Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Historical Origin of Indulgences

by Fr. Enrico dal Covolo, S.D.B.


Reflection on the Bull Incarnationis Mysterium.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, May 19, 1999

1. Introduction

The Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 explains in nn. 9 and 10 the true meaning of the Jubilee indulgence, while the Decree attached to the Bull sets out the conditions for gaining this indulgence.

It would be helpful to accompany our reflection on nn. 9 and 10 of the Bull with some historical observations. The catechetical treatment of indulgences (doubtlessly complex, given the contemporary cultural climate) will have to be historically based if it is to be pastorally effective.

Before beginning the historical discussion, we will make two observations, one bibliographical and the other methodological.

As regards bibliography, the most complete treatment of indulgences from the historical standpoint goes back to 1922-23. I am referring to an important monograph in three volumes by Nikolaus Paulus, entitled Geschichte des Ablasses im Mittelalter, published in Paderborn, on which subsequent research largely depends. In the period closer to our own, it is useful to consult the entries in the major encyclopedias and dictionaries currently in use.1

From the methodological standpoint, it is important to acknowledge and consistently employ Paulus' historico-critical approach. His historical research started with a precise definition of indulgence in our current theological and canonical sense. Only in this way was he able to discern, among conflicting opinions, the historical presuppositions and actual origin of indulgences, eliminating doubtful references and clarifying ambiguous or misinterpreted terms.

We too should begin with a quick explanation of the term in its historical usage.

The Latin term indulgentia means condescension with the various nuances this implies.2

Historians of the Roman Empire use the word in the technical sense of remissio tributi or remissio poenae, concessions that the emperors customarily made on certain occasions. It was also used to indicate abolitio, a sort of amnesty decreed on joyful public occasions (thus in the Carolingian era indulgentia was still being used as the technical term for the remission of penalties or taxes).

In the Theodosian Code3 the term indicates the pardons granted by Christian emperors especially at Easter: so much so that in many early medieval texts (various calendars, sacramentaries, ceremonials, etc.) Palm Sunday is called dominica indulgentia.

As for the question of remission, we find various terms which can refer both to indulgentia in the strict sense of the term (as we understand it today) and to other similar or related ideas.

This imprecision in terminology — as we already mentioned — has led to great confusion among scholars who are less careful in their research. In fact, the words absolutio, relaxatio, remissio, venia, condonatio and indulgentia can indicate, especially in the 11th-12th centuries, various forms of remission — whether sacramental-penitential or extrasacramental.

According to the current Code of Canon Law: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment for sins the guilt of which has already been forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful obtains under certain and definite conditions with the help of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints".4

In historical research, then, we must carefully determine whether indulgence refers to a strictly extrasacramental act, so that we can decide whether an indulgence in the proper sense is meant or some other form of penitential remission.

2. Antecedents of indulgences (reconciliation; mitigation, reduction and commutation of sacramental penance)

Thus, for example, the grace (charis) of which Paul speaks in 2 Cor 2:10 in relation to an unnamed member of the community should not be considered an indulgence in the strict sense but a reconciliation.

This form of reconciliation flourished in the Church from the second to the fourth centuries, and took place primarily through the intercession of the martyrs or confessors of the faith, or in danger of death; but it is essentially a question of readmitting penitents into the Church.

Relaxatio (or mitigation of penance), which is found for example in the Council of Epaon,5 is also the substitution of a previous, more severe penance with something new and milder. These mitigations of penitential discipline became necessary due to the changing times and social conditions of Christians.

From the seventh century on, beginning in Ireland and England, redemptio, a sort of commutation of penance to less demanding works, such as prayers, alms, fasts and even the payment of fixed sums of money depending on the various kinds of offences (tariff penances) became fashionable. But all this was applied in the context of sacramental discipline.6

A substantial reduction of penance, but still within the sacramental context, already appears in the tenth century in connection with pious donations, pilgrimages and similar meritorious works; it is always a question of the reduction of personal and individual penances. A pilgrimage to Rome was considered an especially meritorious work, so milder penances were imposed on a pilgrim who went to that city. For example, Benedict III (855-858), at the request of Bishop Solomon of Constance, imposed a lighter than usual penance on a pilgrim guilty of fratricide because of his pilgrimage. We know of these examples under Nicholas I, John VI, Stephen V and others. Bishops too were accustomed to imposing a lesser penance on pilgrims who visited shrines or other places of worship than they would have received, precisely because of their pilgrimage. A particular form of the commutation of penance was practised at the time of the Crusades, when the confessor required the penitent to go on a Crusade in place of some other penance.

