Earlier this year I wrote a bulletin column about praying for the deceased members of our families and friends. In that column I used the term “indulgence” and I had a number of people ask to write more about indulgences and the Church’s teaching on them.
We first have to be reminded that sin has a double consequence. The first consequence is called “eternal punishment” which is the deprivation of communion with God. This is usually what we think about when we talk about the punishment of sin. Nonetheless, every sin, even venial sin, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures. This punishment is called “temporal punishment” and can be purified either here on earth or after death in Purgatory. The Catechism notes that these two punishments must not be conceived as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God but as following from the very nature of sin.
When a person goes to confession and his/her sins are forgiven, the absolution entails the remission of the eternal punishment. The vestiges of sin, the temporal punishment, remains. To remove the temporal punishment, here on this earth, the Church offers us indulgences. An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned. The Church is able to offer this since she is the minister of the Redemption, and authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints. An indulgence can be applied to oneself or applied to the dead as suffrages.
There are three general types of indulgences. The first is granted to the Christian faithful who, while performing their duties and enduring the difficulties of life, raise their minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation. This ‘pious invocation’ might be “Lord, have mercy” or “Jesus, help me” or “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” or something similar. The second type is granted to the Christian faithful who, prompted by a spirit of faith, devote themselves or their goods in compassionate service to their brothers and sisters in need.” This grant concerns charity provided to those who, for example, are in need of food, clothing, instruction, or comfort. The third type is granted to the Christian faithful who, in a spirit of penitence, voluntarily abstain from something which is licit for and pleasing to them. This concerns fasting and abstinence when not required by the Church to do so.
To obtain these general grants of indulgence, a person must have at least the general intention of doing so and must be in a proper disposition (that is, not in a state of grave sin). There are other types of indulgences, which is what most people think about when speaking about indulgences. Certain prayers (such as the rosary) and pious works (such as reading scripture) also have indulgences attached to them. These usually consist of several conditions. I will write about them in my next column. As always, feel free to ask me if you have further questions.