The New York Times reported Monday that the Catholic Church is re-emphasizing the practice of offering indulgences. According to the Times, there are both "partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed." How do Catholics calculate spiritual sentences in the first place?
They don't. A Spanish theologian from the late Middle Ages once argued that the average Christian spends 1000 to 2000 years in purgatory (according to Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory). But there's no official take on the average sentence. According to the church, only God knows the exact amount of time a person must spend in purgatory before attaining a state of purity. It's assumed, however, that the severity of one's punishment will be directly proportional to the severity of the crime. (See this Explainer for more about the gradations of Catholic sins.)
Contrary to what the Times article suggests, partial indulgences don't come with specific amounts of time off for good behavior. Because it's generally understood that time works differently in purgatory than it does on Earth, "five weeks off" has no practical meaning in the afterlife. Properly speaking, purgatory is a process rather than a place—the popular image of purgatory as something with spatial and temporal dimensions dates back to medieval times but isn't actually part of official church doctrine.
Obtaining an indulgence isn't the same as being "forgiven." Forgiveness—which places a sinner back in the good graces of God—can be granted only through the act of confession. After being forgiven, though, that person still has to endure punishment for his sins. This temporal punishment can be served either on Earth—through confessor-assigned penance or by obtaining an indulgence—or in purgatory.
To obtain an indulgence, a Catholic must complete an act listed in the Vatican-issued Enchiridion Indulgentarium (Handbook of Indulgences)—for example, observing the Stations of the Cross or abstaining from pleasurable activities. (The pope and other clergy may also declare certain, special acts worthy of an indulgence—for example, taking part "attentively and devoutly" in the celebration of World Youth Day.) These acts are classified as either plenary or partial: The first edition of the Enchiridion, published in 1968, specifically noted that the grant of a partial indulgence is made "without any determination of days or years." The effectiveness of your act depends on the sincerity with which you complete it. (More earnestness, more time off.)
An older version of the Enchiridion, known as the Raccolta, did assign lengths of time for each indulgenced act. Reciting seven Gloria Patris and one Ave Maria in a single day, for example, would grant you "an indulgence of 100 days." That didn't mean, however, that the penitent would get 100 days knocked off his purgatorial stay. A 100-day indulgence just earns you the equivalent of 100 days of earthly penance. (In the early and medieval church, penances were extremely arduous; a sinner might be sentenced to years of nothing but bread and water or months of wearing sackcloth.)
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Explainer thanks Lawrence S. Cunningham of the University of Notre Dame, Monsignor Charles Fink of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, and Terrence W. Tilley of Fordham University.