Wednesday, March 11, 2015

In defense of indulgences, the buying thereof, and pardoners – and a resolution to restore such disciplines formerly held in disrepute

by J.T.M.G.

[We are all entitled to a little cheekiness, no?]

After putting our daughter to bed, Madame and I had a convivial time with a longtime friend, now a seminarian of the diocese, at the local public house Saturday evening last. (For those of delicate dispositions who might be given to scandal at any suggestions of merriment within the forty days of Lent, I remind them that the liturgical Sunday begins after First Vespers of Saturday evening.) Thereupon we resolved many pressing questions on matters theological and ecclesiastical, and a series of decrees will surely be posted on the Holy See’s website with all due haste, pending the papal rubber-stamp.

For today’s blog, I only bring up one brief remembrance of the conversation, wherein Madame asked, “one of the conditions for gaining a plenary indulgence is to pray for the Pope’s intentions. But what if the Pope’s intentions are evil?” My seminarian friend assured her that this prescription applies only to those intentions that are good. And, I lately discovered that modern technology now allows us to know exactly what those intentions are. The Holy See publishes the Pope’s monthly intentions for the year. We may, therefore, know that the two intentions for this month of March are “that those involved in scientific research may serve the well-being of the whole human person” and “that the unique contribution of women to the life of the Church may be recognized always”; and that our consciences may rest assured that God will transfer our prayers to more fruitful ends if, in fact, He prefers scientists to exploit creation at our expense, or for the state of womanhood to perpetually remain a thankless mode of existence.


What are indulgences for, anyway?

Heaven and earth shall pass away,
but political cartoons shall never pass away.
In grade school, we’re taught that the big, bad medieval Church got it in their heads to sell forgiveness of sins for six shillings to pay for their banquets of chestnuts and other such worthy expenditures. As Dr. Luther infamously attributed to Friar Tetzel, “As soon as the gold in the casket rings / The rescued soul to heaven springs”. This becomes doubly confusing for those of us who grew up under the Protestant rhetoric (which our European cousins probably believe has passed into the ages of myth, though it persists quite alive and well in various parts of the States) who know that papists indulge in every sort of vice and debauchery, with the full intent to confess it in church in the morning and do it all over again the next weekend. It’s a wonder no one in grade school or Protestant Sunday school ever asks: “why do the Romish whores even bother to buy indulgences if confession is free?” (One can deduce that confession is free, or else the weekly regimen of sin-confess-repeat would grow to be a monstrously expensive habit.) After all, even the 1-percenters among us would willingly undergo a full audit from the IRS every year if it meant they would never actually have to pay any taxes at the end.


The answer to the indulgence question is simple: the Catholic catechism teaches us that sin incurs two consequences from God, eternal and temporal. The punishment for mortal sin without any repentance at one’s final hour is eternal damnation. The sacrament of penance (or reconciliation, or confession; or, as the Modern Medievalist likes to say, “shriving”) lifts the sentence of damnation, but there yet remains the temporal consequence, an impurity of the soul which is washed either by acts of penance while still living on earth, or after death in purgatory. Everyone who goes to purgatory is saved, for they will all eventually pass through the pearly gates, though it’s traditionally understood to be rather less pleasant than the direct route. Of course, the expressway to heaven is fraught with its own inconveniences, such as dying immediately after baptism or while still a child, having one’s head severed by an ISIS thug with a boxcutter, or worst of all, having to die of old age while hashing out a life of heroic sanctity every day for decades on end. For the rest of us, purgatory it is. From the Latin word purgare, meaning “to purify” or “to purge”, purgatory is the name that the medievals gave to that place, or perhaps state, where souls that are not yet ready to fully withstand and partake in the Beatific Vision undergo penance for sins that they failed to make full satisfaction for during life.

I don't suppose EA will consider making this a trilogy...
The “true Christian” here will be quick to pounce with their Scriptural prooftext of choice about Christ’s sacrifice being sufficient for all mankind. The skeptic says the whole business of Christian redemption, whether Protestant or Catholic, is absurd if mass murderers (Hitler is a favorite in these sorts of discussions, but substitute Mao or George W. Bush as your politics dictate) can go on doing their dirty deeds and then go to heaven merely by professing faith in the Savior on their deathbeds. But the Catholic (and the Eastern Orthodox, though they use different terms) knows that, even if the mass murderer in question makes a sincere confession at the last rites, a life so conditioned to sin won’t find eternity with God as a humble servant of the divine will quite as thrilling as the satisfaction of knowing he could order the deaths of a thousand hapless subjects at random before breakfast. No, even we less ambitious sinners are conditioned to imagine heaven as a place where we all wear white robes and play the harp with naked babies, singing the same words of praise over and over again for all time. Quaint. Boring. There’s a reason why we can make a video game about Dante’s Inferno, while Paradiso ignored by all but graduate-level literature students.

