Glad You Asked: What are indulgences?

On this episode of the podcast, Kathleen Manning talks about the concept of indulgences and what Catholics believe today.

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Most people who are even a little familiar with church history will recognize the image of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. While there’s no conclusive evidence that he actually did this, we do know that the Augustinian friar succeeded in kicking off the Protestant Reformation by promulgating his then-controversial treatise and that his primary objection was to the practice of selling indulgences. Basically, Luther thought the institutional church was in the business of “selling salvation.”

But what is an indulgence, really? Is it a “get out of hell free pass,” as some seem to think? Did the church really take money in exchange for the promise of forgiveness of sins? How did this practice originate, and how did it deteriorate into something associated with widespread abuse? Does the Vatican currently have a stance on indulgences, or is this one of those practices that the church changed or discarded over time? 

On this episode of the Glad You Asked podcast, hosts talk to guest Kathleen Manning about the concept of indulgences, how the practice developed, the controversies around it, and what Catholics believe today. 

Manning teaches history at Loyola University Chicago and is a frequent contributor to U.S. Catholic’s Glad You Asked column.  

You can read more about this topic in these links.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Emily Sanna: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Emily Sanna, managing editor at U.S. Catholic.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: And I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic. On today’s episode, we’re going to discuss a topic that comes up when we discuss some of the controversies in Christian history: What are indulgences?

Emily: A lot of people who hear the term “indulgences” in connection with Catholic church history associate it with a widespread medieval practice of doing certain pious deeds in exchange for a reduction in punishment for sin—or even giving money to the church in exchange for a pardon for sins.

Rebecca: It’s widely recognized that Martin Luther kicked off his program of reformation by questioning the practice of selling indulgences. Basically, Luther thought the institutional church was in the business of “selling salvation.”

Emily: But what is an “indulgence” really? Is it a “get out of hell free pass” as some seem to think? What was the original understanding of indulgences, how did the practice develop (or deteriorate)? And what’s current catholic teaching on indulgences?

Rebecca: Today’s guest on the podcast is going to talk about the origins of this belief, how the practice developed, the controversies around it, and what Catholics believe today. 

Emily: Kathleen Manning teaches history at Loyola University Chicago and is a frequent contributor to U.S. Catholic’s Glad You Asked column. This is her second time appearing as a guest on this podcast.  

Rebecca: Kathleen, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast again.

Kathleen Manning: Oh, of course. Thank you for having me back.

Emily: So to start off with today’s conversation, could you define what indulgences actually are?

Kathleen: An indulgence is a remission from the temporal punishment for sin. And so temporal, the punishment that you receive in time. When Catholics go to confession, when they confess and sincerely confess with a contrite heart, the priest intercedes and God forgives the sin, right? So no matter what you’ve done, if you are truly and genuinely sorry, the sin is forgiven when you confess. However, there might be some punishment or some penance that you still have to do. And typically this is time in purgatory. So an indulgence takes off some of the time that a person spends in purgatory. So it’s an extra addendum to the forgiveness that’s offered in confession.

Emily: So then how does it differ from like, what a priest might tell you to do after you go to confession, like pray or make amends like that? What’s the difference there?

Kathleen: The difference is that an indulgence usually requires some additional work. We see throughout history that this could be something just as simple as saying an extra set of prayers. It could be something as fancy as building and consecrating a new church. If you’re, you know, the Prince of Burgundy or the Duke of Burgundy, that might be something you can do.

If you’re a peasant working in the fields in central Germany, it might be one extra prayer. And the real sort of important aspect here is making sure this little extra incentive for the remission of punishment should not be sort of seen as taking the place, and this is where it’s gonna be tricky throughout history, it should not be seen as taking the place of the actual sort of genuine contrition that the person is expressing.

Rebecca: So how and when and where did this particular practice or tradition originate?

Kathleen: It starts in the early Christian church in the Mediterranean in about the third century. The first indication that we have of this practice, the first recordings we have of these practices arise during various Christian persecutions during the Roman Empire. And what happens is, there are Christians who do not want to be set on fire or eaten by wild animals or have their property confiscated and lose their citizenship. That’s something else that could happen during the Roman Empire for certain members of certain Christian sects, if they were practicing civil disobedience. That’s the big problem is that Christians who use their Christianity to defy laws within the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire didn’t care what you believed. They were multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual. They didn’t really care what people believed. They cared what people did. So they needed people to sacrifice to the emperor, or they needed people to pay appropriate temple taxes, and they needed people to not be in open defiance of these imperial religious rules. There were Christians who were, though. There were Christians who were in defiance.

