as a consequence or resultant effect of the sin. The purpose of Purgatory is to purify the person, after physical death, from remaining personal attachment to minor sins and the residual damage of more serious ones previously committed in this life and already eternally forgiven. Once perfected, that person's soul is then given entrance into Heaven.
A person may seek an indulgence for a loved one who has passed away or for his own "temporal" (not "eternal," i.e. hell) punishment. A "plenary indulgence"—for all temporal punishment due up to the time it is granted—may be obtained for the living or the dead, whether known or unknown.
While Sacramental Confession is needed for the forgiveness of serious ("mortal") sins, indulgences deal with the residual temporal punishment that a soul is believed to incur as a consequence having sinned. An indulgence cannot be seen as a replacement for confession, for obvious reasons.
Until the 1567 Council of Trent, indulgences could be "bought" for specific periods of time. However, while both these old-form indulgences, and those of our own day, use time-based terms to indicate the relative worth of the indulgences available, they don't mean "x number of days off Purgatory" as though time in the afterlife can be compared to time on Earth. The time-based terms meant that the indulgence remitted the same amount of temporal punishment as that much time spent in the performance of penance on Earth would. Thus, an "indulgence of 300 days" meant that it remitted the temporal punishment that 300 days of doing penance would. Since the Second Vatican Council numbers of days (or years) is not specified, but only "partial" or "plenary" indulgence.
In the Middle Ages, an indulgence was frequently sold and distributed by the Church in the form of a promissory note, much like paper currency. The attack by Martin Luther on the sale of indulgences was the action that began the Reformation.
Misinformed persons often promote the erroneous idea that the word "indulgence" denotes an official Catholic license to go ahead and indulge in sin after confession, as a polemical means of attacking the Catholic Church.
- Originally, one of the "good works of righteousness" that were recommended by confessors to be performed (among others) as a balance to offset "evil works of sin" was prayer for, and a contribution to, the work of the Gospel and support of the pastors of the Church. At the time of the Reformation, the real intent of money used for the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica, as an act of moral and spiritual reparation "in justice" after forgiveness of sins, was distorted by preachers such as the Dominican John Tetzel, who in his eagerness to obtain large amounts of money for the project, began to preach that "confession and reparation were not necessary" to remove the eternal and temporal punishment for sins committed, but only an inward sorrow for sin and the contribution of money for the project (also involving a sin called Simony). He was afterward accused of misappropriating a large percentage for his own use, and later excommunicated for promoting this distortion of the doctrine of the Church. Because of this scandal, the Catholic Church forbids the receiving of money by confessors immediately after giving absolution to the penitent in the confessional. Those penitents who insist on making an offering are directed to spend it on promoting the charitable work of the Church, or its maintenance, or to put it into the regular offerings collected during the normal worship service of the Mass without making any outward special sign of distinction as to its motivation or purpose.
- John Tetzel (christian-history.org)
- Johann Tetzel - Catholic Encyclopedia (newadvent.org)
- Myths About Indulgences (catholic.com)
- The Indulgence Controversy, Again! by Michael Root (2001) (firstthings.com)
- Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation - Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) Part Two, Section Two, Chapter Two, Article 4 - X. Indulgences (scborromeo.org)
- Indulgence definitions (finedictionary.com)