Dear Father Edward, my friends were asking last night about the idea of total detachment from sin as a requirement for plenary indulgence- they were desperate that such a goal is unattainable- total detachment from venial sin- did Father clarify that on the SD site or somewhere else or can you point me to another source to refer to them to guide and comfort their souls. It seems the Church would never offer such a thing if it were not attainable, but these girls take this very seriously and they were downcast in thinking they could not live it out. And I have no ready answer that I am certain of. Can you weigh in with any wisdom?
Your instincts are correct: The Church wouldn’t offer something that is impossible to attain. The Church reminds us in No. 992 of the Code of Canon Law that
An indulgence is the remission before God of temporal punishment for sins whose guilt is already forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful gains under certain and defined conditions by the assistance of the Church which as minister of redemption dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.
Here it might be helpful to recall what an indulgence isn’t. It is not a license to commit sin, nor does it pardon future sins. It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of a sin; it supposes that the transgression has already been forgiven. Nor does it dispense someone from making restitution; if you stole something, you still have to return the object. An indulgence doesn’t grant immunity from temptation. And you cannot buy an indulgence as a kind of ticket to heaven. Indulgences got a bad reputation because of the abuses related to them which helped trigger the Reformation. But indulgences always have been and still are valid in principle.
To procure a plenary indulgence one must be in a state of grace at the time the indulgenced work is finished. The faithful must also go to confession, receive Communion (preferably at Mass) and pray for the intentions of the Pope (for instance, an Our Father and a Hail Mary). Sacramental confession may be made up to 20 days before or after performing the act to which an indulgence is attached.
The requirement for someone to be totally detached from sin needs some explanation. No doubt it is the most difficult condition for obtaining the indulgence. Notably, however, the requirement is not freedom from all sin. Rather, it is freedom from attachment to sin; that is, that there is no sin which the soul is unwilling to renounce. A person should be able to tell if he is fulfilling this condition. An attachment involves a refusal to amend a situation, and a person should be able to tell if he has such an attachment. Sometimes, deep down, we really don’t want to let go of certain sins, be it gossiping or overeating or loafing on the job. This differs from the case of normal human weakness or where a person falls into the same sin many times before overcoming it. To souls such as these the Church is ready to open her treasury of aid.
Yours in Christ, Father Edward McIlmail, LC
Father McIlmail is a theology instructor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, RI.