A History of Indulgences


"The.. practice of the Church regarding indulgences is the evolution of twenty centuries. Changes have been introduced, but they are changes of circumstances, not of principles.

In primitive times the discipline of the Church towards sinners was very severe. Heavy penalties, known as "canonical penances," were exacted for grave sins; but if the penitent manifested extraordinary signs of contrition, these penalties were shortened and lessened, and this was done especially when persecutions were going on. It frequently happened in those days that thousands of Christians were in prison, suffering much and awaiting death. Their martyrdom was sure to effect their eternal salvation. They often wrote to the Pope or bishops a "letter of peace," offering their merits and sufferings as a substitute for the canonical penances demanded of some other Christians who were being disciplined for sins. The penalties imposed upon these latter were then remitted, and they were not only restored to full membership in the Church, but they received remission of their temporal punishment in the sight of God. St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, tells us:

'God can set down to the sinner's account whatever the martyrs have asked and the bishops have done for them.'"

"The Christians of early ages were mostly recent converts from heathenism, and needed rigorous treatment. Public penance generally consisted in exclusion from the company of the faithful; the excommunicate were only allowed to kneel in the vestibule of the Church and hear the first portion of the Mass; they were not permitted to receive holy communion, and as a rule, were not absolved until the expiration of their term of penance. During that time on fixed days they had to fast on bread and water. This public penance usually lasted seven years; it was only imposed for grave offences, such as apostasy, giving the Holy Scriptures into the hands of pagans, etc.; for heinous crimes such as murder, the period was still longer. For lesser transgressions a fast of forty days was the ordinary penance. But the Church knew that the design of God is not so much to chastise the sinner as to detach him from earthly affections and lead him to amend; thus, if the penitent showed by his conduct that his conversion was not superficial, but real, it was deemed unnecessary for him to do further penance. Consequently the penitential works were in some cases partially or wholly remitted. Now since Christians form one body among themselves, the communion of saints, they can make satisfaction for one another; hence the martyrs pleaded on behalf of the penitents. " Rev. Francis Spirago, The Catechism Explained, Tan Books (1899) p. 633. Imprimatur, +Patrick J. Hayes, Archbishop of NY, Oct. 18, 1921.

"Later on, as the law of canonical penances was made less rigorous, the Church often allowed a lesser work in place of a greater. Alms to the poor, the endowing of churches and monasteries, pilgrimages to holy places, and even short prayers - all of these were considered equivalent to many days or even years of severe penance; and here we find the reason why indulgences are entitled "of forty days," "of one year," etc. These words do not imply, as some might think, that by a certain prayer or good work we take away forty days or a year of Purgatory for ourselves or another. They mean that we get as much benefit (for ourselves or for a soul in Purgatory) as we would if we performed the severe canonical penances of former times for forty days or one year.

Plenary indulgences seem to have been granted only from about the eleventh century, and they were probably first given to the Crusaders. Pope Urban II decreed that "their journey would take the place of all penance," and later Pontiffs gave similar spiritual privileges to those who went to fight for the Holy Sepulcher or gave money for these expeditions.

From that epoch the history of indulgences becomes better known. They were given very freely by many Popes and for various reasons - for the dedication of churches, the canonization of saints, etc. Later on, certain great and popular devotions were enriched with indulgences, so that now they are attached to almost every pious practice. Even articles of devotion, such as crucifixes, medals, etc., may have these spiritual benefits annexed to them, for the advantage of the faithful who use them devoutly.

Indulgences for the Souls. The application of indulgences to departed souls which are in a state of penitential suffering is of rather ancient date. We find a mention of it in the ninth century, when Popes Pascal I and John VIII bestowed such indulgences on the souls of those who had died in defense of the Church or Christian civilization; and in succeeding ages it became customary to proclaim nearly all indulgences as applicable not only to the living person who performed the prescribed work, but also to such departed ones as he wished to aid."

Rev. John F. Sullivan, The Externals of the Catholic Church, P.J. Kenedy & Sons (1918) pp. 297-99. Imprimatur +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of NY, March 27, 1918.

This History of indulgences would be incomplete without a mention at least of the problems that preceeded the Reformation. The main abuse that occurred in the Middle ages was the transfer of an indulgence for money." Here, as in so many other matters, the love of money was the chief root of the evil: indulgences were employed by mercenary ecclesiastics as a means of pecuniary gain." Catholic Encyclopedia article Indulgences.


"The first impulse to secession [from the Roman Church] was supplied by the opposition of Luther in Germany and of Zwingli in German Switzerland to the promulgation by Leo X of an indulgence for contributions towards the building of the new St. Peter's at Rome. For a long time it had been customary for the popes to grant indulgences for buildings of public utility (e.g. bridges). In such cases the true doctrine of indulgences as a remission of the punishment due to sin (not of guilt of sin) had been always upheld, and the necessary conditions (especially the obligation of a contrite confession to obtain absolution from sin) always inculcated. But the almsgiving for a good object, prescribed only as a good work supplementary to the chief conditions for the gaining of the indulgence, was often prominently emphasized....The consequent abuses were heightened by the fact that secular rulers frequently forbade the promulgation of indulgences within their territories, consenting only on condition that a portion of the receipts should be given to them. In practice, therefore, and in the public mind the promulgation of indulgences took on an economic aspect, and, as they were frequent, many came to regard them as an oppressive tax." Catholic Encyclopedia article Reformation.


"While it cannot be denied that these abuses were widespread, it should also be noted that, even when corruption was at its worst, these spiritual grants were being properly used by sincere Christians,who sought them in the right spirit, and by priests and preachers, who took care to insist on the need of true repentance. It is therefore not difficult to understand why the Church, instead of abolishing the practice of indulgences, aimed rather at strengthening it by eliminating the evil elements. The Council of Trent in its decree "On Indulgences" (Sess. XXV) declares: "In granting indulgences the Council desires that moderation be observed in accordance with the ancient approved custom of the Church, lest through excessive ease ecclesiastical discipline be weakened; and further, seeking to correct the abuses that have crept in . . . it decrees that all criminal gain therewith connected shall be entirely done away with as a source of grievous abuse among the Christian people; and as to other disorders arising from superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or any cause whatsoever--since these, on account of the widespread corruption, cannot be removed by special prohibitions--the Council lays upon each bishop the duty of finding out such abuses as exist in his own diocese, of bringing them before the next provincial synod, and of reporting them, with the assent of the other bishops, to the Roman Pontiff, by whose authority and prudence measures will be taken for the welfare of the Church at large, so that the benefit of indulgences may be bestowed on all the faithful by means at once pious, holy, and free from corruption." After deploring the fact that, in spite of the remedies prescribed by earlier councils, the traders (quaestores) in indulgences continued their nefarious practice to the great scandal of the faithful, the council ordained that the name and method of these quaestores should be entirely abolished, and that indulgences and other spiritual favors of which the faithful ought not to be deprived should be published by the bishops and bestowed gratuitously, so that all might at length understand that these heavenly treasures were dispensed for the sake of piety and not of lucre (i.e. money) (Sess. XXI, c. ix). In 1567 St. Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions."Indulgences. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent are online at Hanover College.

For the current teaching on Indulgences see the Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope Paul VI and the material in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Indulgences and prayer for the dead. See John Paul II's general audience in 1999.

This web page is the responsibility of Rev. Roger J. Smith, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Comments are welcome. Mail the Pastor! To see our many other pages click on the index below.

Awaken to Prayer
Index of all parish pages