"Indulgences" is one of those words that has a very strong
connotation. Few people know what the word actually means, but nearly
everyone knows that it was one of Martin Luther's chief complaints
about the Catholic Church. So what are indulgences?
First off, the term "indulgence" means "favor". If you indulge
someone, you treat them well, you look after them, you take good care
of them. Some people mistakenly think the word itself carries the
modern meaning of over eating or gluttony. They assume an indulgence
is a license to indulge in something; particularly sin. In fact,
the word means the Church is granting a favor, or is being good to
someone. In this way the Church indulges me. I do not indulge in
Now that we have the cumbersomeness of the word out of the way, what
does it actually mean? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the
power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes
in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of
the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of
mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins.
Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these
Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and
Ok, but what does that mean? The key concept is that sin has two
repercussions; temporal (in tine) and eternal (outside time). Jesus'
death on the cross forgives the eternal consequence of sin, which is
infinitely more important. This is the big deal, does a soul go to
heaven or hell.
However, the Bible suggests, and Tradition has always taught, that
there is temporal punishment due for sins as well. This punishment is
designed to repair the damage done to ourselves and those around us
because of our sin. Similar to a thief who steals money but is
pardoned (eternal forgiveness) but must still repay what he stole
(temporal punishment), we must "repay" what our sins have stolen.
The normal means of repayment are acts of penance, "offering up"
suffering you're experiencing, and purgatory. This is the whole point
of purgatory; to provide a place where souls who still have temporal
punishment, but eternal forgiveness, can be purified before entering
This is also where indulgences come in. Indulgences are a grace
granted by the Church for particular pious actions and this grace is
particularly effective at atoning for temporal punishment.
In other articles we will discuss the different types of indulgences,
what the whole selling indulgences thing was about, and how to get