The punishment already inflicted by the majority on such a one is enough; you should now relent and support him so that he may not be crushed by too great a weight of sorrow. 2 Cor. 2:6-7
Indulgences rank among the most poorly understood blessings of the Catholic Church. An indulgence is not permission from the Church to indulge in sin. It is not being indulgent with sinners. It is not the pardon of sin nor the remission of guilt. Now according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
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. [CCC 1471]
A few points will be emphasized
First an indulgence is not the forgiveness of sins but only applies to the effects of past, forgiven sins. An indulgence is not a Sacrament but must rely on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) - the Sacrament through which sins are forgiven by God. Forgiveness of sin and remission of punishment are different.
Secondly sin can have two consequences: eternal (everlasting) punishment and temporal (temporary) punishment. Very serious sin, i.e. mortal sin (1 John 5:16), "kills" our friendship with God and deprives us of eternal life. This loss is eternal punishment. It is not punishment from a vengeful God but the consequence of rejecting God - the Source of life. Not all sin is mortal (1 John 5:17), but all sin, even venial sin (less serious sin), needs correction. This correction is temporal punishment. It is demanded by God to correct the bad effects of our sin, e.g. restoring stolen goods. Spiritually it is the cleansing of our soul from earthly attachments due to our sin.
Now Christ's death on the Cross redeems our friendship with God and totally satisfies our eternal punishment once the guilt of our sin is forgiven by God through His Church. So the forgiveness of mortal sin includes the remission of eternal punishment. But temporal punishment can still remain. Ordinarily temporal punishment is satisfied through personal penance; however, indulgences can remove the temporal punishment due to past forgiven sins, both mortal and venial.
A good example of temporal punishment can be found in II Samuel. God through Nathan forgives King David for his sin against Uriah:
"The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die." [2 Sam. 12:13-14; RSV]
God forgives David and removes his eternal punishment of death. Nevertheless God punishes David for the deed. According to the translation in the Douay-Rheims Bible, David has "given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme." [2 Sam. 12:14] This scandal needed correction (Hebrews 12:5-11).
Thirdly the sufferings of Christ and His saints can be used to satisfy the demands of temporal punishment due to our past sins. In the Bible there are examples of saints making amends for the sins of others. Moses in Exodus 32:32 offers his life to God as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. Job (Job 1:5) offers sacrifice to God for the sins of his children. Even in the New Testament, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: "I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls" [2 Cor. 12:15] or to Timothy: "For I am already on the point of being sacrificed." [2 Tim. 4:6] St. Paul sees his martyr's death as a sacrifice and is willing to be spent for the souls of others.
Even though Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross is sufficient for our redemption - the healing of our friendship with God, St. Paul also recognizes that his own suffering is important:
Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church. [Col. 1:24]
The sufferings of the saints, like St. Paul, can be included with Christ's suffering, not for our redemption, but that the grace of redemption can be applied to the souls of men. The sufferings of Christ and His saints are pooled together as a treasury which can be used to satisfy our temporal punishment.
Fourthly the Church, as the minister of redemption, has the authority to dispense and apply this treasury of satisfactions to our souls on earth. Christ gives the Church through the Apostles the authority to "bind and loose":
...if he (an unrepentant sinner) refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [Matt 18:17-18]
In this passage Christ gives the Church the authority to excommunicate unrepentant sinners. The judicial power of "binding and loosing" also gives the Church the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23) and remove temporal punishment for repentant sinners.
St. Paul in 2 Cor. 2:5-11 appears to be granting an indulgence to a Corinthian man. The man had committed a serious sin, but St. Paul does not call him to repentance, implying that God has already forgiven his sin. Now this sin affected the church in Corinth, and St. Paul calls her members to remove the punishment against him. St. Paul personally pardons the man and invokes Christ's name in this remission of punishment. The early Church, as witnessed here, demanded severe public penance from a repentant sinner to satisfy his temporal punishment. Later the Church, using her authority to "bind and loose," began to reduce the penance for "good behavior." This practice led to the formulation of indulgences.
Indulgences are now classified as Partial or Plenary. A Partial indulgence is only a partial remission, while a Plenary indulgence is full remission, i.e. all temporal punishment for all past forgiven sins is removed. An indulgence can be received by a Christian in the state of sanctifying grace who performs a prescribed good work. The person who performs the good work must have the intention of receiving the indulgence and faithfully fulfill all requirements set by the Church. A person cannot receive an indulgence for another living person, but indulgences can be applied to souls in Purgatory by intercession. An unforgiven venial sin or an attachment to sin can prevent the reception of a Plenary indulgence. Also indulgences cannot be "saved up" for future sins. More details can be found in the Enchiridion of Indulgences.
It is sometimes claimed that the Church sells or has sold indulgences. This claim is false. The Church uses indulgences to encourage her members to perform good works. A few examples of good works are praying, attending Mass, reading the Bible and charity. Works of charity can include the donation of money to help the poor (Sir. 3:30) or to promote the glory of God (John 12:1-8), such as the building of beautiful churches. Unfortunately the latter has led to serious abuses in the hands of sinners.
The most infamous case of abuse involved Tetzel. In 1517 Pope Julius II granted a Plenary indulgence to all who confessed their sins, received the Eucharist and contributed according to their means towards the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. Tetzel while promoting this indulgence in Germany charged a price for each. Perhaps due to too much zeal, Tetzel mistook the donation as an outright sale. By doing so he committed the serious sin of simony (Acts 8:18-22) - the selling of spiritual gifts. Martin Luther reacted to this abuse with his Ninety-Five Theses which launched the Protestant Revolt. Later the Council of Trent passed strict laws concerning indulgences in order to prevent further abuses.
In summary an indulgence is a "favor" from Christ granted through His Church. It is not the forgiveness of sin, but the remission of temporal punishment due to past sins already forgiven. Our punishment is satisfied by the treasury of satisfactions earned by Christ and His saints. The Church has the authority to dispense and apply this treasury to our souls while still on earth. Without indulgences we must satisfy our own temporal punishment through personal penance while on earth or later in Purgatory.
Printed with permission from A Catholic Response, Inc.