Question Corner
With Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. Years ago, we were encouraged to say certain prayers or to perform certain acts to help ourselves or the souls in purgatory so that after death we or they could be excused from some of the punishment due for our sins and be able to enter heaven more quickly. I don't hear much about indulgences anymore. Does the church still believe in them?
(Nearly identical question from Lumberton, N.J., and from Port Matilda, Pa.)
A. The doctrine on indulgences has been part of the church's teaching for at least the past 1,000 years.

The current Code of Canon Law devotes six separate canons to the topic, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of indulgences in nine different paragraphs.

But the topic seemed to have faded from prominence until it was revived by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000, as part of the celebration of the church's third millennium, and again by Pope Benedict XVI to mark the year of St. Paul in 2009.

The rationale behind indulgences is that the church, as part of its authority from Jesus to "bind and loose," is empowered to use the merits gained by the sacrifice of Christ and the good works of holy men and women — and then to apply those merits to reduce the time of purification necessary for some people before they enter heaven (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1478).

The description of an indulgence in your question is an accurate one. It involves "the remission before God of temporal punishment for sins whose guilt has already been forgiven," and "the faithful can gain partial or plenary indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead" (Canon Nos. 992, 994).

According to the church's Enchiridion (manual) of Indulgences, a partial indulgence can be gained by such acts as: raising the mind in prayer and invoking the help of God; offering one's time or resources to help a person in need; sacrificing something pleasurable as a penance; or giving open witness to one's faith in front of others.

A plenary indulgence (the remission of all temporal punishment) is granted for such specific acts as: reading or listening to the Scriptures, or adoring Jesus present in the Eucharist — either of these for at least half an hour; making the Stations of the Cross; or reciting the rosary in a church or in a family or community setting.

An indulgence can be gained only by those who are in the state of grace, and a plenary indulgence also requires receiving holy Communion, making a sacramental confession and praying for the pope's intentions, as well as forsaking any attachment to sin.

Indulgences have had a checkered history in the church.

The abuse of indulgences (granted for such things as contributing to building projects) led Martin Luther in 1517 to denounce the "selling" of indulgences, thus igniting the Protestant Reformation.

Misunderstandings continued as time went on. Many were puzzled when an indulgence of 300 days was attached to a certain prayer. They wondered what the remission of 300 days in purgatory could possibly mean in an eternity where time itself means nothing.

In fact, what it meant was that saying that particular prayer had merit equivalent to what a sinner in the early church gained from doing penance for 300 days.

This lack of clarity led Pope Paul VI in 1967 to modify the rules for indulgences and redefine partial indulgences so that now there is no designation of days or years.