indulgence, in the Roman Catholic Church, the pardon of temporal punishment due for sin. It is to be distinguished from absolution and the forgiveness of guilt. The church grants indulgences out of the Treasury of Merit won for the church by Christ and the saints. Indulgences may be plenary, i.e., a full remission of all temporal punishment; or they may be partial, i.e., a remission of part of the temporal punishment. Contrary to popular understanding, the number of days specified in a partial indulgence does not denote a reduction of time in purgatory. The practice of quantifying indulgences stems from ancient usage, when actual public penance was imposed and remitted for specified periods as the church saw fit. Hence, the penitent who is granted an indulgence receives merit as if he had performed actual penance for the length of time specified. The degree of merit varies with the disposition of the penitent. The notion that this practice encourages moral laxity is denied by the church, since the penitent must be in a state of grace and the attachment to even a single venial sin will reduce the effectiveness of the indulgence. Indulgences won for souls in purgatory are applied only as God wills. Martin Luther protested against the sale and abuse of indulgences and came to reject the teaching altogether. Since the Council of Trent (1562) the buying and selling of indulgences has been unlawful.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.