Quoting: "Indulgence". As originally understood, an indulgence was a mitigation of severe canonical penances imposed on the faithful for grave sins. Outside the Church in society, we use terms like favor, pardon, and in our Justice system the term "commute" is the equivalent of the term "indulgence." If you will permit me I would like to say one more thing; everything about the Catholic Church can be understood only when you see the Church as "The Kingdom Family of God." God is our King and Father, and we are His Knights and children. We are all brothers and sisters, and Mary is our Queen and mother. When you try to understand a teaching of the Church, think about a family and where that teaching is found in a family. And in the broader sense, in society, because society is just a group of families living together, though imperfect. In Gods plan, this society is called to be one big human family, His Children, His Church. Never allow yourself to fall into the mistake of viewing God's family as something found in the spiritual world only and not a physical reality. Regardless of how bad a job we as God's children, all of us, the entire human race live out this truth, it is still the truth and will one day be perfected. The Catholic Church having the fullness of that truth is a sure guide to unity of God's children, the human race."
You see, everything the Church teaches can be found in some way in the family, or in the larger context, society. It begins like this,
(The foundation for my statement above) Step one:
God is a Familial being, a perfect communion of persons. He is a family within Himself. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The love between the Father and Son is so real and perfect that that love is embodied and personified in the Holy Spirit. Hence the term, "The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son." The two are so perfectly one, they become three. (Do not take the word "become" to indicate progression within the Trinity, I am not inferring that). The three Persons were always one God, and the one God was always three Persons. God is a family being.
God created man in His own "image & likeness," male and female He created them. The book of Genesis informs us that, Man is to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Now if you are a dad, how did you become a dad? In the human family, the husband and wife become one in marriage, but really one in flesh through the marital act. And the oneness of that love between the husband and wife in that act, is embodied and personified in the child that comes from that perfect union between the two. So in the human family, the two become one and the one becomes three. Seen this imagery before? The Trinity perhaps? Even in the human family, that third person of that union of one flesh proceeds from the father and mother.
If the family is the image of God, then the next step would be to see God imaged in the Church, the society of families. Here we need to get rid of our American thinking of a "Separation of Church and State" to really understand this. There is no such thing in the Family of God. But then again, we can use this distinction to understand our topic more clearly, "Indulgences." Here I am going to shift my focus to particulars.
The Catholic Church has always seen herself as the visible family of God. A Society working together as a family. Within this society of families that we call the Church, we have a governing body. From mom and dad, to our local priest, the bishops, the Pope our Holy Father, all ultimately under the authority of God our Father. But like any other family, you have rebellious kids. Sinners who commit sins against God and the family of God, stealing, lying, adultery, hatred, murder and the list goes on. When one commits a sin, that person becomes imprisoned by sin and now owes a debt to God and the family around him for the damage inflicted by his actions on the family. By that sinners sinful actions, he brings an automatic sentence and judgment upon himself that he now owes and must pay to balance the scales of justice. That debt must be paid either in this world or in the next. So in the spiritual life of the members of the Church, the family of God, we have the following images: 1) A sinner, 2) Sin, 3) Imprisonment to sin, 4) Judgment for the sin, 5) Sentencing for the sin, 6) Repaying the debt or Restitution.
Society on the other hand, sees herself as a community of people living together under some form of governing authority. From mom and dad, to the mayor, to the governor, to the senators, all the way up the ladder to the president. But like any other society, you have rebellious citizens. Criminals who commit crimes against the government and the society around them by stealing, perjury, rape, adultery, murder, drive by shootings, car jacking, and the list goes on. (Can you tell I once lived in LA?) When one commits a crime, that person is sent to prison and now owes a debt to the government and society for the damage inflicted by his actions on that society. By that criminal's actions, he brings an automatic sentence and judgment upon himself that match the crime he committed, and that he now owes and must pay to balance the scales of justice. That debt must be paid before he is released from his sentence. So in society we have the following images: 1) A Criminal, 2) Crime, 3) Imprisonment, 4) Judgment for the Crime, 5) Sentencing for the Crime, 6) Repaying the debt or Restitution.
This next to last step in my thinking will make clear the doctrine of indulgences before I even explain what it is. You are about to see how society uses indulgences all the time and we do not even bat an eye. Lets take Step 5 first before we go back to Step 4. You have a criminal who committed a crime. He goes before a judge and is sentenced to 40 years of hard labor for his crimes. For the next 25 years, this criminal dedicates most of his life to charitable causes and good behavior. He tries to turn his life around, leads a prison anti- drug program for teens, gets a degree in medicine to help others and so on. The governor then steps in and grants this criminal a pardon and commutes his sentence. The remaining 15 years is commuted for good behavior. The governor in a sense has applied the merits of this man's good deeds to the 15 years left on his sentence and the fifteen years are now paid in full. The criminal is now released, his debt now paid to society, even though he only actually served 25 years, and is welcomed back into society.
When you apply this idea of commuting a sentence to a member of the family of God; the Church, for his sins (crimes), we call it an indulgence (commuting a sentence). Only since God, who is infinite, is the one offended by sin, the merits of the sinner are not sufficient to satisfy the sentence. But the merits of Jesus Christ, and the saints in union with Him, are. (Bear in mind that Christ's merits alone are sufficient, but remember, this is a family. This is also a whole other subject.) So the Pope (governor), attaches indulgences (pardon, favor, commuting of a sentence), to acts of charity and other good deeds (good behavior), so that the Church; the family of God may assist her sons and daughters in trying to stay out of the imprisonment of sin. And when they do fall into sin, Mother Church is right there to assist them.
This is a very basic sketch using society and family to understand a teaching of the Catholic Church, "Indulgences." There is so much more but let this stand for now.