Indulgence (Lat. indulgere, to yield, to grant), in the Roman Catholic church, the remission of the temporal penalty to be undergone by the sinner, after his sin has been forgiven in confession. The term originated in the discipline of the early church, when notorious sinners were sentenced, after they had been absolved in confession, to periods of public penance sometimes extending to the hour of death. The sincere sorrow of the offenders, the intercession of those who were imprisoned or about to suffer death for the faith, and occasionally even the prayers of the civil magistrates, induced the bishops to be indulgent to the penitents, by granting them a remission of the imposed canonical penance, or by relaxing its rigor. The use of public penances passed away with that of public confession, and was replaced both in the eastern and western churches by good works, private austerities, and devotional exercises. When Christianity spread among the northern nations of Europe, the canonical penances were found to be inapplicable to their condition. Their pagan jurisprudence had accustomed them to pecuniary mulcts, so that persons guilty of theft or murder could purchase exemption, and compound with the injured parties or their relatives, by paying a stipulated fine.
This system was applied by the church to penitential atonements; and the money thus contributed was employed in almsgiving, or for the redemption of captives, the freeing of slaves, or the expenses of public worship. The directions drawn up by Theodore of Canterbury and Egbert of York in the 8th century, and by Halitgar of Cambrai in the 9th, were framed for the purpose of administering penance in conformity with these national customs. But this substitution of pecuniary fines gave rise to serious misapprehensions and gross abuses. It was easy for the unlettered multitude to confound the remission of the canonical penalty thus obtained for money with the purchase of pardon for sin. Many councils and ecclesiastical writers of these times either denounced the practice altogether, or urged upon the clergy the duty of instructing the people on the true nature of penitential satisfaction. The synod of Cloveshoo or Abingdon in 742 stigmatized the prevalent error that almsgiving releases the sinner from the more stringent kinds of penance; and in 813 the second council of Chalons uttered a similar warning.
In 1095 the council of Clermont, by the authority of Pope Urban II., offered a "plenary indulgence " to all who took the cross for the purpose of delivering Jerusalem. It was enacted that all who, having confessed their sins with true repentance, might engage in the expedition, should be exempted, in consequence of the labor and dangers to which they voluntarily exposed themselves, from the canonical penances to which they were otherwise liable. The council of Lyons in 1274 extended the same indulgence to all who, unable to join the crusade in person, should by voluntary donations contribute to its success. From that period indulgences began to be multiplied, and as often as money was required for any object connected with the interests of the church, they were offered to the people. Out of this practice grew abuses of two kinds. The money thus obtained was frequently diverted from its original destination; and the office of collecting it being committed to inferior agents, secular as well as ecclesiastical, it became their interest, as they received a percentage on the amount, to exaggerate the advantages of the indulgence, and to impose upon the credulity and simplicity of the people.
Severe constitutions were enacted by several popes to prevent such abuses, and to punish the rapacity and impiety of the collectors; but these laws were not enforced, and fell into disuse. Besides, during the great western schism the rival pretenders to the papacy lavished indulgences among their supporters. This brought both the indulgence and the authority which dispensed it into discredit. The crisis came when Julius II. proposed the erection of the new basilica of St. Peter's on the Vatican hill, and published an indulgence in Poland and France in favor of all who should help defray its cost. His successor, Leo X., added to this object a crusade against the Turks, and extended the indulgence to the northern provinces of Germany. The papal commission for this purpose was issued to the archbishop of Magdeburg, who delegated it to the Dominicans, among whom was the notorious Tetzel. They spread themselves rapidly over Saxony, and, according to Luther, offered indulgences in the streets, markets, and taverns, teaching that every contributor, if he paid on his own account, infallibly opened to himself the gates of heaven; if on account of the dead, instantly liberated a soul from purgatory.
These abuses were subsequently condemned by the council of Trent, and measures were prescribed for suppressing them or preventing their recurrence in each diocese. Since that period, though no such general abuses have been noticed by historians, yet in many Roman Catholic countries indulgences have continued to be published in forms which give great offence, especially to Protestants. - The expressions used, and the local customs relating to indulgences, can only be rightly understood from a clear statement of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church on this subject. She teaches that by sacramental absolution the guilt of sin (reatus culpae) committed after baptism is taken away, together with the eternal punishment it deserves, by virtue of Christ's sufferings; but that the pardoned sinner remains liable to the reatus panae, or to a temporal penalty to be paid in this life or the next. This penalty is not to be confounded with the "canonical penances " of the primitive church. It is held by Catholic theologians that St. Paul showed indulgence to the incestuous Corinthian before the institution of the system of canonical penances.
