I’ve often found myself annoyed at non-Catholic acquaintances who mock the idea of indulgences as corrupt or nonsensical, and when I was yelling typing angrily at one on this subject earlier today, I figured what I was saying writing wouldn’t be a terrible blog post.

The way you get an indulgence, if I’m understanding it correctly, goes like this:
1. Take a concrete step toward what we’ll call moral or spiritual enlightenment. For example, diligently following the events and speeches at World Youth Day means exposing yourself to some intense stuff that will hopefully be of some spiritual benefit (if you don’t think it could, that just means that you should be paying more attention).

Another example: 5 years ago, I visited Lourdes during the 150th anniversary of the apparitions. The indulgence associated with that visit was, if I recall correctly, attached to visiting several sites in the town that were associated with the apparitions. The hope was that this would help the pilgrims to contemplate what happened (and no, there were not, to my recollection, admission fees for any of the sites).

Even better example: the indulgence for the Year of Faith, which included studying the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. For anyone who engages sincerely in such study, this should prove rather helpful.

2. Make a good confession. This means repenting of all one’s mortal sins. Bam. You’re going to Heaven.

3. Receive the Eucharist. In worthily receiving the Eucharist, we make that act of communion with the body of Christ, that is, the Church, as well as with Christ Himself, and venial sins for which one has repented are in and through that act concretely forgiven.

Every time I’ve sincerely engaged in an activity associated with an indulgence, it has helped to lay bare some of the ways in which I’ve failed to live up to the Gospel- that is, it has helped to show me venial sins of which I have not repented: one would expect that exposing one’s unrepented-for venial sins would help one to repent for them, meaning that Purgatory, which cleanses us of the temporal punishment due to us primarily for venial sins for which we have not sufficiently repented, is no longer as necessary.

The Pope’s attachment of an indulgence to an activity does not make it spiritually enlightening, but rather, points out spiritually enlightening activities, usually at times when these activities may be of particular benefit with regard to helping one reform one’s life and habits.

The bottom line is that an indulgence is not a coupon for reduced time in purgatory; rather, engaging sincerely in an activity associated with an indulgence should help to rid us of exactly that which makes that time in purgatory so necessary.


2 thoughts on “Indulgences

  1. In defense of your annoying non-Catholic friends: in non-Catholic circles/schools (especially Protestant ones), the history of Catholicism mostly drops off after 1517. Because why would you talk about any development in Catholic theology after that, when you already know what’s right? Really.
    (I disagree with this practice, if that isn’t immediately obvious.)
    So chances are, the last thing your non-Catholic friends ever heard about indulgences was something along the lines of: ‘Catholic clergy told poor-and-ignorant-but-pious laymen that if they paid enough money they would be guaranteed immediate entrance into Heaven, thus preying on the poor-and-ignorant-piety of laymen, who couldn’t be expected to know any better because they weren’t allowed to read the Bible.’
    This may have been true, but it isn’t now… and I wonder if a large part of the misunderstanding isn’t just the name of it? It’s become so associated with a recognized-ly corrupt practice that it is hard for the popular imagination to hear the word ‘indulgence’ without jumping straight back to ‘As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.’

  2. What concerns me about changing the term is that some one’s going to be clever enough to figure out that we’re just calling indulgences by a different name, and then they say it’s a Jesuit conspiracy to deceive the public. We’re no further than when we started.

    Okay, so that was pretty obviously tongue-in-cheek. You raise several good points: insofar as modern Protestants (or at least, the ones I’ve had to deal with online) know church history, it tends to be an over-simplified account that leaves little room for doctrinal development or nuance, and I think their spirituality is poorer for it. John Henry Newman famously said, “To be steeped in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Now, this does not necessarily mean that studying history makes swimming the Tiber inevitable (not saying we wouldn’t love to have y’all), but at the very least that a deeper engagement with Church history tends to leave less room for the blanket condemnations of movements or practices.

    Incidentally, I’ve more than once found myself thinking that the “sale” of indulgences to help pay for church renovations makes some sense; if you see it as creating opportunities for people to put themselves in the place of the widow in Mark 12:41-44, Johann Tetzel almost becomes forgivable. Almost. Perhaps the ease with which that particular kind of indulgence could be abused is adequate reason to avoid trying to implement them, since by definition the sum demanded would have to nearly extortionate in order for the sacrifice to be spiritually meaningful. But now I’m just rambling.


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