I'm delighted to see that Pope Benedict has decreed a Plenary Indulgence for those who make the pilgrimage to Lourdes in this 150th anniversary of the apparations.
Granting an indulgence is such a Catholic thing to do that I can already hear the screeches of horror from the Tablet; something about 'mediæval invention', 'insult to the memory of Martin Luther', 'ecumenically disastrous'……
In fact the practice of granting indulgences is very ancient indeed. They first caused a problem not in the time of Martin Luther, but in the time of the Decian Persecution (about 250ad), when the practice was already hallowed by age and custom. We know most about the Church in Carthage during this period, under the leadership of Saint Cyprian.
The Decian persecution caught the Church on the hop, and many Christians did not behave very well. There are records of frightened Christians rushing to the temples to sacrifice. At Carthage, the majority of Christians apostatized. Others pretended to have sacrificed, obtaining (by persuasion, bribery or other means) certificates, called libelli, saying that they had in fact done so. Having sometimes been under considerable pressure (torture was frequently used, and there would be the natural instinct to protect one's family, which might encourage a father to sacrifice or obtain a libellus to remove his wife and children from suspicion) many of these sacrificati and libellatici simply expected to be able to receive Communion as usual and were shocked to discover that this was now forbidden them, and they must expect to do many years' penance before being readmitted, if they were to be readmitted at all.
So they resorted to the expedient of visiting the Confessors, those Christians who had refused to sacrifice to the gods or the emperor, and were now in prison awaiting transportation to the mines or the arena for execution. And this brings us to the nub.
These confessors would issue notifications declaring that the bearer of this notice had had his penance done by the confessor, and so could go to Communion. And sometimes confessors when going to martyrdom left behind them with someone else permission to administer these pardons in their name, presumably without restriction.
This made St Cyprian very cross, as it seems to subvert the authority of the bishops to absolve, and, indeed, the martyrs seem to have been making themselves into an alternative hierarchy. He wrote to the Roman clergy about it (here).
The whole matter eventually settled down; nobody denied that the merits of the confessors and martyrs could be applied to another person, but the whole must be administered by the bishops of the Church to whom the power of binding and loosing is given.
And though the use of indulgences waxed and waned from time to time, and unquestionably grew in sophistication during the Mediæval period and the Counter-Reformation, it really doesn't make sense to deny that the practice is genuinely an ancient one!