According to a certain perspective, the Second Vatican Council was a long overdue updating of Church doctrine and reconciliation with the world, so to speak, which necessarily entailed jettisoning old devotional practices that more enlightened thinkers considered creepy and superstitious.
Surely, that must mean goodbye to indulgences—that medieval custom that supposedly so scandalized some that it sparked the Protestant Reformation. Right?
Yet it was not in the Middle Ages, not during the Council of Trent, and not in the Counter-Reformation that ensued that the Church mounted one of its most full-throttled defenses of indulgences. No, that happened after the Second Vatican Council—in 1967.
That year, Pope Paul VI—who oversaw most of the council proceedings—issued his encyclical Indulgentiarum Doctrina, which at once reformed indulgences but also pulled no punches in defending them.
The upshot of all this is that if you want to be engaged with what the Church teaches and practices in a post-Vatican II world, indulgences are part of the package.
But just why did Paul VI believe indulgences were so important?
For starters, a definition might help: Paul VI defines an indulgence as the remission of the temporal penalty of sin. Note that remission is not the same as forgiveness. One analogy is a car wreck for which you are at fault. The other driver may forgive you, but you are still responsible for covering the costs of repair.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, indulgences might seem to some to be a far lower priority than other things, such as, forgiveness, to take an obvious example. But Paul VI shows that indulgences are deeply rooted in the fundamental teachings of the Church. He grounds them in three particular teachings.
First, there is the reality of sin:
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. Christians throughout history have always regarded sin not only as a transgression of divine law but also … as contempt for or disregard of the friendship between God and man.
The existence of a real punishment reinforces this, Paul adds: “The very existence and the gravity of the punishment enable us to understand the foolishness and malice of sin and its harmful consequences.”
The second foundation for indulgences is the doctrine of the communion of saints. There is a ‘supernatural solidarity’ among men and women in which ‘the sin of one harms the others just as the holiness of one also benefits the others.’ The holy deeds of the saints build up what has been traditionally described as the ‘treasury of merits.’ This treasury consists of the ‘infinite and inexhaustible value the expiation and the merits’ of Christ. Mary and all the saints also contribute to it through their good works, according to Paul.
Third and finally, indulgences are a logical outgrowth of penances. According to the catechism, an act of penance—assigned to a repentant sinner by a confessor—makes satisfaction for sin and heals the harm it caused. A similar principle is behind indulgences.
All three of the above teachings are at work in the doctrine of indulgences. To restate the above definition: an indulgence occurs when the Church, using its God-given authority, draws upon the treasury of merits to remit the temporal penalty of sin.
But what exactly must one do to receive an indulgence? First, one must be properly prepared or disposed. In the words of Paul, those seeking indulgences must ‘love God, detest sin, place their trust in the merits of Christ and believe firmly in the great assistance they derive from the Communion of Saints.’ (There are also three formal prerequisites: confession, communion, and prayer for the intentions of the pope.)
But what exactly is the ‘act’ that must be performed? Paul’s encyclical was issued in advance of a new edition of a Church compendium on indulgenced acts, known as the Enchiridion Indulgentiarium. Anyone who wants an exhaustive list can find it there. (It’s also apparently online here.) But to summarize briefly, the act for which one can gain an indulgence essentially boils down to either a prayer or a certain devout act.
Examples of prayer include: the Memorare, Psalm 50, and certain novenas. Singing certain hymns, such as Tantum Ergo or even repeating certain pious phrases also qualify.
Devout acts that are indulgenced include: visiting a catacomb, stopping at a cemetery, or going to a church on All Souls Day.
These examples of indulgences hint at one of the purposes behind the practice—and it’s not just the remission of the temporal penalty of sin. Indulgences also are one way the Church helps the faithful prioritize just what prayers and devotional practices are most important.
As Paul puts it: “It constantly reminds them, though, of those things which are to be given preference because they are necessary or at least better and more efficacious for the attainment of salvation.”
Those of us who know our liturgical calendars are reminded that November is specially devoted to the souls in purgatory—where all the souls whose sins are forgiven but who have not fully remitted the attaching temporal penalty receive a final purification before entering heaven. This is a fitting time for us to re-introduce ourselves to the tradition of indulgences—not only for our own benefit but also for the building up of the Church’s treasury.