Definition of Terms:
The Catholic practice of Indulgences (from the Latin verb ‘indulgere‘, meaning “leniency”, “to be lenient toward”) is based on the belief that the merits of Christ and the saints can be applied to the faithful, reducing or removing the temporal punishment due to sin. While the Sacrament of Penance removes guilt and the eternal punishment due mortal sin, the temporal punishment of sin may still remain. This concept has logical applications such as a case where someone commits theft, for example, and later repents, but are still expected to return the item or pay it back in some way. Indulgences offer a way for the faithful to obtain the remission of these temporal consequences.
Contrary to common misconceptions, an indulgence is not the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer’s salvation nor releases the soul from purgatory; An indulgence does not forgive the guilt of sin, nor is it a permit to commit sin, nor a guarantee of salvation. The Catholic Church teaches that indulgences relieve only the temporal punishment resulting from the effect of sin. An indulgence requires the recipient to be contrite of heart, make a sacramental Confession, be free from attachment to sin, and perform an action to receive it, most often prayer, a pilgrimage, or the performance of specific good works, such as volunteering or almsgiving.
The Scriptural basis for indulgences ultimately relies on Christ’s atonement. Christ’s Atonement on the cross paid the price for our eternal punishment due to sin. However, Christ’s Atonement did not remove all temporal penalties resulting from sin as can be illustrated by the fact that we are still experiencing the effects of Adam and Eve’s original sin. Scripture indicates temporal penalties may still be present even following forgiveness, as in 2 Samuel 12:13-14, where God forgave David but David still had to suffer the loss of his son as well as other temporal punishments (2 Sam. 12:7-12).
The belief that God can lessen temporal punishments through acts of penance is central to the idea of indulgences. Scripture tells us God gave the authority to forgive sins “to men” (Matt. 9:8) and to Christ’s ministers (John 20:21-23). Christ also promised his Church the power to bind and loose on earth (Matt. 18:18). The power of binding and loosing extends to imposing discipline and administering and removing temporal penance (2 Corinthians 2:5-10).
Scripture also tells us that acts of charity can merit satisfaction for sin (1 Peter 4:8). Merit cannot be transferred to another person, but the satisfaction achieved by meritorious acts can be applied to others. This concept is central to Christ’s satisfaction as it is applied to our eternal punishment. This is true of personal merit as well, as St. Paul calls us “co-workers” with Christ (1 Corinthians 3:9, 2 Corinthians 6:1) and demonstrates it in Colossians 1:24; “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
Since the satisfaction of Christ is infinite, it constitutes an inexhaustible fund which is more than sufficient to cover the indebtedness contracted by sin. In addition to this the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints which were merited in and through Christ’s own merit, are added to this “treasury of merit”. An indulgence, therefore, is the merits of Christ and of the saints within the “Treasury” of the Church being applied to the penitent.
Early developments of indulgences can be seen in the early Church, with Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258 AD) mentioning the practice of penitential remissions. Following the Decian persecution, former apostates (known as lapsi) wished to once again be admitted to the Christian community, but faced lengthy penances. Penances imposed on the lapsi often lasted years, sometimes lifetimes only to be lifted in life-threatening illnesses. Some of the lapsi began presenting letters with the signature of some martyr or confessor who wished to reaffirm the individual. Indulgences were thus introduced to allow for the remission of the severe penances on behalf of the merits and intercession of Christians awaiting martyrdom or imprisonment for the faith.
By the late Middle Ages, indulgences began to become associated not so much with canonical penance but with remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, including Purgatory. The penitential language of “days” and “years” remained, but were not understood to apply equally to Purgatory.
Because indulgences often involved an act of charity, recipients gave money to support the public good, including hospitals. However, because indulgences granted for almsgiving seemed to some like a simple monetary transaction, rather than seeing the indulgence as granted for the good deed itself (i.e. charity), many began to see indulgences for almsgiving as simply “buying” or “purchasing” indulgences. This misconception was reinforced by the abuse of indulgences by certain individuals. In response, the Council of Trent thus went about reforming it’s practice of indulgences and clarifying proper theological understanding.
