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An indulgence, in Catholic theology, is the full or partial remission of temporal punishment[1] due for sins which have already been forgiven. The indulgence is granted by the church after the sinner has confessed and received absolution.[2] The belief is that indulgences draw on the Treasure House of Merit accumulated by Jesus' sacrifice and the virtues and penances of the saints.[3] They are granted for specific good works and prayers.[3]

Indulgences replaced the severe penances of the early Church.[3] More exactly, they replaced the shortening of those penances that was allowed at the intercession of those imprisoned and those awaiting martyrdom for the faith.[4]

Abuses in granting indulgences[3] were a major point of contention when Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation (1517).


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According to the teachings outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,[5] two distinct consequences follow when a person sins. A mortal sin (one that is grave and is committed knowingly and freely) is equivalent to refusing friendship of God and communion with the only source of eternal life. The loss of eternal life that this rejection entails is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. In addition, every sin, even those that, not being mortal, are called venial sins, cause a turning from God through what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called purgatory. The resulting need to break this attachment to creatures is another punishment for sin, referred to as "temporal punishment", because, not being a total rejection of God, it is not eternal and can be overcome in time. Even when the sin is forgiven, the associated attachment to creatures may remain. The sinner must "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'."[6]

The Catholic doctrine of the Communion of Saints teaches that this work of cleansing or sanctification does not have to be done entirely by the person directly concerned, since all Christians, living and dead, are united as a single body that has Christ as head. The holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus through the communion of saints, recourse not only to the merits of the saints in heaven but above all to those of Christ himself lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.[7]

In view of the Church's interpretation of the power of binding or loosing granted by Christ, the Church considers that it may administer to those under its jurisdiction the benefits of these merits in consideration of prayer or other pious works undertaken by the faithful.[4] This the Church does for individual Christians, not simply to aid them, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity.[8]

There is a common misconception that, according to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, indulgences forgive sins: the Catholic Church teaches instead that indulgences only relieve the temporal punishment due because of the sins, and that a person is still required to have his grave sins absolved, ordinarily through the sacrament of Confession, to receive salvation.

Since those who have died are also members of the communion of saints, it is the belief of the Catholic Church that the living can help those whose purification from their sins is not yet completed not only by prayer but also by obtaining indulgences for them.[9] Since the Church on earth has no jurisdiction over the dead, indulgences can be gained for them only per modum suffragii, i.e. by an act of intercession.[4]

An indulgence may be plenary or partial, according as it remits all or only part of the temporal punishment that at that moment is due for sin.[10] To gain a plenary indulgence, a person must exclude all attachment to sin of any kind, even venial sin, must perform the work or say the prayer for which the indulgence is granted, and must also fulfil the three conditions of sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and praying for the intentions of the Pope.[11] 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 of the same worth as is obtained by the person's own action, similar to matching funds.[12]

In response to suggestions made at the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI substantially revised the practical application of the traditional doctrine, making 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; it was for this purpose that he decreed that partial indulgences simply supplement, and to the same degree, the remission that the person performing the indulgenced action has already gained by the charity and contrition with which he does it.[4] Previously, partial indulgences were granted as the equivalent of a certain number of days, months, "quarantines"[13] (Lent-like forty-day periods) or years of canonical penance. Those who did not understand these terms sometimes misinterpreted them as meaning a reduction of that length of stay in Purgatory.

The abolition of this 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. Pope Paul VI wrote: "Indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God".[14]


Actions for which indulgences are granted

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:

  1. Raising the mind to God with humble trust when performing one's duties and bearing life's difficulty, and adding, at least mentally, some pious invocation.
  2. Devoting oneself or one's goods compassionately in a spirit of faith to the service of one's brothers and sisters in need.
  3. Freely abstaining in a spirit of penance from something licit and pleasant.
  4. Freely giving open witness to one's faith before others in particular circumstances of everyday life.[15]

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[16] draws special attention[17] to four activities for which a plenary indulgence can be gained on any day, though only once a day:

  1. Piously reading or listening to Sacred Scripture for at least half an hour.[18]
  2. Adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist for at least half an hour.[19]
  3. The pious exercise of the Stations of the Cross .[20]
  4. 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.[21]

A plenary indulgence may also be gained on some occasions, which are not everyday occurrences. They include:

  • 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.[22]
  • Taking part devoutly in the celebration of a day devoted on a world level to a particular religious purpose.[23] Under this heading come the annual celebrations such as the World Day of Prayer for Priestly and Religious Vocations, and occasional celebrations such as World Youth Day.[24][25]
  • Taking part for at least three full days in a spiritual retreat.[26]
  • Taking part in some functions during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity including its conclusion.[27]

The prayers specifically mentioned in the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum are not of the Latin Rite 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).

Apart from the recurrences listed in the Enchiridion, special indulgences are granted on occasions of special spiritual significance such as a Jubilee Year[28] or the centenary or similar anniversary of an event such as the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes[29] or the celebration of a World Youth Day.

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.[30]

History of indulgences

Early and medieval beliefs

In the early church, especially from the third century on, ecclesiastic authorities allowed a confessor or a Christian awaiting martyrdom to intercede for another Christian in order to shorten the other's canonical penance.[4]

The sixth-century Council of Epaon witnesses to the rise of the practice of replacing severe canonical penances with something new and milder. It became customary to commute penances to less demanding works, such as prayers, alms, fasts and even the payment of fixed sums of money depending on the various kinds of offences (tariff penances). By the tenth century some penances were not replaced but merely reduced in connection with pious donations, pilgrimages and similar meritorious works. Then, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the recognition of the value of these works began to become associated not so much with canonical penance but with remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.[31]

The earliest record of a plenary indulgence was Pope Urban II's declaration at the Council of Clermont (1095) that he remitted all penance incurred by crusaders who confessed their sins, considering participation in the crusade equivalent to a complete penance.[31][32]

Theologians looked to God's mercy, the value of the Church's prayers, and the merits of the saints as the basis on which indulgences could be granted. Around 1230 the Dominican Hugh of St-Cher proposed the idea of a "treasury" at the Church's disposal, consisting of the infinite merits of Christ and the immeasurable abundance of the saints' merits, a thesis that was demonstrated by great scholastics such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas and remains the basis for the theological explanation of indulgences.[31]

The sale of indulgences shown in A Question to a Mintmaker, woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg, circa 1530.


"Pardoner" redirects here. For the character in The Canterbury Tales see "The Pardoner's Tale"

Because of the great demand from associations that their favourite prayers, devotions, places of worship or pilgrimage, their processions and meetings, be enriched with indulgences, there was a tendency to forge documents declaring that such indulgences, sometimes of extraordinary character, had been granted. Indulgences were attached to many works that were not only good but also served the common good, both religious and civil: churches, hospitals, leprosaria, charitable institutions and schools, and also roads and bridges.[31]

The later Middle Ages saw the growth of considerable abuses, such as the unrestricted sale of indulgences by professional "pardoners"[4] (quaestores in Latin), who were sent to collect contributions to the project. In many cases the preaching of these, out of ignorance or shrewdness, went far beyond dogmatic teachings; some of them even dared to promise that the damned would be released from hell. Permission began to be granted to Catholic kings and princes, particularly on the occasion of Crusades, to retain for themselves a rather considerable part of the alms collected for the gaining of indulgences. The most well-known and debated question is the indulgence granted for building the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.[31]

Engraving by Israhel van Meckenem of the Mass of Saint Gregory, 1490s, with, at the bottom, an unauthorized indulgence of 20,000 years each time specified prayers were said in the presence of the print.[33]

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) suppressed some abuses connected with indulgences, spelling out, for example, that only a one-year indulgence would be granted for the consecration of churches and no more than a 40-days indulgence for other occasions. The Council also stated that "Catholics who have girded themselves with the cross for the extermination of the heretics, shall enjoy the indulgences and privileges granted to those who go in defense of the Holy Land."[34]

But very soon these limits were widely exceeded. False documents were circulated with indulgences surpassing all bounds: indulgences of hundreds or even thousands of years.[31] In 1392, more than a century before Martin Luther published the 95 Theses, Pope Boniface IX wrote to the Bishop of Ferrara condemning the practice of certain members of religious orders who falsely claimed that they were authorized by the pope to forgive all sorts of sins, and exacted money from the simple-minded among the faithful by promising them perpetual happiness in this world and eternal glory in the next.[35]

An engraving by Israhel van Meckenem of the Mass of Saint Gregory (not the one illustrated, but also from the 1490s) began with a "bootlegged" indulgence of 20,000 years, but in a later state the plate has been altered to increase it to 45,000 years. The indulgences applied each time a specified collection of prayers, in this case seven each of the Creed, Our Father and Hail Mary, were recited in front of the image.[36] The image of the Mass of Saint Gregory had been especially associated with large indulgences since the Jubilee Year of 1350 in Rome, when it was at least widely believed that an indulgence of 14,000 had been granted in connection with the Imago Pietatis, thought to be a contemporary depiction of the miracle, then in the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

Protestant Reformation

The Pope as the Antichrist, signing and selling indulgences, from Luther's 1521 Passional Christi und Antichristi, by Lucas Cranach the Elder[37]

The false doctrine and scandalous conduct of the "pardoners" were an immediate occasion of the Protestant Reformation.[4] In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The aggressive marketing practices of Johann Tetzel in promoting this cause provoked Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses, protesting against what he saw as the purchase and sale of salvation. In Thesis 28 Luther objected to a saying attributed to Tetzel: "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs".[38] The Ninety-Five Theses not only denounced such transactions as worldly but denied the Pope's right to grant pardons on God's behalf in the first place: the only thing indulgences guaranteed, Luther said, was an increase in profit and greed, because the pardon of the Church was in God's power alone.[39]

While Luther did not deny the Pope’s right to grant pardons for penance imposed by the Church, he made it clear that preachers who claimed indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error.[40]

Council of Trent

On 16 July 1562, the Council of Trent suppressed the office of quaestores and reserved the collection of alms to two canon members of the chapter, who were to receive no remuneration for their work; it also reserved the publication of indulgences to the bishop of the diocese.[41] Then on 4 December 1563, in its final session, it addressed the question of indulgences directly, declaring them "most salutary for the Christian people", decreeing that " that all evil gains for the obtaining of them be wholly abolished", and instructing bishops to be on the watch for any abuses concerning them.[42]

A few years later, in 1567, Pope Pius V cancelled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions.[43][44] After the Council of Trent, Clement VIII established a commission of Cardinals to deal with indulgences according to the mind of the Council. It continued its work during the pontificate of Paul V and published various bulls and decrees on the matter. But only Clement IX established a true Congregation of Indulgences (and Relics) with a Brief of 6 July 1669. In a Motu Proprio of 28 January 1904, Pius X joined the Congregation of Indulgences with that of Rites, but with the restructuring of the Roman Curia in 1908 all matters regarding indulgences was assigned to the Holy Office. In a Motu Proprio of 25 March 1915, Benedict XV transferred the Holy Office's Section for Indulgences to the Apostolic Penitentiary, but maintained the Holy Office's responsibility for matters regarding the doctrine of indulgences.

Eastern Orthodox Church

An 18th-century absolution certificate granted by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and sold by Greek monks in Wallachia (History Museum, Bucharest)

The Eastern Orthodox Churches believe one can be absolved from sins by the Sacred Mystery of Confession, which in the East is preceded by a period of fasting. Because of differences in the underlying doctrine of salvation, indulgences for the remission of temporal punishment of sin do not exist in Eastern Orthodoxy, but until the twentieth century there existed in some places a practice of absolution certificates (συγχωροχάρτια - synchorochartia).

While some of these certificates were connected with any patriarch's decrees lifting for the living or the dead some serious ecclesiastical penalty, including excommunication, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, with the approval of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, had the sole privilege, because of the expense of maintaining the Holy Places and paying the many taxes levied on them, of distributing such documents in large numbers to pilgrims or sending them elsewhere, sometimes with a blank space for the name of the beneficiary, living or dead, an individual or a whole family, for whom the prayers would be read.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Dositheos Notaras (1641-1707) wrote: "It is an established custom and ancient tradition, known to all, that the Most Holy Patriarchs give the absolution certificate (συγχωροχάρτιον - synchorochartion) to the faithful people … they have granted them from the beginning and still do."[45]

A Russian Orthodox source says that these certificates were in use among Greek Orthodox until the middle of the twentieth century, and were "certificates which absolved from sins, which anyone could obtain, often for a specified sum of money. The absolution granted by these papers, according to Christos Yannaras, had no connection with any participation of the faithful in the Mystery of Penance, nor in the Mystery of the Eucharist". The same source interprets the Western indulgence also as absolution from sin, not as remission of temporal punishment.[46]


  1. ^ The difference between temporal and eternal punishment for sin, according to this theology, is explained below, under "Catholic teaching".
  2. ^ Code of Canon Law, (Cann. 992-997) Indulgences; Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, 4th ed., 1999.
  3. ^ a b c d Wetterau, Bruce. World history. New York: Henry Holt and company. 1994.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005, article indulgences
  5. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 1472
  6. ^ CCC, 1473
  7. ^ CCC, 1474-1477
  8. ^ CCC, 1478
  9. ^ CCC, 1479
  10. ^ Normae de Indulgentiis, 2
  11. ^ Normae de Indulgentiis, 20
  12. ^ Normae de Indulgentiis, 4
  13. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Quarantines
  14. ^ Indulgentarium Doctrina, 11
  15. ^ Normae de Indulgentiis, Quattuor Concessiones Generaliores
  16. ^ Enchiridion Indulgentiarum
  17. ^ Aliae concessiones, Proœmium, 7
  18. ^ Concessiones 30
  19. ^ Concessiones 7 §1, 1º
  20. ^ Concessiones 13, 2º
  21. ^ Concessiones 17 §1, 1º and 23 §1
  22. ^ Concessiones 4
  23. ^ Concessiones 5
  24. ^ World Youth Day Archives
  25. ^ Australian Catholic WYD 2008
  26. ^ Concessiones 10
  27. ^ Concessiones 11
  28. ^ The Great Jubilee Indulgence
  29. ^ Grant of indulgence on the occasion of the 150th apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes
  30. ^ Concessiones 12
  31. ^ a b c d e f Enrico dal Covolo: The Historical Origin of Indulgences
  32. ^ Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005, article plenary indulgence
  33. ^ Shestack, 214
  34. ^ name=
  35. ^  W.H. Kent (1913). "Indulgences". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  36. ^ Parshall, 58 (quoted), and Shestack, 214 (illustrated in both).
  37. ^ A Brief History of Political Cartoons
  38. ^ Bainton, 60; Brecht, 1:182; Kittelson, 104.
  39. ^ Certum est, nummo in cistam tinniente augeri questum et avariciam posse: suffragium autem ecclesie est in arbitrio dei solius (Thesis 28).
  40. ^ Errant itaque indulgentiarum predicatores ii, qui dicunt per pape indulgentias hominem ab omni pena solvi et salvari (Thesis 21).
  41. ^ Session 21, chapter 9
  42. ^ Session 25, Decree on Indulgences
  43. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: article Indulgences
  44. ^ "Myths About Indulgences." Catholic Answers. Retrieved 16 Apr. 2008 "".
  45. ^ Δοσίθεος Νοταρᾶς, Ἱστορία περὶ τῶν ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις πατριαρχευσάντων, Bucharest 1715, p. 88
  46. ^ Indulgences in the History of the Greek Church. Retrieved 11 April 2008.


  • Parshall, Peter, in David Landau & Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print, Yale, 1996, ISBN 0300068832
  • Shestack, Alan; Fifteenth century Engravings of Northern Europe; 1967, National Gallery of Art, Washington (Catalogue), LOC 67-29080

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The word indulgence (Lat. indulgentia, from indulgeo, to be kind or tender) originally meant kindness or favor; in post-classic Latin it came to mean the remission of a tax or debt. In Roman law and in the Vulgate of the Old Testament (Is., lxi, 1) it was used to express release from captivity or punishment. In theological language also the word is sometimes employed in its primary sense to signify the kindness and mercy of God. But in the special sense in which it is here considered, an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. Among the equivalent terms used in antiquity were pax, remissio, donatio, condonatio.



To facilitate explanation, it may be well to state what an indulgence is not. It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power. It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven. It is not an exemption from any law or duty, and much less from the obligation consequent on certain kinds of sin, e.g., restitution; on the contrary, it means a more complete payment of the debt which the sinner owes to God. It does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of subsequent lapses into sin. Least of all is an indulgence the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer's salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory. The absurdity of such notions must be obvious to any one who forms a correct idea of what the Catholic Church really teaches on this subject.


An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive. Regarding this definition, the following points are to be noted:

  • In the Sacrament of Baptism not only is the guilt of sin remitted, but also all the penalties attached to sin. In the Sacrament of Penance the guilt of sin is removed, and with it the eternal punishment due to mortal sin; but there still remains the temporal punishment required by Divine justice, and this requirement must be fulfilled either in the present life or in the world to come, i.e., in Purgatory. An indulgence offers the penitent sinner the means of discharging this debt during his life on earth.
  • Some writs of indulgence--none of them, however, issued by any pope or council (Pesch, Tr. Dogm., VII, 196, no. 464)--contain the expression, "indulgentia a culpa et a poena", i.e. release from guilt and from punishment; and this has occasioned considerable misunderstanding (cf. Lea, "History" etc. III, 54 sqq.). The real meaning of the formula is that, indulgences presupposing the Sacrament of Penance, the penitent, after receiving sacramental absolution from the guilt of sin, is afterwards freed from the temporal penalty by the indulgence (Bellarmine, "De Indulg"., I, 7). In other words, sin is fully pardoned, i.e. its effects entirely obliterated, only when complete reparation, and consequently release from penalty as well as from guilt, has been made. Hence Clement V (1305-1314) condemned the practice of those purveyors of indulgences who pretended to absolve" a culpa et a poena" (Clement, I. v, tit. 9, c. ii); the Council of Constance (1418) revoked (Sess. XLII, n. 14) all indulgences containing the said formula; Benedict XIV (1740-1758) treats them as spurious indulgences granted in this form, which he ascribes to the illicit practices of the "quaestores" or purveyors (De Syn. dioeces., VIII, viii. 7).
  • The satisfaction, usually called the "penance", imposed by the confessor when he gives absolution is an integral part of the Sacrament of Penance; an indulgence is extra-sacramental; it presupposes the effects obtained by confession, contrition, and sacramental satisfaction. It differs also from the penitential works undertaken of his own accord by the repentant sinner -- prayer, fasting, alms-giving -- in that these are personal and get their value from the merit of him who performs them, whereas an indulgence places at the penitent's disposal the merits of Christ and of the saints, which form the "Treasury" of the Church.
  • An indulgence is valid both in the tribunal of the Church and in the tribunal of God. This means that it not only releases the penitent from his indebtedness to the Church or from the obligation of performing canonical penance, but also from the temporal punishment which he has incurred in the sight of God and which, without the indulgence, he would have to undergo in order to satisfy Divine justice. This, however, does not imply that the Church pretends to set aside the claim of God's justice or that she allows the sinner to repudiate his debt. As St. Thomas says (Suppl., xxv. a. 1 ad 2um), "He who gains indulgences is not thereby released outright from what he owes as penalty, but is provided with the means of paying it." The Church therefore neither leaves the penitent helplessly in debt nor acquits him of all further accounting; she enables him to meet his obligations.
  • In granting an indulgence, the grantor (pope or bishop) does not offer his personal merits in lieu of what God demands from the sinner. He acts in his official capacity as having jurisdiction in the Church, from whose spiritual treasury he draws the means wherewith payment is to be made. The Church herself is not the absolute owner, but simply the administratrix, of the superabundant merits which that treasury contains. In applying them, she keeps in view both the design of God's mercy and the demands of God's justice. She therefore determines the amount of each concession, as well as the conditions which the penitent must fulfill if he would gain the indulgence.


An indulgence that may be gained in any part of the world is universal, while one that can be gained only in a specified place (Rome, Jerusalem, etc.) is local. A further distinction is that between perpetual indulgences,which may be gained at any time, and temporary,which are available on certain days only, or within certain periods. Real indulgences are attached to the use of certain objects (crucifix, rosary, medal); personal are those which do not require the use of any such material thing, or which are granted only to a certain class of individuals, e.g. members of an order or confraternity. The most important distinction, however, is that between plenary indulgences and partial. By a plenary indulgence is meant the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is required in Purgatory. A partial indulgence commutes only a certain portion of the penalty; and this portion is determined in accordance with the penitential discipline of the early Church. To say that an indulgence of so many days or years is granted means that it cancels an amount of purgatorial punishment equivalent to that which would have been remitted, in the sight of God, by the performance of so many days or years of the ancient canonical penance. Here, evidently, the reckoning makes no claim to absolute exactness; it has only a relative value.

God alone knows what penalty remains to be paid and what its precise amount is in severity and duration. Finally, some indulgences are granted in behalf of the living only, while others may be applied in behalf of the souls departed. It should be noted, however, that the application has not the same significance in both cases. The Church in granting an indulgence to the living exercises her jurisdiction; over the dead she has no jurisdiction and therefore makes the indulgence available for them by way of suffrage (per modum suffragii), i.e. she petitions God to accept these works of satisfaction and in consideration thereof to mitigate or shorten the sufferings of the souls in Purgatory.


The distribution of the merits contained in the treasury of the Church is an exercise of authority (potestas iurisdictionis), not of the power conferred by Holy orders (potestas ordinis). Hence the pope, as supreme head of the Church on earth, can grant all kinds of indulgences to any and all of the faithful; and he alone can grant plenary indulgences. The power of the bishop, previously unrestricted, was limited by Innocent III (1215) to the granting of one year's indulgence at the dedication of a church and of forty days on other occasions. Leo XIII (Rescript of 4 July. 1899) authorized the archbishops of South America to grant eighty days (Acta S. Sedis, XXXI, 758). Pius X (28 August, 1903) allowed cardinals in their titular churches and dioceses to grant 200 days; archbishops, 100; bishops, 50. These indulgences are not applicable to the souls departed. They can be gained by persons not belonging to the diocese, but temporarily within its limits; and by the subjects of the granting bishop, whether these are within the diocese or outside--except when the indulgence is local. Priests, vicars general, abbots, and generals of religious orders cannot grant indulgences unless specially authorized to do so. On the other hand, the pope can empower a cleric who is not a priest to give an indulgence (St. Thomas, "Quodlib.", II, q. viii, a. 16).

== DISPOSITIONS NECESSARY TO GAIN AN INDULGENCE == <ustp>The mere fact that the Church proclaims an indulgence does not imply that it can be gained without effort on the part of the faithful. From what has been said above, it is clear that the recipient must be free from the guilt of mortal sin. Furthermore, for plenary indulgences, confession and Communion are usually required, while for partial indulgences, though confession is not obligatory, the formula corde saltem contrito, i.e. "at least with a contrite heart ", is the customary prescription. Regarding the question discussed by theologians whether a person in mortal sin can gain an indulgence for the dead, see PURGATORY. It is also necessary to have the intention, at least habitual, of gaining the indulgence. Finally, from the nature of the case, it is obvious that one must perform the good works -- prayers, alms deeds, visits to a church, etc. -- which are prescribed in the granting of an indulgence. For details see "Raccolta".


The Council of Constance condemned among the errors of Wyclif the proposition: "It is foolish to believe in the indulgences granted by the pope and the bishops" (Sess. VIII, 4 May, 1415; see Denzinger-Bannwart, "Enchiridion", 622). In the Bull "Exsurge Domine", 15 June, 1520, Leo X condemned Luther's assertions that "Indulgences are pious frauds of the faithful"; and that "Indulgences do not avail those who really gain them for the remission of the penalty due to actual sin in the sight of God's justice" (Enchiridion, 75S, 759), The Council of Trent (Sess, XXV, 3-4, Dec., 1563) declared: "Since the power of granting indulgences has been given to the Church by Christ, and since the Church from the earliest times has made use of this Divinely given power, the holy synod teaches and ordains that the use of indulgences, as most salutary to Christians and as approved by the authority of the councils, shall be retained in the Church; and it further pronounces anathema against those who either declare that indulgences are useless or deny that the Church has the power to grant them (Enchridion, 989). It is therefore of faith (de fide)

  • that the Church has received from Christ the power to grant indulgences, and
  • that the use of indulgences is salutary for the faithful,


An essential element in indulgences is the application to one person of the satisfaction performed by others. This transfer is based on three things: the Communion of Saints, the principle of vicarious satisfaction, and the Treasury of the Church.

(1) The Communion of Saints

"We being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Rom., xii, 5). As each organ shares in the life of the whole body, so does each of the faithful profit by the prayers and good works of all the rest-a benefit which accrues, in the first instance, to those who are in the state of grace, but also, though less fully, to the sinful members.

(2) The Principle of Vicarious Satisfaction

Each good action of the just man possesses a double value: that of merit and that of satisfaction, or expiation. Merit is personal, and therefore it cannot be transferred; but satisfaction can be applied to others, as St. Paul writes to the Colossians (i, 24) of his own works: "Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the Church," (See SATISFACTION.)

(3) The Treasury of the Church

Christ, as St. John declares in his First Epistle (ii, 2), "is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." Since the satisfaction of Christ is infinite, it constitutes an inexhaustible fund which is more than sufficient to cover the indebtedness contracted by sin, Besides, there are the satisfactory works of the Blessed Virgin Mary undiminished by any penalty due to sin, and the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints vastly exceeding any temporal punishment which these servants of God might have incurred. These are added to the treasury of the Church as a secondary deposit, not independent of, but rather acquired through, the merits of Christ. The development of this doctrine in explicit form was the work of the great Schoolmen, notably Alexander of Hales (Summa, IV, Q. xxiii, m. 3, n. 6), Albertus Magnus (In IV Sent., dist. xx, art. 16), and St. Thomas (In IV Sent., dist. xx, q. i, art. 3, sol. 1). As Aquinas declares (Quodlib., II, q. vii, art. 16): " All the saints intended that whatever they did or suffered for God's sake should be profitable not only to themselves but to the whole Church." And he further points out (Contra Gent., III, 158) that what one endures for another being a work of love, is more acceptable as satisfaction in God's sight than what one suffers on one's own account, since this is a matter of necessity. The existence of an infinite treasury of merits in the Church is dogmatically set forth in the Bull "Unigenitus", published by Clement VI, 27 Jan., 1343, and later inserted in the "Corpus Juris" (Extrav. Com., lib. V, tit. ix. c. ii): "Upon the altar of the Cross ", says the pope, "Christ shed of His blood not merely a drop, though this would have sufficed, by reason of the union with the Word, to redeem the whole human race, but a copious torrent. . . thereby laying up an infinite treasure for mankind. This treasure He neither wrapped up in a napkin nor hid in a field, but entrusted to Blessed Peter, the key-bearer, and his successors, that they might, for just and reasonable causes, distribute it to the faithful in full or in partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sin." Hence the condemnation by Leo X of Luther's assertion that "the treasures of the Church from which the pope grants indulgences are not the merits of Christ and the saints" (Enchiridion, 757). For the same reason, Pius VI (1794) branded as false, temerarious, and injurious to the merits of Christ and the saints, the error of the synod of Pistoia that the treasury of the Church was an invention of scholastic subtlety (Enchiridion, 1541).

According to Catholic doctrine, therefore, the source of indulgences is constituted by the merits of Christ and the saints. This treasury is left to the keeping, not of the individual Christian, but of the Church. Consequently, to make it available for the faithful, there is required an exercise of authority, which alone can determine in what way, on what terms, and to what extent, indulgences may be granted.


Once it is admitted that Christ left the Church the power to forgive sins (see PENANCE), the power of granting indulgences is logically inferred. Since the sacramental forgiveness of sin extends both to the guilt and to the eternal punishment, it plainly follows that the Church can also free the penitent from the lesser or temporal penalty. This becomes clearer, however, when we consider the amplitude of the power granted to Peter (Matt., xvi, 19): "I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shaft loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." (Cf. Matt., xviii, 18, where like power is conferred on all the Apostles.) No limit is placed upon this power of loosing, "the power of the keys ", as it is called; it must, therefore, extend to any and all bonds contracted by sin, including the penalty no less than the guilt. When the Church, therefore, by an indulgence, remits this penalty, her action, according to the declaration of Christ, is ratified in heaven. That this power, as the Council of Trent affirms, was exercised from the earliest times, is shown by St. Paul's words (II Cor., ii, 5-10) in which he deals with the case of the incestuous man of Corinth. The sinner had been excluded by St. Paul's order from the company of the faithful, but had truly repented. Hence the Apostle judges that to such a one "this rebuke is sufficient that is given by many" and adds: "To whom you have pardoned any thing, I also. For what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned any thing, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ." St. Paul had bound the guilty one in the fetters of excommunication; he now releases the penitent from this punishment by an exercise of his authority -- "in the person of Christ." Here we have all the essentials of an indulgence.

These essentials persist in the subsequent practice of the Church, though the accidental features vary according as new conditions arise. During the persecutions, those Christians who had fallen away but desired to be restored to the communion of the Church often obtained from the martyrs a memorial (libellus pacis) to be presented to the bishop, that he, in consideration of the martyrs' sufferings, might admit the penitents to absolution, thereby releasing them from the punishment they had incurred. Tertullian refers to this when he says (Ad martyres, c. i, P.L., I, 621): "Which peace some, not having it in the Church, are accustomed to beg from the martyrs in prison; and therefore you should possess and cherish and preserve it in you that so you perchance may be able to grant it to others." Additional light is thrown on this subject by the vigorous attack which the same Tertullian made after he had become a Montanist. In the first part of his treatise "De pudicitia", he attacks the pope for his alleged laxity in admitting adulterers to penance and pardon, and flouts the peremptory edict of the "pontifex maximus episcopus episcoporum ". At the close he complains that the same power of remission is now allowed also to the martyrs, and urges that it should be enough for them to purge their own sins -- sufficiat martyri propria delicta purgasse". And, again, "How can the oil of thy little lamp suffice both for thee and me?" (c. xxii). It is sufficient to note that many of his arguments would apply with as much and as little force to the indulgences of later ages.

During St. Cyprian's time (d. 258), the heretic Novatian claimed that none of the lapsi should be readmitted to the Church; others, like Felicissimus, held that such sinners should be received without any penance. Between these extremes, St. Cyprian holds the middle course, insisting that such penitents should be reconciled on the fulfillment of the proper conditions. On the one hand, he condemns the abuses connected with the libellus, in particular the custom of having it made out in blank by the martyrs and filled in by any one who needed it. "To this you should diligently attend ", he writes to the martyrs (Ep. xv), "that you designate by name those to whom you wish peace to be given." On the other hand, he recognizes the value of these memorials: "Those who have received a libellus from the martyrs and with their help can, before the Lord, get relief in their sins, let such, if they be ill and in danger, after confession and the imposition of your hands, depart unto the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs " (Ep. xiii, P.L., IV, 261). St. Cyprian, therefore, believed that the merits of the martyrs could be applied to less worthy Christians by way of vicarious satisfaction, and that such satisfaction was acceptable in the eyes of God as well as of the Church.

After the persecutions had ceased, the penitential discipline remained in force, but greater leniency was shown in applying it. St. Cyprian himself was reproached for mitigating the "Evangelical severity" on which he at first insisted; to this he replied (Ep. lii) that such strictness was needful during the time of persecution not only to stimulate the faithful in the performance of penance, but also to quicken them for the glory of martyrdom; when, on the contrary, peace was secured to the Church, relaxation was necessary in order to prevent sinners from falling into despair and leading the life of pagans. In 380 St. Gregory of Nyssa (Ep. ad Letojum) declares that the penance should be shortened in the case of those who showed sincerity and zeal in performing it -- "ut spatium canonibus praestitum posset contrahere (can. xviii; cf. can. ix, vi, viii, xi, xiii, xix). In the same spirit, St. Basil (379), after prescribing more lenient treatment for various crimes, lays down the general principle that in all such cases it is not merely the duration of the penance that must be considered, but the way in which it is performed (Ep. ad Amphilochium, c. lxxxiv). Similar leniency is shown by various Councils--Ancyra (314), Laodicea (320), Nicaea (325), Aries (330). It became quite common during this period to favor those who were ill, and especially those who were in danger of death (see Amort, "Historia ", 28 sq.). The ancient penitentials of Ireland and England, though exacting in regard to discipline, provide for relaxation in certain cases. St. Cummian, e.g., in his Penitential (seventh century), treating (cap. v) of the sin of robbery, prescribed that he who has often committed theft shall do penance for seven years or for such time as the priest may judge fit, must always be reconciled with him whom he has wronged, and make restitution proportioned to the injury, and thereby his penance shall be considerably shortened (multum breviabit poenitentiam ejus). But should he be unwilling or unable (to comply with these conditions), he must do penance for the whole time prescribed and in all its details. (Cf. Moran, "Essays on the Early Irish Church", Dublin, 1864, p. 259.)

Another practice which shows quite clearly the difference between sacramental absolution and the granting of indulgences was the solemn reconciliation of penitents. These, at the beginning of Lent, had received from the priest absolution from their sins and the penance enjoined by the canons; on Maundy Thursday they presented themselves before the bishop, who laid hands on them, reconciled them with the Church, and admitted them to communion. This reconciliation was reserved to the bishop, as is expressly declared in the Penitential of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury; though in case of necessity the bishop could delegate a priest for the purpose (lib. I, xiii). Since the bishop did not hear their confession, the "absolution" which he pronounced must have been a release from some penalty they had incurred. The effect, moreover, of this reconciliation was to restore the penitent to the state of baptismal innocence and consequently of freedom from all penalties, as appears from the so-called Apostolic Constitutions (lib, II, c. xli) where it is said: "Eritque in loco baptismi impositio manuum"--i.e. the imposition of hands has the same effect as baptism (cf. Palmieri, "De Poenitentia", Rome, 1879, 459 sq.).