From the 11th century on, such commutations became more and more frequent and were applied to whoever fulfilled the prescribed conditions. The rigor of the public and tariff forms of sacramental penance had become unbearable in the radically altered conditions of Christian society, and a way had to be found to mitigate this rigour.

Finally — beginning again in the 11th century — the possibility of providing for the multiple works of piety through the imposition of a donation as a condition for the remission of punishment, even outside the sacrament, led the way to indulgences in the strict sense of the term, i.e., apart from sacramental penance.

Among the antecedents of indulgences we should again mention the fact that in the 11th and 12th centuries the use of absolutio flourished in the West.

Towards the end of the Carolingian era and even later, the custom of seeking an absolution in every circumstance and on every occasion, and before any work, became widespread in medieval society. In other words, the faithful were administered a prayer formula — deprecative as well as indicative — so that God would forgive their sins. Absolutions entered the liturgy of the Mass and the Office (this is the meaning of the Confiteor), and were used on various other occasions not only for the living but also for the dead as a prayer on their behalf. We know of countless individual and general grants of these absolutions. They were used in religious houses and outside them on particular days, e.g., in the case of death (see the absolutio super tumbam even today); Popes, Bishops and Abbots granted an absolutio and promised a remission of sins through good works. Absolutions of this kind were more or less solemn blessings, with an authoritative declaration of the resulting merit. Synods and councils were closed with a solemn absolution and sermon; general absolution was given on Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday; it was granted for meritorious works, for observing the so-called "truce of God", etc.

All this helped to give more and more concrete form to the practice of indulgences in the proper and strict sense. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to determine in a specific instance whether we are already dealing with a true and proper indulgence, or still with an advanced form of remission connected with Confession.

3. Transition to true and proper indulgences

Certainly, true indulgences granted for almsgiving or for devotional visits to churches, altars, etc. began in the 11th century — but still only a few — and became more common in the 12th century and later. Paulus7 gives a chronological list of these indulgences down to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

In any case, by the end of the 11th century indulgences in the strict sense of the word are found with all their essential elements. It remains difficult, however, to identify the precise point of transition from the reduction or commutation of sacramental penance to the extrasacramental remission of temporal punishment due to sins committed: with the 11th and 12th centuries it is still hard in many cases to determine whether we are dealing with one or the other practice.

It is helpful in this regard to quote an article — now rather dated as a whole — by Mons. Boudinhon, in which the scholar says: "The first offers of indulgences were made with conditions more or less equivalent to the exercises of penance itself. It would be difficult today to recognize their nature as indulgences. Nevertheless, they represent the first examples of our modern indulgences, i.e., good works offered to all in exchange for the temporal punishment due to sin".8

In this problematic transition, however, the "Crusade" indulgences (which we mentioned earlier) were particularly significant, since to a great extent they led the way to the plenary indulgence. Paulus9 gives a complete and very informative list of them.

In 1063 Alexander II granted a remission of punishment for those who fought the Moors; in order to rouse Christians for the First Crusade, Urban II declared at the Council of Clermont in 1095 that participation in the Crusade was equivalent to a complete penance: "Paenitentiam totam peccatorum, de quibus veram et perfectam confessionem fecerint ... auctoritate dimittimus".

This was repeated by Eugene III in 1145, while Gregory VIII introduces something new in that the complete (plenary) indulgence could also be gained by those who provided someone to take their place or who contributed to the expense of a crusade. These indulgences were later granted for "Crusades" against the pagan Slavs, the Albigensians, etc.

It was precisely the plenary indulgence of the Crusades that led to the idea of the plenary indulgence for the Jubilee.

