Does the church still believe in indulgences?

CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

Despite past abuses, they’re still a part of the faith — just ask Pope Francis

Q: I recently heard about the Jubilee Year of Mercy that will begin on Dec. 8. My friend who told me about it mentioned that I could receive a “plenary indulgence” during the holy year, and I am a bit confused about this. Does the church still believe in indulgences? I thought we did away with them during the Protestant Reformation!

A: Thank you for your question! When many people, Catholics included, think about indulgences, images of corrupt church officials selling false documents claiming that thousands of years will be “docked” off the purchasers’ time in purgatory come to mind. Many see indulgences as an obscure and unfortunate relic of the church’s medieval past. But this is not the case! As we’ll see, indulgences are still very much a part of our Catholic faith.

The history of indulgences includes its share of controversy and even scandal, especially connected to the abuse of their sale. One of the most notorious examples of this was the German Dominican friar Johann Tetzel (1465–1519), who sold indulgences to finance various “ecclesial projects” and is credited with saying, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

During this period, indulgences could be purchased granting the buyer or someone else a remission of the temporal punishment for sins equaling thousands of years in purgatory! These sorts of abuses were vehemently attacked by Martin Luther and others. In 1567, following the Council of Trent, Pope St. Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions. It is important to know that these abuses did not reflect official church teaching about indulgences.

So, what exactly is an indulgence? In the words of the Manual of Indulgences, an indulgence is “a remission before God of temporal punishment for sins, whose guilt is forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faith obtains under certain and clearly defined conditions through the intervention of the Church.”

The key to this is in how the church understands temporal punishment for sins. We believe that sin has consequences that are both eternal (everlasting) and temporal (earthly). In the sacrament of reconciliation, Jesus forgives the eternal consequences of sin, but the temporal consequences remain. A good analogy that helps to explain this is a young boy hitting a baseball through a neighbor’s window. He apologizes and is forgiven. The window, however, is still broken and needs to be fixed. The broken window is the temporal consequence of his action. Purgatory is the place where the temporal consequences of sin are forgiven or purged from us in order to prepare us for heaven.

An indulgence, quite simply, is either a partial or a plenary (complete) remission of these temporal consequences of sin, which the church grants from her treasury of graces. This is great news!

In April, Pope Francis published an apostolic letter, Misericordiae Vultus, announcing the Jubilee Year of Mercy, in which he wrote, “A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences. This practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy. God’s forgiveness knows no bounds. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes even more evident his love and its power to destroy all human sin. Reconciliation with God is made possible through the paschal mystery and the mediation of the Church.”

To gain a plenary indulgence during this Holy Year of Mercy, the following is necessary: Have an interior disposition of detachment from all sin, go to confession, receive holy Communion, pray for the Holy Father’s intentions and make a pilgrimage to a basilica or another designated place, such as a cathedral.

Receiving an indulgence is really about receiving God’s mercy and love, which is what this Holy Year of Mercy is all about!

May God’s blessings be with you today and always!

Northwest Catholic - December 2015

Father Cal Christiansen

Father Cal Christiansen is pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Mountlake Terrace. Send your questions for “Ask Father” to