And there were Christians who still believed in all of the things that the Christian church taught, but didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the empire. So the practice arises when Christians who want to still believe, but also want to be good citizens, they get what’s called a libellis, a permission slip, a warrant, I guess, saying that they had made the appropriate sacrifices to the empire, that they were sort of in good standing. These Christians though still wanted to be part of a Christian community even though they’ve done something that the Christian community considered anathema. These people were apostates, they were lapsed. They have left the community in the eyes of the Christian community in order to go do something that was civilly right, but the Christian community saw as religiously wrong. So how do you get back? You’ve already had like one permission slip saying, yes, they sacrificed appropriately. Now they wanna get back in the Christian church. And what they got was a second permission slip from somebody who was a Christian in good standing, somebody who was either a leader of their community or perhaps somebody who was later martyred.

I’m saying, yeah, you know, Titus, I understand why he sacrificed to the emperor. He’s still a good guy. He still believes in everything Jesus teaches. He just did this one bad thing. So the indulgence was initially this permission slip to allow you to get back into the Christian church. Then the controversy becomes, well, how do we know they’re really sorry? We know what they did and we know what they say that they believe. How do we know that those match up?

So the practice becomes adding on, not only do they have to confess, not only do they have to say they’re sorry, God will forgive the sin of apostasy, but now what they have to do is do a penance that involves getting back into the church. And that could be for the rest of your life. You could spend the rest of your life trying to get back into the Christian community. However, as the church migrates from the Mediterranean basin, from Rome and Greece and the Middle East into Northern Europe and encounters different cultures there and different sources of apostasy, not just prosecutions by the Romans. The timeline is cut down to two years. So by 517, we know that you only have to spend two years in order to get back into the Christian community if you’ve done something that’s, if you’ve committed apostasy or you’ve embraced a heretical teaching that you didn’t know was heretical at the time and now the church has changed this line and you’ve got to kind of get right. So the time that you have to spend in sort of church timeout here in this world has reduced from sort of maybe the rest of your life to two years. So that’s where we start to see the practice of getting permission to reduce punishments in time.

Emily: So you talked kind of about the indulgences in early Christianity, but is there any scriptural basis for this kind of practice, or was it something they made up more out of political expediency?

Kathleen: It mostly comes from political expediency and the church encountering different cultures as it grows. Initially, like I said, it starts in the Mediterranean basin in the near Middle East with roots very sort of clearly based in Judaism, and then as it spreads it encounters Roman state religion which has a different set of expectations and different set of beliefs about the way people ought to believe or different set of ideals about the way people ought to believe.

And then as it crosses the Alps, it encounters the Celtic and Gallic religions that have a basis in nature. So you’re converting people from sort of all types of religions and you have to adapt because the practices, they’re, you know, heathen or pre-Christian or pagan practices that you’ve considered sinful. How do you, you know, you can’t just say, oh, because, you know, you sacrificed a goat, we’re never going to let you in. You’re not going to really grow your church that way.

But you need to let them know that goat sacrifice is no longer acceptable. So how do we bring people in? I mean, the basis that you do find in scripture are for the forgiveness of sins, are for, for instance, Peter, where Jesus says, I give you the keys to the kingdom and whatever is bound on earth is bound in heaven and whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. That becomes the basis, not just for the belief that Peter becomes the first pope, but also the belief that the pope is ultimately the source here on earth of sanctioning who can and cannot intercede to forgive sins. So there’s that basis, but it’s not, you know, Jesus isn’t writing out, you know, a libelous for somebody who didn’t fast on the right day.

Rebecca: So a lot of the discourse about indulgences is kind of the scandal of Catholics selling them. When did that start becoming a thing? And what happened to that money? And was that something that the church was officially sanctioning?

Kathleen: So the first instances we have of money becoming involved in the forgiveness of sins or the remission of punishment for sins is in the sixth century in Ireland. There will be handbooks written for priests saying sort of how you should hear someone’s confession and then what type of penance, what type of punishment you should assign them. You always forgive the sin, but you need to figure out what’s an appropriate sort of proportional penance to what they’ve done. That’s the other kind of controversy in the early church is that somebody does something wrong and then their penance is forever. And so there’s a desire to bring in some standardization and some proportionality. Also, you know, a very poor person couldn’t pay an enormous fine and a very rich person, if they’re paying a small fine, that’s not fair. So what we see in the sixth century, in addition to the idea that priests could assign penances, could assign tasks, works, that could shorten a person’s time in purgatory, you see one of the things that could shorten a person’s time is the paying of a fine. And this becomes interesting because here we see a slippage, or a contact and some slipperiness between church law and secular law. If you break the law and, you know, go and steal someone’s cows or you hunt on their property, you pay a fine probably, or you might go to jail. But you typically, depending on who you are, you pay a fine. And in places where the church is the law, where maybe the abbot or the monastery has taken over and there’s no prince, they become the largest authority in the area. Who’s enforcing what laws? So like I said, in the sixth century, that’s where we start to see not just the requirements for prayers to lessen your time in purgatory, not just the performance of certain good works to lessen your time in purgatory, but also paying fines once you’ve confessed and are contrite if instead of doing a saying a prayer or in addition to saying a prayer, you might also have to pay a fine depending upon the crime, the sin you’ve committed.

