Question: What is an Indulgence? Why did Martin Luther disagree with the Church over the matter of indulgences? (Catholic Studies Group)
Answer: An indulgence is the partial or complete (plenary) remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, granted by the Church in virtue of Its "power of the Keys" to "bind and loose." An indulgence is not a forgiveness of sin, and one may benefit from an indulgence only if in the state of grace when it is received (although many theologians hold that a person in the state of sin can gain an indulgence for the souls in Purgatory). Indulgences are an inducement to perform the various good works of mercy demanded by our Lord as a condition of salvation.
In the early days of the Church there was some debate concerning the re-admission of Christians to the Sacraments after having committed serious sins; particularly the sin of renouncing the Faith in the face of persecution. Some extremists (often called "Donatists") insisted that there could be no forgiveness at all, or that one could be received back into the Church only by receiving Baptism and Confirmation (and Holy Orders if the sinner was a priest or bishop) all over again. In orthodox Catholic circumstances, such sinners were received, but only after performing lengthy penances. The custom arose of penitents visiting those in prison who expected to be martyred, and obtaining letters ("libelli") from them in which the martyr-to-be asked the bishop to re-admit the penitent as a favor to one who was about to die for the Faith and was soon to be numbered among the saints in heaven. St. Cyprian (died 258) teaches:
Those who have received a libellus from the martyrs, and with their help can, before the Lord, get relief in their sins; let such, if they be ill and in danger, after confession and the imposition of your hands depart unto the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs.
When the Church became legal, and persecution rare, (between, say, the 8th and 12th centuries) the Church began to apply the merits of the saints already in heaven, together with those of our Lord, to those penitents who sought forgiveness of their temporal punishments. Arduous penances began to be commuted to prayers, fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimages, and military service against the enemies of Christ. John XIX (1024-32) is believed to be the first Pope to authorize an indulgence for almsgivingÿ(charitable gifts), and the Council of Clermont (1095) granted an indulgence for participants in the First Crusade.
Abuses crept into the granting of indulgences in several ways. Almsgiving, and particularly the giving of money, was too easily subject to corruption. The transfer of funds gave at least the appearance if not the substance of simony (buying and selling something holy), and those empowered to grant indulgences for alms gifts sometimes considered themselves to be their own favorite charity.
Occasionally, unscrupulous churchmen would offer non-existent indulgences, either to bring pilgrims to a shrine in which they had an interest, or simply to turn a fraudulent profit. Sometimes the false claim was made that the indulgence granted forgiveness of sin in addition to the remission of temporal punishment.
Sessions XXI and XXV of the Council of Trent brought wide ranging reforms, and "in 1567 Pope St. Pius V cancelled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions."
A less obvious abuse came as the Church became more and more generous with Its grants of indulgence. Partial indulgences, granted in terms of years, months, days, and forty day periods called "quarantines," led to a counterproductive "spiritual calculus" -- a sort of attempt to "pile up counters" without regard to the less calculable effects of indulgenced acts. When indulgences became very easy to gain repeatedly, they were sometimes trivialized. (i.e. one might gain more indulgences repeatedly walking in and out of churches on certain days, than sitting down in that church and actually praying for the same amount of time.)
While the pontificate of Pope Paul VI was otherwise a mostly unmitigated disaster, his 1967 regulations on the granting of indulgences did serve to restore their esteem by allowing no one to gain more than one plenary indulgence a day (apart from the day of death), and by relating the value of a partial indulgence to the spiritual devotion of the one gaining it, and the value of the work itself.
Martin Luther may have lectured the Church about the abuse of indulgences -- both real and perceived -- but the root of his displeasure was in his own erroneous doctrine that a person is "saved by faith alone," without the good works so ardently desired and demanded by our Lord and Savior.
Faith too, unless it has works, is dead in itself. But someone will say, "Thou has faith, and I have works." Show me thy faith without works, and I from my works will show thee my faith. Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well. Yet the devils also believe, and tremble.