Matthew 9:8 (NRSVCE):
“But when the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.”
John 20:21-23 (NRSVCE):
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'”
Matthew 18:18 (NRSVCE):
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
2 Corinthians 2:5-10 (NRSVCE):
“But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”
1 Peter 4:8 (NRSVCE):
“Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”
Colossians 1:24 (NRSVCE):
“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
1 Corinthians 3:9 (NRSVCE):
“For we are co-laborers with God, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
2 Corinthians 6:1:
“As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.”
Church Father Quotes:
Clement of Alexandria
“The most potent repentance for sinners is a change of life.” – Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book VII, Chapter 16.
Tertullian of Carthage
“It is the benefit of discipline, that a repentance which is relaxed and unembarrassed goes to greater lengths than one which is severe and accompanied by suffering.” – Tertullian, On Repentance, Chapter 7.
Cyprian of Carthage
“But if they are mindful of the punishment and of the fear of burning, they will come to seek a means of salvation.” – Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 51:22.
“Let each confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession can be received, while satisfaction and the forgiveness granted by the priests are acceptable to God.” – Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 28.
“Let them not grieve over sins committed but rejoice in the remedies for pardon.” – Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 33.
“With sorrow and mourning and weeping, the sinner will fast, and by his works he will entreat God. The Virgin of Christ prays for the offender, the Spirit prays for the fallen.” – Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 23.
“All these [penitents] ought to approach with sorrow and mourning and with true lamentation, and to come with tears and groans and wailings, and to kneel before the Lord, and to cast themselves down at the knees of the priests, and to enjoin upon all the brethren to be moderators of their penance.” – Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 24.
“Therefore, there is only one way of reconciliation for the sinner who has fallen after baptism, and that is given through the priest’s office when the sinner comes to acknowledge his sin.” – Cyprian of Carthage, To Antonianus, Epistle 12:3.
“Let him return to the Church, which, groaning and weeping, laid aside her festive garments when she learned of your misfortune and her own wound, and was eager for the saving medicine.” – Cyprian of Carthage, To Antonianus, Epistle 12:4.
“Thus, on account of the very hope and promise of penance, peace and reconciliation are granted by God to the bishop and through his judgment to the Church.” – Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church, 6.
“Let them give public proof of their faith, let them manifest the fear of God in their works, let them offer visible fruits of repentance.” – Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 28.
“In the Church, mercy is granted, and you should rather come with lamentations, penitence, and tears.” – Cyprian of Carthage, To Demetrianus, Epistle 30:7.
“We must not be too hasty in receiving penitents, nor make the hope of pardon too easy for them.” – Cyprian of Carthage, To the Clergy and People, Epistle 30:4.
Origen of Alexandria
“If you sin, weep; if you weep, sigh deeply; if you sigh, lament; if you lament, groan; if you groan, pray to God; if you pray to God, hope; if you hope, do not give up hope; if you do not give up hope, you will find what you seek, because you sought it with perseverance.” – Origen, Homilies on Luke, Homily 37.
Athanasius of Alexandria
“The confession of sins is a medicine.” – Athanasius of Alexandria, Against the Heathen, Chapter 27.
Cyril of Jerusalem
“Do not be ashamed to confess your sins, but be ashamed not to repent.” – Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 13:5.
Basil the Great
“God knows the frailty of human nature and has decreed appropriate remedies for it. For this reason, with fatherly love and kindness, He has not only prescribed periods of fast and abstinence, but also set up a compensatory exchange of works, so that when a person does not have the strength to fast, he may do almsdeeds instead.” – Basil the Great, Ascetical Works, Rule 55.
Gregory of Nyssa
“As long as you are still among the living, while the gifts of virtue are still available to you, make use of the grace of reconciliation.” – Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection, 25.
“God accepts the intention of the penitent, not the quantity of the labor.” – John Chrysostom, Homilies on Acts, Homily 30.
Ambrose of Milan
“Let penitents knock with tears at the door, weep at the threshold of the Church, at the entrance to the sanctuary; let them lament among the priests, crying out that they have sinned and wept, that they have offended and wept. … The greater the tears, the sooner is reconciliation obtained.” – Ambrose of Milan, On Repentance, Book II, Chapter 10.
