What are Indulgences?

Firstly, what are indulgences? Is this some system of doing good deeds to gain “brownie points” from God, or to increase our “goodness meter” so that St Peter can admit us into Heaven? Or is this another sales gimmick which Martin Luther rightly identified and condemned during the 16th Century Reformation?

These are clouded understandings of this practice, a suffering which the Church unfortunately must bear due to her members failing to live out her holy life of  grace (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1997, para. 827). Thus, this write-up seeks to provide clarity.

What does the Church teach about “Indulgences”?

The CCC – the official synthesis of the essentials and fundamentals of our faith – states:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins 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 (CCC, 1997, para. 1471).

The Catechism notes that to sufficiently understand this practice of indulgences by the Church, it is imperative that one must first understand the teaching of Church’s faith in the Sacrament of Penance or Confession. In this regard, the Catechism states that there are three “things” which the penitent must fulfil in the Sacrament of Penance.

I. Contrition – sorrow for the sin committed with the resolution not to sin again
II. Confession – disclosure of one’s sin to a priest, in the Sacrament of Penance or Confession
III. Satisfaction – commonly known as “penance”, which is a repair for the damage or harm caused by sin.

It is in the context of “repairing” – in our act of “satisfaction” – that will help us reach a clear understanding of indulgences.

What is Temporal Punishment?

Besides the obvious “repairs” with respect to the person we have offended and that must be rectified, there is also a need for the penitent to also “repair” himself/herself. When we sin, apart from the “damage” that we cause to others, there is also a “damage” done to ourselves. Sin “damages” our relationship with God and we could experience our lives being [temporally] quite separated from Him. In this way, we “punish”  ourselves, and in doing so our spiritual lives are weakened; or our holiness lessens. As such, the “penance” that we receive in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is also meant to “repair” this “damage” to ourselves, and thereby strengthen our relationship with God.

This “damage” to one’s self and relationship with God is what the Church traditionally terms as “temporal punishment”; a “present damage”.  It is through the performance of deeds (e.g. of love, sacrifice, service to neighbour, alms giving, acceptance of trials, prayer and fasting) that we work towards “repairing” or “satisfying” this “temporal punishment”. This “repairing” and “satisfying” of  “temporal punishment” due to sin is the basis of granting indulgences.

We thus return to the CCC (1997, para. 1471) which says that  “an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven”.

More reading of the CCC’s catechesis on indulgences from the CCC paragraphs 1471 thru 1479 which may be found online at https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P4G.HTM or at https://www.scborromeo2.org/catechism-of-the-catholic-church.

What is a “Plenary Indulgence?”

“Plenary indulgence” means that a “temporal punishment” or “damage” is “completely pardoned” or “completely repaired”.  It is worth noting here that the original Latin root word for “indulgence” means that someone gives pardon or remission to another (Harper, n.d.); juxtaposing to the present English meaning
of yielding to desires (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Accordingly, the Church encourages us to perform works of devotion, penance and  charity to become habituated in living the “good life” to repair ourselves, and thereafter taps on the merits of Christ and the Saints – which form the “Treasury” of the Church – to pardon our souls from the temporal punishments of our sins (Kent, 1910).

How can these indulgences help the souls of our departed loved ones?

We find the following in the CCC:

Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted. (1997, para. 1479).

Hence, we can gain indulgences on behalf of our loved ones who have passed away. We do this by intentionally offering in prayer all that we do for our loved ones who have gone before us.

How do I obtain indulgences?

Firstly, there are different causes to grant indulgences. These include the act of family consecration, at the point of death, listening to sacred preaching and so on.

To each cause is tagged the respective indulgenced work (the deed of devotion, penance or charity to obtain the indulgence).  However, doing the indulgenced work alone is insufficient. One would also need to fulfil the following general conditions:

  • Be in a state of grace while performing the indulgenced work
  • Have no attachment to sin (even venial sin)
  • Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation (within 20 days before or after the work, one suffices for a few works)
  • Receive Holy Communion (once per indulgenced work)
  • Pray for the Intentions of the Pope with one Our Father and one Hail Mary (once per indulgenced work)

These conditions are mandated so that the faithful is in the appropriate state of penitence as intended of this practice, and to prevent further abuses of this  practice.

The Manual on Indulgences (see references), articles N1- 26 published by the United States Conference of  Catholic Bishops details other norms concerning indulgences and elaborates on the above pre-requisites.


We have come to the end of this article on Indulgences and hope that it has given some clarity about indulgences and to spur you to give some thought about the effects of sin, and how we can repair them. Ultimately, the goal of this – as with other practices of the Church – is to bring us on the path of  the virtuous life, the life of discipleship. Till we meet again to learn about our faith, may God bless us all! ☺

Additional Reading

Kent, W. (1910). Indulgences. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 29, 2020 from New Advent:  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.htm


Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). (1997). Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://www.scborromeo2.org/catechism-of-the-catholic-church.

Harper, D. (n.d.). Indulgence. In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 29, 2020,  from https://www.etymonline.com/word/indulgence

Kent, W. (1910). Indulgences. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton  Company. Retrieved December 29, 2020 from New Advent:

Manual of Indulgences: Norms and Grants (4th ed.). (1999) [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Trans.]. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Indulge. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved
December 29, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/indulge

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