So Saint Catherine of Genoa said, as medieval Italian mystics are wont to do,
“As for paradise, God has placed no doors there. Whoever wishes to enter, does so. All-merciful God stands there with His arms open, waiting to receive us into His glory. I also see, however, that the divine presence is so pure and light-filled – much more than we can imagine – that the soul that has but the slightest imperfection would rather throw itself into a thousand hells than appear thus before the divine presence. Tongue cannot express nor heart understand the full meaning of purgatory, which the soul willingly accepts as a mercy the realization that that suffering is of no importance compared to the removal of the impediment of sin.” (Treatise on Purgatory)

No, heaven is no place for us complicated folk with all our baggage about what ought to make a satisfying afterlife. And so, the Church, even in ancient times, understood that there was an intermediary condition of purifying the soul. As Saint Paul wrote,

“Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for they shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” (I Corinthians 3:11:15)

Dante's Purgatorio

Where did indulgences come from? A brief sketch

Exactly what happens in purgatory has long been a province of speculation for theologians, but somewhere along the way, the Church developed the idea that “time in purgatory”, or the degree of purifying to be endured there, could be docked down by doing penance or other pious actions here on earth. The early Church was already quite accustomed to performing massive amounts of penance that would be extreme by modern standards. Imagine confessing to masturbation and then being barred from receiving Communion for seven years. Nonetheless, these penances were imposed after confession, and not as a condition before being absolved of sin. The ancient Roman penitent who died one year into his penance wasn’t going straight to hell in a handbasket, and yet, his suffering on earth after absolution wasn’t for naught, either. It was to reduce the temporal consequences of sin. After the age of persecution ended, church councils and individual confessors gradually commuted these hardcore penances and substituted other acts of piety in their place. Many of the fathers themselves, such as Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Basil, led the way in easing the penances of former times. (Catholic Encyclopedia, entry on Indulgences)

At last, in the millennium-long tradition of churchmen issuing penances of greater or lesser severity, Pope Urban II took it one step further: in the year of our Lord 1095, before some two hundred bishops at the council of Clermont, Urban called for a military intervention to seize the Holy Land in what would later be known as the First Crusade. And to sweeten the pot? A plenary indulgence: full satisfaction of all the consequences of sin (following confession) for anyone who would take up arms and make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It’s a tragedy that history has given us five or more radically different versions of the pope’s speech, so we may never get an idea of just how Urban expressed this idea. The most famous version, chronicled by Fulcher of Chartres years after the fact, has him say:
“All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.” (Medieval Sourcebook)
Pope Urban II addresses the Council of Clermont

Balderic, archbishop of Dol, recounts Urban’s words as an instruction to the bishops assembled:
“You, brothers and fellow bishops; you, fellow priests and sharers with us in Christ, make this same announcement through the churches committed to you, and with your whole soul vigorously preach the journey to Jerusalem. When they have confessed the disgrace of their sins, do you, secure in Christ, grant them speedy pardon.” (Medieval Sourcebook)

And, according to the Liber Lamberti, one of the decrees of the Council of Clermont was:
“Whoever for devotion alone, not to obtain honour or money, shall set out to free the church of God at Jerusalem, that shall be counted to him for all penance (pro omni penitentia).” (Robert Somerville, The Councils of Urban II, Vol. 1)

In 1187, following the disastrous Battle of Hattin which would result in the loss of Jerusalem to Salah ad-Din, Pope Gregory VIII called the Third Crusade. His bull, Audita tremendi, renewed the promises of a plenary indulgence:

“We promise full remission of their sins and eternal life to those who take up the labor of this journey with a contrite heart and a humble spirit and depart in penitence of their sins and with true faith. Whether they survive or die, they should know that they, after they have made a true confession, will have the relaxation of the penance imposed, by the mercy of almighty God, by the authority of the apostles Peter and Paul, and ours.”

Some authors add that this promise was extended also to those souls who were unable to take up arms but made a significant financial contribution.

