A: The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the Church offering new indulgences to her children, including a more general indulgence to those who are suffering from or those who are treating the virus, as well an indulgence that accompanied the special Urbi et Orbi blessing in an empty St. Peter’s Square on March 27. These occasions for grace are, of course, all for the good. Still, they unintentionally introduce a Catholic practice that can be confusing to some into an already chaotic time. So: what is an indulgence, and how should one be gained today?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites Pope Paul VI in its briefest summary of indulgences. “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” (1471).
The “temporal punishment due to sin” speaks to sin’s double consequence. The first consequence severs or at least weakens our union with God. When sins are confessed and absolved sacramentally, this “eternal punishment” is erased and we are back in God’s good graces again. The second result of sin, the “temporal punishment,” entails “an unhealthy attachment to creatures,” an attachment that is not removed with sacramental confession, but still needs purification either here or hereafter. Consider this analogy: I may lie about a friend or coworker. When found out, I confess to him that I have been speaking falsely about him, and he forgives me. This forgiveness resembles God’s remitting of “eternal punishment” due to our sin. But my offence toward my acquaintance still has unresolved consequences: his reputation may be damaged by my calumniations, while I myself still have a propensity to lie. These temporal consequences still need correcting. And it is these “temporal punishments” that the Church’s indulgences help to heal. Indulgences are considered either “plenary” or “partial” depending upon whether they remit all or part of one’s temporal punishment; the distinction is based either on the indulgenced act itself, and/or the disposition of the one performing the act. Further, indulgences can be applied to the one acting, or to the dead, but not applied to another living person.
The Church helps us by putting forward certain prayers and actions “under certain prescribed conditions” that encourage us to accept God’s grace as given us through his Mystical Body, the Church, by the merits of Christ, the holy angels, and saints. For example, the Holy See announced on March 20 that a “Plenary Indulgence is granted to the faithful suffering from Coronavirus, who are subject to quarantine by order of the health authority in hospitals or in their own homes if, with a spirit detached from any sin, they unite spiritually through the media to the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the Holy Rosary, to the pious practice of the Way of the Cross or other forms of devotion, or if at least they will recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a pious invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, offering this trial in a spirit of faith in God and charity towards their brothers and sisters, with the will to fulfil the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer according to the Holy Father’s intentions), as soon as possible.”
There are “certain prescribed conditions” contained in this and every indulgence. For a plenary indulgence, for example, one must be “detached from sin,” even venial sin, and also “fulfil the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer according to the Holy Father’s intentions).” Since many Catholics were quarantined or at least unable to receive the sacraments, the Church simply asked that these take place “as soon as possible.” In addition to these conditions common to every plenary indulgence, there are particular prayers and actions associated with an indulgence. In this instance, the faithful are asked to “unite spiritually through the media to the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the Holy Rosary, to the pious practice of the Way of the Cross or other forms of devotion, or if at least they will recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a pious invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, offering this trial in a spirit of faith in God and charity towards their brothers and sisters.”
The same March 20 decree also granted a Plenary Indulgence “on the occasion of the current world epidemic, also to those faithful who offer a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or Eucharistic adoration, or reading the Holy Scriptures for at least half an hour, or the recitation of the Holy Rosary, or the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross, or the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, to implore from Almighty God the end of the epidemic, relief for those who are afflicted and eternal salvation for those whom the Lord has called to Himself.”
In short, the Church’s children, when in a spirit resolving to turn away from sin carry out these prescribed prayers, are by the Mystical Body’s own merits freed from the temporal punishments due to their sins—or else the deceased whom they pray for are similarly washed clean.