Indulgences are in the news. In February, The New York Times ran a lengthy story on the revival of this time-honored Catholic practice, and in July, the Chicago Tribune followed suit.

It is the actions of Pope Benedict XVI that have made indulgences newsworthy -- since his election, he has marked particular sacred anniversaries by offering the faithful opportunities to gain a plenary indulgence. One such occasion was the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of the apostle St. Paul. Most recently he offered one for the Year for Priests, which runs through next June.

Pontiff's goals

Many Catholics of the baby- boomer generation have been under the impression that plenary indulgences were among the things swept away by the Second Vatican Council. Many young Catholics have never heard of a plenary indulgence at all. By offering plenary indulgences, Pope Benedict is trying to achieve three things: to correct the mistaken impression that Vatican II was an event that broke completely with "the old Church"; to revive Catholic forms of worship and devotion that the council fathers never intended to eliminate; and to encourage Catholics to return to another venerable Catholic practice -- frequent, or at least regular, confession.

A major theme of Pope Benedict's pontificate has been the emphasis on continuity. By word and example, he teaches us that the documents of Vatican II do not call for a revolution but are rooted in divine revelation and sacred tradition that reaches back to the days when Jesus Christ was present here on earth and founded the Church. To underscore this truth, he has liberated the traditional Latin Mass (generally known these days as "the extraordinary form"); he has required that members of the congregation who have been selected to receive holy Communion from him at papal Masses to do so kneeling and receive on the tongue; he has reinstated the traditional altar arrangement of the crucifix in the center flanked by three candles on each side; he has restored Gregorian chant and classic polyphony to papal Masses; and he wears the magnificent sacred vestments of his predecessors. These restorations are not simply a matter of the pope's personal tastes, they are part of the patrimony of all Catholics. Indulgences fall into this category, too.

What are they?

A plenary indulgence remits, or cancels out, the punishment due for committing a sin. Every sin entails what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls "double consequences." When we make a full confession of our sins, receive absolution and faithfully perform the penance assigned to us by the priest, we are freed from the guilt of our sins. That takes care of the first consequence. But because every sin we commit, even venial sins, are signs of our attachment to things which are not holy and violate God's law, we must still be purified before we can enter the kingdom of heaven. After death, our souls undergo that purification in purgatory. That is the second consequence.

By offering a plenary indulgence, the Church presents all Catholics with an opportunity to purify their souls here on earth. A Catholic who has fully complied with the requirements of a plenary indulgence has wiped away any and all punishment due for all the sins he or she had committed up to that point.

To make atonement for these sins -- to satisfy the debt, if you will -- the pontiff draws upon what is known as "the treasury of merit." This treasury encompasses the inexhaustible graces, faith, prayers and other good works of Jesus Christ, as well as the lesser but still substantial merits of Our Lady and all the saints.

The pope has authority to draw upon the treasury of merit and grant the tremendous privilege of a plenary indulgence because Christ gave to St. Peter and his successors the power to bind and loose. "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16:19).

But granting a plenary indulgence is not only an act of the pope's spiritual authority, it is also an act of charity, a sign of the pope's compassion for poor sinners, to help them return to a state of grace and continue on the path to heaven. Addressing a general audience on Sept. 29, 1999, the late Pope John Paul II spoke of indulgences as "a significant expression of God's mercy." By the same token, the Catholic who wishes to gain the plenary indulgence must make a commitment to put off "the old man" and put on "the new man," as St. Paul says in Ephesians (4:22,24).

History of indulgences

During the first centuries when the Church was often persecuted, there was a sharp disagreement over what should happen to Christians who, out of fear of torture and death, renounced their faith but later repented and wished to return to the Church. Hard-liners such as the Roman priest Hippolytus argued that apostasy was an unforgivable sin, and that lapsed Christians could never be readmitted to the sacraments, no matter how penitent they might be. But others, including Pope St. Callixtus and the bishop of Carthage, St. Cyprian, understood that the Church is in the forgiveness business and cannot reject someone who is truly contrite.

In making his argument, St. Cyprian described a practice common in North Africa in his day. Apostates and other serious sinners who wished to be reconciled to the Church would visit imprisoned Christians and receive from them a kind of handwritten recommendation in which the soon-to-be martyrs pleaded with the local bishop, for the sake of the sufferings and death they were about to endure, to grant absolution to the penitent and waive whatever punishment might be due to his or her sin. They did not have the terminology in the third century, but what the penitent apostates received was an indulgence.

During the Middle Ages, indulgences were granted at the consecration of a cathedral or some other important church, or at the canonization of a saint: whoever went to confession, received holy Communion, then prayed in the newly consecrated church or before the relics of the new saint received the indulgence. Indulgence were also granted to pilgrims to the tomb of St. James in Compostela, Spain, to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome, or to some other great shrine.

During the late Middle Ages the Church tried to encourage worthy causes by granting an indulgence to anyone who made a contribution to the construction of a new hospital or the restoration of an ancient church. Sadly, in the 15th and early 16th centuries, unscrupulous agents of the Church abused these indulgences. In market squares and even from church pulpits they played down or even ignored the penitential and prayerful conditions of the indulgence, distorting the requirements to suggest that anyone could "buy" his or her way out of purgatory by "buying" an indulgence. This trafficking in indulgences is one of the abuses to which Martin Luther objected, and which the Church banned at the Council of Trent.

God's mercy

As for the Second Vatican Council, it did not abolish indulgences. In fact, in 1967 Pope Paul VI issued a letter re-emphasizing the traditional Catholic doctrine of indulgences and encouraging the faithful to acquire them. But in the upheaval that followed the council, many Catholics came to regard indulgences as hopelessly old-fashioned. What a misguided notion. No matter how "modern" or "progressive" we may think we have become, we still need God's mercy and forgiveness.

By offering indulgences, Pope Benedict is urging the faithful to remember that we all sin, that we can return to a state of grace by making a good confession. And, furthermore, through indulgences we can avail ourselves of the boundless mercy of God.

How to obtain an indulgence

The latest edition of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum was published in 1999; it includes the general guidelines for obtaining an indulgence, and lists 70 prayers, devotions and good works to which an indulgence has been attached.

General conditions for gaining an indulgence include:

  • A Catholic must be in a state of grace -- in other words, not guilty of any mortal sin.
  • He or she must have no attachment to sin, mortal or venial.
  • He or she must make a good confession to a priest and receive holy Communion.
  • He or she must pray for the intentions of the Holy Father -- one Our Father and one Hail Mary are the suggested prayers, but any other prayer may be substituted.
  • Individuals can obtain one plenary indulgence each day.
  • The indulgence may be obtained for oneself or applied to the souls of the deceased. They cannot be applied to other living individuals.

Year for Priests indulgence

In April, the Apostolic Penitentiary issued a decree announcing a special indulgence for the Year for Priests. On the last day of the Year for Priests, on the first Thursday of the month or on any other day established by their local ordinary, lay faithful may receive an indulgence if they follow these steps:

  • Attend Mass
  • Receive the Sacrament of Penance
  • Pray for priests
  • Pray for the intentions of the pope

For homebound faithful, they may receive an indulgence if, "on the days concerned, they pray for the sanctification of priests and offer their sickness and suffering to God through Mary, Queen of the Apostles."

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of OSV's Catholic Cardlinks series and of "Saints Behaving Badly" (Doubleday, $15.95).