What Are the Church’s Current Rules on Indulgences?

Q: While watching live the election of the new Pope, the commentator mentioned that those receiving the Urbi et Orbi blessing could receive a plenary indulgence. My daughter was watching internet “live-streaming,” and my wife and I were watching on TV. My daughter asked me if we qualified. I did some research, and those who received the blessing in person or through the radio did qualify. I hypothesized that so did we, thanks to technical progress beyond radio. Was I right? –Bill

A: Bill’s specific question pertained to Pope Francis’ election over a year ago. Nonetheless his question is still relevant, because we can gain exactly the same indulgence, under the same conditions, from the Pope’s blessing every single year on Easter and Christmas too. Since many of us watch the event on TV or the internet, it’s helpful to know how that works.

But before we examine the criteria for gaining a plenary indulgence on these particular occasions, it’s probably worthwhile to review the Catholic Church’s teaching about indulgences in general. For some reason, there are a surprising number of people who think the Church “did away” with indulgences—and nothing could be further from the truth! Despite protestant uproar about them during the reformation-era centuries ago, indulgences still exist, and in fact were revamped in a series of official documents in just the past few decades. Let’s take a look at the theology behind the concept of an indulgence, and then see how they are regulated today by the Church, and finally we’ll be able to answer Bill’s question.

To begin with, receiving an indulgence is not the same as being granted forgiveness. We Catholics know that God forgives our sins when we humbly confess them in the sacrament of Penance and receive absolution from the priest, who acts in God’s place. Particularly in the case of grave (mortal) sins, seeking this sacramental absolution is key.

Since indulgences don’t pertain to the forgiveness of sins, it follows that gaining an indulgence does not constitute a substitute for confession. Rather, indulgences concern the temporal punishment that must still be paid, even after a sin has been forgiven. A simple example might serve to clarify the distinction.

Let’s say that Jeff is a bored 12-year-old boy sitting idly on the curb, throwing stones he’s picking up along the side of the road (in open defiance of adult warnings not to do so). Suddenly there’s a crash—and he realizes he just broke the neighbors’ front window.

In a fit of remorse, Jeff bravely runs to their house and rings the doorbell. When Mr. Jones answers the door, Jeff tearfully tells him, “I did it, it’s my fault, I’m sorry!” After Mr. Jones recovers from his initial surprise, he examines the window and then looks at the cowering little boy, who is obviously repentant. “I can see you’re sorry,” Jones says, “I forgive you.”

Is the matter finished? No—because the broken window still needs to be fixed. True, Jones has forgiven him, but Jeff is still responsible for repairing the damage he did. He is morally obliged to make restitution.

This is how indulgences fit into the theological scheme of sin and forgiveness. When we are sorry for our sins and have received absolution for them, they are forgiven—but we still owe God a sort of “debt” that needs to be paid either here on earth, through prayer and penance, or after death in Purgatory (CCC 1030-1032). Gaining an indulgence is a way to “pay off” that debt of punishment, making restitution through certain prayers and other good works which the Church tells us will help to remit that debt. As the Catechism says,

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints (CCC 1471).

The text of canon 992 in the Code of Canon Law is virtually identical.

Older Catholics are usually quite familiar with prayers to which the Church had, in previous years, attached an indulgence described in terms of time: 100 days, 300 days, 7 years, etc. The lengths pertained to the number of days of penance which Christians used to be required to perform by ancient penitential canons of the Church. Where once we might have been obliged to sit in sackcloth and ashes in a public place for X number of days, as a way of doing penance for sins we had committed, an indulgence enables us to do the equivalent amount of penance by saying certain prayers or doing other works instead.

Thus, for example, Pope Pius IX decreed in 1854 that whenever a Catholic devoutly said, “Jesus, my God, I love Thee above all things,” he gained an indulgence of 50 days. (It goes without saying that we Catholics of more recent centuries have thereby a decided advantage over those who were required to perform much more strenuous penances, to obtain the very same result, in ages past!)

