1. Bullet“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)

  1. Bullet“An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.” The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead. (CCC1471)

  1. Bullet“It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven” - (Catholic Encyclopedia on Indulgences).

  1. Bullet“It does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of subsequent lapses into sin. Least of all is an indulgence the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer's salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory” - (Catholic Encyclopedia on Indulgences).

No other doctrine of the church is as least understood as indulgences are. In fact the Protestant reformation was started as a result of abuses with indulgences on the part of wayward Catholic priests. In short an indulgence is an act of kindness on the part of the church given by the merits of the Lord for the temporal punishment of sin. If the temporal punishment is fully remitted it is called a plenary indulgence and if temporal punishment is partially remitted it is called a partial indulgence. Catholics believe that they were given the power to apply indulgences because Jesus Christ gave them the power to forgive sins and the punishment for the sin. Furthermore the church believes that it contains a storehouse or treasury of merits obtained through the infinite merits of Jesus by the Saints, martyrs and faithful throughout the centuries by their many good works.

Finally, indulgences are not pardons in advance for relief of the punishment of future sins, but rather they relate only to the pardon of temporal punishment remaining after past sins have been forgiven.

Objection - Christ died for our sins once and for all. It is a waste of time to think that we have to do penance for temporal punishment.

This is quite a misunderstanding of salvation and the redemptive work of our Lord and saviour.  To understand the two fold effect of sin, here is the analogy.  Tom has been playing with friends in his yard despite his parents warning to go in the park and play.  He swings his bat at a fast ball, hits it and the ball flies and breaks his parents glass windows. Tom is horrified but confesses to his parents that it was his fault. He apologizes for having disobeyed his parents and is truly sorry. His father forgives him for his error in judgment. The broken communion with his parents is thus restored. What is missing from this story? The window is still broken. Somebody still has to pay to repair the window, which was damaged by Tom’s transgressions. The parent’s house has been violated. So even though Tom’s parents forgave him, Tom still has to repair the window, which he damaged and this inevitably involves some form of punishment.

So to it is with us when we sin and in particular when we die with venial sins. We are stained with sin and even though God forgives the guilt of sin and spares us the eternal punishment of hell, the sinner is still accountable for the discord that their sins have caused. One must remember that man still suffers under the temporal punishment of sickness, work, pain and death to this day even though the gates of heaven have been opened, redemption has taken place and we have been made sons of the most high through Baptism.

In the Old Testament we find that King David still had to suffer the temporal punishment of his first born sons’ death even after being forgiven for the murder of Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 12:13).  In Num. 12 we read the story of Moses sister, Mary (or Miriam) who God forgave for complaining against Moses, but nevertheless received temporal punishment of leprosy and confinement for one week outside the camp. Likewise Moses was forbidden to enter the Promised Land in Num 20:12 after striking the rock twice to bring out water instead of speaking to it.

In death it follows therefore that those sins which we have committed and have not been forgiven must be purged as St. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 3:15

If any man's work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.”

From here we get the Catholic doctrine of purgatory that was discussed in the purgatory tract. How then do you we know that Christ gave the church the power to remit sins?  For Jesus words to St. Peter in Matthew 16:19,

And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”

It follows that Peter and the apostles (See Matt. 18:18) have the power to bind and to loose. In 1 Cor. 2:10 we read the story of Paul granting a pardon to the incestuous man upon his doing penance.

And to whom you have pardoned any thing, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned any thing, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ.”

Or as the commentary on the Douay-Rheims Bible puts it

“"I also"... The apostle here granted an indulgence, or pardon, in the person and by the authority of Christ, to the incestuous Corinthian, whom before he had put under penance, which pardon consisted in a releasing of part of the temporal punishment due to his sin.”

Indulgences are therefore closely related to the sacrament of penance or confession.

What then must one do to obtain an indulgence?

First a person must be in a state of grace and perform “…works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the "old man" and to put on the "new man."” – CCC 1473.

The requirements for obtaining a partial or plenary indulgence are different with the latter more demanding.

Requirements for obtaining a plenary indulgence are:

  1. BulletThe work must be done while in a state of grace

  2. BulletReceive Sacramental confession (several plenary indulgences may be earned per reception)

  3. BulletReceive Eucharistic communion (one plenary indulgence may be earned per reception)

  4. BulletPray for the Pope’s intentions (Our Father and Hail Mary, or other appropriate prayer, is sufficient)

  5. BulletHave no attachment to sin (even venial) – i.e., the Christian makes an act of the will to love God and despise sin.

A plenary indulgence can be obtained any day of the year by doing any one of the following:

· Adoring the Blessed Sacrament for at least one half hour,

· Devoutly reading Scripture for at least one half hour,

· Devoutly performing the Stations of the Cross,

· Reciting the Rosary with members of the family, or in a church, oratory, religious community or pious association.

For a partial indulgence, the work must be done while in a state of grace and with the general intention of earning an indulgence.

More on Indulgences can be found in the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum (Handbook of Indulgences): Norms and Grants, Vatican City, 1968, 1999.

A Useful link to Internet references on the subject of Indulgences can be found at (

Did the Fathers have anything to say on the subject?

Yes, certainly. The following list primarily adapted from Lumen Verum, but also available at Christian Classics Ethereal Library and the Catholic Encyclopedia reveal the following:

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians 3, 107 AD

“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Lapsed 17 (251 AD)

“The Lord alone is able to have mercy. He alone, who bore our sins, who grieved for us, and whom God delivered up for our sins, is able to grant pardon for the sins which have been committed against Him ... Certainly we believe that the merits of the martyrs and the works of the just will be of great avail with the Judge––but that will be when the day of judgment comes, when, after the end of this age and of the world, His people shall stand before the tribunal of Christ.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 9, 2 (c. 253 AD)

“…sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion.”

St. Ambrose of Milan, Penance 1, 15, 80 (c. 387-390 AD)

“For he is purged as if by certain works of the whole people, and is washed in the tears of the multitude; by the prayers and tears of the multitude he is redeemed from sin, and is cleansed in the inner man. For Christ granted to His Church that one should be redeemed through all, just as His Church was found worthy of the coming of the Lord Jesus so that all might be redeemed through one.”

St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 8, 16

(c. 395 AD)

“For those whom you see doing penance have committed crimes, either adultery or some other enormities. That is why they are doing penance. If their sins were light, daily prayer would suffice to blot them out … In the Church, therefore, there are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptisms, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance.”