1471 The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.
What is an indulgence?
"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." (Pope St. Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Norm 1)
"An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." (Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Norm 2; cf. Norm 3) The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead. (Code of Canon Law, canon 994. 84Cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1712-1713; (1563): 1820)
2 Corinthians 2:6-11 St. Paul himself issued an indulgence by
lessening the temporal penance for sin of a straying brother.
Every sin, even venial sin, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures. Souls must be purified either here on earth or after death: on their way to total purification in Heaven in Purgatory — that state of final purification.
An indulgence alleviates the pain of that process by a special grace, namely the fervent love and merit of the Saints. It is given as a gift to the soul to ease that purification.
It is like when you pray for someone going through a rough spot. You want them to have less suffering. The authority to regulate that distribution of grace, in some sense, was given to the Church when Jesus made it authoritative (see Matthew 18) in the power of binding and loosing.
There is no Biblical explanation of Indulgences, per se, nor anything beyond the analogical.
There also was great controversy around the sale of indulgences which helped give rise to the Reformation. Ultimately, it is largely connected to penance, and the soul in humble disposition with a desire for full union with God.
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All the main ideas upon which an indulgence is based are found in the Bible: the
Church's power to bind and loose, vicarious atonement among members of the Church,
and penance. Although the doctrine has developed, like all others, it is not unbiblical.
The scandal of selling indulgences is thought to be the precipitating
cause of the Protestant Revolt. The Catholic Church forbade the sale of indulgences
at the Council of Trent (abuses of the practice were previously condemned in Council
in 1215, 1245, 1274 and 1312). But Martin Luther went beyond a critique of the
abuse of indulgences, and declared the entire practice null and void and contrary
to the Bible. This is not correct:
Many saints suffer more than enough to satisfy God's justice. Jesus Christ (and
Mary in Catholic theology) didn't have any sin and yet suffered greatly. The Catholic
Church gives credit for this suffering to persons who have repented. Thus it indulges these
persons, not in their sin, but in taking away punishment for the sins. This act
is called an indulgence. The Catholic Church will not do away with this beautiful
concept and practice (rightly understood) because of the occasional criminal misuse
of it in the past. The doctrine of indulgences is closely connected with the Communion
of Saints. The transfer of merit through an indulgence is a profound act of "community" and
a taking seriously of the communal and unified nature of the Mystical Body of Christ.
In a papal decree given in 1968 by Pope Paul VI, it was made abundantly clear that
the pious disposition of the seeker of an indulgence was of paramount importance.
In other words, an indulgence was not a piece of magic which existed apart from
the spiritual state of its user. It is inconsistent for Protestants to find fault
with the Catholic Church for mitigating the austerities of penance in granting
an indulgence since their own fundamental principle is the notion of faith alone
without good works (as pertaining to the nature of salvation). Thus, indulgences
are merely a limited application of a concept which Protestantism raises to universality.
As a final note, if you or any faithful Catholic reading this has a devotion to praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, check out my other site and free Purgatory Prayer Program you can get at: