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Devil's in the details
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As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.
—John Tetzel

An indulgence is a partial or sometimes full remission from punishment in the afterlife granted by the Catholic Church. You still had to confess your sin, but you would spend less time in purgatory because of that sin.[note 1] The gift of money in exchange for the indulgence was justified in various ways: there were claims that giving to the Church was a holy action that should be rewarded, or that the donation of worldly goods made one more Christlike and less deserving of punishment. Interestingly, there is the belief that indulgences draw upon the "Treasury of Merit" produced by Jesus's crucifixion, and the martyred saints.[1]

The sale of indulgences became a business during the late Middle Ages as they were a great way to make money by distributing sheets of paper, and were used by the church the way governments use bonds today.[2][note 2] Indulgences were one of the things Martin Luther opposed, as he saw it as purchasing salvation; his prominent criticisms helped lead to the Protestant Reformation. Luther's criticism of indulgences was among the 95 Theses, and particularly inflamed the Catholic Church hierarchy as it posed a serious threat to their revenue stream ("If the Pope could empty purgatory, why would he not do so out of love rather than for money?"). To address the problem, in 1567 Pope Pius V ended the sale of indulgences, at which point they became rather boring and people stopped caring about them.[3]

Despite the historical controversy over the sale of indulgences, most indulgences were never based on the payment of money, but rather on the saying of prayers (especially saying the same prayer repeatedly over several days). Only certain prayers approved by the Vatican are believed to have indulgences attached to them.

Indulgences are still given (as opposed to sold) by the Church; they went out of fashion in many parts of the Church in the 1960s (although conservatives retained them), but they came under renewed emphasis in 2000 at the direction of Pope John Paul II. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, stepped up their use.[4] Today they are generally granted on special occasions or for a specific purpose, as on the Church's "World Youth Day" event that offered an indulgence to youth who attended and prayed for forgiveness.[5] Their duration is no longer measured in days or years, after a 1967 reform that scorned the practice as "ecclesiastical bookkeeping."[6]

Indulgences these days are granted to those who carry out certain tasks – such as climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome (reportedly brought from Pontius Pilate's house after Jesus scaled them before his crucifixion), a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory. Attendees of Catholic World Youth Day and followers of the event on television, radio, and through social media had to be following it live.[7]



  1. Indulgences were marked with how long this was, some reduced by thousands of years.
  2. Their Standard and Poor rating is not known needed; who in their right mind would think the church needs to "repay" the money collected from selling indulgences?