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Rescript with preprinted application for indulgence and papal seal (1925)
With the blessing Urbi et orbi , according to Catholic teaching, all who hear or see it under the usual church conditions are granted a perfect indulgence of their sin punishments.
Indulgence by a German officer in 1951

Indulgence or indulgence ( Latin indulgentia ), also out of date Roman grace , is a term from Roman Catholic theology and describes an act of grace regulated by the church , through which, according to church doctrine, temporary penalties are issued (but not the sins themselves are forgiven). There are partial or complete indulgences that believers can obtain under conditions set by the Church. Indulgences can also be given to the dead.

Sin and the Punishment of Sin

The doctrine of indulgence is a concept that is closely anchored with the concepts of sin, repentance , repentance , repentance, and forgiveness in Catholic theology. Indulgence refers to an act of grace regulated in Roman Catholic theology, based on the treasure of grace , through which, according to church doctrine, temporary penalties are issued (but not the sins themselves are forgiven). Through the practice of indulgence letters, it should be possible for the believers to be certified that they or for relatives who have already died are remunerated in purgatory corresponding to the amount of money .

The Roman Catholic Church basically differentiates between the punishment of sin ( poena peccatum ) and the guilt of sin. The sin punishment resulting from sin can be permanent or temporary. Indulgence applies to these temporal penalties for sin; among other things, they are eased through indulgence.

In order to gain a full or partial indulgence, Catholics must be appropriately disposed by receiving the sacraments and usually perform a certain pious work (e.g. pilgrimage , church or cemetery visit or a special prayer , for example in the opinion of the Holy Father). The believer can also gain indulgences for the poor souls in purgatory .

After the Council of Trent had already sharply condemned profits from the sale of indulgences, Pope Pius V, with his apostolic letter Quam plenum 1567, affirmed the trade in indulgences with the penalty of excommunication and abolished all indulgence privileges granted with financial obligations. 400 years later, on January 1, 1967, Pope Paul VI ordered with his circular Indulgentiarum doctrina the drainage system is new. He emphasized the importance of doing works of piety, repentance, and love, and thus growing in faith as opposed to merely serving the punishments of sin. Furthermore, he severely restricted the number of indulgences granted and annulled the daily counting of imposed penalties for sin, which had been associated with the doctrine of indulgences for so long.

Terms and contents of the indulgence theory

The Codex Iuris Canonici of 1983, the code of Roman Catholic canon law , defines indulgence in can. 992 CIC as follows:

“Indulgence is the remission of temporal punishment before God for sins whose guilt has already been redeemed; The appropriately disposed believer obtains it under certain fixed conditions through the help of the church, which in the service of redemption authoritatively administers and dedicates the treasure of the atonement of Christ and the saints. "

In the sacramental theological system, indulgence, although not a sacrament itself, is assigned as a penitential practice to satisfaction (satisfactio operis) , which, alongside repentance of the heart (contritio cordis) and the explicit confession of sins (confessio oris), forms the third part of the sacrament of penance .

According to Roman Catholic doctrine, the so-called temporary penalties for sin are wholly (complete indulgence) or partially (partial indulgence) waived through indulgence . The indulgence of the punishments for sin is not to be confused with the remission of sins, i.e. the forgiveness of sins itself, which can be received in the sacrament of penance . According to Catholic teaching, the forgiveness of a sin does not remove the penalties for sin.

Temporary penalties for sin were originally the time-limited church penalties imposed on repentant sinners during the forgiveness of sins (penalties, which usually included a temporary excommunication). Later it was understood as the time the soul spends in purgatory after death before it comes to see God in heaven .

Even if the sin may be forgiven before God through sacramental confession or complete repentance in view of the eternal judgment at the Last Judgment ( heaven or hell ), its consequences are still palpable in the here and now: the sin is forgiven, its consequences are but not out of the world. The penitent is therefore called upon to steadily reduce this burden that lies in his lifetime, to atone for his guilt and to make amends (which according to current opinion can also be done alternatively through good works such as prayers (e.g. the rosary ), alms , pilgrimages, etc.). To the extent that he fails to meet this obligation, a temporary (“temporal”) purification after death according to the traditional view is inevitable. According to the Catholic understanding, this purification from the other side can now be shortened or facilitated by obtaining indulgences. The apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina of Pope Paul VI was used to count the times of the decree according to days, months and years . abandoned on January 1, 1967. It is possible for the faithful, with the appropriate disposition, to win a perfect indulgence once a day.

