QUAERITUR: How can the Church take away indulgences?

From a reader:

I have a (.pdf) copy of the 1910 Raccolta, which contains some 34 indulgenced novenas. These are beautiful prayers I am delighted to pray, but I’m told that as of “Indulgentiarum Doctrina” they are no longer indulgenced. I’m confused.

While I understand the “definition” of an indulgence and how it all works, what I don’t understand is how the Church can give them and then take them away. Is a certain prayer forever indulgenced, or not?

You touched on the answer in your question.  Since the Church grants them, the Church can suppress them.

The reform of the grants of indulgences was carried out so that we would have greater clarity about the indulgences granted.  Indulgences are now granted as either plenary (“full”) or partial, without distinctions of a number of years, days or, even longer ago, “quartines”, forty day grants whose roots were in the period of time often assigned in the ancient Church to do penance.  The idea was that indulgences represented the remission of temporal punishment equal to the amount remitted by performing a penance.  Forty days of fasting and prayer, forty days remitted through an indulgence.

The idea was logical, but lead to a lot of confusion…. and perhaps even presumption.  Now we see indulgences in a binary way: they are complete or they aren’t, and if they aren’t, then God knows how much, and we don’t.

Back to your question.

The Church grants indulgences on her authority to bind and to loose, given to her by Christ.   By an indulgence, as we read in the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, 1, they are acquired “through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction of Christ and the saints.”

Holy Church is the dispenser of all of the merits of Christ and of all graces. The Church, especially in the person of Peter and his successors, the Roman Pontiff, has been given Christ’s own authority to bind and to loose. Thus, the Church can determine that performing certain determined works of piety and of charity, for others, can satisfy some or all of the temporal punishment some people, living or dead, must expiate.

So, in consideration of the needs of the day, the differences in cultures, etc., the Church determines how indulgences are conceded.

Just a bit more on indulgences for those who may not quite get it.

By performing certain works (such as saying prayers at certain times in certain places, performing works of mercy, etc.), the merits of Christ and of the saints can substitute for the penance another person ought to perform in justice. Thus, justice is tempered by mercy. We are given the chance to participate in God’s application of mercy to the living and the dead by uniting our own actions to those of Christ on the Cross, paying the price for the sins of others.

Certain expiatory actions can remove all of the temporal punishment or some of it based on our own dispositions and based on the determination of the Church.

So, the Church can say that work X will remove part or all of the temporal punishment.

For our part if our disposition is adequate we can, by performing the work, gain a full – plenary – indulgence (remission) or only a partial remission.

Indulgences are great works of mercy.

They are not hard to gain for others.

They are wonderful things to help our selves be aware of our own need to do penance in this life.

They practices can become good habits which dispose us to receive the sacraments well and properly.

They set a good example for others.

They take away suffering of others.

What can be better than that?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. traditionalorganist says:

    How do we gain indulgences for others? Is something required of the person for whom they are gained?

  2. Jacob says:


    Father or others, please correct me if I am wrong, but I know of no requirement beyond the intention of the person gaining the indulgence.

  3. Laura R. says:

    Father, thank you so much for this post on indulgences, a subject which I as a fairly recent convert am still trying to gain a good understanding of.

    Performing certain works as an act of mercy for others makes good sense and is an appealing way to understand indulgences. But is it also usual to try to gain them for oneself?

  4. Brad says:

    Bridegroom press makes a great wall calendar alerting one to all indulgence opportunities daily.

  5. Nun2OCDS says:

    Indulgences are granted only for oneself or for the souls in Purgatory.

    Something similar to the Church granting and suppressing indulgences is to consider the indulgences granted during a Holy Year. For a specified period of time, one may gain an indulgence by certain acts e.g. going through one of the Holy Doors.

  6. Banjo pickin girl says:

    This convert loves indulgences and I try for them every chance I get. Last week I joined the rosary confraternity and was careful to make sure I did all the requirements for the plenary indulgence. Of course the catch is I’m not sure I maintained all detachment from sin, ahem. I suspect I never get a plenary indulgence but a bunch of partial ones.

    Having made the consecration to Jesus through Mary, I ask Mary and Jesus to send the indulgence to the one who needs it the most, in case that is not myself. I am sure someone in purgatory will appreciate it more than materialistic me.

  7. Janol says:

    Right, Indulgences are granted only for oneself or for the souls in Purgatory.

    One has to have the intention to gain Indulgences and can make that intention each morning, offering them for the Holy Souls.


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