Are Indulgences Contrary To The Spirit
of Eastern Orthodoxy?

It is well known that Indulgences have been the object of much misunderstanding and polemical abuse by Protestants since the days of Martin Luther who heaped upon them all the fierce invectives of which he was master. Curiously, in his earlier days as an Augustinian friar, Luther correctly explained in a sermon in July 1516 the use and benefits of indulgences. He noted that an indulgence is "the remission, in whole or in part, of the temporal punishment due to sin", after the sin has been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance. No sin was forgiven by an Indulgence and Indulgences were not a permission to commit further sin; moreover, Indulgences did not give full pardon for sin in exchange for money!

It was only later as he developed his heretical teaching on grace and justification and denial of free will that he came to reject the temporal punishment for sin, the meritoriousness of good works, and the value of atonement and expiation for the salvation of souls. He knew well that in the mercy of God, Indulgences issued by the Pope or a bishop can shorten purgatorial suffering and benefit true religion for they are never granted unless one is heartily sorry for his sins, and is in the state of grace or friendship with God. In his rebellion, by the year 1530, he proceeded to deny the very existence of Purgatory which is so connected to the Church's traditional teaching on Indulgences.

In 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI gave a masterful exposition of the Church's doctrine on Indulgences in his "Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences":

  • "The doctrine of Indulgences and their practice have been in force for many centuries in the Catholic Church. They would appear to be solidly founded on divine Revelation, handed down "from the Apostles"... If we wish to understand exactly the doctrine of Indulgences and its benefits in practice, we must remember truths which the whole Church, enlightened by God's Word, has always believed. These truths have been taught by the bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles, and by the Roman Pontiffs, who, as successors of St. Peter, are first and foremost among the bishops. They have taught these truths by means of their pastoral practice as well as in documents setting forth doctrine. They have done it throughout the centuries to this day." (#1)
  • "The truth has been divinely revealed that sins are followed by punishments. God's holiness and justice inflict them. Sins must be expiated. This must be done on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and trials of this life, and, above all, through death. Otherwise, the expiation must be made in the next life through fire and torments of purifying punishments." (#2)
  • [Deploring the abuse of Indulgences in the past], the Church "teaches and commands that the usage of Indulgences... should be kept in the Church; and it condemns with anathema those who say that Indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them." (#8)
  • "The use of Indulgences shows us how closely we [The faithful on earth and the faithful departed] are united to each other in Christ." (#9)
  • "Indulgences also confirm the pre-eminence of charity in the Christian life."(#11)

Eastern Orthodoxy and Indulgences

Unfortunately, since the 17th century, Indulgences as well as the Church's doctrine on Purgatory have been misunderstood and been the object of criticism and fierce polemics by various Eastern Orthodox theologians and writers. Expressing his recent reservations regarding Purgatory, the irenic Russian Orthodox theologian Laurent A. Cleenewerck has conceded that such concepts as:

"wrath of God, torment, justice, offending a God from whom one has to be protected, are solidly biblical... It is certainly possible to conclude... that the burning fire of Purgatory is in fact, the all-love presence of the uncreated Trinity... It does seem that an approved doctrinal statement [between Catholics and Orthodox] would be much easier to produce now than ever before."

However, summing up his view on Indulgences, Fr. Cleenewerck concluded that:

"The concept of Purgatory - Indulgences as it was formulated at the Councils of Florence and Trent is hard to reconcile with the spirit of Eastern Orthodoxy."
("His Broken Body", p. 362)

But is this true?

Historically, present-day Eastern Orthodox difficulties with Indulgences have been grounded in medieval Orthodox polemics against Latin "innovations" combined with the denial of any temporal punishment for sin, the rejection of any purgatorial fire, objection to the very noun "Purgatory", and even an outright denial of the very existence of Purgatory, so that a Bishop Kallistos can write in his classic work "The Orthodox Church":

"Today, most if not all Orthodox theologians reject the idea of Purgatory, at least in this form [of souls undergoing expiatory suffering and rendering 'satisfaction' for their sins]."

Yet, he cannot deny that past Greek and Russian theologians admitted a temporal punishment for unatoned sins, defended an intermediate state of the deceased where there is suffering, and approved the widespread belief and practice in their Churches that prayers, suffrages, alms, and the offering of the Divine Liturgy for the departed constituted an Apostolic practice of spiritual benefit to such souls. Bishop Kallistos is constrained to avow that:

"Orthodox teaching is not entirely clear, and has varied somewhat at different times. In the 17th century, a number of Orthodox writers - most notably Peter of Moghila, and Dositheus in his "Confession" - uphold the Roman Catholic doctrine on Purgatory, or something very close to it."
(1993 edition, p. 255)

Nor can Orthodox writers be ignorant that Indulgences were originally rooted in the Church's relaxing the severe canonical penalties imposed on sinners whose mortal sins had been forgiven but needed to do penance. Their penances were shortened on account of the prayers of the martyrs and confessors. Prayers of suffrage for the faithful departed and the offering of the Holy Sacrifice for them were believed to cleanse away the effects of sin so that they might enter fully into the heavenly Kingdom.