This is based on the conception that the community of saints both in this world and in the next world through their intercession and good works helps the individual sinner to achieve his goal (restoration of the relationship with God and his fellow men disturbed by sin). The merits of Christ and the living and deceased saints are understood as a treasure of grace , from which contributions to repentant sinner are possible, which facilitate his atonement and can partially relieve him . The administration of this treasure is the task of the church.

The practice of indulgence gains an even greater meaning for the permanent bond between the living and the deceased in the church community because, according to Catholic doctrine, it is also possible to obtain an indulgence for a deceased, who then benefits from the relief gained on his way to the divine show should. The granting of indulgences to another living person other than one who fulfills the conditions is not provided for.

All of this underlines the idea that the path to salvation can never only be a personal achievement, but rather takes place in the womb of the community of God's people , the community of saints, in which one stands up for the other. There is no question that indulgences can only be obtained on the basis of Christ's one-time sacrifice of atonement and trust in him. Without the sacrifice of Christ, from a Christian point of view, every sin would be irrevocable and incurable and the sinner would remain separated from God and man in time and eternity.

According to Roman Catholic doctrine, indulgence is therefore a special divine act of grace that follows the actual forgiveness. It is conveyed through binding legal acts and regulations of the church authority.

Criticism of the doctrine of indulgence

An indulgence dealer , mask at the Schembartlauf at the beginning of the 16th century

From the Reformation or Protestant side, the main point of criticism of the Roman Catholic indulgence theory is less the temporary commercialization of indulgence, which, according to the prevailing opinion across denominations, is to be judged quite clearly as a time-related undesirable development. Rather, it is argued - based in particular on Luther's 58th thesis - that here a church administration, embodied by the Pope, presumes to be allowed to "manage" and "distribute" the "treasure of grace" according to its discretion and according to man-made rules. According to the Reformation understanding, it is only God's act of reconciliation, accomplished in the atoning sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, that gives forgiveness to the guilty person. Martin Luther expresses himself quite drastically in his confession of 1528, but also clearly: “But the indulgences that the papal church has and gives is a blasphemous deception. Not only because it creates and establishes a special forgiveness beyond the general forgiveness that is given in all Christianity through the gospel and sacrament, and thus defiles and devalues ​​general forgiveness, but because it also establishes and establishes satisfaction for sin on human work and the merit of the holy, when Christ alone can do enough for us and has done enough. "

The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith , Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller , said in an interview in 2017 that Martin Luther was right with his criticism of the indulgence trade, because the indulgence trade was a “fraud against the believer”. Instead of excommunicating Luther, the church should have made a more critical distinction between what he actually wanted.

Historical developments

middle Ages

Certificate of indulgence (Avignon) for the Rupertsberg Monastery , LHA Koblenz, 1342

The Dominican monk and later Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher had dealt around the year 1230 with the issue of whether there can be a real amnesty when penance was not done, or this would removed only by an inadequate substitute. Fundamental to him was the basic Christian statement that all salvation is based on Jesus Christ, from which he derived the idea of ​​a thesaurus meritorum or thesaurus ecclesiae . For the merits of Christ and the saints form the treasure of the church, with the help of which the penances still to be paid by sinners would be redeemed.

But Thomas Aquinas also dealt with the problem of indulgence. He was of the opinion that indulgences can be acquired both directly if one performs the prescribed penance oneself, and indirectly if someone else does the work.

