The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Indulgences: “Why are we bringing it back? Because there is sin in the world.”

During this year devoted to St. Paul, there’s been special attention in my diocese to something often overlooked in the modern church: indulgences.

This morning’s New York Times takes another look at them, and what they mean:

The announcement in church bulletins and on Web sites has been greeted with enthusiasm by some and wariness by others. But mainly, it has gone over the heads of a vast generation of Roman Catholics who have no idea what it means: “Bishop Announces Plenary Indulgences.”


In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago — the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife — and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.

The fact that many Catholics under 50 have never sought one, and never heard of indulgences except in high school European history (where Martin Luther denounces the selling of them in 1517 and ignites the Protestant Reformation) simply makes their reintroduction more urgent among church leaders bent on restoring fading traditions of penance in what they see as a self-satisfied world.

“Why are we bringing it back?” asked Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who has embraced the move. “Because there is sin in the world.”


Like the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the indulgence was one of the traditions decoupled from mainstream Catholic practice in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops that set a new tone of simplicity and informality for the church. Its revival has been viewed as part of a conservative resurgence that has brought some quiet changes and some highly controversial ones, like Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to lift the excommunications of four schismatic bishops who reject the council’s reforms.

The indulgence is among the less-noticed, less-disputed traditions to be restored. But with a thousand-year history and volumes of church law devoted to its intricacies, it is one of the most complicated to explain.


According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it. You can get one for yourself, or for someone else, living or dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1857 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.


It has no currency in the bad place.

“It’s what?” asked Marta de Alvarado, 34, a bank cashier in Manhattan, when told that indulgences were available this year at several churches in New York City. “I just don’t know anything about it,” she said, leaving St. Patrick’s Cathedral at lunchtime. “I’m going to look into it, though.”

You can look into it at this link. And you can also find a fuller explanation at the Catholic Encyclopedia.

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posted February 9, 2009 at 2:10 pm

Be careful of saying that partial indulgences reduce time in purgatory “by a certain number of days or years.” Your Wikipedia link explains the likely confusion that results from phrasing it that way: “Previously, partial indulgences were granted as the equivalent of a certain number of days, months, ‘quarantines’ (Lent-like forty-day periods) or years of canonical penance. Those who did not understand these terms sometimes misinterpreted them as meaning a reduction of that length of stay in Purgatory.”An indulgence should be a reminder of the need to do penance for the wrongs we have done. Realizing that some Christians in the past would have done years of very public penance for the same sins ought to give us pause for reflection.

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Joseph Bolin

posted February 9, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Ron, the text is not from Deacon Greg, but from the NY times. Not surprisingly, there are are number of inaccurate or misleading statements in it: (1) it suggests that indulgences were done away with for some; this was never the case; (2) as you point out, it misrepresents the older way of quantifying partial indulgences; (3) it suggests that the yearly confession of sins is an absolute requirement; the requirement is that mortal sins need to be confessed at least once per year; if someone has not committed mortal sins, they are not strictly required to go to confession at all. Of course it may be a bit presumptuous to be confident that one hasn’t committed a mortal sin in say, twenty years, but that’s another question; (4) this may be more subtle, but the statement “But for Catholic leaders, most prominently the pope, the focus in recent years has been less on what Catholics have in common with other religious groups than on what sets them apart” is not really very accurate. The focus has been on pointing to what is essential to the Catholic Church, what defines it–both when that is something common to it and other denominations, and when it is unique.

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posted February 9, 2009 at 4:01 pm

I’m a much appreciative fan of indulgances, but it’s pointless to promote them without also the promotion of the sacrament of Penance (and the other necessary conditions). I believe the church now allows 20 days on either side of confession for valid indulgances (it used to be 7). Consequently, if we Catholics want to be in a “constant state of recipitivity to indulgances”, it requires a monthly confession.The souls in purgatory so despertly need us to offer them, and yet, so few younger Catholics even understand them, or how little effort, (praying a rosary at the Blessed Sacrament, reading scripture, etc.)on our part it actually takes to offer our indulgances for our deceased love ones or many of the other suffering souls who have no ability to pray for themselves.Lastly, Divine Mercy Sunday is a mercy so great (all temperal punishment removed, back to the state of Baptism) it makes my head spin as to why some parishes still are not on board. To think that the reformation was started over the wrongful sale of indulgances even more proves the power of confession. Indulgances simply can’t happen without sacramental confession!

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Michael Hallman

posted February 9, 2009 at 5:13 pm

The article was not as bad as I was expecting, considering the source, though it wasn’t exactly a place for people to go who actually wish to understand indulgences. But if you want to see some real anti-Catholic vitriol, go check out the comments to the article.Sadly, some of the worst comments are from those who claim to be Catholic :-\

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posted February 9, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Sorry I accused Deacon Greg of writing like a “journalist” for the New York Times!

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posted February 10, 2009 at 6:13 am

For the younger set (those post Vatican II and under 50), there will have to be a concerted education process about indulgences because this segment of the Catholic population has no idea what indulgences are–and if they do, there are many, many misconceptions.

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Thomas Scott

posted February 10, 2009 at 9:11 am

This is certainly one teaching of the Church that is the hardest to explain and raises the most red flags for converts and non-Catholics. Thank you, Martin Luther!It really is about the sacrament of pennance. If there is no imperfection in heaven then it follows that there must be some sort of ‘purification’ process as we are all sinners on earth. I’ve found that tying it back to Jewish teaching (where it comes from) and pennance helps people wrap their minds around a theological concept that is hard for some to grasp.

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Mr. Basso

posted February 10, 2009 at 9:58 am

I take issue with the Times not making the distinction between punishment and purification. Even if you were to call it punishment, one must remember that there are a number of reasons one is "punished", not the least of which is the rehabilitation of the sinner (Living or deceased). This post-mortem purification of the soul may indeed be unpleasant (as I am sure it is), but it is not God's intention to arbitrarily subject us to unpleasantness. Rather, the pain of purgatory is a side effect, if you will, of the purification process.It's high time we recognize that our soul needs healing as much, if no more than our body, and that Penance, Indulgences, Fasting, & charity are to the soul what annual check-ups, medication, diet & exercise are to the body.

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Deacon Greg Kandra

posted February 10, 2009 at 10:28 am

Mr. B … In fairness to the Times, most church-going Catholics have little or no knowledge of indulgences, so we can’t expect a secular paper to do any better. (Though it would be nice if they tried harder… but then that’s true of most c-g C’s, too…)Dcn. G.

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Mr. Basso

posted February 10, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Deacon, you are right that it is a subtle distinction. it's just that the Church has enough strikes against it in the public opinion without papers portraying us as punishment peddling guilt-gluttons. I mean, the rest of the nation is obsessed with losing weight, eating right, and saving the planet. Thanks to the media we all carry around residual guilt for not recycling, supersizing our value meal, and skipping on the treadmill, but the Church comes out the "bad guy" because we want people to "turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel". I'm just sayin'. Thanks for the article & response. Inspired by your post I slipped indulgences into my lesson plans for this week. The students were intrigued to say the least.

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posted February 10, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Deacon, not sure why we would expect the NY Times to be accurate. They get a lot of stories wrong as witnessed over the last few years. However, Klare said it best and I will let my comment rest with her.

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