Reflection: A Basic Understanding of Indulgences
by Father Don Thomas
Next to the teachings of the Catholic Church on the doctrines of Confession (Reconciliation) and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, no topic has ever been more controversial and misunderstood than that of Indulgences. Much time, energy and study would be called for if one really wants to study the origin, the history and alleged abuses of indulgences. The scope of this reflection is simply to define and give the main distinction between the kinds of indulgences. If many of our Catholics do not understand this doctrine, why would we be surprised that others of various denominations do not? To be honest about it, when was the last time you heard the subject mentioned in a sermon or homily?
Contributing to the misunderstanding of and ignorance about indulgences is the position taken by those who claim that for donations of money Catholics can have their sins forgiven. Perhaps some might object to this claim today, but for many years many people thought along these lines. Whether or not there are other false or erroneous positions and misunderstandings of indulgences, the one stated-above is the one I have heard most frequently, and it is the one I would be addressing in this reflection.
One thing that must be clearly understood in the consideration of indulgences is that they have absolutely nothing to do with the forgiveness of sin. Catholics know that the sacrament of confession or reconciliation has been given to us for the forgiveness of our sins. While indulgences have nothing to do with the forgiveness of sin, the purpose of indulgences is to reduce, totally or partially, the punishment we have coming to us for our sinfulness. It bears repetition: our sins are forgiven by confession or reconciliation. Indulgences in no way deal with the forgiveness of sin, but rather with the reduction of the punishment due to our sinfulness.
At this point, it might be good to explain what we mean by the "punishment due to sin". It is extremely important to understand that Catholics believe that a mortal sin is a serious sin, and if one were to die in mortal sin, the soul is separated from God in hell forever, for all eternity. Dying in mortal or serious sin calls for eternal punishment. Therefore it is very important to realize at this point that indulgences have nothing to do with eternal punishment. One cannot gain an indulgence while in the state of mortal sin. On the other hand, if mortal sin is forgiven or if we commit less serious sins, there is temporal punishment due to our sins. The punishment will last only for a time. This is where indulgences come into the picture. It is all about the reduction of temporal punishment---nothing to do with eternal punishment. In other words, a soul must be in the state of grace before one could gain any indulgence. Once again, unforgiven mortal sin calls for eternal punishment and therefore has nothing to do with indulgences. Forgiven mortal or serious sin, along with venial or less serious sin, are what make the doctrine of indulgences sensible. Let us now indicate indulgences are either Plenary or Partial. Let us point out the difference
Types of Indulgences
A Plenary Indulgence is one which is attached to good works or prayers and it reduces or takes away all the temporal punishment, the total punishment due to sin.
A Partial indulgence is one attached to good works or prayers and takes away or reduces some or part of the temporal punishment due to the soul. I do think it is only fair to point out knowledge of other teachings of the Catholic Church would contribute greatly to the understanding of indulgences.
Another interesting thought that bears mention is our prison system, whereby prisoners who are incarcerated for various lengths of time very often have their punishment reduced "for good behavior". I also want to state that in religious stores can be found a very special handbook called an "Enchiridion of Indulgences". It is very informative and gives a list of all the various ways that one can gain a Plenary or Partial Indulgence. I would like to point out two ways of gaining a partial indulgence. One is by making the sign of the cross properly after dipping one's hand in the holy water; and the second one can be gained by looking up at the consecrated host and chalice at the consecration of the Mass and saying: "my Lord and my God".
In conclusion, I hope that this reflection may serve to help you understand what an indulgence is. At least that's a start and it's a challenge to further study of the subject.
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