Why indulgences cannot be for other living people?

While I understand THAT indulgences can only be used for oneself or for the holy souls in Purgatory, and not for other living people, I do not understand WHY that is the case. Is there some reason concerning the nature of indulgences that make other living people outside of oneself unable to receive indulgences from another person? Any help in understanding the reasoning behind this would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

This has been discussed on here before and the consensus was that we cannot apply indulgences to other living people because we cannot ensure that persons other than ourselves meet conditions like having repented of their sins and had them forgiven (as indulgences just remit temporal punishment for sins already forgiven), and having no attachment to sin (for the plenary).

Deceased souls in purgatory have already been “saved” and thus have already repented and are just serving their temporal punishment. So we can give them indulgences to reduce their temporal punishment.


I thought about this some more and came up with an additional reason.

The Church promotes indulgences partly to help the persons doing the indulgenced work to grow in grace by doing the indulgenced activities, which include things like giving money to the poor, praying Rosaries, adoring the Blessed Sacrament, reading Scripture, etc. The indulgence is a motivational tool to get us to do something that is helpful to us spiritually. If I read Scripture for a half hour, I not only grow spiritually and receive God’s grace for reading the Scripture, but I also can earn the special “bonus gift” of an indulgence. I can keep this indulgence for myself, or give this indulgence to a deceased soul in Purgatory because that soul is unable to get an indulgence for themself or do anything for themself at all.

However, another person walking around on earth is able to earn his or her own indulgence, and the Church would prefer that they did so because one purpose of indulgences is to motivate people to do various spiritual practices. If living person A is doing these practices and giving all the benefits to living person B, then person B has no motivation to bother reading Scripture, giving to the poor, etc. which is not what the Church wants to see happen. They want to see living person B earning his own indulgences.

Living person A is of course free to pray for living person B, or have a Mass said for B, so it’s not like we can do nothing for other living persons, even though we can’t give them indulgences.


From indulgentiarum doctrina, Blessed Pope Paul VI.

In an indulgence in fact, the Church, making use of its power as minister of the Redemption of Christ, not only prays but by an authoritative intervention dispenses to the faithful suitably disposed the treasury of satisfaction which Christ and the saints won for the remission of temporal punishment.(38)

The aim pursued by ecclesiastical authority in granting indulgences is not only that of helping the faithful to expiate the punishment due sin but also that of urging them to perform works of piety, penitence and charity—particularly those which lead to growth in faith and which favor the common good.(39)


There is nothing theologically wrong with it. For example, there have been some rare privileged altars in the past where the plenary indulgence could be applied to the dying, not just the dead. Priests belonging to the Pious Union of St. Joseph’s Death had a special grant from Pope Benedict XV so that every Mass they said for the dying was as if it were on such a privileged altar.

I am assuming such indulgences are rare to prevent abuse. An indulgence is already a mercy to a sinner who cannot make full satisfaction on his own. But has been mentioned, we can always offer our own merits for another whenever we want–only bishops can apply the collective merits of the whole Church.

It also bears noting that indulgences for the dead are bit different too. The Church’s pastors have no jurisdiction over the dead, so they can’t really grant indulgences for them. As such, canon law says they are applied “to the dead by way of suffrage.” In other words, it is a petition to God to accept them for the benefit of the suffering soul. We have a pious confidence that He does, but no irrevocable promise from Him.

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