The things which probably make us the most uncomfortable in life are those things which we do not understand. We are always more comfortable with something of which we are knowledgeable than we are with that which we do not know. When dealing with the teachings of the Catholic Church, just the mere mention of indulgences tends to provoke a foreboding sense of discomfort in most Catholics. The reason for this unsettling feeling is two-fold: first, we suffer from a lack of knowledge of what an indulgence is, and second, we lack the realization of how biblical indulgences are.
The word indulgence is derived from the Latin word indulgeo meaning to be kind or tender. In the Old Testament (Isaiah 61:1) it was used to show a release from captivity or punishment. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church article 1471, an indulgence is “a remission of the temporal (meaning lasting a short time) punishment due to sins, whose guilt has already been forgiven…” This remission of punishment is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, a gift given to the Church by Christ and passed on through apostolic succession (Mt 16:19; John 20:21-23; CCC1478). Thus, it is God, through the Church who remits the temporal punishment. In the early Christian Church various sins were punished with long public penance, and the Church was often indulgent and ‘loosed’ or freed the Christian from all or part of the punishment if they repented and performed certain works of charity. This ‘freeing’ of punishment is referred to as an indulgence and is described as either partial or plenary. A partial indulgence removes part of the temporal punishment due for sins and a plenary indulgence removes all of the temporal punishment.
To understand the usage of indulgences, one must first understand the consequences of sin. The ultimate consequence of sin is seen with grave sin (mortal sin) as it deprives us from communion with God. This privation is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin and it means that we are incapable of eternal life (CCC 1472). Yet each sin, whether mortal or venial, carries with it a double liability: one of guilt and one of punishment. We see this in the story of the fall of our first parents and their first sin. Once Adam and Eve disobeyed God, guilt set in and they hid themselves out of shame (Gen 3:9-10). Then, punishment for their sin followed (Gen 3:16-22). Ultimately, they were removed from the presence of God (Gen 3:23-24). (This ability to live in communion with God was regained for us by Christ through his death and resurrection.)
Being that temporal punishment is not eternal; something must bring it to an end. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Every sin entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth or after death in a state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called ‘temporal punishment’ of sin” (CCC 1472). Therefore, punishment due to sin may come here on earth in forms of various sufferings or after death in Purgatory.
Knowing that guilt and punishment are liabilities of sin, we can now better understand how the principles underlying Divine punishment and, in turn, indulgences are found in Scripture. One indication for eternal punishment is seen in Daniel 12:2, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, those to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” And, as previously mentioned, we see temporal punishment in Genesis 3:15 (the Protoevangelium) as God shows His mercy declaring a message of hope for humanity.
When one partakes in the sacrament of Penance and repents, the guilt of the sin is forgiven (Is 1:18) and the eternal punishment removed (Rom 5:9), but the temporal punishment due to sins remain. This is evident in 2 Sam 12:13-14 when David is confronted about his adultery. Even though David is forgiven, he still suffered the death of his son as well as other temporal punishments. Catholic On-line cites these other examples of temporal punishment suffered after the forgiveness of sins: Numbers 14:13-23; 20:12; 27:12-14.
As Catholics, we know that Christ paid the price for our sins. His sacrifice alone opened heaven to us, but it did not relieve us of our obligations to repair the harm done through our own sins. In other words, we recognize that we can never ‘buy’ our way into heaven, for Christ alone expiated our sins once and for all by His sacrifice on the cross. However, we are responsible to fulfill our obligation of the temporal punishment due to our sin after we have been forgiven. Unfortunately the concept that one could ‘buy’ indulgences and therefore purchase his way into heaven on his own merit fueled the fire for the Protestant Reformation; but, it was never the teaching of the Church. Indulgences were never sold with the sanction of the theology of the Church, yet that’s not to say that unscrupulous individuals didn’t abuse the lack of knowledge of the faithful when pertaining to almsgiving and its relationship to indulgences. The Catholic Encyclopedia states, “It is easy to see how the abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place…It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded.” This is seen in Scripture as Jesus bestows a special blessing upon the widow who gave her last coins to the Temple in Jerusalem. We wouldn’t accuse the poor widow of ‘buying’ a blessing from our Lord and so too we should not be uncomfortable with receiving an indulgence. For we now know that an indulgence is something that cannot be bought nor can it buy our way into heaven, rather it is simply a way that the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin. (CCC1498)
To learn more about indulgences read Indulgentiarum Doctrina by Pope Paul VI.