SIN ALWAYS has a social dimension. A man or a woman who commits a personal sin adversely affects the society or community in which he or she lives in. Aside from the physical or moral damage that sin inflicts upon society, it also decreases the holiness of the Church.

Conversely, expiation for sin or the eradication of sin and its effects on the individual also has a social dimension. Society itself or, more precisely, the Church also has a role in the struggle against the viciousness of sin that wreaks havoc on the spiritual fiber of the individual. From its reserve of grace and holiness, the Church can seek to conquer the ill effects of sin. This positive role of the community in the sin committed by the individual is rooted on the doctrine of Communion of Saints and the solidarity of all Christians in the Mystical Body of Christ. St. Paul expressed this principle of solidarity in his teachings on the Church as the Body of Christ, which includes the idea that all members of the Body contribute to the well-being of an ailing member of that Body.

Foremost among the many concrete effects of sin are the loss of harmony with God, disharmony with the Church, and the acquisition of the liability of temporal punishment, which should be served either in this world or in purgatory. Through confession and absolution, the individual’s harmony with God and with the Church may be restored. As far as temporal punishment is concerned, the penance imposed by the confessor may atone for but does not completely remove it. This is where we can find the usefulness and importance of indulgences in our own time.

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According to canon law, indulgences are authoritative grants from the Church’s treasury for the remission or payment in whole or in part, valid before God, of the debt of temporal punishment after the guilt of sin has been forgiven. This definition of indulgences expresses three essential points: that in the Church there is a treasury merits and good works stored up by Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the saints, both living and dead; that those merits and good works are dispensed or granted by specific authorities in the Church, and; that these merits and good works granted are made as payment of the debt of temporal punishment which an individual acquires through commission of sin.

There are two kinds of indulgences: plenary and partial. A plenary indulgence eradicates all the temporal punishment due to sin, while a partial indulgence removes some or part of the temporal punishment still owed to God after a sin has been forgiven. However, there are some requirements necessary for one to gain either a partial or plenary indulgence. To acquire indulgences, a person must be baptized, not excommunicated, in the state of grace at least on the completion of the act prescribed, and a subject of one granting the indulgence. Furthermore, it is generally prescribed that a prayer (at least an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory be) must be said for the intention of the Holy Father. If one requires plenary indulgences beyond the first one personally needed, the other plenary indulgences may be applied not to living persons but to the faithful departed.


In the past, especially in the Middle Ages, indulgences were connected with contribution to Churches, schools, and shrines. As a matter of fact, many monuments of the European civilization—cathedrals, universities, hospitals, etc.—are the results of the preaching of indulgences. More than that, active participation in the Crusades or the effort for the liberation of the Church of God at Jerusalem also reckoned as payment for all temporal punishment. These Crusade indulgences later included all who contributed in any way to the Church’s crusades against the Moors, the Albigensians and the Turks.

There were, however, blatant abuses of “trafficking” in indulgences which gave Luther an occasion for “condemning not only the abuses connected with indulgences but also the doctrine underlying the practice itself.” This rejection by Luther of the indulgences was very well featured in his famous Ninety-Five Theses posted at Wittenberg in 1517.

In time, the Church, living up to her appelation as ecclesia semper reformanda (a Church always in the process of renewal) has been rid of instances of “trafficking” indulgences. What is left in the doctrine and practice of indulgences are the benefits that they offer to a soul burdened with sin and its effects, specifically, payment for the temporal punishment that an individual incurs through sin.

Fr. Ojoy is currently a professor at the UST Faculties of Ecclesiastical Studies. He is a former Witness writer and Associate Editor of the Varsitarian.


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