ASK FATHER: Can Orthodox obtain indulgences through the Catholic Church?

Carracci-PurgatoryFrom a reader…


I am an Orthodox Christian. I believe that the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church are both Apostolic Churches, albeit, not in full communion. I converted to EO from Calvinism after being raised Pentecostal. I don’t believe that any “positive” and “non-polemical” teaching of the EOC contradicts or requires me to disbelieve in RCC doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, or Indulgences. I am assuming that I am considered a catholic Christian with access to salvific sacraments from the Roman Catholic pov (re: Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, Orientale Lumen).

My question is, can I gain plenary indulgences for souls in purgatory while being a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church? I try to pray the Rosary every day, and there is a chapel at the local cathedral a few blocks from work, so I could easily fulfill the conditions for a plenary indulgence three or four times per week.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the “Christian faithful” as the subjects of indulgences.

The Church is the dispenser of indulgences and so it would be logically assumed that those faithful united in full communion with the Church are those Christians who are able to obtain the indulgences which the Church so generously dispenses.

However, the Catechism, and Paul VI’s Indulgentiarum doctrina, only speak of the Christian faithful, not of Catholics. The Christian faithful must be properly disposed, free from any ecclesiastical penalties, and having received the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist within the prescribed times for the indulgence.

Some might consider an Eastern Orthodox person to be in a state of schism, but, canonically, the culpability for schism is only incurred by those who, having once been united to the Church, have separated themselves from it. One who is born and raised outside the Church, though he be in de facto schism from the Church, is not imputable for the sin of schism (though he should be urgently encouraged to return to the fullness of the Church).

Therefore, it seems that it might be possible for an Orthodox Christian, who has never been Catholic, to obtain an indulgence.  It certainly does no harm to try!

Having said that, if you believe what the Catholic Church teaches regarding Purgatory, Indulgences, the Immaculate Conception (issues that are not necessarily at odds with official Orthodox teaching but which are certainly taught more clearly by the Catholic Church), why not advance the issue of true ecumenism and become Catholic?

Then, most certainly, there would be no doubt whatsoever about your ability to gain indulgences.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    If an Eastern Orthodox Christian “came home to Rome”, would they have the choice in joining the Roman Rite or one of the Eastern rites? Perhaps the current state of the sacred liturgy in the average parish is what is holding the writer back?

  2. StMichael71 says:

    He could always, you know, become a member of our Byzantine Ruthenian Church. You don’t need to become ROMAN Catholic ;)

  3. brhenry says:

    There is only one true Church. There is absolutely no religious division whatsoever in GOD, therefore none in Heaven. Heaven will not contain a rainbow variety of believers, such as Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists etc. Only Catholics may enter Heaven. A person must give their willful assent to the Catholic Church in this earthly life or at the moment of death, when all Truth is revealed to them.

  4. TWF says:

    It’s not a matter of choice. For those already baptized, canonical enrolment in a Church Sui iuris is automatic regardless of who receives him into the Church. Normally, a baptized Protestant is automatically ascribed to the Latin Church, regardless of whether a Latin or Eastern priest receives him. An Eastern Orthodox Christian is automatically ascribed to the corresponding Byzantine Catholic Church (Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Melkite, etc). An Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonian) Christian is automatically ascribed to the corresponding Oriental Catholic Church (Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, etc). For this fellow I am not sure what would happen as he was baptized Protestant but later became Orthodox.
    Of course as a Catholic you always have the option to worship at any parish of any Church Sui iuris, but canonical membership matters when it comes to holy days of obligation, fasting obligations, etc. There is also the option to petition the appropriate authorities for a canonical transfer.

  5. cwillia1 says:

    The inquirer lists RCC doctrines that he can accept. He does not list the two big issues in the way of unity: the doctrine of the trinity (filioque) and the papacy. So it appears that conversion is not an option for him.

  6. AlexanderAerarius says:

    The asker does not say that he rejects the Catholic understandings of the Trinity or the papacy as being inconsistent with Eastern Orthodox doctrine. He says, “I don’t believe that any ‘positive’ and ‘non-polemical’ teaching of the EOC contradicts or requires me to disbelieve in RCC doctrines such as…” meaning that he does not think that Eastern Orthodox dogma contradicts Catholic dogma on any point, and the examples he listed are not an exhaustive list. I’m certain the asker has heard of the Filioque, azymes, the papacy etc. before. The implicit position he is espousing is that apparent disagreements between the two churches are a result of polemics.

    For someone who is not Catholic, even if indulgences were not applicable to them, I don’t see how it could hurt them. The things that people do to obtain indulgences are good things to do regardless of whether there are any indulgences are attached to them. I have read that the Eastern Orthodox used to issue indulgences as well, so maybe some enterprising bishop could revive the practice.

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