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In the theology of Roman Catholicism, an indulgence is the remission of the temporal punishment due to God for a Christian's sins.
The Roman Catholic Church grants these indulgences after the guilt of sin and its punishment of eternal damnation have been remitted by the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as penance, or by perfect contrition. Under Roman Catholic theology, the salvation made possible by Jesus allows the faithful sinner eventual admittance to Heaven. Baptism results in the full forgiveness of a person's sins; but any sin committed after baptism incurs a penalty that has not been forgiven. Serious sins are mortal sins; they extinguish sanctifying grace in the believer's soul, and doom the sinner to Hell. For these sinners, grace must be restored by perfect contrition or the sacrament of Reconciliation; even so, there remains a penalty owed to God that must be expiated in this world or in the afterlife. Other, less serious sins, are venial sins and incur a penalty owed to God even if they do not forfeit salvation. Indulgences remove some or all of these temporal penalties owed on account of the sins of the faithful.
An indulgence sold by authority of the Pope by Johann Tetzel in 1517. The text reads:
"By the authority of all the saints, and in mercy towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds and remit all punishments for ten days."
Indulgences are "plenary" or "partial;" "plenary," when they remit all of the temporal punishment due for sin; and "partial," when a part of that punishment is remitted. Previously, partial indulgences were stated as a term of days, weeks, months, or years; these terms mean that as much of the temporal punishment for sins is remitted as would be expiated by performance of a canonical penance for that period of time. Since the Second Vatican Council, no specific time is specified, in part due to the incorrect assumption many Catholics had made that the time period referred to the length of the soul's stay in Purgatory after death.
Indulgences can be applied either to the penitent's own sins, or for the alleviation of the penance of souls in Purgatory. Obtaining an indulgence for another living person is disallowed by canon law. To successfully apply an indulgence to one's own sins, one must be a baptised Christian, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, not subject to excommunication, and have the intention of performing the work for which the indulgence is granted.
The doctrine of indulgences is founded on three doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church:
Under the Roman Catholic concept of merit, the infinite merit of Christ, and the merits of the various saints above and beyond what was needed to satisfy God and get them into Heaven has been granted by the Church, which can apply this surplus merit — sometimes called works of supererogation — against the deficits in merit suffered by penitent but believing sinners.
The doctrine of indulgences has historically been one of the more controversial teachings in Roman Catholic soteriology. The ability to offer a full pardon of the punishment due for sins has been abused by some unscrupulous Roman Catholic hierarchs for monetary gain (a problem during the time of Martin Luther) and to motivate their faithful to do a number of things over history. A plenary indulgence was proclaimed by Pope Urban II in 1095, and by several of his successors, to anyone who went on the Crusades to re-claim the Holy Land from the Saracens, or who died along the way.
In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, a situation that took on the appearance of "selling indulgences." The aggressive marketing practices of Johann Tetzel in promoting this cause provoked Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, protesting what he saw as the purchase and sale of salvation. From this controversy the Protestant Reformation was launched.
Because the underlying doctrine of salvation differs from the Roman Catholic model, indulgences do not exist in Eastern Orthodoxy or in Protestantism. While the criteria for receiving indulgences that too easily led to the abuse of indulgences are no longer present in the Catholic Church, the underlying doctrine of indulgences remains; see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ss. 1471-1479. Specific prayers, often over a period of days, can earn Roman Catholics indulgences; these prayers are often circulated on holy cards and in other Roman Catholic literature.
Generally, a plenary indulgence requires four additional acts in order to be valid, in addition to the specific act named for the indulgence. These are sacramental Confession, sacramental Communion, prayer for the intentions of the pope, and complete renunciation of all attachment to sin. It is recommended that the Communion be on the same day as the act or prayer to which an indulgence is attached, while confession may be within a prudent period before or after the act (typically, one week is cited, though in the Great Jubilee, the Vatican specifically allowed confession within three weeks of the act). One confession may be applied to several indulgences. If any of these additional acts is missing, the plenary indulgence will instead be partial.
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