These were established gradually by local usage in the East and West, without the authority of any general ecclesiastical law; and the penitential canons which regulated the application of such penances varied, like the usage itself, in different countries. As this whole system had been introduced by custom, so it fell into disuse without ever having been repealed by any general council. The church, meanwhile, never ceased to exact of the penitent the satisfaction due primarily to the divine law violated by his transgressions, and secondarily to the community scandalized and disturbed by them. So long as the penitential canons remained in vigor, the fulfilment of their prescriptions was held to be satisfactory before God and the church, releasing the penitent from the reatus paenae both here and hereafter. A true satisfaction to the church meant a true satisfaction to God. In like manner, since the disuse of canonical penances, the fulfilment of those imposed by the church is to be taken as the payment of what is due to God as well as to herself. Moreover, penitential works derive their worth and efficacy from their being performed in union with Christ's atonement.
He and his sanctified members, whether in heaven, on earth, or in purgatory, form in the view of the church one moral person; and his Spirit imparts to the virtues and acts of his saints all the supernatural merit which they possess. Their merits added to his, like a finite quantity added to the infinite, do not increase the latter, but are only merged in it. These united merits of Christ the head and of all his true members constitute the property of regenerated humanity; they form a treasury committed to the guardianship of the church, of which she as his spouse is the dispenser. Out of this she sets apart a portion for her needy children, which they may make their own by the performance, in a state of grace, of specified good works, and with this acquired treasure purchase for themselves or for the dead perfect reconciliation and communion with God. The Christian who, by gaining an indulgence through the accomplishment of certain outward acts, thus becomes master of a portion of Christ's redeeming merits, purchases his own soul's perfect peace with "a price" which he presents to the divine justice through Christ; and if he offer the whole fruit for the release of a soul in purgatory, he does so through the church, per modum suffragii, as an intercessory offering, which God may or may not accept, but which the church assumes he actually does accept in ratification of her action.
In both cases, when every prescribed condition for the gaining of an indulgence has been fulfilled, God remits in heaven what Christ's spouse remits upon earth. The nature and existence of this treasury of merits, its application, as here explained, to the living and the dead, and the ratification by God of the acts of the church relating to indulgences, are, without being defined as of faith, considered as proxima fidei. As the temporal satisfaction or penalty due by the sinner after sacramental absolution is a consequence of the sin itself, it has always been called sin in the style of the Roman chancery, and in the papal bulls which treat of indulgences and jubilees. Hence the phrase " full and complete remission of sins " is to be understood as meaning the full and complete remission of the temporal penalty secured by the fulfilment of the conditions prescribed for an indulgence, a necessary but tacit preliminary to which is sacramental absolution to the truly contrite. In no supposable case can indulgence be a pardon for the guilt of sin even to the most heart-stricken penitent, still less a prospective pardon of future sins, or a license for committing them. A plenary indulgence is the remission of the entire satisfaction due to God and subject to the power of the church.
The indulgence of a jubilee differs from this, not in a fuller relaxation of penalty, but in the wider absolving faculties granted on such an occasion, to confessors. A partial indulgence, specifying any limited time, alludes to the forms of the old penitential canons, which enjoined for each sin a penance proportioned in rigor and duration to its gravity. The inscriptions to be found in Rome or elsewhere in Catholic churches on what are called privileged altars give much offence to Protestants, because the words denote that "these souls are delivered from purgatory." Benedict XIV. explains them by saying that " whenever a pope declares an altar to be privileged, he sets apart, each time the eucharistic sacrifice is offered on it for a departed soul, a sufficient portion of the church's treasure of merits to obtain from God, if it so pleaseth him, the release of that soul from purgatory." This explanation also applies to the indulgences attached to certain festivals, to privileged pilgrimages, to visiting certain churches, or to the performance of such devotions as the " way of the cross." All can be appropriated to the souls in purgatory in the way mentioned above. - The Scriptural grounds to which Roman Catholic theologians appeal in support of their doctrine of satisfaction and indulgences are: 1, for satisfaction, the examples of Adam, Moses, Aaron, and David, who, though pardoned, were subjected to most grievous temporal punishments; 2, for indulgences, the power of the keys bestowed on Peter (Matt. xvi. 19), and on the apostles collectively (Matt, xviii. 18), and their exercise in binding (1 Cor. v. 4) and in loosing or remitting (2 Cor. ii. 6). Moreover, they contend, the doctrine of the church in this matter rests on tradition, which is interpreted by the perpetual usage of the church and the writings of the fathers. - See Wiseman's " Lectures on the Doctrines and Practices of the Catholic Church" (London, 1844; Baltimore, 1852); Bergier's Dictionnaire de theologie; Hirscher's Lehre vom Ablass (Tubingen, 1844); Nean-der's "History of Doctrines," vol. ii., 594, and "Church History," vol. iii.; and Hodge's " Systematic Theology," vol. iii.