"When a person sins, he acquires certain liabilities: the liability of guilt and the liability of punishment."
A mortal sin (one that is grave, or serious, in nature and is committed knowingly and freely) is equivalent to refusing friendship with God and communion with the only source of eternal life. The loss of eternal life with God, and the eternal death of hell that is the effect of this rejection, is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. The Sacrament of Penance removes the guilt and the liability of eternal punishment related to mortal sin. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool."
The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. An example of this can be seen in 2 Samuel 12 when after David repents of his sin, the prophet Nathan tells him that he is forgiven but, "Thus says the Lord God of Israel:...Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife."
In addition to this eternal punishment due to mortal sin, every sin, including venial sin, is a turning away from God through what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls an unhealthy attachment to creatures, an attachment that must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called purgatory. "The process of sanctification and interior renewal requires not only forgiveness from the guilt (culpa) of sin, but also purification from the harmful effects or wounds of sin." This purification process gives rise to "temporal punishment", because, not involving a total rejection of God, it is not eternal and can be expiated.
"While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the 'old man' and to put on the 'new man."
The temporal punishment that follows sin is thus undergone either during life on earth or in purgatory. In this life, as well as by patient acceptance of sufferings and trials, the necessary cleansing from attachment to creatures may, at least in part, be achieved by turning to God in prayer and penance and by works of mercy and charity. Indulgences (from the Latin verb indulgere meaning to forgive, to be lenient toward) are a help towards achieving this purification.
An indulgence does not forgive the guilt of sin, nor does it provide release from the eternal punishment associated with unforgiven mortal sins. The Catholic Church teaches that indulgences relieve only the temporal punishment resulting from the effect of sin (the effect of rejecting God the source of good), and that a person is still required to have his grave sins absolved, ordinarily through the sacrament of Confession, to receive salvation. Similarly, an indulgence is not a permit to commit sin, a pardon of future sin, nor a guarantee of salvation for oneself or for another. Ordinarily, forgiveness of mortal sins is obtained through Confession (also known as the sacrament of penance or reconciliation).
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The 'treasury of the Church' is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ's merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. ... In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy. ...This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission in the unity of the Mystical Body."
Pursuant to the Church's understanding of the power of binding or loosing granted by Christ, it administers to those under its jurisdiction the benefits of these merits in consideration of prayer or other pious works undertaken by the faithful. In opening for individual Christians its treasury, "the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity".
Dispositions necessary to gain an indulgence
An indulgence is not the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer's salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory. Sin is only pardoned (i.e., its effects entirely obliterated) when complete reparation in the form of sacramental confession is made and prescribed conditions are followed. After a firm amendment is made internally not to sin again, and the serious execution of one's assigned penance, the release one from penalty in the spiritual sense consequentially follows.
An indulgence may be plenary (remits all temporal "punishment" required to cleanse the soul from attachment to anything but God) or partial (remits only part of the temporal "punishment", i.e. cleansing, due to sin).
To gain a plenary indulgence, upon performing the charitable work or praying the aspiration or prayer for which the indulgence is granted, one must fulfill the prescribed conditions of:
- A complete and whole-hearted detachment from all sin of any kind, even venial sin,
- Making a valid sacramental confession,
- Receiving Holy Communion in the state of grace
- Praying for the intentions of the Pope.
The minimum condition for gaining a partial indulgence is to be contrite in heart; on this condition, a Catholic who performs the work or recites the prayer in question is granted, through the Church, remission of temporal punishment equal to that obtained by the person's own action.
Since those who have died in the state of grace (with all mortal sins forgiven) are members of the communion of saints, the living (members of the Churches Militant) can assist those whose purification from their sins was not yet completed at the time of death through prayer but also by obtaining indulgences in their behalf. Since the Church has no jurisdiction over the dead, indulgences can be gained for them only per modum suffragii, i.e. by an act of intercession. This is sometimes termed impetration, which Aquinas explains "...is not founded on God's justice, but on His goodness".
By the apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina of 1 January 1967, Pope Paul VI, responding to suggestions made at the Second Vatican Council, substantially revised the practical application of the traditional doctrine.
