For whatever reason (poor catechesis, Reformation baggage, general sloth), most Catholics seem to be fairly clueless on what an indulgence is, what it’s supposed to effect, and how one is obtained. Actually, the subject seems to live on only as a convenient whipping-boy for anti-Catholics who rely on the ignorance of many Catholics for it’s effect. While anti-Catholics distort the Church’s teaching primarily out of historical ignorance, the uninformed Catholic is a slow-moving target on this topic, suspecting, shame-facedly, in the back of his mind that every charge anti-Catholics bring up about indulgences is true.
Were you ever taught what an indulgence is (and is not)? Have you ever heard indulgences downplayed or dismissed as irrelevant by catechists or priests? Have you ever sought an indulgence fully aware of the conditions attached and what was the benefit that was supposed to be gained? How would you explain indulgences to a non-Catholic?
For starters, here is the Church’s teaching from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1471**The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.
**What is an indulgence? **
"An indulgence is a 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."81
"An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin."82 The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.83
**The punishments of sin **
1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.84
1473 The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the "new man."85