The Catholic Church on Indulgences

Dear Reader,

Indulgences. The word sounds so old-fashioned, doesn’t it? As I have been studying up on various aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine, I have also reread their position on indulgences. As every article on the subject says — you may not realize that the Roman Catholic Church still believes in them. (I did in fact know this so I count myself ahead of the game.)

While in my other recent posts relating to Catholicism my aim has been to inform other naïve Protestants like myself (I’m actually an ex-Catholic myself and I think a relatively well-informed one but I still find there is much I didn’t know and was never taught), this time I think I would like to talk to the Catholics. The articles I have read on indulgences from Catholic sources are along the lines of “This is how you misunderstand indulgences; this is what they really are and why they are not so weird and bad.” To the authors of those articles I would like to say in return: “This is why you are not convincing me as a Protestant; these are the real issues I have with your position.”

Indulgences in the Catholic Church Today

Let’s start then with what indulgences are and how they are used in today’s Roman Catholic Church. Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“What is an indulgence? ‘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.’ ‘An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.’ The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1471)

Before I get into this, let me clarify for my Protestant friends that, unlike in Luther’s day, the Catholic Church does not sell indulgences. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) banned the misuse and selling of indulgences. For perspective, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in 1517. Trent happened a mere 40 years later; that’s a pretty quick turn-around in church terms. So I am not going to spend time talking about what was; I’d like to focus just on modern day teaching on indulgences.

Returning to the above quote, I’d like to pull out and discuss a few phrases:

  • “the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven”
  • “the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”
  • “. . . or apply them to the dead”

For each of these, I’ll give you first the Catholic Church’s elucidation and then turn to my own questions and critiques.

Temporal Punishment

A large part of the Catholic defense of indulgences is spent explaining that in obtaining an indulgence one is not working for or buying forgiveness for sins. Indulgences are about the temporal punishment of sin, not about guilt and forgiveness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

“The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the ‘old man’ and to put on the ‘new man.'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1473)

Canon Law Made Easy seeks to explain this:

“To begin with, receiving an indulgence is not the same as being granted forgiveness. We Catholics know that God forgives our sins when we humbly confess them in the sacrament of Penance and receive absolution from the priest, who acts in God’s place . . .

. . . Rather, indulgences concern the temporal punishment which must be paid, even after a sin has been forgiven. A simple example might serve to clarify the distinction.

Let’s say that Jeff is a bored 12-year-old boy sitting idly on the curb, throwing stones he’s picking up along the side of the road . . . Suddenly there’s a crash — and he realizes he just broke the neighbor’s window!” (“What are the Church’s Current Rules on Indulgences?” from Canon Law Made

The article goes on to point out that even if and when the neighbor forgives the boy, there is still the window to be dealt with and paid for. The boy “is morally obliged to make restitution.”

On the surface this seems like a reasonable thing to say. We Protestants too believe that sins have consequences and that it is often not enough to merely say “sorry.” Boys who break windows should pay for them. The Old Testament likewise tells us that those who steal must restore what they have taken with interest.

The problem I have is that this is a false example. The broken window that needs paid for is not really the sort of temporal punishment that indulgences deal with. The article this example was taken from is about an indulgence received by listening to or watching a papal blessing. So what if in our example the boy had participated in such a blessing, could he then not pay for the window? Could the indulgence he earned by applied to the window situation? Of course not. The neighbor still needs the window fixed; the effect of the sin would still remain in the form of the broken window.

The problem is that the broken window is not really a temporal punishment. It is a natural consequence; it is the effect of sin, but it is not punishment. What the argument above shows is that there are effects of sin which last beyond the point at which forgiveness has been given. But I don’t think even its writer would really think that receiving an indulgence gets the boy out of paying for the window.

Though this is the sort of example Catholics like to cite, the truth is that they seem to be talking about something quite different than the broken window situation, which is a natural and physical consequence of a sin, when they speak of “temporal punishments.”

