Most people think the Protestant Reformation began over the selling of indulgences. Unfortunately, some immoral and unscrupulous individuals were selling indulgences, which the Church has always officially considered immoral and sinful (simony) just as the trafficking in Mass stipends (sin of accepting several stipends for one Mass) would be. Nevertheless, despite the abuses committed at the very dawn of the Reformation, the theology of indulgences has never changed nor have indulgences been suppressed since the sixteenth century, even after Vatican II.
An indulgence is not a “get out of jail free” card that gives someone carte blanche to commit sin and then be forgiven without true sorrow (contrition), firm purpose of amendment, sacramental confession, absolution, and the fulfillment of one’s penance. An indulgence does not get any soul out of hell, nor does it prevent you from going to hell if you deserve it. An indulgence is neither a pardon from hell nor an early release from purgatory.
Indulgences are “remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (Catechism #1471).
Every sin has a double consequence. The first is the complete rupture (for a mortal sin) or the partial rupture (for a venial sin) of the spiritual relationship (communion) with God by killing or hurting the life of grace. Eternal punishment of hell is the penalty of unforgiven mortal sin. The second effect is the temporal punishment (purgatory) associated with unforgiven venial sins and already forgiven mortal sins. The reason for this temporal punishment is that even after we express true sorrow (contrition) and obtain absolution and forgiveness, there remains an “attachment” to sin. Those are the pleasant and fond memories we have of our past sins. We may be sorry we did them, but we still have some attachment to them in that we do not despise and hate each and every sin purely because we love God and hate the fact we ever offended Him. Instead, our sorrow is because of the punishment they deserve. Purgatory cleanses our soul so that we can fully appreciate the gravity of sin as God sees it and not just from our standpoint. It is like looking at a virus or bacteria through an electron microscope. Unseen to the naked eye, we may be too casual with ordinary germs. If you could see how ugly and dangerous some of them are with the microscope, then you would take them more seriously. Purgatory is like looking at your sins through a microscope and seeing their ugliness as God sees them.
If the surgeon removes a bullet from your chest, it is like going to confession and having a mortal sin forgiven. It saves the life of your soul. There is still, however, a nasty wound on your chest from the operation which also needs to be healed. Purgatory is nothing more than the removal of stitches and healing of the wound.
Indulgences are spiritual benefits derived from the infinite merits of Christ’s Passion and Death on the cross and the superabundant merits of all the sufferings endured by the Virgin Mary and all the Saints by uniting themselves with the Crucified Lord. In other words, Jesus suffered more than He had to, and since He is divine as well as human, every ounce of His suffering has infinite value. Theologians say one drop of blood and one cry from His circumcision as an infant would have been enough to save the human race because He was a Divine Person. Yet, Jesus gave more than one drop. He gave every drop of His blood as He died on the cross. The infinite value of His suffering, and the superabundant value of the suffering of all innocent and holy people throughout the ages combined, leave a vast reservoir of mercy the Church uses through Indulgences. These benefits are applied to the faithful departed who may be in purgatory; their attachments to former sins are “purged” or cleansed away so they can enter heaven spotless. The Church never defined how or when the indulgences help the souls in purgatory, just that they do help. We can also apply them to ourselves to bring about our own detachment from former sins.