Do Catholics Still Have Plenary Indulgences?

by History of the Church, Lent

What is an Indulgence?

Do Catholics still practice indulgences? That stopped after Martin Luther pointed out that they are wrong, right? To be sure, the 16th Century was a confusing time. There was a Dominican preacher named Johann Tetzel who Luther claimed was “selling” indulgences to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Certainly, Tetzel might have been pushing the envelope, but what Martin Luther wrote about in his 95 Theses is mostly incorrect. In fact, his intransigence on some of the points and his later behavior got him excommunicated from the Church. 

But what exactly is an indulgence? For a much broader examination of the topic and the theology behind it, please check out this article that I wrote: “What’s the Deal with Indulgences?

Basically, there are two types of punishment due to sin: temporal and eternal. Eternal punishment is what sends us to hell for eternity. This eternal punishment for our sins was taken away by the Cross of Jesus Christ and applied to our souls in Baptism. The other is temporal punishment due to sin. This is the just punishment that we deserve which is ordered towards restitution. How can we start to make up for the wrong that we have done? 

Imagine playing ball in the street and breaking a window. You go to your neighbor and ask for forgiveness. She forgives you and that guilt is removed (analogy for eternal punishment) but that’s not the end. You still have to pay for the window (analogy temporal punishment)!

So, when we sin and we ask God for forgiveness, we receive it! Of course, if it’s a mortal sin, we still need to receive absolution in the Sacrament of Penance. The eternal punishment for sin is removed but temporal effects, temporal punishment, and possibly even attachments to certain sins remain. 

An indulgence is when the Church draws from the superabundant merits of Christ and the merits of Mary and the saints and applies those graces to you, thus freeing you from even the temporal punishment due to sin! These merits are called the Treasury of Merit by the Church. But I want to stress that point that Martin Luther did not seem to understand. Indulgences assume that our sins have already been forgiven! They do not forgive sins. They do not remit eternal punishment for sin. They remit temporal punishment due to sin, only. 

What is a Plenary Indulgence?

The Church makes a distinction between a partial indulgence and a plenary indulgence. A partial indulgence is where some of the temporal punishment due to sin is remitted. Plenary, on the other hand, means “full” and so it remits ALL of the temporal punishment due to sin. Though we might die in a state of grace and thus ultimately go to Heaven, we may need to go through Purgatory to have the grace of God purify us and prepare us for Heaven (for nothing unclean can enter Heaven). So, this is a big deal and a huge grace that the Church offers us! 

How Can I Obtain an Indulgence? Practical Steps to Take

The Church does not remit temporal punishment due to sin with magic or the wave of a pen. The person who suffers those temporal punishments must be disposed to repentance and faith. As Pope St. Paul VI said: “Indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God (Indulgentarium Doctrina, 11).”

To gain an indulgence, a Catholic must be in a state of grace and have the intention of gaining the indulgence by performing an act prescribed by the Church. Our heart must be contrite, we must go to confession, receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope’s intentions (Generally an Our Father and Hail Mary for the Pope’s intentions). The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin. That last one is extremely difficult and makes receiving a plenary indulgence tough. However, if you do not have freedom from all attachment to sin, you will still receive a partial indulgence!

The Church offers us special indulgences, both plenary and partial, for all sorts of things. But there are a couple of partial indulgences worth mentioning here. Partial indulgences are given by the Church for: Devoutly spending time in mental prayer, reading Sacred Scripture with veneration as a form of spiritual reading (this one is plenary if done for at least 30 minutes), or devoutly signing oneself with the Sign of the Cross and saying the customary formula: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Plenary Indulgences During Holy Week

During certain solemnities and feasts of the Church, there are special opportunities for plenary indulgences. A plenary indulgence during Holy Week can be obtained for yourself or for the deceased by performing one of the following works prescribed by the Church. And you have to fulfill the usual conditions: freedom from attachment to sin, go to Confession, receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope’s intentions. Many of these special Holy Week indulgences are part of the Holy Week liturgies!

Holy Thursday

  • During the solemn placement of the Blessed Sacrament after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, read or sing the hymn “Tantum Ergo”
  • Spend a half-hour in solemn Eucharistic Adoration

Good Friday

  • Venerate the cross during the “Adoration of the Holy Cross” during the solemn celebration of the Lord’s Passion
  • Attending the Way of the Cross
  • Saying this prayer after receiving Holy Communion before an image of Christ crucified (on any Friday in Lent!) – “Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus.” “Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus, while before your face I humbly kneel, and with burning soul pray and beseech you to fix deep in my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope and charity, true contrition for my sins, and a firm purpose of amendment, while I contemplate with great love and tender pity your five wounds, pondering over them within me, calling to mind the words which David, your prophet, said of you, my good Jesus: “They have pierced my hands and my feet; they have numbered all my bones.”

Holy Saturday:

  • Two or more people reciting the Holy Rosary
  • Attend the Easter Vigil and repeat your baptismal promises 

Why Do It?

We are called to holiness. This requires a relationship with our Lord. I intend to perform the acts for these plenary indulgences with the intention of receiving them. I am not perfect. I sin and go to Confession. I do not think that I am at a level of holiness where I have no attachment to sin. So, I will not likely receive a plenary indulgence. But I would still receive a partial indulgence. In addition to those graces and, even more important, these acts are ordered towards growing and deepening my relationship with Jesus Christ, with the saints, and with Holy Mother Church. The struggle is an offering of love. Sinning, repenting, and resolving to sin no more is a part of our struggle here on earth. With God’s grace, we can stand triumphant in the struggle against sin and death and stand in the victory of the Cross and Resurrection!

So, why do I pursue indulgences? First, the Church offers them, and I want to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the Church. Second, it helps focus me on the Lord and grow in holiness. Third, it reminds me that my goal and final home is meant to be Heaven! Fourth – and I do not mean this in a glib way – why not?! 

Have a blessed Holy Week and a happy Easter! He is Risen, as He said!

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