If an indulgence can’t fix  a broken window, that sorts of “temporal punishments” are really in view? In my reading I have not found one clear answer to this question. Here are some of the answers given — first from two official documents of the Church:

“On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments [temporal and eternal] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1472)

“It is a divinely revealed truth that sins bring punishments inflicted by God’s sanctity and justice. These must be expiated either on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and calamities of this life and above all through death, or else in the life beyond through fire and torments or ‘purifying’ punishments . . .

. . . Every sin in fact causes a perturbation in the universal order established by God in His ineffable wisdom and infinite charity, and the destruction of immense values with respect to the sinner himself and to the human community . . . ” (“Indulgentiarum Doctrina” 2-3; This document is an Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s as a part of Vatican II.)

And from two online Catholic apologists:

“When we are sorry for our sins and have received absolution for them, they are forgiven — but we still owe God a sort of “debt” that needs to be paid either here on earth, through prayer and penance, or after death in Purgatory.” (“What are the Church’s Current Rules on Indulgences?” from Canon Law Made

“While our sins are truly and fully forgiven in the sacrament of penance, our souls can still suffer the spiritual damage caused by our offenses.” (“A Primer on Indulgences” from

It is unclear to me from these just how Catholics themselves view the “temporal punishments.” Are they a debt we owe to God? Are they a sort of spiritual injury to ourselves? Are they wider ranging as the Vatican II document implies? I don’t even really know what to make of the Catechism‘s “an unhealthy attachment to creatures.” I assume it is more about sin’s attachment to us human creatures than about our becoming attached to creatures, but I can’t get much further than that with it.

So, my Catholic friends, my question for you is just what “temporal punishment” there is to deal with. From my Protestant perspective, there are three effects of sin:

  • The guilt I incur when I sin which is removed when I receive forgiveness. From the above quotes, Catholics also believe in such guilt and believe that it is removed when forgiveness it sought and given.
  • The natural consequences of sin. These would include things such as the boy’s broken window, losing one’s job, losing the trust of one’s friends and family, etc. Again, we both acknowledge that such consequences exist, but I don’t think they are what you have in view when you speak of indulgences.
  • The pervasive effects of sin on Creation. “Indulgentiarum Doctrina” speaks of “perturbation in the universal order.” These effects are not personal in that we usually cannot connect them to specific sins (beyond Adam’s first sin in the Garden). Creation itself is fallen as we are told in Romans 8:20-22: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22; ESV). Practically speaking we see this is natural disasters, the difficulty with which men till the earth, disease and illness, etc. So too human nature is fallen. I don’t believe Catholics and Protestants, though we both use the term Original Sin, mean the same thing by it (that’s another upcoming post), but we do both believe that humans are born with sinful  natures even before they have had to opportunity to commit sinful acts. But none of these are tied to specific sins we have committed. So despite the wording of the Apostolic Constitution cited above, I don’t see how these can be the “temporal punishments.” 

Which brings me back to my intial question: what are the “temporal punishments” which indulgences remove? Do they fit into one of the above categories? Or is there another category still?

The Treasury of Satisfactions

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of “the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” which the Church opens to the faithful. I picture a giant treasure chest of extra righteousness just waiting to be assigned to deserving individuals. Indeed the Catechism tells us that “the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1476).

My first reaction to this is that it is simply not necessary. It is not that I doubt the abundance of Christ’s merits or their infinite value, but that the necessity of such a treasury implies that Christ’s initial salvation of us is not sufficient. There is a fundamental difference here in how we view sin and salvation. In the Protestant view, our sins have been paid for once and for all by Christ; there are no remaining temporal punishments, and so there is no need for such a treasury.

Beyond this there is that little phrase “…and the saints.” For it is not just Christ’s merits which fill the treasury but also those of other Christians. There is a truth at the bottom of this that the Church is the body of Christ and that its parts work together. But I think that the Catholic Church takes it too far in saying that the spiritual merits of one can thus be applied to another. The Catechism says that:

“In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1475)


“‘This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1477)

And from the Indulgentiarum Doctrina:

“Following in the footsteps of Christ, the Christian faithful have always endeavored to help one another on the path leading to the heavenly Father through prayer, the exchange of spiritual goods and penitential expiation. The more they have been immersed in the fervor of charity, the more they have imitated Christ in his sufferings, carrying their crosses in expiation for their own sins and those of others, certain that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from God the Father of mercies.” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 5)