So does the church sanction this? Initially, yes, they’re happy to take money in addition to encouraging people to visit shrines, to build shrines, if you have that much money and time on your hands, to go on pilgrimages, to perform acts of charity. Schools are built with some of the money collected.

In England, some of the money collected in England is used to build schools and bridges and roadways. The most famous, well actually the most famous beneficiary of an indulgence collection is St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pope issues indulgences for that, that if you go to confession, do everything that you’re supposed to do to make a true confession and then also pay. That money goes to the reconstruction of Saint Peter’s. But one of the best examples which I really like is it’s called the Butter Tower at the Cathedral in Rouen in France and that was an indulgence that was issued in the Middle Ages that allowed penitents, if they again fully confess, and pay, they were allowed to use butter during Lent. So that was a very specific indulgence. You got to use butter during Lent if you pay this indulgence fee. So the church does sanction it. Where it gets into trouble though is that essentially, and this is gonna be the massive criticism that arises, there’s gonna be criticism that always kind of runs in conjunction with this practice. And the criticism is that you’re misinforming people, that maybe people aren’t truly as contrite as they say they are, that they just wanna pay to get out of jail, get a hall pass, get a holy hall pass.

Or you’re telling them, you the priest, you the preacher, are offering them sort of a false hope, an idea that all they have to do is pay, and then the sin is forgiven. And you’re not doing your part to really catechize, to really teach, to really stress, and make sure that the believer really understands what the sacrament of confession and penance is. The indulgence is just that. I mean, if we think about what we use the term indulgence for today, something that’s extra, something that’s kind of fun and special. You confess, you’re not going to hell. You confess and you’re sorry, you’re not going to hell. The indulgence is just a little something extra that will lessen the burden once you die.

Emily: So by the time we get to the medieval era, what were some popular beliefs about indulgences or practices surrounding them?

Kathleen: Well, one of the biggest innovations, or sort of one of the biggest causes for the granting of an indulgence by 1095 is going on a crusade. If you go on a crusade to the Holy Land to capture Jerusalem and restore it as Christian, at this point it is being held by Muslims. The city of Jerusalem is occupied or held by Muslim rulers. If you do that and you die, you don’t have a chance to confess, you don’t have a chance to go to communion. You just die. You fall off your horse. Your sins will be forgiven sort of as an emergency indulgence that you know, you might not be able to die in a state of grace having fulfilled all the sacraments that you need to do to die in a state of grace. But because you’re going to do this truly, what the church would have taught, it was a truly good work going to fight on the pope’s behalf, going to fight on behalf of Christianity in Jerusalem, that is a big indulgence. At the same time, as indulgences become more widespread, and actually as the population grows and you just sort of have more people that you have to govern and catechize and try to teach.

You’re also going to see a fun market in counterfeit indulgences. And there’s going to be an attempt to crack down on this in 1215 at the Lateran Council. The big sort of margin that individual preachers were making on indulgences was that they could sell you as many years off in purgatory as you wanted. There are counterfeit indulgences. We have the documents, the papers, that we’re offering 20 and 30,000 years off of your time in purgatory. The Lateran Council says you can’t do that. If you build a church, if you’re again a fancy gentleman or fancy lady and you build a church, you get one year off. All other works get you 40 days. And this is interesting because I think it shows that people had a very kind of difficult conception of time. What is time for God? Is it 20, 30, 40,000 years? Is it a year or 40 days? And so there’s a real capitalization on the fact that, yes, the church teaches about forgiveness, about remission of sin, and about purgatory, but really we don’t know how they work. So, you know, because they happen after you die and nobody’s like, come back and told us how they work. What is our scale here? What are we dealing with?

Rebecca: So I think that’s kind of already casting light on why indulgences were such a hot topic during the early Reformation. But can you talk a little bit about the role that they played in that era?

