INDULGENCE (Lat. indulgentia, indulgere, to grant, concede), in theology, a term defined by the official catechism of the Roman Catholic Church in England as “the remission of the temporal punishment which often remains due to sin after its guilt has been forgiven.” This remission may be either total (plenary) or partial, according to the terms of the Indulgence. Such remission was popularly called a pardon in the middle ages—a term which still survives, e.g. in Brittany.

The theory of Indulgences is based by theologians on the following texts: 2 Samuel (Vulgate, 2 Kings) xii. 14; Matt. xvi. 19 and xviii. 17, 18; 1 Cor. v. 4, 5; 2 Cor. ii. 6-11; but the practice itself is confessedly of later growth. As Bishop Fisher says in his Confutation of Luther, “in the early church, faith in Purgatory and in Indulgences was less necessary than now. . . . But in our days a great part of the people would rather cast off Christianity than submit to the rigour of the [ancient] canons: wherefore it is a most wholesome dispensation of the Holy Ghost that, after so great a lapse of time, the belief in purgatory and the practice of Indulgences have become generally received among the orthodox” (Confutatio, cap. xviii.; cf. Cardinal Caietan, Tract. XV. de Indulg. cap. i.). The nearest equivalent in the ancient Church was the local and temporary African practice of restoring lapsed Christians to communion at the intercession of confessors and prospective martyrs in prison. But such reconciliations differed from later Indulgences in at least one essential particular, since they brought no remission of ecclesiastical penance save in very exceptional cases. However, as the primitive practice of public penance for sins died out in the Church, there grew up a system of equivalent, or nominally equivalent, private penances. Just as many of the punishments enjoined by the Roman criminal code were gradually commuted by medieval legislators for pecuniary fines, so the years or months of fasting enjoined by the earlier ecclesiastical codes were commuted for proportionate fines, the recitation of a certain number of psalms, and the like. “Historically speaking, it is indisputable that the practice of Indulgences in the medieval church arose out of the authoritative remission, in exceptional cases, of a certain proportion of this canonical penalty.” At the same time, according to Catholic teaching, such Indulgence was not a mere permission to omit or postpone payment, but was in fact a discharge from the debt of temporal punishment which the sinner owed. The authority to grant such discharge was conceived to be included in the power of binding and loosing committed by Christ to His Church; and when in the course of time the vaguer theological conceptions of the first ages of Christianity assumed scientific form and shape at the hands of the Schoolmen, the doctrine came to prevail that this discharge of the sinner’s debt was made through an application to the offender of what was called the “Treasure of the Church” (Thurston, p. 315). “What, then, is meant by the ‘Treasure of the Church’? … It consists primarily and completely of the merit and satisfaction of Christ our Saviour. It includes also the superfluous merit and satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints. What do we mean by the word ‘superfluous’? In one way, as I need not say, a saint has no superfluous merit. Whatever he has, he wants it all for himself, because, the more he merits on earth (by Christ’s grace) the greater is his glory in heaven. But, speaking of mere satisfaction for punishment due, there cannot be a doubt that some of the Saints have done more than was needed in justice to expiate the punishment due to their own sins … It is this ‘superfluous’ expiation that accumulates in the Treasure of the Church” (Bp. of Newport, p. 166). It must be noted that this theory of the “Treasure” was not formulated until some time after Indulgences in the modern sense had become established in practice. The doctrine first appeared with Alexander of Hales (c. 1230) and was at once adopted by the leading schoolmen. Clement VI. formally confirmed it in 1350, and Pius VI. still more definitely in 1794.

The first definite instance of a plenary Indulgence is that of Urban II. for the First Crusade (1095). A little earlier had begun the practice of partial Indulgences, which are always expressed in terms of days or years. However definite may have been the ideas originally conveyed by these notes of time, their first meaning has long since been lost. Eusebius Amort, in 1735, admits the gravest differences of opinion; and the Bishop of Newport writes (p. 163) “to receive an Indulgence of a year, for example, is to have remitted to one so much temporal punishment as was represented by a year’s canonical penance. If you ask me to define the amount more accurately, I say that it cannot be done. No one knows how severe or how long a Purgatory was, or is, implied in a hundred days of canonical penance.” The rapid extension of these time-Indulgences is one of the most remarkable facts in the history of the subject. Innocent II., dedicating the great church of Cluny in 1132, granted as a great favour a forty days’ Indulgence for the anniversary. A hundred years later, all churches of any importance had similar indulgences; yet Englishmen were glad even then to earn a pardon of forty days by the laborious journey to the nearest cathedral, and by making an offering there on one of a few privileged feast-days. A century later again, Wycliffe complains of Indulgences of two thousand years for a single prayer (ed. Arnold, i. 137). In 1456, the recitation of a few prayers before a church crucifix earned a Pardon of 20,000 years for every such repetition (Glassberger in Analecta Franciscana, ii. 368): “and at last Indulgences were so freely given that there is now scarcely a devotion or good work of any kind for which they cannot be obtained” (Arnold & Addis, Catholic Dictionary, s.v.). To quote again from Father Thurston (p. 318): “In imitation of the prodigality of her Divine Master, the Church has deliberately faced the risk of depreciation to which her treasure was exposed . . . . The growing effeminacy and corruption of mankind has found her censures unendurable . . . and the Church, going out into the highways and the hedges, has tried to entice men with the offer of generous Indulgence.” But it must be noted that, according to the orthodox doctrine, not only can an Indulgence not remit future sins, but even for the past it cannot take full effect unless the subject be truly contrite and have confessed (or intend shortly to confess) his sins.