Who has the authority to grant indulgences? In a nutshell, the Holy Father, and those to whom he grants that power (c. 995.1). The Church holds that the Pope has this authority because of what Christ told His apostles: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). While the Holy Father may have handled the granting of indulgences personally in days gone by, today this responsibility has been given by the Pope to the Apostolic Penitentiary, one of the Church’s three tribunals in Rome (Pastor Bonus, Art. 117ff.).

But today, Catholics won’t see the Apostolic Penitentiary granting indulgences for set time-periods, like the above example of 50 days. That’s because the Church’s system of granting indulgences was revised in 1967 by Pope Paul VI, with his Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina. Pope Paul greatly simplified the system, and among other things did away with the previous time-measurements for partial indulgences (Chapter 5). No longer do we find references to indulgences of (for example) 100 days, or five years; instead, all such indulgences are now simply labeled “partial” (Norm n. 4). The Pope indicated that it is preferable to concentrate on the spiritual significance of the indulgenced work itself, rather than focusing on numerical calculations:

Regarding partial indulgences, with the abolishment of the former determination of days and years, a new norm or measurement has been established which takes into consideration the action itself of the faithful Christian who performs a work to which an indulgence is attached (5).

Thus there are only two types of indulgences in the Church today: partial, and plenary—which constitutes full remission of temporal punishment due to sin (c. 993). Indulgentiarum Doctrina explains the conditions which must be fulfilled in order to gain a plenary indulgence (Norms 7-10).

So what prayers and works are indulgenced? The official list was published by the Apostolic Penitentiary in June 1968, after Pope Paul had instructed them to compile a new one in accord with his revisions in Indulgentiarum Doctrina. Called the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, it is available on the Vatican website only in Latin, although English translations have been printed and are available for purchase elsewhere.

Before Paul’s Apostolic Constitution was issued, indulgences were listed in a book called the Raccolta, an old copy of which can be read online here. Any edition of the Raccolta today should be considered out-of-date in terms of the indulgences it contains, although it certainly remains a beautiful collection of Catholic prayers.

The 1968 Enchiridion was only the first edition; the one currently in force is the fourth edition, issued in July 1999. Note that several English translations are posted online on various Catholic websites, but they are previous, outdated editions and are thus incomplete.

Which brings us to Bill’s question. He is correct that an earlier edition of the Enchiridion mentioned that a plenary indulgence from the Pope’s first blessing, as well as his Urbi et Orbi blessings bestowed on Christmas and Easter, could be gained by listening over the radio. But the 1999 edition states in Concession 4 that the indulgence can be gained by those listening by means of television or radio (ope instrumenti televisifici vel radiophonici).

And the updating didn’t end there. Right before Pope Francis’ first papal blessing after his March 13, 2013 election, Cardinal Tauran told the world (in Italian, which can be heard here at 1:23:30) that a plenary indulgence could be gained by those present in St. Peter’s Square, as well as those listening “by means of the radio, television, and new communication-technology.” This obviously was meant to include any Catholic listening over the internet through any computer, phone or other sort of high-tech device.

Did the cardinal have the authority to say this? It’s true, the Apostolic Penitentiary did not make this statement, and the law gives the power to make these decisions to that tribunal. But remember that the Pope is the Supreme Head of the Church and as such, he “out-ranks” the Penitentiary and can thus amend any Penitentiary-document that he wishes. Since Pope Francis was standing right there when Cardinal Tauran made this statement, it’s pretty obvious that he approved of it. It seems safe to assume that at some point in the future, when a new edition of the Enchiridion is published, it will acknowledge new forms of technology by including this revised wording or something similar.

So now we can see the answer to Bill’s question. Assuming that he and his family met the required criteria for gaining a plenary indulgence, as laid out in the Enchiridion, they did indeed “qualify.” The Church’s theological teaching on the whole concept of indulgences is centuries-old; but at the same time, the Church also recognizes that many Catholics use technological modalities today which didn’t exist just a few years ago–and it tries to keep up with them.

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