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In Roman Catholic theology, an indulgence is the remission of the temporal punishment due to God for sin.

An indulgence granted by authority of the  by  in .  The text reads: "By the authority of all the saints, and in mercy towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds and remit all punishments for ten days."
An indulgence granted by authority of the Pope by Johann Tetzel in 1517. The text reads: "By the authority of all the saints, and in mercy towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds and remit all punishments for ten days."



Personal sins, as opposed to original sin, are either mortal or venial.

  • Mortal sins are sins of grave (serious) matter, where the sinner is aware that the act (or omission) is both a sin and a grave matter, and performs the act (or omission) with deliberate consent. The act of committing a mortal sin cuts off the sinner from God’s grace; it is in itself a rejection of God. If left un-reconciled, mortal sins result in eternal punishment in Hell.
  • Venial sins are sins which do not meet the conditions for mortal sins. The sin may be one that is not a grave matter, or if a grave matter, the individual does not realize that the act is a sin or grave matter, or does not deliberately consent to the sin. The act of committing a venial sin does not cut off the sinner from God’s grace, as the sinner has not rejected God. However, venial sins do injure the relationship between the sinner and God, and as such, must be reconciled to God, either through the sacrament of reconciliation or receiving the Eucharist.

Both mortal and venial sins have a dual nature of punishment. They incur both guilt for the sin, yielding eternal punishment, and temporal punishment for the sin. Reconciliation is an act of God’s mercy, and addresses the guilt and eternal punishment for sin. Purgatory and indulgences address the temporal punishment for sin, and exercise of God’s justice.


Indulgences are only granted by the Church after the individual earning the indulgence receives the sacrament of reconciliation (penance) or experiences perfect contrition. Because the sacrament of reconciliation removes the guilt of sin, and by association, the eternal punishment of damnation resulting from un-reconciled mortal sins, the penitent is restored by reconciliation to the state of grace. However, while the individual’s guilt is removed by reconciliation, the sin is not completely erased; the individual still must be punished for the sin. God has mercy upon sinners who repent of their sins, but like a good parent, His justice still requires that the sinner be punished for the wrongdoing. This punishment is called temporal punishment, both because it is a punishment of time, as opposed to eternal punishment, and because it relates to the temporary world (Earth or Purgatory), rather than to the “final destination” (Heaven or Hell).

Temporal Punishment in Purgatory

Some individuals experience trials and tribulations in this world which serve as their temporal punishment for forgiven sins (Catechism 1473); other individuals die without having served the temporal punishment for their sins. These individuals do not have guilt for sin, because it has been forgiven either through reconciliation or perfect contrition before death, and therefore they will attain Heaven. However, they are not yet ready to enter Heaven, as their punishment has yet to be served. Therefore, these individuals “enter” Purgatory (although Purgatory is a state of the soul and not an actual “place"), and the punishment they owe is "purged." The Church teaches that the souls in Purgatory desire to be there, because they have realized that they are not yet ready to attain Heaven. Purgatory may be illustrated as a place of preparation for the deceased; they know they will enter Heaven, and Purgatory is a place to cleanse themselves for God.


In general, certain acts result in gaining favor with God, called merit. (Catechism, 2008) These acts do not gain the individual forgiveness for their sin; forgiveness result from God’s grace, freely given through Christ, which cannot be earned. After the sins are forgiven, the individuals meritorious acts remove the penalty due for sin.

The nature of an “act of merit” is difficult to nail down. While the merits of the faithful are important in remitting the temporal punishment owed to God for that individual’s sins, they are also play a role in remitting temporal punishment for other’s sins (Catechism 1477). Merit is “stored” as it were, in the “treasury of the Church” (Catechism 1476).

However, the Church’s treasury is not a storehouse of "extra" merit, in which the good deeds of the faithful are collected and accounted by individual; while the “extra” merit of the faithful is in the treasury, it is first and foremost the infinite value of Christ’s merits before God (Catechism 1476).

The Church recognizes three forms of merit:

Because Christ is God, He is the source of infinite merit which can never be exhausted. Christ’s merit in an of itself is sufficient to remit all temporal punishment due for sin for every individual. In addition, the merit of the Virgin Mary and other saints exists in the treasury of the Church.

Under the Roman Catholic concept of merit, the infinite merit of Christ, and the merits of the various saints above and beyond what was needed to satisfy God and get them into Heaven has been granted by the Church, which can apply this surplus merit — sometimes called works of supererogation — against the deficits in merit suffered by penitent but believing sinners.

The Indulgence

In Roman Catholic theology, the salvation made possible by Jesus allows the faithful sinner eventual admittance to Heaven. Baptism forgives all of the baptized person's existing sins; any sin committed after baptism incurs a both guilt and penalty that must be addressed. These are the sins addressed in reconciliation. After reconciliation, the temporal punishment for sin remains. This punishment may be remitted in Purgatory, or by indulgence. The granting of an indulgence is the spiritual reassignment, as it were, of existing merit to an individual requiring that merit.

