It seems that the current Pope is intent on returning the Catholic Church back to a pre-Vatican II stage.
The plenary indulgance was the central issue causing Martin Luther to begin the Protestant movement. In essence, it says that you can buy amnesty from punishment in the afterlife.
“Why are we bringing it back?” asked Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who has embraced the move. “Because there is sin in the world.”
Like the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the indulgence was one of the traditions decoupled from mainstream Catholic practice in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops that set a new tone of simplicity and informality for the church. Its revival has been viewed as part of a conservative resurgence that has brought some quiet changes and some highly controversial ones, like Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to lift the excommunications of four schismatic bishops who reject the council’s reforms.
The indulgence is among the less noticed and less disputed traditions to be restored. But with a thousand-year history and volumes of church law devoted to its intricacies, it is one of the most complicated to explain.
According to Church teaching, even after confession, even after being absolved of sin for saying Our Fathers and Hail Marys, one could still face punishment in the form of Purgatory before entering Heaven.
In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.
Martin Luther to exception to this practice because it was essential reduced to a payola scheme. If you had the money and could pony up for an indulgence your bishop would grant you absolution. Those without money were, unfortunately, shit out of luck.
There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.
Charitable contributions still sounds like payola to me.