Indulgences replaced the severe penances of the early church, or, to express it more exactly, they replaced the shortening of those penances that was allowed at the intercession of those imprisoned and those awaiting martyrdom for the faith."
That doesn't mean very much to me, so I dug a bit deeper. Basically, the Church thinks that they can be the middle man between the ultra-good and the ultra-bad. They take some of the good that is done, and allocate what bad that it should cancel out. Hence, the part about "the intercession of those imprisoned and those awaiting martyrdom." Now, the thing that I've always heard about (specifically from Nick) is how these indulgences were abused by the Catholic Church. From what I understand, they would let the super rich get away with murder (literally) as long as they paid up the cash, they would receive a document stating that they had been absolved of their sins and in the eyes of the Church, would still get entrance to heaven. In this way, the Church paid for many of it's cathedrals and monestaries.
Here's the rub, isn't God the ultimate judge and jury? I mean, sure Peter's the one at the gate with the key, but doesn't he get the list from the big man himself? What happened to vengance shall be mine? I just find it interesting that the Church thinks of itself as the broker of morality. I guess I shouldn't really be suprised. I do have to say that I don't like this new Pope. Trying to drag the Church back to the good ol' days just seems wrong on so many levels.