What Is a Plenary Indulgence?

Dear Father Kerper, I sud­denly started to hear a lot about indulgences. I thought such things had been abolished years ago. Isn’t this superstition a mechanical type of spirituality? And is it true that indulgences can be passed on to dead people? Please explain.

Let’s begin with the word “indulgence,” the English form of the Latin word indulgentia. The Latin word can mean an act of kindness, tenderness, forbearance, and even the expression of fondness for another person. In “Church Latin,” it primarily means putting aside a just punishment caused by sinful acts. Indulgences, when prop­erly understood, simply reflect the mercy of God, who constantly bestows indulgences on human beings. During the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis linked special indulgences to specific things and acts, such as visiting a Holy Door, practicing works of mercy, and so forth.

Now, to get to a proper understanding of indulgences, we must grasp the relationship between forgiveness and punishment.

God, of course, graciously forgives all sins, even the worst. We experience this divine mercy preeminently in the sacrament of Penance, which firmly assures us that our sins are truly gone.

However, forgiveness does not necessarily free us from punish­ment. Some, of course, will quickly object: Where’s the mercy? Why does God want to punish sin? Isn’t this a contradiction?

From the merely human standpoint, we think of punishment as “settling scores.” We punish wrongdoers by restricting their freedom, requiring some unpleasant work, or even causing pain or death. Such punishments are motivated primarily by the desire to restore justice — or to avenge misdeeds and deter other crimes.

By contrast, God’s punishments always emerge from his merci­ful love. As such, God’s penalties act as “medicine” to heal the self-inflicted wounds caused by personal sins, specifically the de­struction of our friendship with God.

While these mysterious healing acts originate in God, they also involve Mary and all the saints. God draws them into his “healing project” through their union with the Body of Christ, which includes all baptized people, living and dead. This organic unity allows the goodness of each saint to benefit others. To put it another way, the “holy excess” of some saints gets transferred to people whose sins have made them “deficient,” specifically by pulling them away from God and toward inferior goods or evil. God’s punishment somehow corrects the sinner’s disastrous turn­ing away from God.

Here’s an example. Imagine, say, a high school freshman who wants to become an engineer. He definitely needs to learn calculus. While in ninth grade he takes advanced algebra, plays video games during class, never pays attention, and fails the course. If he wants to learn calculus and have any hope of becoming an engineer, he must retake algebra during summer. In one sense, summer school is a painful punishment for playing video games in class. But it also eventually “heals” the student’s mind, which had become wounded by self-imposed ignorance of algebra.

At first glance, summer school appears to be a cruel punish­ment; but it’s really an act of mercy because it restores to the student the possibility of reaching the goal of an engineering degree. Divine punishment does the same thing: it heals and returns the sinner to heaven’s road. God’s healing, as mentioned earlier, involves the “transfer” of spiritual goods within the Body of Christ, the communion of saints. How so? Theologians have offered various explanations, but perhaps the well-known story of Saint Augustine (354–430) and Saint Monica works best.

In his youth, Saint Augustine lived wildly, fathered an illegiti­mate son, and fell in with some brilliant people who vehemently rejected Christian faith. By any measure, Saint Augustine suffered from a massive deficiency of holiness. Saint Monica, his mother, clearly had “excess holiness,” manifested by her infinite patience with her son, her constant prayer, and her resilient faith. Whereas Saint Augustine prayed little and behaved badly, Saint Monica’s fervent prayer and goodness tipped the scales toward her son and fostered his spiritual healing and eventual conversion. Saint Mon­ica, then, truly — and willingly — transferred her “spiritual goods” to her son. What happened to Saint Monica and Saint Augustine can happen to anyone. The same principle applies.

Now let’s move into the “technical” area of indulgences. As early as the third century, the Church allowed sinners to seek the intercessory prayers of people on the verge of being martyred. Sin­ners believed that their prayerful association with heroic martyrs could remove or at least reduce the just punishments for their sins. Christians highly valued these prayers because they came from men and women who had given their lives and had surely gone to Heaven! The “holy excess” of martyrs was indisputable and freely transferable.

By the twelfth century, indulgences had become more com­mon and increasingly regulated. Sad to say, these practices became widely misunderstood, distorted, and subject to abuse, especially by linking them with monetary exchange.

In 1967, Pope Blessed Paul VI strongly reaffirmed the Church’s ancient teaching about indulgences, which flows from the doctrine of the communion of saints. Moreover, the Holy Father greatly simplified the system, dividing indulgences into two types: plenary and partial.

Plenary comes from the Latin word plena, which means “full.” A plenary indulgence, then, frees a person from all punishment due to sin. In medical terms, it would be akin to a total heal­ing of cancer, with the reversal of all the disease’s consequences. In spiritual terms, a person granted a plenary indulgence would immediately enter into God’s presence after dying, with all the wounds of sin healed. As an example, think of the Good Thief. Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

A partial indulgence frees a person from some punishment due to sin. In the old system, which Paul VI modified, prayers and deeds were carefully calibrated according to difficulty, length, antiquity, and so forth. This excessive complexity, which emerged in the Middle Ages, sometimes promoted “spiritual accounting,” which was not really traditional. The reformed system has restored pure, sincere, and simple prayer to its proper place.

During the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis formally attached a ple­nary indulgence to the act of visiting a Holy Door. This is not superstition. Rather, the Holy Father affirmed this old tradition for two reasons: first, it provides a tangible focal point — a holy location — for prayer and the experience of personal conversion; and second, it highlights how every baptized Catholic can act as an agent of divine mercy by praying for others, including the dead.

Indulgences, when understood in an authentic and balanced manner, should inflame our hearts with an even greater love for the Divine Mercy, whose mysterious ways eagerly draw people into His eternal embrace.

This article is from a chapter in Fr. Kerper’s A Priest Answers 27 Questions You Never Thought to Ask. It is available as an ebook or paperback from your favorite website or online through Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by Jason An on Unsplash

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Father Michael Kerper grew up in Philadelphia, attended Catholic schools as a boy, and then studied politics and economics at La-Salle University, labor relations at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Ordained in 1985 for the Diocese of Manchester, Father Kerper has worked as a parish priest throughout New Hampshire.

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