The elaborations of Hugo von Saint-Cher took Pope Clement VI. in his jubilee bull Unigentius Dei Filius of January 27, 1343 to establish the doctrine of church treasures as a basis. The doctrine of the treasure of grace ( thesaurus ecclesiae ) became the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Through the idea of ​​the thesaurus ecclesiae , spiritual merits would be materialized and quantified. As a result, there would be the possibility of using these spiritual merits of Christ and the saints in an earthly and juridical treatment. The church administers this inexhaustible treasure of grace , so to speak, and can use it to allow sinful people to participate in this holiness, which they lack due to their sinfulness.

In the course of time, instead of the imposition of a public church punishment, the penitents were forced to perform good works (such as alms) as a satisfaction after confession. As a result, good works in the West increasingly took on the character of a formal satisfaction for committed guilt, whereby the influence of the old Germanic jurisprudence asserted itself here: The violation of another free person was here through an atonement, i.e. H. a gift assumed to be equivalent to pay off and the injured had to put up with it. Analogously to the case of the punishment for sin, such a satisfaction was to be given to God. The old Germanic legislation now knew both the possibility of transferring the atonement to others and the compensation of the offense or crime through money ( wergeld ). The church later followed up on this popular custom, e. B. in England, where books came into circulation from the end of the 7th century that contained a kind of conversion table for church punishments ( fasting , chanting of psalms or alms) into donations to churches or clerics. There were also vicarious penalties. A wealthy penitent could do a penance of seven years in three days if he “hired” the appropriate number of men to fast for him.

Up to the 10th century, some acts of penance could not be replaced by other penances, but were only recognized in connection with pious donations, participation in crusades , pilgrimages and similar meritorious works. The indulgence, understood as a fine for a replacement performance, was created in the 11th century. With the linking of indulgences and crusades , the granting of indulgences increasingly became a task of the Pope in Rome. The first full indulgence that did not require a vow of crusade was the portiuncula indulgence (13th century). With the indulgence for the pilgrims of a holy year (from 1300), the complete indulgence became independent and was broken from the promise of the crusade. At the same time, the granting of partial indulgences became an important instrument for financing church community tasks. In the 14th century the doctrine of the immeasurable treasure of grace or church was introduced, from which the church draws when granting indulgences and which is administered by the Pope, who is given the power of the keys as the successor of St. Peter . Indulgence reached its peak in the 15th century. Since then, indulgences can also be acquired for the deceased, which is considered an act of charity . With the Reformation, the indulgence system in its hitherto known form suddenly collapsed.

Letter of indulgence from 1516 in the cultural history museum in Stralsund

Modern times

The work of the Dominican and indulgence dealer Johann Tetzel (approx. 1460–1519) was one of the reasons Martin Luther proclaimed his 95 theses .

The trade in so-called alms indulgences, for which a sum of money had to be donated as an indulgence, was an abuse that was particularly widespread in the Renaissance period . The Curia had systematically expanded the indulgence system over the years and operated campaign-like events throughout Europe for jubilee indulgences, Turkish crusades, church buildings, etc. Raimundus Peraudi , who had been a cardinal since 1493, developed the concept for this . Until his death in 1504, he pursued the planned concept in a uniform manner, standardized and implemented it in everyday practice through mass production using printed indulgence letters.

With the modern age , the indulgence system took on a structured development and continuous expansion. Linked to this was the simultaneous juridification, centralization and fiscalization by the Pope and the Curia . There was also an expansion of the range of services, penalties for sin and penalties were to be compensated for through alms , money, and later through the services of third parties. In this way, the souls of close family members who atone in purgatory could experience relief, that is, benefit sinners without their own repentance and penance.

Martin Luther's fundamental questioning of the indulgence was the reason for the constitution of the 95 theses and is considered to be a trigger for the Reformation in the Holy Roman Empire . With income from the sale of indulgences, some popes had directed considerable sums of money from all over Europe to Rome, which were used, among other things, for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica . Albrecht von Brandenburg , Bishop of Magdeburg, Halberstadt and Mainz, had started a sale of indulgences with the Pope through the Dominican Johann Tetzel . Albrecht, who had several bishoprics conferred by the Pope, had to pay high fees for this violation of the provisions of canon law . Albrecht's commissions from the sale of indulgences were supposed to serve to pay off his debts with the Fugger bank in Augsburg, the rest of the money was supposed to go to Rome.

