By Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

Much of this article is a summary of the Enchiridion of Indulgences issued under Pope Paul VI, and published in English by the Catholic Book Publishing Company of New York. This enchiridion (or handbook) contains, in addition to the Pope’s Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences, new norms and grants of indulgences, and a list of 70 prayers and individual works enriched with indulgences. “All general grants of indulgences not included in this same Enchiridion,” declared Pope Paul, “are hereby revoked.” (p.11)

An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due for sins for which the guilt has already been forgiven. This remission of punishment is granted through the intervention of the Church, which has the power – granted by Christ – of dispensing from the “treasury” of the superabundant satisfactions of Christ and the saints.

To understand more fully the above definition, we will have to look briefly at several things: 1) the punishment due for sin; 2) the solidarity of all men by reason of the Mystical Body of Christ; 3) the spiritual treasury of the Church; 4) the power of the keys of the kingdom established in Christ.

  1. Punishment due for sin: For each sin that man commits, he incurs both a guilt before God (for it is offense against the friendship between God and man – which it mars or destroys), and a debt of punishment, which Pope Paul Vl declared “may remain to be expiated or cleansed and, in fact, frequently does remain even after the remission of guilt,” (p.. 90) – even after sacramental confession. This is because of the imperfection of our contrition or the incompleteness of our turning away from sin.The punishment due for sin can never be removed as long as the guilt has not yet been forgiven, i.e. as long as one has not yet turned to God with sincere contrition and a firm resolve of amendment. This debt may be expiated in this life by the sufferings, hardships and trials of each day willingly borne, by mortification voluntarily undertaken, and above all by death; or in the life beyond through the purification of purgatory. It may also be expiated by INDULGENCES, which can be applied to one’s own soul, or the souls in purgatory.
  2. The Mystical Body of Christ: An essential element in indulgences is that the satisfaction performed by one person can be applied to another. This transfer is possible by reason of the communion of saints, or the Mystical Body of Christ. As St. Paul explained, “just as each of us has one body with many members so too we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members one of another.” (Rom. 12:11 )Because of this great mystery, not only can the fruits of Christ’s passion be applied to His members, but the Christian faithful can help one another, as Pope Paul Vl said in his Apostolic Constitution, by an “exchange of spiritual goods and penitential expiation carrying their crosses in expiation for their own sins and those of others, certain that they can help their brothers to obtain salvation from the Father of mercies.” (n.5)
  3. Spiritual Treasury of the Church: This “treasury” of the Church is the spiritual storehouse containing the infinite merits and satisfaction of Christ, and the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin and the saints. Both Christ and His Mother were without sin, so the satisfactory value of all their good deeds and acts was not needed to pay their debt – for they had none; and thus it can be applied to the debt of others. The saints too, although they sinned, offered to God far more reparation than was needed to pay the debt of their sins.All this superabundant satisfaction, which can be applied to others, constitutes the spiritual treasury of the church, the riches from which can be applied to pay the debt of punishment (in whole or in part), both of souls on earth, and the souls in purgatory.
  4. The Power of the Keys: The source of this power is Christ Himself: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:19)The power of the keys includes not only the power (flowing from Holy Orders) of removing guilt of grave sin, and the eternal punishment due it – in the sacrament of penance; but also, apart from this sacrament, the jurisdiction of dispensing to souls (through indulgences) the superabundant satisfaction or expiation of Christ and the saints, thus lessening or canceling the penalty of temporal punishment for sin. When the Pope grants an indulgence for a given act or prayer, he does so by virtue of the power of “loosening” which Christ gave to His Church, drawing from her spiritual treasury, as we saw, the means by which this penalty is satisfied.

The Church, however, has no jurisdiction over the dead, and therefore she can grant an indulgence in their favor only by way of suffrage, i.e. only by way of petitioning God to accept these works of satisfaction on their behalf. We can never know how much satisfaction God accepts on their behalf; for this reason it is worthwhile to seek to gain a number of indulgences (plenary and partial) for an individual soul.

One notable change in the new Decree on Indulgences is that it has done away with the former manner of designating partial indulgences by “days” and “years,” for example, an indulgence of 100 days. A new norm has been established which takes into account the action itself of the faithful who performs a work to which an indulgence has been attached.

Pope Paul Vl points out in his Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences that any good work done for God has both a meritorious value and a satisfactory value. The principal fruit is the merit, for it brings an increase of grace; the secondary effect or fruit is the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. Speaking of this he said:

Since the remission of temporal punishment is in proportion to the degree that the charity of the one performing the act is greater, and in proportion to the degree that the act itself is performed in a more perfect way, it has been considered fitting that this remission of temporal punishment which the Christian faithful acquire through an action should serve as the measurement for the remission of punishment which the ecclesiastical authority bountifully adds by way of partial indulgence.” (n.12)

The above explanation might be expressed by the following example: If a given act, because of the charity by which it was done, brought a remission of 5% of the punishment due for sin, the church (by way of a partial indulgence) grants the remission of an additional 5% of the punishment due. In other words, when one performs a good work enriched with a partial indulgence, there is granted by the power of the Church that same amount of remission of temporal punishment as already gained by the work itself. That is to say, in such a good work, the remission of the temporal punishment – is doubled.

