INDULGENCE, a term defined by the official catechism of the Roman Catholic Church in England as "the remission of the temporal punishment which often remains due to sin after its guilt has been forgiven." This remission may be either total (plenary) or partial, according to the terms of the Indulgence. (Lat. indulgentia, indulgere, to grant, concede.) The theory of Indulgences is based by theologians on the fol lowing texts: 2 Samuel (Vulgate, 2 Kings) xii. 14; Matt. xvi. 19 and xviii. 17, 18; I Cor. v. 4, 5; 2 Cor. ii. 6–ii; but the practice itself is confessedly of later growth. As the primitive practice of public penance for sins died out, there grew up a system of equiv alent, or nominally equivalent, private penances. Just as many of the punishments enjoined by the Roman criminal code were gradually commuted by mediaeval legislators for pecuniary fines, so the years or months of fasting enjoined by the earlier ecclesi astical codes were commuted for proportionate fines, the recitation of a certain number of psalms, and the like. The practice of Indulgences in the mediaeval church arose out of the authoritative remission, in exceptional cases, of a certain portion of this canonical penalty.
The first definite instance of a plenary Indulgence is that of Urban II. for the First Crusade (Council of Clermont, Mansi, Concilia, xx. 816) : "Whoever, out of pure devotion and not for the sake of gaining honour or money, shall go to Jerusalem to liberate the church of God, may count that journey in lieu of all penance" (1 o95). A little earlier had begun the practice of partial Indulgences, which are always expressed in terms of days or years.
However definite may have been the ideas originally conveyed by these notes of time, their first meaning has long since been lost. The rapid extension of these time-Indulgences is one of the most remarkable facts in the history of the subject. Innocent II., dedi cating the great church of Cluny in 1132, granted as a great favour a forty days' Indulgence for the anniversary. A hundred years later, all churches of any importance had similar Indulgences; yet Englishmen were glad even then to earn a pardon of forty days by the laborious journey to the nearest cathedral, and by making an offering there on one of a few privileged f east-days. A century later again, Wycliffe complains of Indulgences of two thousand years for a single prayer (ed. Arnold, i. 137). In 1456, the recita tion of a few prayers before a church crucifix earned a Pardon of 20,000 years for every such repetition (Glassberger in Analecta Franciscana, ii. 368) ; and at length Indulgences were so freely given that there was now scarcely a devotion or good work of any kind for which they could not be obtained. It must be noted that, according to the orthodox doctrine, not only can an Indulgence not remit future sins, but even for the past it cannot take full effect unless the subject be truly contrite and have confessed (or intend shortly to confess) his sins. This salutary doctrine, how ever, was obscured by the phrase a poena et a culpa, which, from the 13th century to the Reformation, was applied to Plenary In dulgences. The prima facie meaning of the phrase is that the In dulgence itself frees the sinner not only from the temporal penalty (poena) but also from the guilt (culpa) of all his sins. "The laity cared little about the analysis of it, but they knew that the a culpa et poena was the name for the biggest thing in the nature of an Indulgence which it was possible to get" (Father Thurston in Dublin Review, Jan. 1900.) It is recorded that during the Jubilee of 1300, all the Papal Penitentiaries were in doubt about the mean ing of the words and appealed to the Pope. Boniface VIII. did indeed take the occasion of repeating (in the words of his Bull) that confession and contrition were necessary preliminaries ; but he neither repudiated the misleading words nor vouchsafed any clear explanation of them. The phrase exercised the minds of can onists all through the middle ages, but still held its ground. The most accepted modern theory is that it is merely a catchword sur viving from a longer phrase which proclaimed how, during such Indulgences, ordinary confessors might absolve from sins usually "reserved" to the Bishop or the Pope. However it originated, it undoubtedly contributed to foster popular misconceptions as to the intrinsic meaning of Indulgences, apart from repentance and confession though Dr. Lea seems to press this point unduly (p. 54, seq.), and should be read in conjunction with Thurston (p. 324, seq.) . These misconceptions were widespread from the 13th to the 16th century, and were often fostered by the "pardoners," or pro fessional collectors of contributions for Indulgences. This can best be shown by a few quotations from eminent churchmen dur ing those centuries. Berthold of Regensburg (c. 12 70) says, "Fie, penny-preacher ! . . . thou Bost promise so much remission of sins for a mere halfpenny or penny, that thousands now trust thereto, and fondly dream to have atoned for all their sins with the halfpenny or penny, and thus go to hell" (ed. Pfeiffer, i. 393). A century later, the author of Piers Plowman speaks of pardoners who "give pardon for pence poundmeal about" (i.e., wholesale ; B. ii. 222) ; and his contemporary, Pope Boniface IX., complained of their absolving even impenitent sinners, for ridiculously small sums (pro qualibet parva pecuniarum summula, Raynaldus, Ann. Ecc. 139o). In 1450 Thomas Gascoigne, the great Oxford Chan cellor, wrote : "Sinners say nowadays `I care not how many or how great sins I commit before God, for I shall easily and quickly get plenary remission of any guilt and penalty whatsoever (cujus dam culpae et poenae) by absolution and indulgence granted to me from the Pope, whose writing and grant I have bought f or 4d. or 6d. or for a game of tennis' "—or sometimes, he adds, by a still more disgraceful bargain (pro actu meretricio, Lib. Ver. p. 123, cf. 126). In 1523 the princes of Germany protested to the Pope in language almost equally strong (Browne, Fasciculus, i. 354). In 1562 the Council of Trent abolished the office of "pardoner." See H. C. Lea, Hist. of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church (Philadelphia, 1896) ; his standpoint is frankly non Catholic, but he gives materials for judgment; T. Brieger, art. "Indulgenzen" in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopddie and A. Boudinhon, art. "Indulgences" in Hastings' Ency. of Religion. The greatest orthodox authority is Eusebius Amort, De Origine indulgentiarum (1735). More easily accessible are Father Thurston's The Holy Year of Jubilee (19oo) ; F. E. Hagedorn, General Legislation on Indulgences (1924) ; Johannis Hus tractus responsivus, now first edited by S. Harrison Thomson (1927) ; and art. "Indulgences" in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.