Although the Council of Basel (1431–1449) tried to combat papal superiority in indulgences as well, the system as such initially remained intact. The popes of the Renaissance period , also largely described as corrupt by contemporaries , especially Pope Leo X , who was constantly indebted because of his dissolute lifestyle , drove the indulgence trade to extremes. Letters of indulgence were traded like securities across Europe . Probably the most famous preacher of indulgence in Germany was the Dominican Johann Tetzel , who worked in the Magdeburg area . In 1514 and 1516 he offered indulgences, supposedly to finance the Turkish wars and to promote the construction of St. Peter's Church in Rome. In fact, only half of the money went to Rome, the other half to the respective preacher of indulgence and to Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg , who used it to repay his debts to the Fuggers . This so-called "Petersablass" was finally banned by the Elector of Saxony , who wanted to prevent the massive outflow of money to Rome.

Such abuses of indulgences triggered the Reformation . The reformers studied the Bible , in which there is no clear representation of the medieval concept of indulgence. Even Martin Luther saw in businesslike trade in indulgences a stark abuse of him to write his 95 theses prompted. Contrary to popular opinion, he was initially not a fundamental opponent of indulgences (see thesis 71), but through his theological arguments (see thesis 58) he already laid the basis for a fundamental questioning of the papal indulgence itself.

“Every Christian who has true repentance and sorrow for his sins has complete forgiveness of punishment and guilt, which belongs to him even without a letter of indulgence. Every true Christian [...] shares in all goods of Christ and the Church, from God's gift, even without letters of indulgence. "

- Martin Luther : Theses 36 and 37

The Council of Trent (1545–1563) adhered in its decree on indulgences to the authority of the church to grant indulgences. However, it was no longer allowed to trade in these since July 1562. Bishops should compile any abuses and inform the Pope about them. On February 8, 1567 Pope raised Pius V in the Constitution Etsi Dominici all Almosenablässe and decreed on January 2, 1570 the constitution Quam plenum the excommunication for those who wanted to trade with the indulgences trade. In the Codex Iuris Canonici of 1917, indulgences were traded in accordance with Can. 2327 punished with excommunication.


Inscription on the Lateran basilica indicating the possibility of obtaining a perfect indulgence for the living and the deceased.

The Roman Catholic Church had already tried to put an end to abuses in the indulgence system in the course of the Counter Reformation . After the 16th century there was no longer any real sale of indulgences.

With the apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina, Pope Paul VI promulgated . on January 1, 1967, a reorganization of indulgences, with the aim of giving the pious practice of obtaining indulgences "more dignity and respect". The Apostolic Penitentiary grants special indulgences on behalf of the Pope .

Letter of indulgence from the year 1747 of the S. Annae Bund von Harlaching

The list of norms and indulgences granted is the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum . Normae et concessiones (German handbook of indulgences ), which was last published in 1999. The following regulations, among others, are relevant for indulgence theory and practice:

  • A won indulgence can be perfect or imperfect. A perfect indulgence is a remission of all temporal punishments for sin, which in the case of death leads directly to the eternal contemplation of God, without prior purification in the purgatory . An imperfect indulgence is a partial waiver of temporal penalties.
  • The prerequisite for gaining a perfect indulgence is the receipt of the sacrament of penance with a resolute renunciation of any attachment to sin, communion and prayer in the opinion of the Holy Father. If one of the conditions is not met, the indulgence is won as imperfect.
  • Complete indulgences can be granted on certain occasions: for example in the Holy Years , the Holy Compostelan Year , on World Youth Days or on other extraordinary occasions such as the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions in Lourdes in 2008.
  • If no priest can be reached who, in danger of his life, could administer the sacraments and apostolic blessings, with which a perfect indulgence is connected, the Church grants a perfect indulgence for the hour of death, provided he has the appropriate disposition, provided that he usually performs any prayers during his life Has. As early as 1942, a decree was issued that granted complete indulgence in the event of air raids even without prior receipt of the Holy Sacraments.
  • With the blessing Urbi et orbi , all who hear or see it are granted a perfect indulgence of their sin punishments according to the church's prescriptions. While the personal presence of the faithful on the square or within sight of the Pope was originally necessary to receive this indulgence, since 1967 the blessing can also be received by listeners or viewers during broadcasts on the radio. The same applies to television broadcasts since 1985 and to transmissions via the Internet since 1995.
  • Since ancient times the Catholic Church has granted perfect indulgences to every believer who visits one of the four patriarchal basilicas of Rome and reverently speaks the Our Father and the Creed. Except on religious holidays and the patronage of this church, indulgence can be won once a year on another day of the believer's choice.