The 13th century saw the rise of lesser indulgences issued by bishops for such events as the dedications of new churches, and just as quickly, church councils had to condemn their abuses. The fourth Lateran Council, held in 1215, declared that for abbots to grant indulgences at all was an abuse, as was the practice of bishops amping up their indulgences with extreme bonuses:

“Moreover, because the keys of the church are brought into contempt and satisfaction through penance loses its force through indiscriminate and excessive indulgences, which certain prelates of churches do not fear to grant, we therefore decree that when a basilica is dedicated, the indulgence shall not be for more than one year, whether it is dedicated by one bishop or by more than one, and for the anniversary of the dedication the remission of penances imposed is not to exceed forty days. We order that the letters of indulgence, which are granted for various reasons at different times, are to fix this number of days, since the Roman pontiff himself, who possesses the plenitude of power, is accustomed to observe this moderation in such things.” (Lateran IV, under 62. Regarding saints’ relics)

What’s this about years, you ask? Until the Vatican II reforms, indulgences that were not plenary (full) were typically parsed in terms of days, months, or years. By way of example, I name the indulgence of 100 days granted by Pope Saint Pius V (Quod a nobis, 9 July 1568) for those who would devoutly pray the Office of the Dead on specified days; at any other time, 40 days. This was admittedly a confusing situation since the language tends to suggest that gaining the indulgence would dock 40 or 100 days off of one’s sentence in purgatory. But no, what the Church means here is that the indulgence is equal to that of doing 40 or 100 days of old-school penance, as was formerly done in the early centuries of Christianity. And now, when we put it that way, spending a half-hour to pray the Office of the Dead suddenly sounds like a really good deal by comparison. For the curious, many more indulgences can be found in a book called the Raccolta (“collection”): an anthology of pious acts that have indulgences attached to them. After Vatican II, the old Raccolta was replaced by a new volume, with new rules, called the Enchiridion. More on that later.

The Jubilee of 1300
It’s vital to understand that, even from the beginning, indulgences were believed to flow directly from the Petrine office, for only the pope held the keys to unlock the heavenly treasury. Just as priests required jurisdiction from the local bishop to hear confessions, and bishops in turn required jurisdiction (even if implied) from the pope, so too did indulgences require papal authorization. And, it was the popes alone who issued the most potent of indulgences, the plenary: full remission of all temporal consequences of sin, without the need to specify days or years. Plenary indulgences were still rare in the High Middle Ages, being attached only to the loftiest of endeavors: the Crusades. The first non-crusader plenary indulgence was attached to the great Jubilee of 1300. In the spirit of the Old Testament’s law of Moses, which celebrated every 50th year with forgiveness of debts and manumissions of slaves (Leviticus 25), Pope Boniface VIII’s bull Antiquorum fida relatio granted “great remissions and indulgences for sins” for pilgrims who would visit the city of Rome and, particularly, the basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Popes have inaugurated jubilee years every half-century, and often more frequently, ever since, the most recent being the great jubilee of 2000 under John Paul II.

From the 1300’s onward, the business of indulgences gets truly interesting because it becomes just that: a business. Sure, apologists will rightly point out that you can’t strictly “buy” an indulgence; that indulgences are attached to the giving of alms to a charitable cause or other worthy endeavor. This is really semantics because, like it or not, a large part of the later medieval Church’s works were driven by the revenues generated by indulgences. The fantastic Gothic cathedrals with their towers reaching to the heavens and shrines studded with precious stones of every color didn’t all pay for themselves, after all. The difference between Luther and me is that I find the idea rather useful.

In order to raise money for the construction of a new cathedral, a bishop might have commissioned a number of quaestores: purveyors of indulgence certificates. Likewise, hospitals made regular use of quaestores to pay the bills, for this was the age of universal healthcare. Quaestores became the backbone of an economy that paid for the building and upkeep of schools, poor-houses, and so many other vital institutions of the medieval world. Even the building of bridges and highways, or the ransoming of poor Christians from slavery in the Moorish lands, was paid for by the “sale” of indulgences. In English, they were known as pardoners, and no account of this office is more complete than that of the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale among Chaucer’s merry band of pilgrims. Chaucer’s Pardoner is a wretched man, a charlatan who prowls the countryside, hocking off relics made of pig bones to ignorant peasants, preaching from church to church, and passing round the plate at the offertory for his forged indulgence certificates from Rome, where the Pardoner has likely never even been.

