In Defense of Indulgences: A Look At the Church’s Favorite Dirty Word


Published February 18, 2010

Indulgences have long been a part of Catholic tradition, but there is a great deal of confusion among both Catholics and non-Catholics about their history and what they are. Too many Catholics have been severely misinformed and take the unfortunate stance that indulgences are a dark spot in the tradition of the Church. Among non-Catholics, “indulgence” is a buzzword for debate and is often wrongly used as evidence of the Catholic Church’s shortcomings.

This time last year, the New York Times printed an impressively misleading story about the “return” of indulgences. It called attention to the gift of indulgences being offered in honor of St. Paul at all churches named for him, as last year was a Pauline Year. One year later, we are half way into the Year for Priests, in honor of which the Vatican has also declared a gift of indulgences.

Last spring, the Vatican declared that on the first and last days of the Year for Priests (June 19), the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, and the first Thursday of every month, a plenary indulgence will be offered. The interested faithful must attend Mass on one of these days and pray for the intentions of the Church’s priests. They will receive the indulgence as long as they have attended Confession and include the intentions of the Pope in their prayers.

An indulgence is a reduction of time that will be spent in Purgatory for doing some good work. Don’t let this confuse you! You cannot be saved by doing good works—the Church has never taught this. A person who is in Purgatory is already saved: he or she has been assured a place in Heaven, but, according to the Church, is undergoing a purification process to prepare him or her for finally seeing God.

The gift of indulgences is meant to encourage the faithful to become closer to God and purify themselves on Earth so that if they do need to spend time in Purgatory, they will require less purification. It makes sense: if a person is devoting significant periods of time to regularly praying the Rosary, meditating over Scripture, or visiting the Blessed Sacrament (all things for which one can receive a partial indulgence), then he or she is most likely living in pious devotion to God.

Most Catholics are at least mildly aware of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on Indulgences, which sparked the Protestant Reformation. Many have been falsely informed that the Church got rid of indulgences shortly after Luther protested their sale. A big problem with this is that the Church never actually sold indulgences. This is simply not true. In Luther’s time, indulgences were often granted for alms giving—that is, a person could receive an indulgence for contributing financially to a charitable cause. The Church certainly never taught that a person could go to Confession, slip the priest a 20 and then spend less time in Purgatory. That is just laughable.

Unfortunately, whenever money is involved, abuses can creep in, and sometimes they did. At the Council of Trent, Pope Pius V discontinued the granting of indulgences in cases where money was involved. Clearly the Church was committed to eliminating corruption. I personally don’t see a problem with an indulgence being given to someone who gives money to the poor, but, hey, I’m not the Pope.

It is important for Catholics to do their homework and realize that indulgences are not a bad thing. When God sees that we are committed to leading prayerful lives, helping our brothers and sisters in need, honoring Christ, and eliminating sin, He’s happy—it’s as simple as that. You can’t buy your way out of Hell with indulgences, you can’t buy forgiveness with indulgences and buying indulgences was never an option! All you can do with indulgences is lead a purer life. What is so bad about that?