In a later period (eighth century to twelfth) it became customary to permit the substitution of some lighter penance for that which the canons prescribed. Thus the Penitential of Egbert, Archbishop of York, declares (XIII, 11): "For him who can comply with what the penitential prescribes, well and good; for him who cannot, we give counsel of God's mercy. Instead of one day on bread and water let him sing fifty psalms on his knees or seventy psalms without genuflecting .... But if he does not know the psalms and cannot fast, let him, instead of one year on bread and water, give twenty-six solidi in alms, fast till None on one day of each week and till Vespers on another, and in the three Lents bestow in alms half of what he receives." The practice of substituting the recitation of psalms or the giving of alms for a portion of the fast is also sanctioned in the Irish Synod of 807, which says (c. xxiv) that the fast of the second day of the week may be "redeemed" by singing one psalter or by giving one denarius to a poor person. Here we have the beginning of the so-called "redemptions" which soon passed into general usage. Among other forms of commutation were pilgrimages to well-known shrines such as that at St. Albans in England or at Compostela in Spain. But the most important place of pilgrimage was Rome. According to Bede (674-735) the "visitatio liminum ", or visit to the tomb of the Apostles, was even then regarded as a good work of great efficacy (Hist. Eccl., IV, 23). At first the pilgrims came simply to venerate the relics of the Apostles and martyrs; but in course of time their chief purpose was to gain the indulgences granted by the pope and attached especially to the Stations. Jerusalem, too, had long been the goal of these pious journeys, and the reports which the pilgrims gave of their treatment by the infidels finally brought about the Crusades. At the Council of Clermont (1095) the First Crusade was organized, and it was decreed (can. ii): "Whoever, out of pure devotion and not for the purpose of gaining honor or money, shall go to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God, let that journey be counted in lieu of all penance". Similar indulgences were granted throughout the five centuries following (Amort, op. cit., 46 sq.), the object being to encourage these expeditions which involved so much hardship and yet were of such great importance for Christendom and civilization. The spirit in which these grants were made is expressed by St. Bernard, the preacher of the Second Crusade (1146): "Receive the sign of the Cross, and thou shalt likewise obtain the indulgence of all thou hast confessed with a contrite heart (ep. cccxxii; al., ccclxii).

Similar concessions were frequently made on occasions, such as the dedication of churches, e.g., that of the old Temple Church in London, which was consecrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 10 February, 1185, by the Lord Heraclius, who to those yearly visiting it indulged sixty days of the penance enjoined them -- as the inscription over the main entrance attests. The canonization of saints was often marked by the granting of an indulgence, e.g. in honor of St. Laurence 0'Toole by Honorius III (1226), in honor of St. Edmund of Canterbury by Innocent IV (1248), and in honor of St. Thomas of Hereford by John XXII (1320). A famous indulgence is that of the Portiuncula (q.v.), obtained by St. Francis in 1221 from Honorius III. But the most important largess during this period was the plenary indulgence granted in 1300 by Boniface VIII to those who, being truly contrite and having confessed their sins, should visit the basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul (see JUBILEE).

Among the works of charity which were furthered by indulgences, the hospital held a prominent place. Lea in his "History of Confession and Indulgences" (III, 189) mentions only the hospital of Santo Spirito in Rome, while another Protestant writer, Uhlhorn (Gesch. d. Christliche Liebesthatigkeit, Stuttgart, 1884, II, 244) states that "one cannot go through the archives of any hospital without finding numerous letters of indulgence". The one at Halberstadt in 1284 had no less than fourteen such grants, each giving an indulgence of forty days. The hospitals at Lucerne, Rothenberg, Rostock, and Augsburg enjoyed similar privileges.


It may seem strange that the doctrine of indulgences should have proved such a stumbling-block, and excited so much prejudice and opposition. But the explanation of this may be found in the abuses which unhappily have been associated with what is in itself a salutary practice. In this respect of course indulgences are not exceptional: no institution, however holy, has entirely escaped abuse through the malice or unworthiness of man. Even the Eucharist, as St. Paul declares, means an eating and drinking of judgment to the recipient who discerns not the body of the Lord. (1 Cor., xi, 27-9). And, as God's forbearance is constantly abused by those who relapse into sin, it is not surprising that the offer of pardon in the form of an indulgence should have led to evil practices. These again have been in a special way the object of attack because, doubtless, of their connection with Luther's revolt (see LUTHER). On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the Church, while holding fast to the principle and intrinsic value of indulgences, has repeatedly condemned their misuse: in fact, it is often from the severity of her condemnation that we learn how grave the abuses were.

Even in the age of the martyrs, as stated above there were practices which St. Cyprian was obliged to reprehend, yet he did not forbid the martyrs to give the libelli. In later times abuses were met by repressive measures on the part of the Church. Thus the Council of Clovesho in England (747) condemns those who imagine that they might atone for their crimes by substituting, in place of their own, the austerities of mercenary penitents. Against the excessive indulgences granted by some prelates, the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) decreed that at the dedication of a church the indulgence should not be for more than year, and, for the anniversary of the dedication or any other case, it should not exceed forty days, this being the limit observed by the pope himself on such occasions. The same restriction was enacted by the Council of Ravenna in 1317. In answer to the complaint of the Dominicans and Franciscans, that certain prelates had put their own construction on the indulgences granted to these Orders, Clement IV in 1268 forbade any such interpretation, declaring that, when it was needed, it would be given by the Holy See. In 1330 the brothers of the hospital of Haut-Pas falsely asserted that the grants made in their favor were more extensive than what the documents allowed: John XXII had all these brothers in France seized and imprisoned. Boniface IX, writing to the Bishop of Ferrara in 1392, condemns the practice of certain religious who falsely claimed that they were authorized by the pope to forgive all sorts of sins, and exacted money from the simple-minded among the faithful by promising them perpetual happiness in this world and eternal glory in the next. When Henry, Archbishop of Canterbury, attempted in 1420 to give a plenary indulgence in the form of the Roman Jubilee, he was severely reprimanded by Martin V, who characterized his action as "unheard-of presumption and sacrilegious audacity". In 1450 Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, Apostolic Legate to Germany, found some preachers asserting that indulgences released from the guilt of sin as well as from the punishment. This error, due to a misunderstanding of the words "a culpa et a poena", the cardinal condemned at the Council of Magdeburg. Finally, Sixtus IV in 1478, lest the idea of gaining indulgences should prove an incentive to sin, reserved for the judgment of the Holy See a large number of cases in which faculties had formerly been granted to confessors (Extrav. Com., tit. de poen. et remiss.).

