When I finally became a faithful Catholic in my late 20s, I had no real idea what indulgences were. I had some vague notion that they were something complicated, controversial and even corrupt. The very word seemed scandalous and sinful! And the word "indulgences" was usually preceded by "the sale of" -- and that can't be good when we're talking about souls!
What I finally figured out was not so complicated. An indulgence is just a certain prescribed prayer, good work, or practice of piety which remits the temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven.
Um, Leila, what in the heck is temporal punishment??
I'm glad you asked!
When we sin, there are two parts to reconciling with the Lord:
1) We must ask for and receive forgiveness for our sins (at which point our guilt is removed)
2) We must make amends for our sins (that's how we repair the spiritual damage we have caused)
Making up for our sins is only just, right? We know it in our hearts, and we apply it in real life.
Think about it:
A boy recklessly throws a baseball near his neighbor's home. It shatters a window. What does the boy need to do? He needs to approach the neighbor with contrition and apologize for the transgression. A good neighbor then forgives the boy.
But can the boy now just walk home happily and never think about it again? No, of course not. We all know that the boy needs to make it right, and the neighbor expects it. Pick up the glass pieces, replace the window, pay for the damage, whatever. But the window must be restored. Even with forgiveness, an apology is incomplete until the offender has made things right again. That's justice, and it makes sense.
Divine forgiveness and justice make sense, too.
So, an indulgence is a special way of making up for the damage of our sins, in the form of a specific prayer, good work, holy act, pilgrimage, etc.
I think of an indulgence as similar to a penance after a sacramental confession. In confession, our sins are forgiven when the priest absolves us, but we must still go and perform the given penance or our "apology" is not complete. That penance helps remit our temporal punishment. Indulgences are an extra-sacramental way to remit the temporal punishment for our sins, and this time not through our own personal merits, but by availing ourselves of the treasury of grace won by Christ and the saints.
A plenary indulgence removes all of one's temporal punishment.
A partial indulgence removes part of one's temporal punishment.
By the way, if all of our temporal punishment due is not paid here on earth, we'll be payin' up in Purgatory! (And Purgatory is a whole 'nother post!)
Um, Leila, what exactly gives the Church the right to set indulgences for the faithful?
I am glad you asked!
Remember back in this post, when we talked about disciplines vs. doctrines? Well, the specifics of an indulgence are an exercise of Church discipline:
A discipline is a rule or regulation which can and often does change. This is the "binding and loosing" authority that the Church received when Jesus said to Peter and the Apostles, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven" (Matt. 16:19, Matt. 18:18).... Why do they exist? To help the faithful in each era become holy. Depending on times and cultures and circumstances, Popes and bishops will bind or loose the faithful according to the needs of the people of God at that time.Now, the thing about indulgences is, they are not obligatory. They are an amazing, voluntary opportunity for increased holiness and grace. A beautiful gift!
Um... but, Leila, what about the "selling of indulgences"? You know, the thing that caused so much scandal and made Martin Luther leave the Church?
I'm glad you asked!
At the time of Martin Luther, some of the clergy had fallen into great sin and corruption. Yes, it's true... the Church is full of sinners (for anyone who is human, this should not come as a shock). Martin Luther was right to call out the corruption in the Church, including the sale of indulgences. We don't have a problem with Luther for that! In fact, many Catholics were rightly horrified by the sin and corruption in the Church at the time. (Our issue with Martin Luther was an issue of doctrine, and that's a whole 'nother post.)
Was the sale of indulgences shameful when it occurred? Yes! But remember: The abuse of a thing does not negate its proper and legitimate use. I hope we can all agree on that principle.
And, I hope this post made you a *teensy-weensy* bit less confused about indulgences. :)
For much more information, go here and here.