It is not surprising, therefore, that amidst centuries of contestation between Catholics and Orthodox concerning Purgatory, and the confusion and contradictions among the Orthodox themselves concerning the after life (there is denial of the Beatific Vision until after the resurrection of the dead !), Indulgences would also come under special attack. This is clearly seen in the notorious 1895 Encyclical of the Patriarch Anthimus of Constantinople and his Holy Synod repudiating the plea for Reunion of the Churches by Pope Leo XIII. In his litany of Catholic "heresies", the Patriarch denounced the "Papal Church" of:

"inventing and heaping together in the person of the Pope, as one singularly privileged, a multitude of innovations concerning purgatorial fire, a superabundance of the virtues of the saints, and the distribution of them to those who need them [a reference to indulgences], and the like, setting forth also a full reward for the just before the universal resurrection and judgment."

The Patriarch seems to deny all punishment for souls who are not among the elect or damned while in previous sentences he notes the Church:

"walking according to the divinely inspired teaching of the Holy Scripture and the old Apostolic tradition, prays and invokes the mercy of God for the forgiveness and rest of those 'which have fallen asleep in the Lord'."

This is nothing if not a clear admission that an intermediate state exists where there is "forgiveness and rest" for the deceased and where such souls undergo a cleansing or purification. Contrary to allegations of some Greek and Russian Orthodox writers, the nature of the "purifying fire" noted by Catholics has not been defined by the Church, not has it been defined as a "place". Purgatory constitutes rather a state of "purgatorial punishments". There souls are obliged to make expiation for the temporal punishment due to sins committed after baptism and for which satisfaction must be rendered God for having offended Him and not having sufficiently atoned for sins committed during one's life. In other words, if sufficient penance is not done in this life, there is a penitential purification in Purgatory.

At the famous Reunion Council of Florence (1439) it is significant that the Byzantine Greeks (including the obstinate Mark of Ephesus) did not consider Purgatory an issue serious enough to prevent Reunion. If they objected to a material or physical fire, they admitted souls suffered the "purgatorial punishments" of captivity, darkness, ignorance, and remorse.

It is difficult to believe that the patriarch Anthimus who denounced Indulgences in his reply to Pope Leo XIII could have been ignorant of the fact that Orthodox bishops and patriarchs had themselves issued Indulgences which were popular among their people from the 16th to the 19th centuries. It is ironic that in 1846 he himself wrote a Letter of pardon [Indulgence]:

"in virtue of the power of binding and loosing which has passed from the Apostles to us by succession; we have absolved and loosed from all sin the soul and the body of the deceased servant of God Christodoulos remitting all the faults and offenses committed by him against God."

These Letters were a form of Indulgences termed "Absolution Certificates" and came into common use in Greek Orthodox churches suffering under the Ottoman yoke from the 16th to 18th centuries. This was doubtless due to increased contacts with Latin theology by Greek scholars and theologians studying in Western schools. These certificates which constituted real Indulgences, moreover, could be obtained for a specified sum of money! In the 1722 "Confession of Faith" issued and signed by the patriarch of Constantinople Paisius II, patriarch Chrysanthus of Jerusalem, and patriarch Sylvester of Antioch as well as other Bishops, the practice of issuing Indulgences received formal confirmation:

"The power of the forgiveness of sins, which is termed by the Eastern Church of Christ 'Absolution Certificates' is given to the Holy Church of Christ. These Absolution Certificates... are issued by the Four most holy Patriarchs, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem."

A later Council of Constantinople in 1838 dealt with the scandalous abuse of the sale of Indulgences by condemning the practice. However, the theological validity of Patriarchs issuing Indulgences was not questioned. Interestingly, "Absolution Certificates" remained popular in Greece into the middle of the 20th century. (See the remarkable article "Indulgences in the History of the Greek Church" by Sergei Govorum in which he gives much more valuable information - http://www/

In view of all the above, it is difficult to maintain that the practice of Indulgences is "contrary to the spirit of Eastern Orthodoxy" when the separated Eastern Patriarchs insisted on their ecclesiastical power to issue them. It is known that the Patriarch Dositheos Notarios of Jerusalem in the 18th century specifically justified Indulgences as a venerable tradition in the Church.


If the practice of indulgences is now "contrary to the spirit of Eastern Orthodoxy", it was not so in the past. In view of the contradictions in their past teaching about indulgences, there appears to be no official doctrine concerning them which would impede any future Reunion with the See of Rome. With regard to both Purgatory and Indulgences, despite continued Greek and Russian Orthodox misunderstandings, there remains no essential dogmatic difference between the Catholic Church and our separated brethren.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
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