400         Of avarice and of swich cursednesse
                  Of avarice and of such cursedness

 401         Is al my prechyng, for to make hem free
                  Is all my preaching, to make them generous

 402         To yeven hir pens, and namely unto me.
                  To give their pennies, and namely unto me.

 403         For myn entente is nat but for to wynne,
                  For my intention is only to make a profit,

 404         And nothyng for correccioun of synne.
                  And not at all for correction of sin.

 405         I rekke nevere, whan that they been beryed,
                  I care not a bit, when they are buried,

 406         Though that hir soules goon a-blakeberyed!
                  Though their souls go picking blackberries! (Geoffrey Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Prologue of the Canterbury Tales)

In all likelihood, this sort of huckster was indeed a common sight, rather than a mere caricature from a disaffected anti-clericalist. For as many licensed pardoners, there were just as many who acted completely without any authority whatsoever but their own. And while the majority of truly licensed pardoners were drawn from the clergy or religious orders, many, such as probably Chaucer’s Pardoner, were also laymen. And yet, even the dignity of religious life was no guarantee of truthful advertising. Years before the Canterbury Tales were published, Pope Boniface IX condemned both friars and secular clerics who went about absolving sins without even asking for contrition, absolving unfulfilled penances, and reconciling heretics to the Church, all the while proclaiming a false writ from Rome. A century prior, a council in Mainz, in 1244, decreed:

“The 'quaestores' claim to be provided with letters of authorization by the Pope and other prelates, and since many of the clergy cannot distinguish between genuine and fabricated documents, the council insists that no almsgatherer be admitted into any parish until his papers have been examined and their validity certified to in writing by the Ordinary of the diocese. Any infringement of this statute by the clergy will be followed ipso facto by three years' suspension. Those, however, who undertake to make collections without written episcopal sanction, are to be arrested by the secular authorities and handed over to the episcopal tribunal.” (The Church and Abuse of Indulgences, as seen in The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. 46, p. 188)

And this is just one of countless examples of censures from the pardoners’ very inception up to the Reformation. Was it only greed that kept the medieval Church from shutting down the business of pardoning down entirely? Were they not, like our college fraternities today (with one story after another of lethal hazing, organized rape, drunk driving, and racist outbursts), a continual source of embarrassment and scandal? History’s most infamous quaestor of all would eventually herald the final death of the institution. Johann Tetzel of the Order of Preachers, actually a quite learned priest and preacher, as Dominican friars typically were, was assigned by Pope Leo X as commissioner of indulgences for all Germany in 1517. His particular goal was to raise money for the construction of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though half of the proceeds were claimed by the archbishop of Mainz to repay debts owed for his purchase of the office. Tetzel was rather aggressive in his marketing, and though it’s unlikely he ever actually said that rhyme which began “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings”, he nonetheless spread the error that an indulgence could be applied toward the souls of dead relatives without any contrition; an error rightly condemned both by Luther and Rome’s greatest theologian of the day, Cardinal Cajetan. But this only scratches the surface of the underlying issues that sparked the Reformation.

An authentic indulgence signed by Friar Tetzel himself
Here lie two of history’s greatest ironies. The first: Duke Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, whose protection alone saved Luther from capture and execution, was affronted by Tetzel in no small part because the friar was a competing interest. Frederick wasn’t a Protestant himself. Quite the contrary, he had amassed possibly the largest personal collection of purported relics in Christendom. They numbered 17,443 in 1518, and actually grew another two thousand while the Reformation pressed on. Tetzel never purveyed relics or indulgences in Wittenberg because he was forbidden by the Duke. Citizens of Wittenberg, though, did leave town to buy from Tetzel in neighboring cities and villages, and we can vividly imagine what Frederick would have thought of that. The second irony, by the way, is that these relics were housed in the “castle church” of Wittenberg, where the Duke had placed Luther as a preacher. The money Frederick made from the relics and indulgences is how Luther made his living as a young priest, and is even what paid for Luther’s doctoral studies.

A proposal for rebirth!

The Catholic Church, at the Council of Trent, finally abolished the office and function of quaestor itself, not merely the abuse thereof. A few years later, Pope Saint Pius V went further and forbade all financial transactions involving indulgences whatsoever. The practice of seeking and gaining indulgences continued on for a few centuries in a “purer” way, though with diminishing fervor. After Vatican II, the practice of indulgences, and purgatory itself, has suddenly been shelved as an embarrassing medievalism by virtually all churchmen on the face of the earth. Strangely, this is despite the chief mover of the Council reforms, Pope Paul VI, issuing a quite detailed explanation and defense of indulgences in Indulgentiarum Doctrina in 1967, which even “condemns with anathema those who maintain the uselessness of indulgences or deny the power of the Church to grant them” (really strong language for a man like Paul VI). Even Pope Francis has publically spoken about purgatory at least once.

