Here is what I think I understand:

A Catholic believes in something called penance that is understood as a sacrament by which forgiveness of sins (committed after baptism) is granted through the priest's ‘absolution’ to those with:

a) true sorrow
b) confess their sins and
c) promise to satisfy for the confessed sin

The satisfactions are basically works necessary to ensure the temporal punishments due to sin are ‘satisfied’. The idea is that although the ‘absolution’ remits both the guilt and the eternal punishment of mortal sins, some indebtedness to justice that demands temporal punishment can be cancelled through the ‘satisfaction’ (or later on in purgatory).

On the subject of purgatory, one man's work with intrinsic satisfactory qualities may actually be transferred to another in order to remove some (or all?) of the punishments of those believers in purgatory. Those in purgatory are those who did not make satisfaction for their own venial sins before dying – thus having to be in purgatory.

Owing to the peculiar relation between and material identity of merit and satisfaction in the present economy of salvation, a twofold value must in general be distinguished in every good work: the meritorious and the satisfactory value. But each preserves its distinctive character, theoretically by the difference in concepts, and practically in this, that the value of merit as such, consisting in the increase of grace and of heavenly glory, is purely personal and is not applicable to others, while the satisfactory value may be detached from the meriting agent and applied to others. The possibility of this transfer rests on the fact that the residual punishments for sin are in the nature of a debt, which may be legitimately paid to the creditor and thereby cancelled not only by the debtor himself but also by a friend of the debtor. This consideration is important for the proper understanding of the usefulness of suffrages for the souls in purgatory (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXV, Decret. de purgat., in Denzinger, n. 983). (Catholic Encyclopedia – Merit)

Here is my question:

'I understand that a Catholic through meritorious works that have satisfactory power in them, can transfer those satisfactions as a kind of spiritual wealth to those in purgatory. However, can these ‘credits’ if I may use the word, be sent to others who are still alive as well?'

More specifically: 'If I was Catholic and a dear relative I know commits venial sins and needs to do some satisfaction to avoid temporal punishment, can I do good meritorious/satisfactory works for them and thereby remove their temporal punishments for them? Or is the transfer of satisfaction only for those believers who are suffering temporal punishments in purgatory?

  • What does the Bible say about all of this?
    – Chris Bier
    May 5, 2013 at 14:24
  • 1
    @ChrisB ask the question, I ain't scared.
    – Peter Turner
    May 6, 2013 at 3:54
  • Did you mean to say "venial sins" in the last sentence before the long quotation? In any case I wouldn't think that any qualifier is needed -- either kind of sin requires temporal satisfaction as far as I'm aware.
    – Ben Dunlap
    May 6, 2013 at 20:42
  • @BenDunlap - Ben actually could you help me confirm my understanding. I was assuming the person in purgatory might not have yet repented at all. For venial sin I assume they can be satisfied in purgatory. For mortal sin I assume they would not be in the state of grace and be in hell. Is this correct Catholic thinking? This is why I specifically mentioned venial assuming the person may have died while committing the sin.
    – Mike
    May 7, 2013 at 4:39
  • @Mike I only meant to point out that someone who repents of mortal sin before dying might still need to make satisfaction for that sin in purgatory. Your sentence as it stands could be read to mean that the only purpose of purgatory is to satisfy for venial sins. In fact, as I look over your entire question again, I'm wondering if maybe that's your sense of the doctrine of purgatory at this point?
    – Ben Dunlap
    May 7, 2013 at 15:07

1 Answer 1


The Catechism says:

"An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.

CCC 1471

and I think that answers it. Every time you bless yourself with holy water, you have a partial indulgence. A plenary indulgence also requires complete detachment from sin, which in my opinion seems very difficult. Those indulgences can go towards your own sorry life or someone else who is dead, even if they're in Heaven those prayers won't be wasted as prayers are never wasted.

Unless of course you're praying that your delinquent nephew won't be given a just punishment for skinning cats. In this case you'd want to pray that God gives your nephew the actual grace that you would be given for a meritorious act. This is what your Catholic mother calls "offering it up".

Also, I'd slightly modify the first sentence if it wouldn't subvert the question.

  • Catholics believe in something called Reconciliation


  • c) promise to do penance

I was surprised about the use of the term satisfaction here in the Catholic encyclopedia. It's in the Catechism quite a bit too but I've never seen it defined in my Catechetical instructional materials when covering the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

  • I think I understand, you are saying either for self or for the dead but not for another living person as they are still alive to do it for themselves. The whole point is that the dead no longer have opportunity to do it for themselves. Am I getting the idea, or confused?
    – Mike
    May 6, 2013 at 4:49
  • Yeah, that's right, they're working it out another way. What is confusing is whether or not those in Heaven can intercede on behalf of those in purgatory. I don't know the answer to that.
    – Peter Turner
    May 6, 2013 at 14:20
  • This answer surprised me -- I have always assumed that indulgences can be applied to others still alive. Now that I think about it I can't recall a reference for that, though.
    – Ben Dunlap
    May 6, 2013 at 20:36
  • Oh, found one. This is confusing -- CCC 1471 on the Vatican's website includes this text: "Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead."
    – Ben Dunlap
    May 6, 2013 at 20:39
  • @BenDunlap - Following Peter's answer I think that statement just means indulgences can be applied to the person who obtains one, or for the dead. I.e., it does not mean a person can obtain an indulgence and then apply it to someone 'other' person living, just them-self or the dead.
    – Mike
    May 6, 2013 at 22:58

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