A Short History of Indulgences

In the early church, especially from the third century on, ecclesiastic authorities allowed a confessor, that is a Christian awaiting martyrdom because they confessed their faith in Christ during one of the Roman persecutions, to intercede for another Christian in order to shorten the other’s canonical penance. The thinking was not “let this be a favor to the one who is about to be martyred” but rather a recognition of the holiness of the would-be martyr and the thought that at their death there would be this unused “merit”, when combined with the “merit” of other saints and most especially with the life and death of Christ, could form a “Treasury of Merit.” It is from this “storehouse” that the Church draw upon to shorten the canonical penance.

The Treasury of Merit – Even from the early centuries of the Church, the patriarchs looked to two passages from Scripture:

  1. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
  2. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God” (Colossians 1:24-25)

Of this latter verse, Michael J. Gorman has written: “Just as Paul constantly reminds his readers that Christ (suffered and) died for them, he now reminds them that he suffers for them, for Christ’s body. His role of suffering servant is complemented by his preaching and teaching ministry (1:25) in which he participates in the full revelation of God’s mystery to those who believe the message (God’s “saints”), especially among the Gentiles (1:26–27).”

It is these same passages to which St. Thomas Aquinas appealed when he argued that the saints performed their good actions “for the whole Church in general, even as the Apostle declares that he fills up ‘those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ … for His body, which is the Church’ to whom he wrote. These merits then are the common property of the whole Church. Now those things that are the common property of a number are distributed to the various individuals according to the judgment of him who rules them all. Hence, just as one man would obtain the remission of his punishment if another were to satisfy for him, so would he too if another’s satisfactions be applied to him by one who has the power to do so.”

Early Church History – Certainly many good Christians would argue against the whole proposition of the Treasury of Merit. Be that as it may, it is clear that this idea was operative in the ancient Church. During the times of Roman persecution there were a number of Christians who were considered apostates, having denied the faith. When the particular period of persecution was over, the Church had to reconcile the apostates who desired full communion. This was the problem of the lapsi.

Those who on the contrary confessed their faith in Christ and were therefore condemned were referred to as confessors. If put to death on that charge, they were called martyrs. “The martyrs’ and confessors’ sufferings were credited with the power of compensating the sin of the lapsi. It was to the confessors that the lapsi turned to obtain speedy reconciliation, utilizing for their benefit the merits accumulated by the heroism of the confessors. The Church authorities, especially from the 3rd century on, allowed the intercession of confessors to shorten the time of penance to be undergone by those who sought forgiveness. A priest or deacon could reconcile lapsi in danger of death on the basis of a martyr’s letter of indulgence, but in general the intervention of the higher church authority, the bishop, was required.

Once the age of persecutions was over, reconciliation was achieved through sacramental confession and a very public penance, sometimes very severe penances. The Council of Epaone (a local French council) in 517 reduced to two years the penance that apostates were to undergo on their return to the Church, but obliged them to fast one day in three during those two years, to come to church and take their place at the penitents’ door, and to leave with the catechumens. Given that level of penance, one sees why an indulgence would be attractive. And, given human nature, it is also possible to see why it can be open to abuse.

It became customary to commute penances to less demanding works, such as prayers, alms, fasts and even the payment of fixed sums of money depending on the various kinds of offences (tariff penances). By the tenth century some penances were not replaced but merely reduced in connection with pious donations, pilgrimages and similar meritorious works. Then, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the recognition of the value of these works began to become associated not so much with canonical penance but with remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.

And this is when indulgences began to replace things such as the meritorious action. What was in peril of being lost was the idea that the performance of the meritorious action (e.g.) lead to a conversion of heart which countered the attachment to the things that would lead us away from God.

Late Medieval Abuses of Indulgences – There are episodes in history when – with and without the cooperation of the hierarchy of the Church – you could hire someone to fulfill the public portion of an assigned penance. There are times when you could “buy down” the penance or buy your way out of it all together. There was always a veneer of acceptability about: a donor provides a gift, the pastor of the church gives an indulgence. But eventually, it became a transaction with purchase and indulgence duly documented. In the midst of all this one can see how the contritional and penitential aspect is lost among the mercantile and barter elements.

Indulgences became increasingly popular in the Middle Ages as a reward for displaying piety and doing good deeds, though, doctrinally speaking, the Church stated that the indulgence was only valid for temporal punishment for sins already forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession. The faithful asked that indulgences be given for saying their favorite prayers, doing acts of devotion, attending places of worship, and going on pilgrimage; confraternities wanted indulgences for putting on performances and processions; associations demanded that their meetings be rewarded with indulgences. Good deeds included charitable donations of money for a good cause, and money thus raised was used for many righteous causes, both religious and civil; building projects funded by indulgences include churches, hospitals, leper colonies, schools, roads, and bridges.

However, the later Middle Ages saw the growth of considerable abuses. Greedy commissaries sought to extract the maximum amount of money for each indulgence. Professional “pardoners” (quaestores in Latin) – who were sent to collect alms for a specific project – practiced the unrestricted sale of indulgences. Many of these quaestores exceeded official Church doctrine, whether in avarice or ignorant zeal, and promised rewards like salvation from eternal damnation in return for money – which was never part of the understanding of indulgences, but all the elements were ripe for the “sale” of indulgences to be perceived exactly that way.

With the permission of the Church, indulgences also became a way for Catholic rulers to fund expensive projects, such as Crusades and cathedrals, by keeping a significant portion of the money raised from indulgences in their lands. There was a tendency to forge documents declaring that indulgences had been granted. Indulgences grew to extraordinary magnitude, in terms of longevity and breadth of forgiveness.

The Threshold of the Reformation – The scandalous conduct of the “pardoners”/quaestores was an immediate occasion of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The aggressive marketing practices of Johann Tetzel in promoting this cause provoked Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses, condemning what he saw as the purchase and sale of salvation. In Thesis 28 Luther objected to a saying attributed to Tetzel: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”. The Ninety-Five Theses not only denounced such transactions as worldly but denied the Pope’s right to grant pardons on God’s behalf in the first place: the only thing indulgences guaranteed, Luther said, was an increase in profit and greed, because the pardon of the Church was in God’s power alone.

The Counter-Reformation – On 16 July 1562, the Council of Trent suppressed the office of quaestores and reserved the collection of alms to two canon members of the chapter, who were to receive no remuneration for their work; it also reserved the publication of indulgences to the bishop of the diocese.[59] Then on 4 December 1563, in its final session, the Council addressed the question of indulgences directly, declaring them “most salutary for the Christian people”, decreeing that “all evil gains for the obtaining of them be wholly abolished”, and instructing bishops to be on the watch for any abuses concerning them. A few years later, in 1567, Pope Pius V cancelled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions

The Legacy Today – Myths about Indulgences

Myth 1: A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences – sorry, only God can forgive sins

Myth 2: A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed – sorry, only God can forgive sins

Myth 3: A person can “buy forgiveness” with indulgences – see the above

Myth 4: Indulgences were invented as a means for the Church to raise money – indulgences were operative in the Church almost 1,000 years before fund-raising became attached to it. People and popes did invent new ways to abuse indulgences, but indulgences have their own history.

Myth 5: An indulgence will shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days – you can see where this idea might have had foundation back in the early Church when numbers of days of penance was indeed reduced. Add to it that in the Catholic tradition we do believe in the value of prayers for the dead and in Purgatory. Combined the two and you get “reduced you days in Purgatory” in quid-pro-quo kind of way  – but that has never been the teaching of the Church. (But I will admit having been taught that by overly pious and well-intended people) – But indulgences have been the leverage of abuse.

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