Indulgence and Purgatory

by Jahnabi Barooah

Over the past couple of days, the internet was abuzz over the latest pronouncement from the Vatican. ‘Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets,” the Guardian reported. “Pope now offering indulgences in exchange for Twitter followers,” opined Slate. “Follow the Pope on Twitter and spend less time in purgatory, says Vatican,” the Verge announced. If only it were so easy to atone for sins! Unfortunately, this is just another case of the media getting a story about the Catholic Church wrong.

The Rev. James Martin, SJ has responded to the lamentable headlines on CNN’s ‘Belief blog’ writing, “Sorry, retweeting the pope won’t get you out of hell.” It’s a great column, and I encourage you to read it. I do wish he had gone into greater detail about the Catholic teachings on purgatory and indulgences. A brief search for “purgatory” and “indulgence” on Facebook and Twitter indicates that there is a lot of misinformation about the terms among non-Catholics, and even among some Catholics. Hopefully, this blog post will help to alleviate some of that confusion.

(Disclaimer: I write this neither as a form of Catholic apologetics, nor as a Catholic but as a student of religion with a special interest in Catholicism.)

Earthly life, purgatory, heaven and hell explained

Here is a crude diagram explaining heaven, hell and purgatory.

To understand indulgence and purgatory, we have to begin with sin — understood here as personal sinful acts not the state of original sin — and its effects. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines sin as “an offense against reason, truth and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods.” (CCC 1849) St. Augustine understood sin to be disordered love, which he defined as “love of oneself even to contempt of God.” (City of God 14:28) In layman’s terms, it means putting oneself and one’s desires before God and neighbor. The Catholic Church categorizes sin into two kinds, mortal and venial, based on its effects. A mortal sin is one which “turn[s] man away from God,” destroys charity — the source of the good in one’s heart — and if unrepented for (in Confession) and unforgiven in life, makes communion with God (or ‘heaven’) impossible. (CCC 1855) A venial sin is one which wounds charity in the heart but does not destroy it. If one doesn’t repent for venial sins in life, it is possible to be expiated of them after death in … purgatory.

The word ‘purgatory’ comes from the Latin purgare, which means to make clean or purify. While purgatory is popularly depicted as a pit of fire below the earth, or somewhere in between heaven and earth, it is best understood as a state of purification. [1] The Catholic Church teaches: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (CCC 1030) She believes that to live in heaven is “to be with Christ” and to attain this beatific vision — eternal union with God — one needs to be perfectly pure, that is, forgiven for and cleansed from the effect of every sinful act. (CCC 1024) It is reasonable to assume that most faithful Catholics, unless they lead lives of extraordinary holiness and perhaps even then, will go to purgatory before they can present themselves before the Lord.

At this point, it is necessary to introduce two other terms: (1) communion of saints and (2) treasury of the Church.

To put it in simple terms, the communion of saints is the Church, that is, the community of the faithful on earth, in purgatory and in heaven. The Catholic Church teaches that this unity allows the spiritual goods of the sacraments to be shared among the faithful, who are in turn linked to Christ through the sacraments. Just as everyone in the communion benefits from “acts done in charity,” so too sin harms this union. (CCC 953) It is precisely because of this communion that the Church believes that those on earth can pray for the expiation of sins of the departed in purgatory, and to the saints in heaven, who because of their special closeness to the Lord, can pray on behalf of — intercede for — the faithful on earth.

Communion of Saints and Communion in Spiritual Goods

A crude diagram to understand the communion of saints and communion in spiritual goods

Contrary to the image it might conjure (and much to your disappointment, I’m sure), the treasury of the Church is not a big chest of precious jewels hidden under the ground somewhere. Rather, as the apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina (ID) explains, it is the “infinite and inexhaustible value the expiation and the merits of Christ Our Lord have before God, offered as they were so that all of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father.” (ID §5) The Catholic Church teaches that this treasury also includes the merits of the Virgin Mary and the saints in heaven. Now, the Catholic Church believes, as promulgated in the 1343 papal bull Unigenitus dei filius, that this treasury, which was won for the Church by Christ (and the saints), has been entrusted to Peter and to his successors so that they may “distribute it to the faithful for their salvation, applying it mercifully for reasonable causes to all who are repentant and have confessed their sins.” And this brings me to … indulgences.

The word ‘indulgence’ comes from the Latin indulgere which means, as you may have rightly guessed, to be indulgent or lenient. An indulgence is the “remission before God of the temporal [i.e., not eternal] punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned.” (ID norm 1) [2] There are two kinds of indulgences, plenary and partial. A plenary indulgence is believed to remove all of the temporal punishment due to sin (that has already been forgiven), while a partial indulgence removes part of the punishment. (ID norm 2) Partial indulgences are granted to those who say particular prayers or pray at certain sites with a contrite heart. Similarly, plenary indulgences are granted for prescribed good works like pilgrimages and prayers provided the following conditions are also fulfilled: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion, prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff and detachment to all sins. (ID norm 7) If all the conditions are not fulfilled, a partial indulgence is granted instead of a plenary indulgence. As explained above, the Catholic Church believes that the vicars of Christ can authoritatively dispense merits from the treasury to those they judge deserve this mercy. Finally, it is important to add, as explained in Indulgentiarum doctrina, that the aim of the Church in granting indulgences is “not only that of helping the faithful to expiate the punishment due sin but also that of urging them to perform works of piety, penitence and charity.” (ID §4)

Now that we have the basic theology of purgatory and indulgence laid out, I hope it is not too difficult to see how the Catholic Church may grant indulgences to those who participate in World Youth Day in person and those who, because of various impediments, are unable to be there in person but join via the “new means of social communication.”

[It is beyond the scope of this blog post to get into the storied and even scandalous 1000-year history of indulgences and the abuses associated with the practice of granting them — but hopefully, I’ve been able to explain the basic theology of indulgences and lest there is any confusion, let me add that indulgences are not granted in exchange for money.]

P.S. — I apologize for the technical nature of this blog post. Regular readers will know that my blog posts tend to be more personal in general.


  1. In three Wednesday Audiences in 1999, Pope John Paul II explained why heaven, hell and purgatory should be understood as states of existence, not as physical locations. While these teachings are not considered infallible, they are sufficiently authoritative.
  2. The term “temporal punishment” tends to be confusing. Here’s one way to understand it — let’s say a student has disobeyed a teacher. The teacher forgives the student, and assigns him or her, say 100 lines. The latter can be understood as the equivalent of temporal punishment. Thus, according to the Catholic Church’s teaching, while one can be absolved of the guilt of sins in life (through Confession), one has to undergo temporal punishment for one’s sins that have been forgiven. Traditionally, the Catholic faithful could expiate their punishment due to sin by fasting, alms-giving and prayer. The first known use of plenary indulgences was in the 11th century after bishops judged that these voluntary penances could be replaced by “possibly easier works.” (ID §3)

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ad maiorem dei gloriam