The Church has ceased to grant indulgences in terms of “days” and “years,” because many of the faithful concentrated more on seeking richer grants of indulgences, than on the faithful fulfillment of the duties of their state in life – which merits an increase of grace, and which St. Thomas Aquinas says “is infinitely greater than the remission of temporal punishment.” (Supp. 25,2,ad 2)

In a word, the Church would have us devote more attention to living a truly Christian life, and to growing in the spirit of prayer and mortification in keeping with the spirit of the gospel, than to the mere repetition of certain formulas and acts.

In order to aid the faithful to bring their faith to bear on the actions that go to make up their daily lives, the Church has granted three general concessions in regard to the gaining of partial indulgences:

1) A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, In the performance of their duties, and in bearing the trials of life, raise their mind with humble confidence to God, adding – even if only mentally – some pious invocation.

This first grant is intended as an incentive to the faithful to intersperse their daily duties with brief interior invocations that help them to fulfill their labors and bear their trials in union with Christ. Note that only those acts are indulgenced by which the faithful, while performing their duties and patiently suffering the trials of life, raise their mind to God as indicated.

This shows that the work involved in our daily duties, and the trials we suffer, can profit us either little or much (both as to the increase of grace, and the remission of the debt of punishment), depending on whether we fulfill or bear them in a spirit of faith and of prayerful resignation to the will of God and a desire to help souls; or in a selfish and worldly spirit – that is concerned only about worldly goals and satisfactions, with little thought of God and little concern for others.

The “pious invocation” referred to can be any ejaculatory prayer that helps one to raise the mind and heart to God-“even if only mentally.” And the Holy See assures us:

“Should anyone be so zealous and fervent as to make such act frequently in the course of the day, he would justly merit, over and above a copious increase of grace, a fuller remission of the punishment due for sin, and he would in charity be able to come to the aid of souls in purgatory so much the more generously.” (p. 32)

2) A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who in a spirit of faith and mercy give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need.

This second grant is intended to serve as an incentive to the faithful to perform more frequent acts of charity and mercy, remembering the words of Christ, “as often as you did it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did it for me.” (Mt. 25:40)

The Decree states that not all works of charity are thus indulgences, but only those which serve “the brothers in need.” Yet this can cover a great variety of good works, such as we read in the decree on the Apostolate of the Laity in the 2nd Vatican Council:

“Wherever there are people in need of food and drink, clothing, housing, medicine, employment, education; wherever men lack the facilities necessary for living a truly human life or are afflicted with serious distress or illness, or suffer exile or imprisonment, there Christian charity should seek them out and … console them with great solicitude and help them with appropriate relief … Thus attention is to be paid to the image of God in which our neighbor has been created, and also to Christ the Lord to whom is really offered whatever is given to a needy person.” (N.8)

3) A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, in a spirit of penance, voluntarily deprive themselves of what is PERMITTED and PLEASING to them.

This third grant is intended to encourage the faithful to mortify their appetites and bodily satisfactions, and thus bring the body into subjection, and more in conformity with the poor and suffering Christ. As the Constitution of Pope Paul points out, self-denial will be more pleasing to God when it is united to charity; for example, when what one could spend on amusements or self-indulgence, is given to the poor. As Pope Leo the Great says, “let what we deny our self by fast – be the refreshment of he poor.”

This grant is offered by the Church at the present time when, with the mitigation of the law of fast and abstinence, it is more than ever imperative that penance be practiced in other ways.

The recipient of an indulgence must be “baptized, not excommunicated, in the state of grace at least at the completion of the prescribed works, a subject of the one granting the indulgence … and have at least a general intention of gaining the indulgence.” (p. 25)

To gain a PLENARY indulgence, which removes all temporal punishment due and which can be gained only once a day, in addition to the above, the Holy See lists the following requisites: “sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion, prayers for the intention of the Supreme Pontiff and the absence of all attachment to venial sin.” (p.26)

Some theologians are of the opinion that plenary indulgences are not gained as often as some people think, because of the difficulty of being free of all attachment to venial sin. If this disposition is less than complete, or if the other prescribed conditions are not fulfilled, a partial indulgence is gained.

A single sacramental confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences; but Communion must be received and prayer for the intentions of the Sovereign Pontiff must be recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence. One “Our Father” and one “Hail Mary” is sufficient in praying for the intentions of the Pope. (ibid. 28,29)


  1. Both partial and plenary indulgences can be applied to the souls in purgatory.
  2. While the satisfactory value of any good work can be applied to another living person, as we saw in our last issue on “Reparation,” indulgences cannot be gained for another living person.
  3. The faithful must remember that the departed can be assisted not only by means of indulgences, but also by other ways: prayers, penitential acts, works of mercy, almsgiving, and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass. (p.138)
  4. While many partial indulgences have been dropped from the Enchiridion, the three general grants described above open up unlimited opportunities for partial indulgences, and in areas that go to the heart of the Christian life.
  5. Among the various works and prayers of which one can gain a plenary indulgence, the Enchiridion singled out the following:
    • Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least half an hour.
    • Devout reading of Sacred Scripture for at least half an hour.
    • The Way of the Cross.
    • The Rosary, when recited in a church or public oratory, in the family, or in a religious community or pious association. (p.45)

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