4. Plenary indulgence in danger of death and for the dead

As regards the plenary indulgence for the dying and the dead, in the 11th century we already find acts of reconciliation granted at the moment of death which leave unresolved the question of a complete remission. But after a plenary indulgence was granted to crusaders even when they were unable to complete the crusade but died because of it, the way was opened to the grant of a true plenary indulgence at the moment of death for everyone.

In the 14th century these grants were made with individual letters of penance: a priest was allowed to be designated as a confessor in danger of death with the faculty of granting the plenary indulgence.

But the faithful had already begun to apply the indulgences they had been granted to the souls of the dead as well. It is clear that around 1350 the practice of applying the Jubilee, Crusade and "Portiuncula" indulgences to the dead was widespread. The ecclesiastical authorities, however, did not yet grant these indulgences, although there was the practice of granting an indulgence to the living if they prayed for the dead. Only in 1457 did Callistus III grant King Henry IV of Castille a plenary indulgence for the living and, for those who would pay 200 maravedi (a former currency in the Iberian countries) for the Crusade against the Moors, an indulgence for the dead. But the Bull remained unknown outside Spain, where it in fact caused a great deal of surprise. In 1476 Sixtus IV granted a Bull for the cathedral of Saintes, France, valid for 10 years, with a plenary indulgence for the living and, in modum suffragii, also for the dead. Regarding the application of indulgences to the dead, there has been a long discussion as to whether the application to the person occurs with certainty or only if it is graciously accepted by God; the latter thesis prevailed.

As for the general doctrine of indulgences, the main difficulty lay in determining the reason why an indulgence could be granted or gained. This reason was found in God's mercy, in the value of the Church's prayers and in the merits of the saints. Some preferred to speak of a kind of substitution with the good works of the Church militant, i.e., of a sort of compensation on the part of the living; but around 1230 the Dominican Hugh of St-Cher proposed instead the idea of a "treasury" at the Church's disposal, consisting of the infinite merits of Christ and the immeasurable abundance of the saints' merits: a thesis which later prevailed and was soundly demonstrated by great scholastics such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas; today it is still the basis for the theological explanation of indulgences.

5. Esteem for indulgences

One aspect of indulgences deserves special mention: the piety of the faithful saw much greater value in indulgences when they were still very rare.

On the other hand, medieval piety was expressed in a countless number of particular devotions, confraternities and associations, all of which led to the request for more and more indulgences. Singing the Salve Regina, reciting the Angelus, praying for the dead in cemeteries, visiting particular sacred images or relics, listening to a sermon, accompanying the Blessed Sacrament when it was brought to the sick or on the feast of Corpus Christi and other occasions, attending Mass, the celebration of patron saints, anniversaries and the dedication of churches, visiting particular altars, chapels, shrines, places of worship or attending the meetings of a confraternity: so many occasions were enriched with indulgences, and the piety of the faithful continued to ask for more.

As a result there were forgeries. But there is more.

Indulgences were attached to many works that were not only good but also served the common good, both religious and civil. Many churches were built or restored — at least in part — with the revenue from indulgences; this also explains the impressive architectural and artistic activity of the Middle Ages. Moreover, hospitals, leprosariums, charitable institutions and schools were built with support from the receipts of special indulgences. Along the same lines is the well-known construction of roads and bridges. Sometimes an indulgence was also granted for certain reclamation projects.

6. Abuses

But the granting of indulgences in connection with almsgiving also led to deplorable abuses.

After an indulgence was announced for making a contribution to a certain project, quaestores were sent to collect the related alms. Unfortunately, in many cases the preaching of these quaestores, out of ignorance or shrewdness, went far beyond dogmatic truth; some of them even dared to promise that the damned would be released from hell.

But another aspect of indulgences was connected with almsgiving. Permission began to be granted to Catholic kings and princes, particularly on the occasion of Crusades, to retain for themselves a rather considerable part of the alms collected for the gaining of indulgences. Later on, similar permission was frequently granted for many other projects, and princes were not always too scrupulous. The most well-known and debated question is the indulgence granted for building the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

No one can deny the existence of abuses, some very serious. However, it must be acknowledged that ecclesiastical authority tried — perhaps not always with the necessary zeal —to curb evil practices. Unfortunately, only the Council of Trent, after the sad Lutheran schism, suppressed for ever the collecting of money for indulgences. But in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council had already suppressed some abuses connected with indulgences: in this regard, the extent of the grants was spelled out and it was determined, for example, that only a one-year indulgence would be granted for the consecration of churches and no more than a 40-days indulgence for other occasions. But very soon these limits were widely exceeded. In fact, false documents were circulated with indulgences surpassing all bounds: indulgences of hundreds or even thousands of years.

