The Impact of Indulgencesby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Dicuss the changes in the implementation and doctrines of Roman Catholic indulgences.
Throughout the late Middle Ages indulgences have influenced the course of history in many respects. Through their introduction and implementation medieval church leaders periodically held sway on emperors and common man alike. Despite their power and often use, indulgences have not always been the same in function or methods of distribution. These changes follow through a pattern of unique, defining events: the Crusades, Pope Leo X, the printing press, Martin Luther, and finally the Council of Trent. Placed within these historical settings the religious influence of indulgences grew to its peak during the Protestant Reformation and then declined and stabilized during the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent. Yet to fully understand the historical implications of indulgences, we must first understand the surrounding doctrines of the Roman Catholic church and the theology of indulgences themselves.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, a large collection of extended writings by Catholic authorities, shows how sin, purgatory, salvation, and justification all play an important part in the theology of indulgences. Unlike Protestant views, modern Catholics see that the consequences of sin demand us to satisfy two punishments-eternal punishment and temporal punishment. Eternal punishment, spending eternity in hell after death, is paid through the death of Jesus when a man or women converts and is baptized1. On this issue Protestants agree to an extent (except for the fact that some believe that the required punishment is revoked at conversion and not baptism). Catholics, and not Protestants, then explain that while Christ satisfied our payment of eternal punishment, we must fulfill our payment concerning temporal punishment2. This temporal punishment must be paid in one of two places-here on earth or after death in the purifying torture of purgatory prior to entering heaven3.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholics believe that the necessary satisfactions of Gods justice can be obtained through Sacraments and Indulgences. They believe that through the Sacrament of Baptism both temporal punishments and eternal punishments are satisfied for a new convert4. Yet they also believe that if a Christian then sins sometime between Baptism and death, he must then take part in the Sacrament of Penance to remove his guilt or, in some cases, his eternal punishment5. Furthermore, he must either obtain an indulgence, which takes away his temporal punishment, or pay for this temporal punishment in purgatory6. Indulgences also come in varying degrees, removing various amounts of time in purgatory. A partial indulgence takes away part of the time in purgatory while a plenary indulgence takes away all the time that one must stay in purgatory for sins previously committed7. It is also important to note that indulgences were not always bought with money; sometimes they were obtained through certain works or actions.
Indulgences did not always exist as our modern understanding envisions them. In fact, according to Fr. Enrico dal Covolo, the contemporary idea of indulgences in our time and the time of the Reformation did not begin until the 11th century8. Fr. Covolo continues to explain that their evolution was a long process through various earlier forms of "reconciliation; mitigation, reduction and commutation of sacramental penance"-all of which granted to some extent either remission of punishment or a renewed relationship with the church society. Furthermore, they were not necessarily bought with money or extended to anyone who fulfilled certain requirements. Through these theologies indulgences slowly evolved with their first great influence revealing itself through the crusades9.
During Christendom's struggle with the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks in the eleventh century through the fifteenth century, several Catholic Popes called for crusades against the expansion of these powerful Islamic empires. Fr. Covolo states that Pope Urban II (in the first crusade) and Pope Eugene III (in the second crusade) offered indulgences to anyone who would join their struggle against the Muslims10. He further explains that Pope Gregory VIII later took this example one step further. Gregory VIII offered plenary indulgences (one that paid for all sins previously committed but not for the future) to anyone who simply "provided someone to take their place or who contributed to the expense of the crusade11." The people who obtained these indulgences did not even have to go to war themselves. They could simply buy their way out of purgatory.
In the sixteenth century Pope Leo X perverted the theology of indulgences to the greatest extent in history-turning a religious doctrine into no more than a money making scheme. Christian History Institute explains how after draining the Vatican treasury, Pope Leo X planned on continuing to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica yet lacked the necessary funds to do so12. It goes on to explain how Leo X sent the legendary Tetzel, a Dominican monk, to sell indulgences to fund his project. This particular set of indulgences state that even the sins that the buyer would later commit would be justified in the eyes of God:
.I restore you. to the innocence and purity which you possessed at baptism; so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut. and if you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death.Tetzel also shows his disregard for the theological importance of indulgences as Christian History Institute quotes him using little jingles to sell them: As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs13. These events set the stage for Martin Luther's dispute with the Catholic church and the imminent Protestant Reformation.
Before the discussion of the Protestant Reformation it would benefit us to first look at the impact of Guttenberg's printing press on the distribution of indulgences and the dissemination of Luther's writings. While indulgences had to be written by hand prior to the invention of the printing press, following its invention, indulgences could be printed in mass. In 1454 Pope Nicholas V took advantage of this new opportunity to print indulgences, offering them to anyone who donated money towards his crusade14. Yet the printing press also enabled Martin Luther to disseminate his ideas15 and with them his question regarding the validity of indulgences. This question and his revolutionary ideas would eventually tear apart the unity of the Catholic church.