See also


  • Paul VI : Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina on the reorganization of indulgences. (Jan. 1, 1967) AAS. 59, 1967, pp. 5-24. German translation in: Handbook of indulgences (= Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, 3rd Latin edition). Bonn 1989, pp. 69-93. In addition, Latin and German with nuances of translation in: Post-conciliar documentation. Vol. 2. (NKD. 2): Apostolic penal constitution, penal order of the German bishops, apostolic constitution on the reorganization of indulgences. Latin - German. Trier 1912, pp. 72-127.
  • Arnold Angenendt : History of Religiosity in the Middle Ages . 3. Edition. WBG , Darmstadt 2005, pp. 652-657.
  • Gustav Adolf Benrath:  Indulgence . In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie (TRE). Volume 1, de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1977, ISBN 3-11-006944-X , pp. 347-364.
  • Franz Beringer: Indulgences, their nature and use. 2 vols., 15th edition. Schöningh, Paderborn 1921.
  • Reinhard Brandt: Let go of indulgences. An evangelical plea . V&R, Göttingen 2008.
  • John Calvin : Lessons in the Christian Religion. 3. Edition. Neukirchen-Vluyn 1984, p. 432 ff. (Third book, fifth chapter: "From the appendages to the doctrine of the works that do well, namely indulgences and purgatory.")
  • Peter Christoph Düren: Indulgence in teaching and practice. The perfect indulgences of the Catholic Church. 4th edition. Dominus-Verlag, Augsburg 2013.
  • Adolf Gottlob : Cross indulgence and alms indulgence: study of the early days of indulgence. Enke, Stuttgart 1906.
  • Arnold Guillet : The prayers of indulgence of the Catholic Church. 7th edition. Christiana-Verlag , Stein am Rhein 2013.
  • Berndt Hamm: Indulgence and Reformation - amazing coherence . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2016, ISBN 978-3-16-154481-1 .
  • Johann Baptist von Hirscher : The Catholic doctrine of indulgence with special regard to its practical significance . 5th edition. Laupp, Tübingen 1844 ( digitized as DjVu )
  • Charles Journet : The Catholic Doctrine on Purgatory , 1931.
  • Christiane Laudage : The business of sin. Indulgence and indulgences in the Middle Ages . Herder, Freiburg, Basel, Vienna 2016, ISBN 978-3-451-31598-5 .
  • Flora Lewis: Rewarding Devotion. Indulgences and the Promotion of Images . In: Diana Wood (ed.): The Church and the Arts. Papers Read at the 1990 Summer Meeting and the 1991 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society . Blackwell, Oxford 1992, pp. 178-194.
  • Martin Luther : Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum (disputation to explain the power of indulgence; 95 theses, 1517). In: Wilfried Härle , Johannes Schilling , Günter Wartenberg (eds.): Martin Luther: Latin-German study edition. Vol. 2, Evangelische Verlagsanstalt , Leipzig 2006, pp. 1–15. In a slightly different translation and with an introduction by Karin Bornkamm : Disputation to explain the power of indulgence [95 theses] , in: dies. with Gerhard Ebeling (Ed.): Martin Luther. Selected Writings. Vol. I. 2nd edition. Insel Verlag , Frankfurt a. M. 1983, pp. 26-37.
  • Martin Luther: A sermon of indulgence and grace (1517/1518). In: Reinhard Brandt: Translation into today's German, introduction and explanation of: A sermon on indulgence and grace by the worthy Dr. Martin Luther, Augustiner zu Wittenberg , in: Luther (Luther magazine of the Luther Society ), vol. 73 (2002), issue 1, pp. 4–9.
  • Bernd Moeller : The last indulgence campaigns. Luther's contradiction to indulgences in its historical context. In: Hartmut Boockmann, Bernd Moeller , Karl Stackmann (eds.): Life lessons and world designs in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age. Politics - Education - Natural History - Theology. Report on colloquia of the commission to research the culture of the late Middle Ages 1983 to 1987 (= treatises of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen: philological-historical class. Volume III, No. 179). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1989, ISBN 3-525-82463-7 , pp. 539-568.
  • Nikolaus Paulus : Indulgence in the Middle Ages as a cultural factor (= association publication of the Görres Society for the Care of Science in Catholic Germany). Bachem, Cologne 1920.
  • Nikolaus Paulus: History of indulgence in the Middle Ages. From the origin to the middle of the 14th century . 2 vols. 1922. 2nd edition expanded to include an introduction and a bibliography by Thomas Lentes. WBG, Darmstadt 2000.
  • Nikolaus Paulus: History of indulgence at the end of the Middle Ages. 1923. 2nd edition. WBG, Darmstadt 2000.
  • Bernhard Poschmann : Indulgence in the light of bus history. Bonn 1948.
  • Karl Rahner : Small theological treatise on indulgences. In: ders .: Writings on theology. Vol. VIII. Einsiedeln 1967, pp. 472-487.
  • Karl Rahner: On today's church doctrine of indulgences . In: ders .: Writings on theology . Vol. XII. Zurich 1975, pp. 455-466.
  • Joseph Ratzinger : Portiuncula. What indulgence means . In: ders .: Images of Hope. Hikes in the church year . Freiburg i.Br. 1997, pp. 91-100.

