What are Indulgences in the Catholic Faith?

*I recently discussed why there is Purgatory. During my discussion, I mentioned that we can help the Souls in Purgatory by our prayers. Another way we can help us is through indulgences which I discuss in this re-post.

What are Indulgences in the Catholic Faith

One of my readers, Yiessa, asked me to “discuss the meaning of indulgences in the Catholic faith.” This is a good topic and a teaching of the Church that is sorely misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

What is an indulgence?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic church (scroll down to article 1471):

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporary 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 applied with authority the treasury of the satisfaction of Christ and the saints.

What does this mean? Let me see if I can explain it In layman’s terms, in the way it was explained to me by the sisters: When we go to the Sacrament of Confession and receive absolution our sins are forgiven and we are freed from the guilt of said sin; however, the effect of sin still remains on our soul, like a stain on our soul, if you will. This stain must be purified before we can be with God in heaven. When we “gain an indulgence” then that stain on our soul is either partially or completely taken away.

Does that make sense? Let me use an analogy with my son as an example. When my son breaks a house rule, such as have a temper tantrum or disobeys me, when he is remorseful and says sorry I forgive him. However, there is still a consequence for his actions. He goes in timeout or loses a privilege to “make satisfaction” for his bad behavior. As far as sin goes, sins have consequences and even though we are sorry and forgiven for our sin we still have to face the consequences of our actions – which is what “temporal punishment due to sin” means above. We go to purgatory to be purified and “make satisfaction” for the effects or stains of sin on our souls. When we perform the acts of indulgence it is as if we are making satisfaction here on earth as opposed to doing so in purgatory.

You see, God is all perfect and all holy. All that is not perfect and holy cannot enter heaven. When we die in the state of grace but still have the “remains” or “stain” of sin on our souls we go to purgatory to be purified before entering the full glory of heaven. Through the grace of Christ, and through the authority of the church, when we gain indulgences we have the opportunity to have some or all of the stains removed from our souls so that we can either lessen our time in purgatory or bypass purgatory all together.

What indulgences are not…

The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia gives a good explanation of what an indulgence is not. It says,

To facilitate explanation, it may be well to state what an indulgence is not. It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power. It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven. It is not an exemption from any law or duty, and much less from the obligation consequent on certain kinds of sin, e.g., restitution; on the contrary, it means a more complete payment of the debt which the sinner owes to God. 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. The absurdity of such notions must be obvious to any one who forms a correct idea of what the Catholic Church really teaches on this subject.”

In other words, a person can’t buy their way out of purgatory through indulgences, a person can’t have his or her sin forgiven with indulgences and a person can’t use indulgences as an excuse for sin: “Oh it doesn’t matter if I do ____. I can just get an indulgence and wipe it away.”

Indulgences are a gift that God has given us, through the authority of the Church, to help us on our road to heaven. It is meant to help us prepare our souls to be in the presence of the eternal and all holy Trinity. We should make use of this gift as often as we can!

I hope this helps. To read more about indulgences and help you deepen your understanding of them, next week I will post several links for further reading. And in another post after that, I will explain the difference between partial and plenary indulgences and the requirements for receiving an indulgence.

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