Martin Luther began as a monk within the Catholic church, but slowly realized the atrocities that it was committing through the practice of indulgences. This came about slowly as he realized the importance of Paul's epistle to the Romans. The Christian History Institute quotes him as saying:
My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement 'the just shall live by faith.' Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning...This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.
Christian History Institute, Luther Posted his 95 Thesis16
Following this discovery in the Bible, Luther abhorred the work of people like Tetzel17 and humbly tried to show the Catholic church its error in the use of indulgences. He posted his ninety-five thesis on the Wittenberg door, presenting for debate his revolutionary ideas. Christian History Institute expresses that Luther assumed that the Pope would agree with him when shown that he based his argument off of scripture. Yet the Pope did not agree. Instead he excommunicated Martin Luther. Skip Knox writes that upon receiving this decree of excommunication, Luther "invited his friends" and burned it publicly18. The Reformation had begun.
Luther's reformation and the wanton greed of Leo X in his sale of indulgences prompted the Catholic church to consider where it stood concerning these theological matters. Robert D. Linder states that an ecumenical church council was called to deal with "reform and the growing menace of Protestantism19." He goes on to say that while Protestants were allowed to attend the second gathering, they were not allowed to vote and so they left without having impacted the council. The third session influenced the history of Christianity the most20. Through this session, Linder states, that the council reaffirmed the medieval beliefs of "salvation by faith and works. the existence of purgatory, and indulgences", yet "the post of indulgence-seller was abolished and abuses connected with the distribution of indulgences were condemned."21 These decisions were pivotal in establishing a theological cornerstone to support the argument for indulgences into the present day.
As we can see, indulgences played an important role in the political and religious history of the Middle ages. Through them wars were waged between the Turkish powers and the Western world, and the Protestant Reformation began. Yet they were not always the same in function, nor were they distributed in identical ways. Indulgences developed from a variety of traditions, evolving into a form that spawned the Protestant Reformation. In response to this reformation and the greed of Leo X, the Council of Trent further modified them closer to their modern form. Fr. Covolo states, "the Council of Trent, after the sad Lutheran schism, suppressed for ever the collecting of money for indulgences."22 Popes, monks, councils, inventions, wars, and Reformations all influenced the change of indulgences throughout history-a history that has almost stretched a millennium. Through all the upheavals of history and all the various modifications on form, indulgences have survived to the present day. As recently as 1967 Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the decree of the Council of Trent: "The doctrine and practice of indulgences which have been in force for many centuries in the Catholic Church have a solid foundation in divine revelation."23
1Edward J. Hanna. The Sacrament of Penance. Catholic Encyclopedia.
2W. H. Kent. "Indulgences." Catholic Encyclopedia. 2003.
4William H.W. Fanning. "Baptism." Catholic Encyclopedia. 2003.
5 Hanna, "The Sacrament of Penance."
6 Kent, "Indulgences."
8Fr. Enrico Covolo, S.B.D. "The Historical Origin of Indulgences." Catholic Culture. May 19, 1999.
12"Infamous Indulgence Led to Protestant Reformation" Christian History Institute. 2004.
13 "Luther Posted His 95 Theses" Christian History Institute. 2004.
14 "Smiths." University Computing Services.
15 Skip Knox. "Luther." Boise State University.
16 Christian History Institute, "Luther Posted his 95 Thesis."
18 Skip Knox, "Luther."
19 Robert D. Linder, Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), pp. 408-410.
22Covolo, "The Historical Origin of Indulgences."
23 Pope Paul VI. "On Indulgences (Indulgentiarum Doctrina)" Catholic Culture. 1 Jan. 1967.
Sources for Further Research
Sacrament of Baptism - www.newadvent.org/cathen/02258b.htm#XII
Sacrament of Penance - www.newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm
Indulgences - www.newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.htm
Purgatory - www.newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm
Bull of Pope Leo X condemning Martin Luthers doctrines - http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo10/l10exdom.htm
Pope Paul On indulgences (Indulgentiarum Doctrina) - http://www.catholicculture.org/docs/doc_view.cfm?recnum=5758
Complete Text from the Council of Trent - history.hanover.edu/texts/trent.htm
A letter from Luther concerning indulgences - www.historyguide.org/earlymod/mainz_letter.html
A sermon by Johann Tetzel concerning indulgences - www.aloha.net/~mikesch/tetzel.htm
A letter of indulgence - www.kb.dk/elib/mss/treasures/aeldste_trykte/inc2656.htm
A children's catechism by Martin Luther - www.springfieldlibrary.org/gutenberg/print.html Related Essays
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