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January 27: Are Indulgences “Sold”?

Sale of Indulgences Affirmed (1343)

It was on this date, January 27, 1343, that Pope Clement VI issued a bull, Unigenitus, officially reaffirming that the Catholic Church can grant remission of sin through indulgences. The bull says,

Upon the altar of the Cross Christ shed of His blood not merely a drop, though this would have sufficed, by reason of the union with the Word, to redeem the whole human race, but a copious torrent ... thereby laying up an infinite treasure for mankind. This treasure He neither wrapped up in a napkin nor hid in a field, but entrusted to Blessed Peter, the key-bearer, and his successors, that they might, for just and reasonable causes, distribute it to the faithful in full or in partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.[1]

Sale of Indulgences (circa 1530, woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder)

In other words, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, "the source of indulgences is constituted by the merits of Christ and the saints." The scheme is fortuitous on a number of levels: the Christian can avoid the expense of a journey to Rome in a Jubilee Year (first instituted by Boniface VIII in 1300 and carried into the modern era by John Paul II as recently as 2000); the horrific doctrine of Hell is mitigated (except for non-Catholics) by the invention of Purgatory, where minor sins can be expunged before going to heaven; and the Catholic Church can make piles of money by "taxing" the granting of "remittance" of sin: that is, granting a partial pardon, or shortening of torture, in the afterlife.

The sale of indulgences was the chief concern of Martin Luther and the chief cause of the Protestant Reformation. But, protests one apologist website,

One never could "buy" indulgences. The financial scandal around indulgences, the scandal that gave Martin Luther an excuse for his heterodoxy, involved alms — indulgences in which the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. There was no outright selling of indulgences.[2]

Since apologists can have difficulty with reality, a look at the historical record is instructive. From the Middle Ages one could pay money, get change, and receive a piece of paper with which one got remission of sin. The price is stipulated and there is no indulgence without "alms." By any reasonable definition that is, outright, "buying" an indulgence. The practice was current to the middle of the 20th century in Spain and Latin America, and may continue to this day.

As historian and ex-priest Joseph McCabe observed, the Council of Constance (1414-1418) "'sold' absolution from 'sin' as well as from the purgatorial punishment of sin (a pœna et culpa). The Council is rude enough to call it a 'sale.'"[3] Furthermore, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) placed the doctrine close to infallibility when it stated that the Church "condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them."[4] The Council recommended "moderation," but not regulation, in granting (that is, selling) indulgences.

The chief abusers, after indulgences were instituted in large measure by Boniface, were the anti-pope John XXIII (1400-1415), described by the Council of Constance as a seller of benefices, bulls, sacraments, ordinations, consecrations and anything else that would bring in money, Leo X (1513-1521), who condemned Luther and dispensed indulgences to build St. Peter's in Rome[5], and Clement VIII (1592-1605), a notorious nepotist, who showered his relatives with gold from sold indulgences.

As most freethinkers consider Hell itself a fabrication, and Purgatory a fabrication upon a fabrication, indulgences are artificial three times over. Nothing in church history or doctrine has so perfectly supported the old saying: The church is happy to exchange treasures in heaven for cash down!

[1] Quoted in the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909-1911 ed., article "Indulgences." [2] James Akin (a writer for Catholic Answers), "Myths About Indulgences," a pro-Catholic website, Myth 7, at this link. [3] Joseph McCabe, The Popes and Their Church, 1918, Chap. 6; cf., Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopædia, 1948, article "Indulgences." [4] Decree Concerning Indulgences (Council of Trent). The decree reads:

     Whereas the power of conferring Indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church; and she has, even in the most ancient times, used the said power, delivered unto her of God; the sacred holy Synod teaches, and enjoins, that the use of Indulgences, for the Christian people most salutary, and approved of by the authority of sacred Councils, is to be retained in the Church; and It condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them. In granting them, however, It desires that, in accordance with the ancient and approved custom in the Church, moderation be observed; lest, by excessive facility, ecclesiastical discipline be enervated. And being desirous that the abuses which have crept therein, and by occasion of which this honorable name of Indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, be amended and corrected, It ordains generally by this decree, that all evil gains for the obtaining thereof,—whence a most prolific cause of abuses amongst the Christian people has been derived,—be wholly abolished. But as regards the other abuses which have proceeded from superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or from whatsoever other source, since, by reason of the manifold corruptions in the places and provinces where the said abuses are committed, they cannot conveniently be specially prohibited; It commands all bishops, diligently to collect, each in his own church, all abuses of this nature, and to report them in the first provincial Synod; that, after having been reviewed by the opinions of the other bishops also, they may forthwith be referred to the Sovereign Roman Pontiff, by whose authority and prudence that which may be expedient for the universal Church will be ordained; that this the gift of holy Indulgences may be dispensed to all the faithful, piously, holily, and incorruptly. [emphasis added]

[5] The Catholic Encyclopedia admits that under Leo, "Jubilees and indulgences were degraded almost entirely into financial transactions...."

Originally published January 2004.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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