7. Tridentine and post-Tridentine legislation

Following the Councils of Lyons and Vienne (1245, 1274 and 1311-1312), the Council of Trent again took up the issue of indulgences, particularly in view of the battle waged against them by the Lutheran Reformation. In the 21st session, chapter nine, the institution of the quaestores, i.e., those who collected the revenue from indulgences, was suppressed, and the publication of indulgences was reserved to Ordinaries. Lastly, in the 25th session, the famous Decree De indulgentiis was issued, defining that the Church received from Christ the Lord the right to grant indulgences, approving their use as christiano populo maxime salutarem, again abolishing any kind of collection for indulgences and enjoining Bishops to be on guard against possible abuses in their Dioceses and to report them to Provincial Synods and the Supreme Pontiff. After the Council of Trent, Clement VIII established a commission of Cardinals to deal with indulgences according to the mind of the Council. It continued its work during the pontificate of Paul V and published various bulls and decrees on the matter. But only Clement IX established a true Congregation of Indulgences (and Relics) with a Brief of 6 July 1669. In a Motu Proprio of 28 January 1904, Pius X joined the Congregation of Indulgences with that of Rites, but with the restructuring of the Roman Curia in 1908 all matters regarding indulgences was assigned to the Holy Office. In a Motu Proprio of 25 March 1915, Benedict XV transferred the Holy Office's Section for Indulgences to the Apostolic Penitentiary, but maintained the Holy Office's responsibility for matters regarding the doctrine of indulgences.

8. Why the Jubilee indulgence?

Historical reflection on the phenomenon of indulgences shows how the Church has acquired an ever clearer awareness of a basic conviction: in the spiritual realm "everything belongs to everyone".

In this perspective (certainly the most fruitful for a catechetical and pastoral presentation of the historical theme), the witness and intercession of the martyrs and confessors of the faith, as well as the prayers and good works of the faithful can be seen as genuine "sources of indulgence", because they add to that treasury of holiness ness from which the Church draws in order to grant the indulgence itself.

In fact, the believer's faith journey and his various experiences of grace can never be considered a private possession. Among the faithful, John Paul II explains, there is established "a marvellous exchange of gifts.... There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others. This is the reality of 'vicariousness', upon which the entire mystery of Christ is founded. His superabundant love saves us all. Yet it is part of the grandeur of Christ's love not to leave us in the condition of passive recipients, but to draw us into his saving work.... Everything comes from Christ, but since we belong to him, whatever is ours also becomes his and acquires healing power. This is what is meant by 'the treasures of the Church', which are the good works of the saints. To pray in order to gain the indulgence means to enter into this spiritual communion and therefore to open oneself totally to others. In the spiritual realm, too, no one lives for himself alone. And salutary concern for the salvation of one's own soul is freed from fear and selfishness only when it becomes concern for the salvation of others as well. This is the reality of the communion of saints, the mystery of 'vicarious life', of prayer as the means of union with Christ and his saints. He takes us with him in order that we may weave with him the white robe of the new humanity, the robe of bright linen which clothes the Bride of Christ" (Bull of Indiction, n. 10).

Ultimately, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observes in speaking of the Portiuncula indulgence, "we have to pass through the meanderings of history and theological ideas to something simple: the prayer by which we abandon ourselves and enter into the communion of saints, in order to cooperate with them in the excess of good compared to the apparent omnipotence of evil, knowing that in the end all is grace".10

But why — we might ask — does the Church want to attach an indulgence to the celebration of the Jubilee? The objection has its validity, since indulgences belong permanently to God's mercy,11 and the faithful can draw on the Church's treasury, which are the prayers and good works of the saints, without 25-year, 100-year or 1,000-year time limits.

