"I want to start with two clarifications. First of all, one reader referred to the older practice of linking indulgences with particular numbers of “days” in purgatory. That practice has been officially phased out, not because it was doctrinally false, but because it was so easily misunderstood. It fostered the kind of mathematical piety that some of our readers are rightly uncomfortable with. The current practice is much simplified. The popes grant indulgences for certain pious actions (praying the stations of the cross, lifting your heart to God during the day, reading the Scriptures each day…), but they no longer assign numbers of days. Rather, they are simply partial or full indulgences.
"This means that they can help make reparation for our sins and those of the faithful who are now in purgatory. The Church doesn’t want us to think of salvation as a math problem that we can calculate and manipulate. And yet, the Church recognizes that our active love for God and neighbor can make a real positive impact on our souls and those of our brothers and sisters. Indulgences are simply one expression of this beautiful aspect of God’s plan for salvation.
"And that brings us to the second clarification. Indulgences are not merely an expression of popular piety. Expressions of popular piety, like pilgrimages, novenas to saints, and prayer vigils, are encouraged by the Church insofar as they help some of us stay energetic in our pursuit of holiness. But they are entirely optional.
"Even the Rosary (probably the most popular of all) is entirely optional, though it has been strongly recommended by every pope since the start of the twentieth century. Even approved Marian apparitions (Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe…) are not an integral part of the Catholic faith. No Catholic has to believe in them or be devoted to them. They belong to what is known as private revelations.
"Whereas doctrines like the Resurrection of Christ and the Immaculate Conception are not optional. They are integral parts of Revelation, and knowingly rejecting them is a sin against faith. Indulgences are closer to this side of the spectrum; they are both a doctrine and a practice. In other words, believing in indulgences is not optional. It is taught by the teaching authority of the Church as a true doctrine, as integrally related to Revelation. So, even if some of us don’t like the doctrine and the practice, even if we don’t try to obtain them, we must accept the truth of indulgences as part of our faith.
~ Fr John Bartunek, excerpt from his series on Indulgences and Purgatory ~