Web links

Commons : Indulgences  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Indulgence  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikisource: Indulgence  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. Reinhard Brandt : Let go of indulgences. An evangelical plea. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-525-61910-0 , pp. 19-20.
  4. Lawrence G. Duggan, Indulgence in Encyclopedia Brittanica , 2015
  5. Indulgentiarum doctrina No. 12 and No. 4 ( [1] )
  6. Keyword: Indulgence on Vatican Radio (2006): Thoughts of Pope Benedict XVI.
  7. ^ KKK, 1479
  8. Martin Luther, Schriften , eds. Karin Bornkamm and Gerhard Ebeling, Volume 2, p. 261.
  9., April 11, 2017.
  10. Ludwig Hödl: Theology and church practice of indulgence in the high and late Middle Ages. In: Lexicon of the Middle Ages . Vol. 1, Artemis - & - Winkler-Verlag, Munich and Zurich 1980, columns 44-46
  11. Rolf Decot: Luther's Reformation between theology and poor policy. Otto Lembeck Bonifatius Verlag, Frankfurt, ISBN 3-87476-539-3 , pp. 132-133.
  12. Martin Heckel: Martin Luther's Reformation and the Law. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2016, ISBN 978-3-16-154468-2 , p. 93.
  13. Martin Heckel: Martin Luther's Reformation and the Law. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2016, ISBN 978-3-16-154468-2 , p. 94.
  14. Müller, Gerhard (ed.). Theological Real Encyclopedia, Part 1, Vol. 1 p. 336.
  15. ^ Friedrich Weber : Indulgence and no end? (PDF, 252 kB) Why the theological debate has to be conducted (2008). Retrieved December 8, 2014 .
  16. Conc. Trid., Sessio XXI., Decretum de reformatione, Augsburg 1781, pp. 260-261.
  17. Conc. Trid., Sessio XXV., Decretum de indulgentiis, Augsburg 1781, p. 713.
  18. Indulgentiarum doctrina , No. 11
  19. ^ Indulgence for WYD Sydney
  20. Indulgentiarum doctrina , N. 18
  21. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 34 (1942), p. 382, ​​translation after remembering for the future , p. 19 (PDF, 817 kB).
  22. Bulle Antiquorum had Pope Boniface VIII for the proclamation of the Holy Year 1300.