To answer the question we need to reflect on the spiritual and theological significance of these time frames. For Christians the flow of time is never something random. It is the epiphany of God's salvation in human history. The end and beginning of a year, such as the various Jubilee celebrations, mark significant stages in the unfolding of God's love for his people. They are stages which remind people of the duty to respond faithfully and to purify themselves, somewhat in the way a wedding anniversary commits a couple to continue and renew their journey of love. Thus the Jubilee, with its indulgence, marks in many respects a "new beginning" in the love story between God and men.

Although this way of thinking may seem very foreign to us, we must recognize that the viewpoint of the true believer, who undertook a Crusade, and who went himself or supported someone else in the same undertaking, was a sort of "going forth in order to follow": the departure marked a "new beginning". The crusader left his safety and security to follow Jesus and to liberate his land. The indulgence granted by the Church effectively accompanied this "consecration" of one's life.

Today the indulgence, connected with the end of the millennium, accompanies and supports a journey of deep spiritual renewal which begins with sacramental absolution but is not meant to stop there. The forgiveness of sins, in fact, does not make the existential process of conversion superfluous at all. On the contrary, the celebration of the sacrament of Penance in a life which is not "in practice" striving for conversion remains very formal and one can even question its validity. The visits and pilgrimages, the good works and spiritual exercises that the Church proposes as "the required conditions for gaining the Jubilee indulgence" (Decree) should be seen as so many "road signs" for an authentic journey of inner purification, or even better, as "effective signs" of a true conversion to Christ in our lives.

In this sense the Jubilee indulgence smooths the way for anyone who wants to rekindle his love for God. It is possible to "burn away sin" and leave the past behind. It is possible to set out again for a new season of grace which prepares and anticipates the final liberation.

We can walk together towards "a new heaven and a new earth", towards the "new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rv 21:1-2).


1. See especially — after the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, whose entry "Indulgences" (1927) alone fills 43 thick columns, a small monograph of its own — the relevant articles in the follow works: Enciclopedia Cattolica (1951); Dictionnaire de Droit Canonique (1953); Catholicisme (1962); Dictionnaire de Spiritualite (1971); Theologische Realenzyklopadie (1977); Lexikon des Mittelalters (1980); Lexikon fur Theologie und Kirche (1993, 3rd ed.); Dizionario storico del Papato (Ital. trans., 1996). Each of these entries, of course, includes a rather ample bibliography.

2. For a more thorough treatment, see Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, 7, coll. 1246-1259: indulgentia and indulgere.

3. 9, 38: De indulgentiis criminum.

4. So says canon 992. As everyone knows, for its definition of indulgentia, the third edition of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum (18 May 1986; cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, 10, 632ff.), which is the Holy See's most recent document on the subject, refers to the same Code of Canon Law.

5. It was one of the so-called Merovingian Councils, held in 517; cf. canon 29.

6. For a more systematic treatment of this question, see H. Karpp, La Penitenza: Fonti sull orgine della penitenza nella Chiesa antica [= Traditio Christiana, 1], Turin 1975, pp. ix-xxxi; bibliography pp. xxxv-xl.

7. Geschichte del Ablasses im Mittalter, 1, pp. 132-194.

8. "Les premieres propositions [de l'indulgence] sont faites a des conditions a peu pres equivalentes aux exercises de la penitence elle-meme; on aurait de la peine a leur reconnaitre ajuourd'hui le caractere d'indulgences; elles n'en constituent pas moins les premiers exemples de nos modernes indulgences, oeuvres offertes a tous en echange de la peine temporelle due au peche" ("Sur l'histoire des indulgences a propos d'un livre recent", Revue d'histoire et de literature religieuses, 3 [1898], pp. 435-455), p. 443.

9. Geschichte del Ablasses im Mittalter, 1, pp. 195-211.

10. J. Ratzinger, Bilder de Hoffnung: Wanderungen im Kirchenjahr, Freiburg-Basel-Vienna 1997, p. 100.

11. But see R. Fisichella, "L'indulgenza e la misericordia di Dio", Communio, 160-161 (1998), pp. 28-37.

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