Kathleen: Yeah, so like I said, there’s always gonna be, there’s gonna be criticism sort of side by side with the practice of issuing indulgences. There will be kings who say the pope doesn’t have this power to collect, essentially collect money in my territory, collect money in my kingdom, and the pope will say, yes, I do. By the 1400s in Bohemia, in what today is Czechia, the Czech Republic, we have what’s called the Hussite Reformation, the sort of baby Reformation, where the leader, early Protestant leader Jan Hus is very, very outspoken in the condemnation, in his condemnation of indulgences. And in fact, we have some really fun illustrations from what today is the Czech Republic of Satan selling indulgences. So you could get your indulgence card or your indulgence slip.

And it was this nice thing you could kind of put up in your house. You probably didn’t read, it was probably in Latin, but it had maybe an illustration of Jesus. And you can put that up in your house, like a diploma or a piece of art. But then what became kind of popular as a pushback were these illustrations of the devil, of Satan selling indulgences. By 1517, and this is the real big kickoff, Martin Luther publishes his 95 Theses. And Martin Luther is, I was telling my students this earlier in the semester. If you read the 95 Theses, Martin Luther was writing a solid piece of Catholic theology in his neurotic and pedantic way, but he is. Because what he says, his biggest complaint is, the preachers, the catechizers, the ones who are supposed to be leading people to God are greedy, which is a kind of common stereotype. We see that in literature, other places, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and in Boccaccio’s De Cameron, they both have characters who are partners or who are preachers who are scamming rubes out of their money in promise for forgiveness of sins. But Luther says, you know, the lack of catechism, the lack of instruction on confession and forgiveness has led to this error where people are believing that if they pay, their sins are forgiven. And that is not true. It’s never been true that if you pay, your sins are forgiven. If you pay and you are truly contrite and you sort of make all of the necessary, meet all of the necessary sacramental requirements, the payment is extra. The payment might let you off for time in purgatory. So Luther’s points are all true. 

And the other thing which, and this is where the church gets a little more iffy on him, is he says, we don’t know how purgatory works. There’s a point in the 95 Theses where he cites a popular belief that there were two saints who actually wanted to spend more time in purgatory because they wanted to be there to be helpful to the other souls. He says, we don’t know. Why would we buy those guys out of purgatory when they’re very happy to be there and be helpful to their fellow Christians?

So that is where we start to see a real organized and critical reevaluation of sort of, what are we doing when we’re offering this, you know, when we promote this practice? Are we just raising money? And Luther does say, hey, if you want to just raise money, raise money. There are ways to do that. You have kings who can raise taxes on whatever they want to raise taxes on.

If you want to build a church, ask for money for the church, but don’t confuse this idea of giving money with forgiveness of sins, because that is actually, Luther points out, actually really harmful to people. You’re giving them false hope, and you might be damning them ultimately, because they haven’t made any type of true act of contrition. They’ve just paid. They think they’re in the clear. And then, you know, when they die, they’re going to be unpleasantly surprised to find out where they are.

Emily: So moving forward to the present, what does the church teach about indulgences today? Are they still around?

Kathleen: They are still around. And what the church teaches about indulgences today is pretty much what they’ve always taught, with the caveat they’ve learned from Luther and really stressed that it’s not just paying money to get out of purgatory or get out of hell. Instead today, you still have to meet the same sort of basic requirements that you had to meet in the Middle Ages.

You have to be detached from sin. So whatever you were doing, gambling or I don’t know, pick your sin. If you liked it, you have to stop liking it. You have to detach yourself from sin. You have to make a valid sacramental confession. So you have to go to the priest to seek his intercession and forgiveness. You have to receive communion immediately afterward in the state of grace. You’ve just left confession, your sins have been forgiven. And then you have to pray for the intentions of the pope. In addition, you can do various good works which hopefully align with the intentions of the pope. So I don’t know. I mean, you know Pope Francis is a big environmentalist, if you are going out and picking up trash off the lakeshore, that might be part of your, this is not theological advice for your listeners, but that might be sort of part of your additional indulgence. We have a Jubilee year coming up in 2025. There will probably be some type of indulgence issue for people who go meet sort of all of these requirements and then additionally make a pilgrimage to Rome and visit various sites in Rome. I don’t know that yet, but that’s usually what happens in the Jubilee year.

And also in 2020, there were some indulgences issued during the coronavirus pandemic. People who died of coronavirus without being able to make a full confession and receive communion were granted a state of grace. The idea that we can’t deny people on a ventilator, stuck in a hospital, grace, because of their circumstances. So that was a special indulgence that was granted during that time. Also, there was an indulgence for healthcare workers that one of the acts, that being a healthcare worker during that crisis was also a sort of special form of grace. So they’re still around. They’re, you know, you don’t get to buy your way out of eating fish, but, they’re still around for various good works.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for all of this fascinating information and for being our guest on the Glad You Asked podcast today.

Kathleen: Of course, thank you for having me.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.