Indulgences occur when the Church, acting by virtue of its authority, applies existing merit from the Church’s treasury to an individual. The individual “earns” the indulgence by participating in certain activities, most often the recitation of prayers. By decree of Pope Pius V in 1567, following the Council of Trent, it is forbidden to attach the receipt of an indulgence to any financial act, including the giving of alms. In addition, the only punishment remitted by an indulgence is existing punishment, that is, for sins already committed. Indulgences do not remit punishment for future sins, as those sins have yet to be committed. Thus, indulgences are not a “license to sin” or a “get-out-of-Hell-free” card; they are a means for the sinner to “pay” the “wages” of sin.

Indulgences are "plenary" or "partial”:

  • "plenary" indulgences remit all of the existing temporal punishment due for the individual’s sins. An individual can only earn one plenary indulgence per day.
  • "partial" indulgences remit only a part of the existing punishment.

Before the Second Vatican Council, partial indulgences were stated as a term of days, weeks, months, or years. This has resulted in Catholics and non-Catholics alike believing that indulgences remit a specific period of time equal to the length of the soul's stay in Purgatory. The stated length of time actually indicated that the indulgence was equal to the amount of remission the individual would have earned by performing a canonical penance for that period of time. For example, the amount of punishment remitted by a “forty day” indulgence would be equal to the amount of punishment remitted by the individual performing forty days of penance.

In addition to remitting punishment for the individual's own existing sins, an individual may perform the actions necessary to gain an indulgence with the intention of gaining the indulgence for a specific individual in Purgatory. In doing so, the individual both gains the indulgence for the soul in Purgatory, and performs a spiritual act of mercy.

To gain an indulgence the individual must be “in communion” with the Church, and have the intention of performing the work for which the indulgence is granted. To be “in communion,” the individual must be a baptized Catholic without any un-reconciled mortal sins (if there are any un-reconciled mortal sins, the individual has cut himself/herself off from God and cannot receive the indulgence) and must not be dissenting from the Church’s teaching. Most importantly, the individual must intend to receive the indulgence.

Generally, a plenary indulgence requires the following conditions in order to be valid (in addition to the acts performed to earn the indulgence).

  • reconciliation, which is required for all indulgences
  • receiving the Eucharist
  • complete renunciation of all attachment to sin, including venial sin.
  • pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. An Our Father and a Hail Mary said for the intentions of the Pontiff is sufficient, although you are free to substitute other prayers of your own choice.

It is recommended that the Communion be on received at Mass on the same day that the indulgence is earned. Reconciliation may be within a prudent period before or after the act (typically, one week, though during the Great Jubilee, the Vatican specifically allowed confession within three weeks of the act). Several indulgences may be earned under the same confession (reconciliation). If any of these additional acts is missing, the plenary indulgence will instead be partial.

“Indulgent” Acts

The following acts result in the award of an indulgence:

  • An act of spiritual communion, expressed in any devout formula whatsoever, is endowed with a partial indulgence.
  • A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly spend time in mental prayer.
  • A plenary indulgence is granted when the rosary is recited in a church or oratory or when it is recited in a family, a religious community, or a pious association. A partial indulgence is granted for its recitation in all other circumstances.
  • A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read sacred Scripture with the veneration due God’s word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is done for at least one-half hour [provided the other conditions are met].
  • A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who devoutly sign themselves with the cross while saying the customary formula: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
  • A partial indulgence is granted for the recitation of the Angelus.


The doctrine of indulgences has historically been one of the more controversial teachings in Roman Catholic soteriology. The ability to offer a full pardon of the punishment due for sins was abused by some unscrupulous members of the Church’s hierarchy for monetary gain (a problem during the time of Martin Luther), particularly to raise money for the building or renovation of churches. Additionally, indulgences were utilized to motivate the faithful to perform non-spiritual acts. For example, a plenary indulgence was proclaimed by Pope Urban II in 1095, and by several of his successors, to anyone who went on the Crusades to re-claim the Holy Land from the Saracens, or who died along the way.

In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, a situation that took on the appearance of "selling indulgences." The aggressive marketing practices of Johann Tetzel in promoting this cause provoked Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, protesting what he saw as the purchase and sale of salvation. From this controversy the Protestant Reformation was launched.

The indulgence pictured at the top of this page, granted by authority of the Pope by Johann Tetzel in 1517 reads: "By the authority of all the saints, and in mercy towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds and remit all punishments for ten days." This description is confusing, particularly in the wording "I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds;" authentic indulgences do not offer forgiveness or absolution, rather, they remit the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven. Further, under the current practice, lengths of time are not specified on indulgences.

Other Christian Traditions

Because the underlying doctrine of salvation differs from the Roman Catholic model, indulgences do not exist in Eastern Orthodoxy or in Protestantism. Those traditions which reject a Catholic concept of Purgatory (or alternatively, a “condition of waiting”) also reject indulgences, as there is no need for remission of temporal punishment where no temporal punishment exists.

Many Christian traditions, particularly those which reject the sacramental confession of sins in favor of personal contrition to God, reject the existence of temporal punishment; instead, the individual confesses his or her sin to God through prayer, and is forgiven by God, erasing any existence of the sin. Because the sin no longer exists, there cannot be any punishment, eternal or temporal.

External links

fr:Indulgence hr:Indulgencija nl:Aflaat ja:贖宥状 pt:Indulgência fi:Anekauppa pl:Odpust sv:Avlatsbrev


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