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Indulgences: a Roman Catholic belief

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An indulgence is "the remission or limited release from the temporal punishments one must suffer in this life or in purgatory for the sins a person has committed." 1 An act such as reciting a prayer, saying the rosary, or helping someone in need can gain for the individual a reduction of many days in their stay in Purgatory.

During the late Middle Ages:

"... indulgences were employed by mercenary ecclesiastics as a means of pecuniary gain." 2 "...the practice of selling indulgence had degenerated into impenetrably murky financial and political transactions. In response to the wildly growing financial needs of the Papal Court, church institutions were given the rights to sell letters of indulgence as punishment for sin." 3

One type of indulgence, the "Peter Indulgence," was started by Pope Julius II in 1507 CE. It was collected from the faithful and used to finance the completion of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. One of the most successful salesmen of indulgences was Friar Johannes Tetzel (1465-1519). "He went from being a simple Dominican priest to Papal Commissioner for Indulgence." 4 He claimed that "a soul is released from purgatory and carried to heaven as soon as the money tinkles in the box." 5

In 1517 CE, Martin Luther became disgusted at Tetzel's sale of indulgences.  Prince Albrecht, Bishop of both Magdeburg and Archbishop of Mainz had a handbook prepared for the guidance of his indulgence merchants.

"Martin Luther read the instruction manual...in October of 1517. The things he read in this manual made it clear to him that as a Theologian he couldn't keep silent any longer. By nailing his [95]theses onto the door of the Castle Church, Luther encouraged an open discussion over the sale of Indulgences." 6,7

This precipitated the Protestant Reformation. Actually Luther apparently wrote a letter to his superiors to which he appended 95 theses in addition to nailing them to the cathedral door at Wittenberg. Nailing notices to the cathedral door was a common practice at the time.

 The abuses of indulgences ceased during the Renaissance. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent rejected the abuse of indulgences. In 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions.

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One present-day writer discusses how indulgences can significantly lessen a person's time spent in Purgatory or perhaps even cancel it altogether. 8 For example:

  • God will grant "100 to 300 days or more Indulgence" for a single recitation of a simple, short prayer. Repeating it 1,000 times in a single day (about once per minute that the person is not sleeping) would gain 300,000 days (about 821 years) indulgence.
  • A single Hail Mary of the Rosary will get a person more than 2,000 days indulgence.
  • These indulgences can be applied to the individual's own credit, or may be applied to a soul in Purgatory.
  • In addition to the above Partial Indulgences, there are also Plenary Indulgences which may be obtained during life or at the time of our death. These allow a person to bypass Purgatory completely. For example:
    "Pope St. Pius X ...granted a plenary indulgence at the hour of death to those who say at least after one Holy Communion the following prayer: 'Eternal Father, from this day forward, I accept with a joyful and resigned heart the death it will please You to send me, with all its pains and sufferings' "
  • Frequent confession, communion and daily assistance at Mass will also lessen one's time in Purgatory.


The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Indulgences," http://webusers.anet-stl.com/
  2. "The Catholic Encyclopedia, Indulgences," (1911). Online at: http://www.newadvent.org/ 
  3. Martin Luther, "The 95 Theses," at: http://www.wittenberg.de/
  4. "Lutherstade Wittenberg, Nailing the 95 theses onto the door of the Castle Church," at: http://www.wittenberg.de/
  5. D'Aubigne, "History of the Reformation," Vol. 1, pp. 241, 242).
  6. "Lutherstade Wittenberg, Nailing the 95 theses onto the door of the Castle Church," at: http://www.wittenberg.de/
  7. Martin Luther, "The 95 Theses," at: http://www.wittenberg.de/
  8. Fr. Paul O'Sullivan, "How to avoid Purgatory," at: http://abbey.apana.org.au/

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Copyright © 1998 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2008-DEC-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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