This salutary doctrine, however, has undoubtedly been obscured to some extent by the phrase a poena et a culpa, which, from the 13th century to the Reformation, was applied to Plenary Indulgences. The prima-facie meaning of the phrase is that the Indulgence itself frees the sinner not only from the temporal penalty (poena) but also from the guilt (culpa) of all his sins: and the fact that a phrase so misleading remained so long current shows the truth of Father Thurston’s remark: “The laity cared little about the analysis of it, but they knew that the a culpa et poena was the name for the biggest thing in the nature of an Indulgence which it was possible to get” (Dublin Review, Jan. 1900). The phrase, however, was far from being confined to the unlearned. Abbot Gilles li Muisis, for instance, records how, at the Jubilee of 1300, all the Papal Penitentiaries were in doubt about it, and appealed to the Pope. Boniface VIII. did indeed take the occasion of repeating (in the words of his Bull) that confession and contrition were necessary preliminaries; but he neither repudiated the misleading words nor vouchsafed any clear explanation of them. (Chron. Aegidii li Muisis ed. de Smet, p. 189.) His predecessor, Celestine V., had actually used them in a Bull.

The phrase exercised the minds of learned canonists all through the middle ages, but still held its ground. The most accepted modern theory is that it is merely a catchword surviving from a longer phrase which proclaimed how, during such Indulgences, ordinary confessors might absolve from sins usually “reserved” to the Bishop or the Pope. Nobody, however, has ventured exactly to reconstitute this hypothetical phrase; nor is the theory easy to reconcile with (i.) the uncertainty of canonists at the time when the locution was quite recent, (ii.) the fact that Clement V. and Cardinal Cusanus speak of absolution a poena et a culpa as a separate thing from (a) plenary absolution and (b) absolution from “reserved” sins (Clem. lib. v. tit. ix. c. 2, and Johann Busch (d. c. 1480) Chron. Windeshemense, cap. xxxvi.). But, however it originated, the phrase undoubtedly contributed to foster popular misconceptions as to the intrinsic value of Indulgences, apart from repentance and confession; though Dr Lea seems to press this point unduly (p. 54 ff.), and should be read in conjunction with Thurston (p. 324 ff.).

These misconceptions were certainly widespread from the 13th to the 16th century, and were often fostered by the “pardoners,” or professional collectors of contributions for Indulgences. This can best be shown by a few quotations from eminent and orthodox churchmen during those centuries. Berthold of Regensburg (c. 1270) says, “Fie, penny-preacher! … thou dost promise so much remission of sins for a mere halfpenny or penny, that thousands now trust thereto, and fondly dream to have atoned for all their sins with the halfpenny or penny, and thus go to hell” (ed. Pfeiffer, i. 393).[1] A century later, the author of Piers Plowman speaks of pardoners who “give pardon for pence poundmeal about” (i.e. wholesale; B. ii. 222); and his contemporary, Pope Boniface IX., complained of their absolving even impenitent sinners for ridiculously small sums (pro qualibet parva pecuniarum summula, Raynaldus, Ann. Ecc. 1390). In 1450 Thomas Gascoigne, the great Oxford Chancellor, wrote: “Sinners say nowadays ‘I care not how many or how great sins I commit before God, for I shall easily and quickly get plenary remission of any guilt and penalty whatsoever (cujusdam culpae et poenae) by absolution and indulgence granted to me from the Pope, whose writing and grant I have bought for 4d. or 6d. or for a game of tennis’”—or sometimes, he adds, by a still more disgraceful bargain (pro actu meretricio, Lib. Ver. p. 123, cf. 126). In 1523 the princes of Germany protested to the Pope in language almost equally strong (Browne, Fasciculus, i. 354). In 1562 the Council of Trent abolished the office of “pardoner.”

The greatest of all Plenary Indulgences is of course the Roman Jubilee. This was instituted in 1300 by Boniface VIII., who pleaded a popular tradition for its celebration every hundredth year, though no written evidence could be found. Clement VI. shortened the period to 50 years (1350): it was then further reduced to 33, and again in 1475 to 25 years.

See also the article on Luther. The latest and fullest authority on this subject is Dr H. C. Lea, Hist, of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church (Philadelphia, 1896); his standpoint is frankly non-Catholic, but he gives ample materials for judgment. The greatest orthodox authority is Eusebius Amort, De Origine, &c., indulgentiarum (1735). More popular and more easily accessible are Father Thurston’s The Holy Year of Jubilee (1900), and an article by the Bishop of Newport in the Nineteenth Century for January 1901, with a reply by Mr Herbert Paul in the next number.  (G. G. Co.) 

  1. Equally strong assertions were made by the provincial council of Mainz in 1261; and Lea (p. 287) quotes the complaints of 36 similar church councils before 1538.