Indulgence is forgiveness from the punishment of sin, either in part or in entirety. It works something like this:
Johnny disobeys his Mom. She forgives him, but still doles out punishment. Johnny has to stand in the corner for one hour. But Suzie, his sister, just did something really good so she has a reward coming. So Mom balances it all out and forgives Johnny’s punishment so he doesn’t have to stand in the corner.
The CC teaches sins are forgiven at confession but there is still a punishment attached to the sin that must somehow be paid. There is, however, a pool of rewards other Catholics have gained. It is possible to draw from this pool to have one’s punishment erased, partially or completely. This is called an indulgence. Most indulgences are partial payment, but a ‘plenary’ indulgence is a complete compensation.
If a Catholic dies without having his punishment paid for, he will go to purgatory where he will suffer sufficient punishment. Only Catholics believe in purgatory. Purgatory is much like hell, only the stay is temporary, not permanent. A Catholic on earth can earn an indulgence on behalf of a Catholic in purgatory to shorten his stay, or even earn a plenary indulgence on his behalf to get him out immediately.
In the early days of the CC the punishment (penance) for sin was very severe and had to be paid before the absolution (discharge, release) of the sin. A man commits adultery and confesses his sin to a priest. The priest might give him a penance of bread and water fastings for ten years and make him wear a sackcloth and stand in front of the church every Sunday morning. After ten years the punishment was paid and the sin absolved.
Because of the severity of punishment some waited until they were dying before confessing their sins. (This was risky; if death arrived before the priest the Catholic would go to hell.) It was customary to be absolved of their sins immediately, without penance, since they were about to die anyhow. But how could the punishment for sins be paid if not in this life? The answer, the Catholic theologians decided, was purgatory.
But nobody wants purgatory; it is almost as bad as hell itself. Thus the indulgence. With indulgences one can build up an account and, hopefully, at the end of one’s life everything will balance and the contrite sinner will go straight to heaven. And with a plenary indulgence one’s entire punishment for all sins is paid in full.
One way to earn a plenary indulgence, in the middle centuries, was to fight in a Crusade. A Catholic today can earn one by going to see a visiting pope (thus the large crowds).
Another way of getting indulgences, back in the middle century, was to simply buy them from the CC. This helped pay for the many European Catholic cathedrals and priceless artwork. It also led to the ascent of Martin Luther’s Reformation. The pope wasn’t as aggravated at Luther’s “justification by faith” as he was the affliction of his treasury caused by Luther’s criticism of selling indulgences. In the sixteenth century one could purchase either a “confessional letter” or a certificate in which he could sign his name. Both assured the purchaser he would never have to go to purgatory.
PROBLEMS WITH INDULGENCES
1. There is no such place as purgatory. Jesus taught heaven and hell, not purgatory. The repentant sinner on the cross went immediately to paradise, not purgatory.
2. The Bible teaches when one comes to Christ for forgiveness, He forgives and forgets. Those sins are forever washed away by the blood of the Lamb, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
3. Indulgences, as defined by the CC, do not exist. The selling of indulgences should prove to the most ardent Catholic that Catholicism could not be true.