Article 114 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 1471-1479 If you were asked about the doctrine of indulgences, would you say that indulgences are something that is “old fashioned,” “outdated” or “pre-Vatican II”? In fact, indulgences are included in the Catechism as a legitimate, present-day teaching of the Church. The Catechism states: “The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance” (ccc 1471).
The Catechism tells us, “an indulgence is the 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 defined conditions through the Church’s help” (ccc 1471). What does this mean?
Stated positively, the Church triumphant “in heaven” has an inexhaustible spiritual treasury including what St. Pope Paul VI described in his 1967 Apostolic Constitution on indulgences ( Indulgentiarum Doctrina 2:5) as “the merits of Christ Our Lord” and “the merits of his redemption” that remain at the disposal of the faithful. This “treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints” (ccc 1478) includes “the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” as well as “the prayers and good works of all the saints” (ccc 1477).
This might sound confusing. Why would a “temporal punishment” even exist if our sins have already been forgiven? The answer is that sin has a double consequence: 1. “Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life” with God (ccc 1472).
2. “Every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purifi ed either here on
earth, or after death in the state called
Purgatory” (ccc 1472). The “eternal punishment” that results due to grave sin, or the “temporal punishment” due to venial sin, follows from the very nature of sin itself. Weneed to be purifi ed, therefore, in order
to enter heaven. Quoting St. Pope Paul VI again, the Catechism states: In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth.” (ccc 1475).
This means that members of the Church on earth, by way of indulgences, have the capability of helping themselves and those in purgatory. The Catechism explains: “Since the faithful departed now being purifi ed [in purgatory] are also members of the [Church],one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.” (ccc 1479).
Practically speaking, when we sin, we commita freewill offense against God and other people. In his love and mercy, God forgives the guilt of the sin if we are truly contrite. It is a matter of divine justice, however, that we make amends or heal the hurt caused by our sin. This is called temporal punishment. By offering prayers and performing acts of charity, we areable to receive a partial or plenary indulgencewhich diminishes our purgatory. For example:
If I back out of a parking space at the mall and hit another person’s car, I can apologize and tell the person I am sincerely sorry for the damage, but I also, as a matter of justice, have to reimburse that person by fixing the car.
The doctrine of indulgences, which can be “partial or plenary ac- cording as [they] remove either part
or all of the temporal punishment due to sin” (Indulgentarium Doctrina 2), teaches that to gain an indulgence, a person must be in the state of God’s grace. To gain a partial indulgence, one must perform the act to which the indulgence is attached with a contrite heart. The additional condition of gaining a plenary indulgence is that the person must receive the Sacrament of Penance, as well as Holy Communion, and pray for the intentions of the pope. The person must also be free of all sin, including any venial sin.
Examples of prayers and acts of charity for which indulgences are granted include: Partial Indulgence
— Raising one’s mind and heart to God with some pious invocation such as “Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” OR “Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on me.” OR “Jesus, I trust in you.” — Devoting oneself or one’s material goods to the service of one’s neighbor or someone in need — Abstaining in a spirit of penance from something licit and pleasant — Witnessing to one’s faith Plenary Indulgence (only once aday)
— Reading or listening to Sacred Scripture for at least half an hour — Adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist for at least half an hour — Doing the Stations of the Cross — Recitation of the Rosary A plenary indulgence may also be gained on occasions which are not everyday occurrences, such as: — Receiving, even by radio or television, the blessing given by the Pope Urbi et Orbi (to the city of Rome and to the world) — Participating in such celebrations as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, World Youth Day or the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity — Taking part for at least three full days in a spiritual retreat – Receiving the Apostolic Blessing that a priest imparts when the sacraments are given to a person in danger of death — If no priest is available, the Church grants a plenary indulgence to any rightly disposed Christian at the moment of death. [In this case, the
Church itself makes up for the three conditions normally required for a plenary indulgence: sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer for the Pope’s intentions.] Contrary to popular belief, indulgences do not forgive sins, but deal only with punishments left after sins have been forgiven. Thus, indulgences and having Masses offered for one’s intentions or for the souls in purgatory, have similar benefi ts.