Indulgences...are those still a thing?


Photo by middlewick (2011) via Morguefile.

Indulgences. They bring to mind the Middle Ages, simony, corrupt friars, The Canterbury Tales. Good thing Holy Mother Church has moved on to more sensible things.

Or has She? Are indulgences still a thing?

It might be helpful to first look at what an indulgence is. Here I will turn to my favorite canonist, my husband, for some wisdom on the matter, quoting an article that he wrote on the subject a few years ago.

First, we have to understand that when we sin there are consequences. Paul writes:

Every sin, mortal or venial, has a double consequence. First, the sin itself, an offense against God, drives a wedge between us and God, harming our relationship with Him.

This offense is forgiven through absolution in sacramental confession. But, every sin also entails an unhealthy attachment to the created world, an attachment which arises from the very nature of our sinful acts. This attachment, also called temporal punishment, is not expunged through confession, but persists and must be purified before our entrance into the blessedness of heaven (CCC 1472).

I imagine this is sort of like what happens with little kids. There is a Bad Act. The child asks for and receives forgiveness, but some sort of punishment must be given, like a time-out.

At my house, though, some days time-outs are racked up until the child is sentenced to stay in his room until Kingdom come. When this happens, my husband and I will sometimes offer the chance for the child to do good works—chores, playing nicely with a sibling—that will lessen his time in his room and hopefully bring about a more loving heart faster than the time out alone would have. Indulgences are similar to this. Paul writes:

To encourage the faithful, the Church attaches indulgences to actions that are already good in themselves. An indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (CCC 1471).

And just like how Jesus offered a sacrifice on behalf of our lives, we can offer sacrifices for others, both alive and deceased. He writes:

The whole Church, on earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven, is united in a Communion of the Saints. Just as the sins of one person harm the whole body, even more can the sufferings and good works of one person benefit the whole body. The Church is a guardian of a great “treasury” containing the merits of Christ and the saints, which she can dispense to all the faithful through indulgences.

A note: from November 1st-8th, an indulgence is available for anyone who visits a cemetery to pray for the deceased. This is a great opportunity for the family to participate together in a spiritual work of mercy and provides a teachable moment about heaven, hell, and purgatory.

We don’t need to blush when others bring up indulgences as a supposed tarnish on our Church’s history. They are tokens of God’s great mercy for us and reminders of our real bond with one another in the Body of Christ.

Copyright 2015 Meg Matenaer.
Photo by middlewick (2011) via Morguefile.


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  1. Thanks for this! I’ve only been Catholic for five years but a lot of these things still remain a mystery to me! I even researched indulgences before going to Mass on All Souls day but nothing was a clear as what you’ve written. I really appreciate it!

  2. Please do not take offense with my questions…I am trying to understand why it would be good to visit a cemetery and pray for the dead? And why is an indulgence offered for doing so only for a particular week? Please help me understand your perspective…

    • Hi, Kelly!

      No, no offense taken-it’s good to ask questions, especially about this.

      First, it’s good to pray for the dead because our prayers and sacrifices offered on their behalf can speed up their time in Purgatory. Paul talks about this in depth in the article above. It’s a good read to learn more about why believe in praying for the deceased.

      Second, this particular indulgence is just for Nov.1-8 because the Church turns our attention to our departed loved ones in a special way on Nov. 2 when we celebrate All Souls’ Day. Just like we have different liturgical seasons that direct our hearts in certain ways, we have different feasts throughout the year that give us the opportunity to reflect on a certain aspect of our faith. Our faith is so beautiful and rich that it’s impossible to give our full attention to every detail every day! However, certain indulgences are offered all year round, so it’s always possible to gain them for ourselves or our loved ones.

      I hope this is helpful!

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