Traffic in Indulgences

These measures show plainly that the Church long before the Reformation, not only recognized the existence of abuses, but also used her authority to correct them.

In spite of all this, disorders continued and furnished the pretext for attacks directed against the doctrine itself, no less than against the practice of indulgences. Here, as in so many other matters, the love of money was the chief root of the evil: indulgences were employed by mercenary ecclesiastics as a means of pecuniary gain. Leaving the details concerning this traffic to a subsequent article (see REFORMATION), it may suffice for the present to note that the doctrine itself has no natural or necessary connection with pecuniary profit, as is evident from the fact that the abundant indulgences of the present day are free from this evil association: the only conditions required are the saying of certain prayers or the performance of some good work or some practice of piety. Again, it is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, alms giving would naturally hold a conspicuous place, while men would be induced by the same means to contribute to some pious cause such as the building of churches, the endowment of hospitals, or the organization of a crusade. 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. Looked at in this light, it might well seem a suitable condition for gaining the spiritual benefit of an indulgence. Yet, however innocent in itself, this practice was fraught with grave danger, and soon became a fruitful source of evil. On the one hand there was the danger that the payment might be regarded as the price of the indulgence, and that those who sought to gain it might lose sight of the more important conditions. On the other hand, those who granted indulgences might be tempted to make them a means of raising money: and, even where the rulers of the Church were free from blame in this matter, there was room for corruption in their officials and agents, or among the popular preachers of indulgences. This class has happily disappeared, but the type has been preserved in Chaucer's "Pardoner", with his bogus relics and indulgences.

While it cannot be denied that these abuses were widespread, it should also be noted that, even when corruption was at its worst, these spiritual grants were being properly used by sincere Christians, who sought them in the right spirit, and by priests and preachers, who took care to insist on the need of true repentance. It is therefore not difficult to understand why the Church, instead of abolishing the practice of indulgences, aimed rather at strengthening it by eliminating the evil elements. The Council of Trent in its decree "On Indulgences" (Sess. XXV) declares: "In granting indulgences the Council desires that moderation be observed in accordance with the ancient approved custom of the Church, lest through excessive ease ecclesiastical discipline be weakened; and further, seeking to correct the abuses that have crept in . . . it decrees that all criminal gain therewith connected shall be entirely done away with as a source of grievous abuse among the Christian people; and as to other disorders arising from superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or any cause whatsoever--since these, on account of the widespread corruption, cannot be removed by special prohibitions--the Council lays upon each bishop the duty of finding out such abuses as exist in his own diocese, of bringing them before the next provincial synod, and of reporting them, with the assent of the other bishops, to the Roman Pontiff, by whose authority and prudence measures will be taken for the welfare of the Church at large, so that the benefit of indulgences may be bestowed on all the faithful by means at once pious, holy, and free from corruption." After deploring the fact that, in spite of the remedies prescribed by earlier councils, the traders (quaestores) in indulgences continued their nefarious practice to the great scandal of the faithful, the council ordained that the name and method of these quaestores should be entirely abolished, and that indulgences and other spiritual favors of which the faithful ought not to be deprived should be published by the bishops and bestowed gratuitously, so that all might at length understand that these heavenly treasures were dispensed for the sake of piety and not of lucre (Sess. XXI, c. ix). In 1567 St. Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions.

Apocryphal Indulgences

One of the worst abuses was that of inventing or falsifying grants of indulgence. Previous to the Reformation, such practices abounded and called out severe pronouncements by ecclesiastical authority, especially by the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) and that of Vienne (1311). After the Council of Trent the most important measure taken to prevent such frauds was the establishment of the Congregation of Indulgences. A special commission of cardinals served under Clement VIII and Paul V, regulating all matters pertaining to indulgences. The Congregation of Indulgences was definitively established by Clement IX in 1669 and reorganized by Clement XI in 1710. It has rendered efficient service by deciding various questions relative to the granting of indulgences and by its publications. The "Raccolta" (q.v.) was first issued by one of its consultors, Telesforo Galli, in 1807; the last three editions 1877, 1886, and 1898 were published by the Congregation. The other official publication is the "Decreta authentica", containing the decisions of the Congregation from 1668 to 1882. This was published in 1883 by order of Leo XIII. See also "Rescripta authentica" by Joseph Schneider (Ratisbon, 1885). By a Motu Proprio of Pius X, dated 28 January, 1904, the Congregation of Indulgences was united to the Congregation of Rites, without any diminution, however, of its prerogatives.


Lea (History, etc., III, 446) somewhat reluctantly acknowledges that "with the decline in the financial possibilities of the system, indulgences have greatly multiplied as an incentive to spiritual exercises, and they can thus be so easily obtained that there is no danger of the recurrence of the old abuses, even if the finer sense of fitness, characteristic of modern times, on the part of both prelates and people, did not deter the attempt." The full significance, however, of this "multiplication" lies in the fact that. the Church, by rooting out abuses, has shown the rigor of her spiritual life. She has maintained the practice of indulgences, because, when these are used in accordance with what she prescribes, they strengthen the spiritual life by inducing the faithful to approach the sacraments and to purify their consciences of sin. And further, they encourage the performance, in a truly religious spirit, of works that redound, not alone to the welfare of the individual, but also to God's glory and to the service of the neighbor.

Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
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Simple English

The English Wiktionary has a dictionary definition (meanings of a word) for:

An indulgence, in Roman Catholic theology, means that temporal punishment (punishment here on Earth) for sins which have already been forgiven is taken from the sinner[1].

made possible the mass production of form documents offering indulgences.]]

The indulgence is given by the church after the sinner has confessed and received absolution.[2] Indulgences replaced the severe penances of the early church.

Martin Luther protested against them because they were sold. This was the starting point for the Protestant Reformation (1517).


  1. That can be all the punishment or part of it.
  2. Code of Canon Law, (Cann. 992-997) Indulgences; Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, 4th ed., 1999.

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