In tandem with near universal ignorance of the purgatory doctrine is an ever-growing deficit in the Church’s revenues. The consequences have been severe: Catholic hospitals and universities are now for-profit institutions, barely connected to their religious origins and even less distinguishable from their secular counterparts in medicine and academia. What a contrast from the free healthcare given by the Poor Knights of the Hospital of Saint John, or the free tuition for students of the old universities (including, of course, Luther’s Wittenberg)… all supported in no small part by the sale of indulgences. One of the towers of Rouen Cathedral was called the tour de buerre, the “butter tower”, because its construction was funded by indulgences with permissions to eat butter during Lent, which in those days, as the eastern rites still maintain, was forbidden. But as I see it, at least the tower was raised at all. Its like hasn’t been raised in this country for a hundred years.

As I sat with Madame and my seminarian friend last Saturday, I observed that the media casts our current pope as the “pope of mercy”, as though he had invented the idea. But it would be better to say that the first pope of mercy, if such a one exists, was Urban II back at the Council of Clermont, calling that first crusade and promising full satisfaction of penance to all who took up the cross. Every vicar of Christ that ever issued a new indulgence can be described as a pope of mercy. For if purgatory is real, then indulgences, which all flow from the chair of Peter, are ultimately a gift from heaven. It’s tragic that nearly all Catholics are totally unaware of these teachings. Therefore, in the spirit of this blog, applying old-world solutions to new-world problems, I have some ideas to pass down to His Holiness, or anyone else in the Vatican who might be listening…..


Whereas, the Catholic Church has, even in our own time, reaffirmed as “a divinely revealed truth that sins bring punishments inflicted by God's sanctity and justice” (Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina) which is expiated either here on earth through penance or after death through purgatory;


Whereas, “the Church also in our days then invites all its sons to ponder and meditate well on how the use of indulgences benefits their lives and indeed all Christian society” (ibid.);


Whereas, despite the efforts of the postconciliar reform, the pursuit and even the knowledge of indulgences and the teaching of purgation after death have all fallen to dramatic lows;


Whereas, the Church in Rome is currently undertaking plans to jointly commemorate, with the Lutheran Church, the 500th anniversary of the Ninety-five Theses of Martin Luther, submitted to the archbishop of Mainz on October 31, 1517, which, in part, object to certain practices surrounding indulgences, some which were subsequently upheld as perfectly orthodox and praiseworthy by Pope Leo X and his successors to the present day;

Be it resolved that the bishop of Rome, the Pope himself, lead all other bishops of the world in example by proclaiming a Jubilee year for 2017, beginning on the 31st of October, to coincide with the birthday of the Protestant Reformation, with a plenary indulgence promising full remission of sins for various devotions and works of piety to be determined by said authorities, such as but not limited to celebrations of difference between our separated brethren:

·         the devout reading of Scripture (especially the seven deuterocanonical books and the epistle of James, whose canonicity Luther doubted);

·         the devout reading of King Henry VIII’s “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” (the same apologetic work against errors of Luther which earned him the title of Fidei defensor by Pope Leo X);

·         and the devout hearing of the sacrifice of the Mass (especially Masses celebrated in Latin, which Luther was quick to jettison).

Be it also resolved that, in order to more effectively spread the message of mercy, especially in those developed and secularized nations of the world which are ignorant or cold to the need for purgation, the disciplinary restrictions laid down by the Council of Trent be relaxed so that bishops may once again commission quaestores (or “purveyors”, or “pardoners”), duly licensed and formed to a right and proper conscience, to travel to the four corners of the earth, armed with the relics of the saints, to bring certificates of remission from the temporal consequences of sin to all believers who might desire them;

Be it also resolved that the apostolate of quaestor, in the spirit of the new evangelization, be open to any and all of the lay faithful, male or female, who might be called to spread the mercy of God in the form of indulgences, as they were in earlier, purer centuries of the Church;

Be it also resolved that the prohibition of Pius V, with respect to financial transactions and indulgences, be lifted so that holy mother Church may more fully enjoy the fruits of the new evangelization and be able to sustain herself in anticipation of future parish closings and expenses to be incurred by the possible relaxation of priestly celibacy.

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