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How to Explain the Doctrine of Indulgences

Jimmy Akin

Jimmy Akin helps a caller on Catholic Answers Live to understand the doctrine of Indulgences.


Host: David in Fountain Valley is up next on Immaculate Heart Radio. Hello, David.

Caller: Hi there, can you hear me?

Host: Yep, loud and clear, go ahead.

Caller: Okay, so I was hoping you could help me understand the doctrine behind indulgences and how you get them?

Jimmy: Okay. The basic idea is based on the fact that when we sin, it has potentially more than one consequence. If it’s a mortal sin, it’s gonna have an eternal consequence, which is: unless you repent of it and are forgiven, you are liable to go to Hell. On the other hand, it also has—and this is true also in the case of venial sins—it also has a consequence of separating you not totally but partially from God, and there can be additional consequences for that reason.

So even when we do return to God, even when we repent and we’re forgiven of the eternal consequences of our sin, God may allow us to experience some temporal consequences for our sins. The reason for that is presumably—among other things—to help us learn our lesson. It’s like if you had parents disciplining a child, and if all they ever did was say “Okay, you’re forgiven, and there are no consequences to what you’ve done,” the child would never learn his lesson.

And that’s why children hear their parents saying things like, “You’re forgiven, but you’re also grounded for a week.” And having some experience of shouldering at least some of the consequences for our sins can be a valuable thing for us as we grow as human beings and as we grow in holiness. And so God allows us to experience some of the consequences of our sins even when they’re forgiven.

Now there are things you can do to foster growth in holiness, both on a natural level and on a supernatural level. So for example, let’s suppose you have a child who’s broken some rules, and the parents have imposed a punishment—let’s say the child’s been grounded—but then the child goes above and beyond and really takes it to heart that what they did was wrong, and they start going out of their way to do nice things for other people too, as a sincere gesture that they’re sorry for what they did and they want to make up for it to the extent they can.

In that case the parents might say, “Okay, you know, you’ve really learned your lesson here, so you’re not grounded for a full week, you’re only gonna be grounded for half a week,” or something like that. They could, in other words, mitigate the consequences that the child would otherwise experience.

And the same thing happens with us. When we voluntarily embrace means of of growing in holiness, God can say, “Okay, I’m gonna mitigate the consequences that you otherwise would have experienced, because you’ve been serious about this, you’ve been earnest about this, you’ve taken this to heart, and you’ve really been cooperating with my grace, and so as a result you’re not gonna experience everything you otherwise would have. And the Church—because the Church is involved in our spiritual lives, and is able to pray for us, and because we’re subjects of the Church in this life, and it has the power of the keys—the Church can also intervene to help relieve some of the consequences that we would otherwise experience on account of our sins.

And so in order to incentivize us to undertake the kind of spiritual exercises that are needed to grow in holiness, the Church promises that in exchange for certain—that’s perhaps not the best word—but basically, in exchange for doing certain things to help us grow in holiness, the Church will then intervene using the power of the keys to lessen, in some degree, the consequences that we would otherwise experience on account of our sins.

And so for example, if you say prayers, or read the Bible, or make a visit to a church, or things like that, different acts that are spiritually useful and beneficial that the Church has attached an indulgence to, then when you do those in a pious and reverent way that is meant to help you grow in holiness and do good for others, then the Church uses the power of the keys to intervene and to in some measure reduce the consequences that you would otherwise experience on account of your sins.

Now, because we don’t have any way of measuring and calculating those consequences, that’s something we have to leave to God. He’s the one who has the access to the “heavenly record books,” we don’t. But as a matter of principle, that’s what indulgences are and how they operate.

Host: David, how’s that?

Caller: I was told once that there are three things you had to fulfill to be able to get indulgences?

Jimmy: Okay, what were those three things?

Caller: From what I remember, it was confession, communion, and…

Jimmy: Okay. That’s what I figured. You’re referring to conditions needed for what’s known as a plenary indulgence. A plenary indulgence is an indulgence—and they’re not easy to obtain, but—if they’re obtained they would remove all of the consequences that can be removed from from one’s sins.

And indeed, the conditions are things like going to Confession, going to Communion, and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father, as well as being completely detached from all sin. And that last condition is particularly difficult to fulfill. It’s possible, so the Church has plenary indulgences, but it’s not that common.

If you’d like to read more about this, we have information at catholic.com, you can go there and just search the word “indulgences.” Also I go into this and the biblical principles behind indulgences in my book The Drama of Salvation, so check that out too.

Host: Thanks for the call, David. Appreciate it. I like to try to go for one every day. Go for a plenary indulgence every day.

Jimmy: Uh-huh. Good luck.

Host: Well, you get practice, then you lose that–that more difficult condition becomes easier. The detachment from sin. Then every day you’re always going to heaven. Winning, as it were. Thank you, David.

For more on this topic, check out our video Are Indulgences Biblical? and our tract Myths about Indulgences.


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