A person who attends a bible study I organize asked if indulgences are still possible, in vogue, as it were. “Weren’t they done away with at Vatican II?”, I was asked. I assured this person that indeed indulgences were still a common practice in the Catholic Church and that they have received a renewed sensibility with Benedict XVI. THE thing that catapulted the Church into the protestant revolution is now being talked about with seriousness and sincerity because it is realized that the practice of giving indulgences does help us to know ourselves and the mercy of God better.

In brief, the Catechism teaches that “The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance” (1471ff).

So, what is an indulgence? Why would a Catholic be interested in knowing more about indulgences?

“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.”

“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.

[The sources for this doctrine can be located in Pope Paul VI, apostolic constitution, Indulgentiarum doctrina, Norm 1; Indulgentiarum doctrina, Norm 2; Cf. Norm 3; CIC, can. 994. 84 Cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1712-1713; (1563): 1820).]

The conditions for gaining a plenary indulgence

The Servant of God Pope Paul VI published in 1967 the norms concerning indulgences at the end of Indulgentiarum Doctrina. This document is required reading if you have deep interest in matters pertaining to confession/penance and helping the penitent deal with matters of conscience, sin, grace and forgiveness. Yes, there are conditions set for the gaining of a indulgence. For purposes here, Norm 7 is important and it states:

To acquire a plenary indulgence it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill three conditions: sacramental confessionEucharistic Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even to venial sin, be absent. If this disposition is in any way less than complete, or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be only partial, except for the provisions contained in n.11 for those who are “impeded.”

This may be news to critics and the unknowing, but indulgence is not the get-out-of-jain free card. Conversion of heart is needed. The requirements to satisfy the gift of an indulgence are one’s reception of Holy Communion, freedom from sin and prayer for the pope. It is said that it is “fitting” that Holy Communion and the prayers for the Holy Father be said on the same day as the indulgenced work is performed so as not to prolong the healing process. But the sacramental confession could be made “several days” before or after. This is often interpreted as “a week or so”. However, the Sacred Penitentiary (the office at the Holy See that deals with matters of conscience, the sacrament of Penance), in the Decree The Gift of the Indulgence, wrote:

It is appropriate, but not necessary, that the sacramental Confession and especially Holy Communion and the prayer for the Pope’s intentions take place on the same day that the indulgenced work is performed; but it is sufficient that these sacred rites and prayers be carried out within several days (about 20) before or after the indulgenced act. (n.5)

Contrary to a past practice, one can’t buy an indulgence; you can’t treat a spiritual practice as a commodity; you have to be fully engaged with heart and soul.