He made it clear that the Church's aim was not merely to help the faithful make due satisfaction for their sins, but chiefly to bring them to greater fervour of charity. For this purpose he decreed that partial indulgences, previously granted as the equivalent of a certain number of days, months, quarantines (forty-day periods) or years of canonical penance, simply supplement, and to the same degree, the remission that those performing the indulgenced action already gain by the charity and contrition with which they do it.
The abolition of the classification by years and days made it clearer than before that repentance and faith are required not only for remission of eternal punishment for mortal sin but also for remission of temporal punishment for sin. In Indulgentiarum doctrina Pope Paul VI wrote that indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God.
In the same bull, Pope Paul ordered that the official list of indulgenced prayers and good works, called the Raccolta, be revised "with a view to attaching indulgences only to the most important prayers and works of piety, charity and penance". The Raccolta was replaced with the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum. While a number of indulgenced prayers and good works were removed from the list, it now includes new general grants of partial indulgences that apply to a wide range of prayerful actions, and it indicates that the prayers that it does list as deserving veneration on account of divine inspiration or antiquity or as being in widespread use are only examples of those to which the first of these general grants applies: "Raising the mind to God with humble trust while performing one's duties and bearing life's difficulties, and adding, at least mentally, some pious invocation". In this way, the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, in spite of its smaller size, classifies as indulgenced an immensely greater number of prayers than were treated as such in the Raccolta.
Canons 992-997 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law provide a general regulation of indulgences.
Actions for which indulgences are granted
A 1948 reproduction of the Stradanus engraving
, a 17th-century certificate for indulgences, in return for cash contributions to build a shrine.
There are four general grants of indulgence, which are meant to encourage the faithful to infuse a Christian spirit into the actions of their daily lives and to strive for perfection of charity. These indulgences are partial, and their worth therefore depends on the fervour with which the person performs the recommended actions:
- Raising the mind to God with humble trust while performing one's duties and bearing life's difficulties, and adding, at least mentally, some pious invocation.
- Devoting oneself or one's goods compassionately in a spirit of faith to the service of one's brothers and sisters in need.
- Freely abstaining in a spirit of penance from something licit and pleasant.
- Freely giving open witness to one's faith before others in particular circumstances of everyday life.
Apostolic Benediction and Plenary Indulgence Parchment
Among the particular grants, which, on closer inspection, will be seen to be included in one or more of the four general grants, especially the first, the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum draws special attention to four activities for which a plenary indulgence can be gained on any day, though only once a day:
- Piously reading or listening to Sacred Scripture for at least half an hour.
- Adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist for at least half an hour.
- The pious exercise of the Stations of the Cross.
- Recitation of the Rosary or the Akathist in a church or oratory, or in a family, a religious community, an association of the faithful and, in general, when several people come together for an honourable purpose.
A plenary indulgence may also be gained on some occasions, which are not everyday occurrences. They include but are not limited to:
- Receiving, even by radio or television, the blessing given by the Pope Urbi et Orbi (to the city of Rome and to the world) or that which a bishop is authorized to give three times a year to the faithful of his diocese.
- Taking part devoutly in the celebration of a day devoted on a world level to a particular religious purpose. Under this heading come the annual celebrations such as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and occasional celebrations such as World Youth Day.
- Taking part for at least three full days in a spiritual retreat.
- Taking part in some functions during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Special indulgences are also granted on occasions of particular spiritual significance such as a jubilee year or the centenary or similar anniversary of an event such as the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The prayers specifically mentioned in the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum are not of the Latin Church tradition alone, but also from the traditions of the Eastern Catholic Churches, such as the Akathistos, Paraklesis, Evening Prayer, and Prayer for the Faithful Departed (Byzantine), Prayer of Thanksgiving (Armenian), Prayer of the Shrine and the Lakhu Mara (Chaldean), Prayer of Incense and Prayer to Glorify Mary the Mother of God (Coptic), Prayer for the Remission of Sins and Prayer to Follow Christ (Ethiopian), Prayer for the Church, and Prayer of Leave-taking from the Altar (Maronite), and Intercessions for the Faithful Departed (Syrian).
Of particular significance is the plenary indulgence attached to the Apostolic Blessing that a priest is to impart when giving the sacraments to a person in danger of death, and which, if no priest is available, the Church grants to any rightly disposed Christian at the moment of death, on condition that that person was accustomed to say some prayers during life. 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.