Catholic Indulgences: Definition & History

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  • 0:00 Catholic Indulgences
  • 1:00 Understanding Indulgences
  • 2:02 Origin & Development…
  • 3:18 Abuses of Indulgences
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, you'll learn about indulgences as they relate to Catholic doctrine and practice. You'll learn what an indulgence is, and what role indulgences played in Church history.

Catholic Indulgences

In the Roman Catholic Church, an indulgence is the remission of a temporal punishment brought about by sin. This punishment consists of either earthly sufferings or time spent after death in Purgatory. Typically a writ of indulgence is issued by the Church and given to an individual who has demonstrated some type of penance, or good work. Indulgences can be applied to oneself or to the soul of a deceased person.

Not everyone agrees on the technicalities surrounding indulgences or on the theology behind them. For this reason, the term is somewhat ambiguous and subject to much confusion. In the Catholic tradition, there are two types of indulgences: partial indulgences and plenary indulgences. A partial indulgence removes part of one's punishment or suffering, while a plenary indulgence removes all of one's punishment or suffering. Historically, indulgences have been linked to earning time out of Purgatory. The abuse of indulgences was a primary cause of the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century.

Understanding Indulgences

According to Catechism of the Catholic Church:

'An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins of a person 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.'

Certainly the theology behind indulgences is complicated and perhaps confusing to most people. Even Catholic theologians themselves differ over the specifics of indulgences. For the lay person, it may be helpful to think of an indulgence as a certificate of credit. According to Catholic doctrine, when a person has sinned, they can perform various forms of penance in order to earn this spiritual 'credit.' This credit can then be applied towards an early release from Purgatory or to relieve earthly suffering. For example, say a parent has passed away and their soul is held in Purgatory. A son or daughter might earn an indulgence for their parent to be released from Purgatory early.

Origin and Development of Indulgences

The practice of indulgences evolved over many centuries. In the early Church, it was common for certain sects of Christians to do penance as a way of showing sorrow for sin and incurring remission from God. Typically this involved fasts, the offering of alms, extended prayers, and even self-mutilation and other forms of severe asceticism.

Pope Urban II helped formalize the practice of indulgences at the Council of Clement in 1095 when he declared that that all Christians who participated in the Crusades would be granted a plenary indulgence. Then, in the 1200s, Church leaders developed the doctrine of 'The Treasury of Merit' or 'The Treasury of the Church.' This was a sort of reservoir of spiritual merit. According to this view, Christ's infinite merit and the merit of the saints provided the basis from which indulgences were granted. The formulation of this doctrine further popularized indulgences. Put simply, this doctrine allowed Christians who needed remission from punishment to 'dip' into this reservoir of merit by earning an indulgence.

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