“A Primer on Indulgences” explains that

“Yet there are some saints who, through their lives of heroic patience and charity, have already done more than enough to ready their own souls for heaven. Because of this, the Church effectively has a surplus of goodness, which is referred to as the ‘treasury of the Church’ (cf. CCC 1467). Given the Church’s doctrine on the communion of saints (the Church’s teaching that all Christians share a deep spiritual bond with each other), it is possible for one Christian’s overabundant merit to be applied to the spiritual healing of another soul still in need of purification.” (“A Primer on Indulgences” from

The idea that some could “help their brothers to obtain salvation” goes too far for most Protestants. Again it implies the insufficiency of Christ’s own work. It also overrates human abilities. The Protestant view is that we do not contribute to our own salvation in any way; how then can we contribute to the salvation of others? Of course, God does answer our prayers for our others and He uses us in their salvation in that we show them His love and tell them about Him, but it is a far cry from that to saying that our extra merits can be applied to their account. Again, this gets to the nature of sin and salvation. In the Protestant conception, the debt we owe is paid in full when we are saved — both past and future sins have been paid for fully by Christ. Since the debt is paid in full, there is no lingering “temporal punishment” in the sense discussed above. Nor do we contribute in any way to the payment; it is Christ who pays all. Because there is no debt to pay, there is no need for a “treasury” of merits to be dispensed. The whole idea of an accounting system in which debts are tallied and paid off gradually is foreign to Protestant thinking. Love, after all, does not keep a record of wrongs (I Corinthians 13), nor, I think, does it keep a record of rights in this way.

. . . Applying them to the dead

There is one more point to discuss and that is the application of indulgences to those who have already passed. This conception is not possible without the idea of Purgatory. Indeed, the concept of indulgences seems closely linked with that of Purgatory. Indulgentiarum Doctrina states that:

“That punishment or the vestiges of sin may remain to be expiated or cleansed and that they in fact frequently do even after the remission of guilt is clearly demonstrated by the doctrine on purgatory. In purgatory, in fact, the souls of those ‘who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but before satisfying with worthy fruits of penance for sins committed and for omissions are cleansed after death with purgatorial punishments.'” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 3)

If there were no lingering temporal punishments, there would be no need for Purgatory. If there were no Purgatory, there could be no punishment for believers beyond death. And in the Protestant conception, there is neither. As Christ told the thief beside him on the cross, “‘Today you will be with me in Paradise'” (Luke 23:43).

I am not sure which came first, Purgatory or indulgences. It seems that the one implies the other and vice-versa. The doctrine of Purgatory itself seems to rely heavily on the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees which is not in the Protestant Old Testament so it doesn’t tend to be very easy to convince Protestants of.


To my Catholic friends– the basis of our disagreement on indulgences is really a more profound disagreement on the nature of sin and salvation. I have only scratched the surface of these issues here. I hope to do another post soon on Original Sin which will add a little more to the discussion.

If you wish to convince Protestants of the need for or value of indulgences, you need to show above all that there is a temporal punishment which needs remitted. And it is very important to be clear on the nature of this punishment. It is not merely a broken window. I find the Catholic sources themselves a little vague on this so I think it needs a lot more clarity not to mention biblical support (we Protestants gobble up that sort of thing). That is the most important issue, but I am also not convinced that there is a treasury of merits to which people other than Christ are able to contribute. And lastly, we cannot separate the doctrine of indulgences from that of Purgatory so the latter needs some explanation as well, preferably one that does not rest on 2 Maccabees as that is unlikely to convince us.



2 responses to this post.

  1. […] to lead to another. So far I have talked about: the papacy, sacred tradition, the magisterium, and indulgences. As I mentioned in the most recent of these, the idea of indulgences is intimately bound up with […]


  2. […] long promised, I want to talk about how the Roman Catholic Church views sin. In my posts on indulgences and Purgatory, I concluded by saying that these doctrines, which seem so bizarre to Protestants, […]


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