Jerome of Stridon
“The indulgence which the bishop grants at the hour of death, must not be despised or refused.” – Jerome, To Vigilantius, Letter 22:15.
Augustine of Hippo
“In the Church, penance is given not only for sins after baptism but also for sins committed before baptism. However, the lessening of penance or its complete remission is granted through the merits of martyrdom or through some other great deeds, which show greater penance and a more serious conversion.” – Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 9.
“The complete pardon of a sin is granted not only when the guilt is remitted but also when the punishment is remitted.” – John Cassian, Conferences, Conference 21:17.
Pope Gregory the Great
“The measure of our advancement in the spiritual life should be taken not by the number of our corporal actions of virtue but rather by the fervor of our charity.” – Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule, Book II, Chapter 10.
August Wilhelm Dieckhoff (1823-1894), German Lutheran theologian and historian:
“[Tetzel only preached] orthodox Catholic teaching on indulgences and Protestants have been grossly misled about this man”. -Lenhart, J. M. (March 1958). “Luther and Tetzel’s Preaching of Indulgences, 1516—1518”. Franciscan Studies. 18 (1): 82–88.
Leon Morris (1914-2006), Baptist minister, Protestant Biblical Scholar:
“[M]ost of us . . . don’t understand ‘expiation’ very well. . . . [E]xpiation is . . . making amends for a wrong.” (The Atonement [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983], 151).
Gerhard Uhlhorn (1826-1901), German Evangelical Lutheran theologian and Church historian:
“one cannot go through the archives of any hospital without finding numerous letters of indulgence”. –Gesch. d. Christliche Liebesthatigkeit, Stuttgart, 1884, II, 244
The Wycliff Bible Encyclopedia:
“The basic idea of expiation has to do with reparation for a wrong, the satisfaction of the demands of justice through paying a penalty.”
Peter Marshall, Scottish historian and academic:
“Luther did not deny that indulgences were useful, or that the pope’s intentions in issuing them were good” -Marshall, Peter (October 2017). 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation. Oxford University Press. p. 31.
Ludwig von Pastor (1854-1928), German Catholic historian:
“Above all, a most clear distinction must be made between indulgences for the living and those for the dead.
As regards indulgences for the living, Tetzel always taught pure doctrine. The assertion that he put forward indulgences as being not only a remission of the temporal punishment of sin, but as a remission of its guilt, is as unfounded as is that other accusation against him, that he sold the forgiveness of sin for money, without even any mention of contrition and confession, or that, for payment, he absolved from sins which might be committed in the future. His teaching was, in fact, very definite, and quite in harmony with the theology of the Church, as it was then and as it is now, i.e., that indulgences “apply only to the temporal punishment due to sins which have been already repented of and confessed”….
The case was very different with indulgences for the dead. As regards these there is no doubt that Tetzel did, according to what he considered his authoritative instructions, proclaim as Christian doctrine that nothing but an offering of money was required to gain the indulgence for the dead, without there being any question of contrition or confession. He also taught, in accordance with the opinion then held, that an indulgence could be applied to any given soul with unfailing effect. Starting from this assumption, there is no doubt that his doctrine was virtually that of the drastic proverb:
“As soon as money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory’s fire springs.”
The Papal Bull of indulgence gave no sanction whatever to this proposition. It was a vague scholastic opinion, rejected by the Sorbonne in 1482, and again in 1518, and certainly not a doctrine of the church, which was thus improperly put forward as dogmatic truth. The first among the theologians of the Roman court, Cardinal Cajetan, was the enemy of all such extravagances, and declared emphatically that, even if theologians and preachers taught such opinions, no faith need be given them. “Preachers,” said he, “speak in the name of the Church only so long as they proclaim the doctrine of Christ and His Church; but if, for purposes of their own, they teach that about which they know nothing, and which is only their own imagination, they must not be accepted as mouthpieces of the Church. No one must be surprised if such as these fall into error.”” — The History of the Popes, from the Close of the Middle Ages, Ralph Francis Kerr, ed., 1908, B. Herder, St. Louis, Volume 7, pp. 347–348.