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§ 80. The Sale of Indulgences.

Nowhere, except in the lives of the popes themselves, did the humiliation of the Western Church find more conspicuous exhibition than in the sale of indulgences. The forgiveness of sins was bought and sold for money, and this sacred privilege formed the occasion of the rupture of Western Christendom as, later, the Lord’s Supper became the occasion of the chief division between the Protestant churches.

Originally an indulgence was the remission of a part or all of the works of satisfaction demanded by the priest in the sacrament of penance. This is the definition given by Roman Catholic authorities to-day.13161316    So Paulus; J. Tetzel, p. 88, and Beringer, p. 2, a member of the Society of Jesus, whose work on indulgences has the sanction of the Congregation of Indulgences of the College of Cardinals. Both writers insist that the indulgence does not confer forgiveness of guilt but only the remission of penalty after guilt is forgiven. See also on the general subject this Hist., V. 1, pp. 735-748, VI. 146 sqq. In the 13th century, it came to be regarded as a remission of the penalty of sin itself, both here and in purgatory. At a later stage, it was regarded, at least in wide circles, as a release from the guilt of sin as well as from its penalty. The fund of merits at the Church’s disposition—thesaurus meritorum — as defined by Clement VI., in 1343, is a treasury of spiritual assets, consisting of the infinite merits of Christ, the merits of Mary and the supererogatory merits of the saints, which the Church uses by virtue of the power of the keys. One drop of Christ’s blood, so it was argued, was sufficient for the salvation of the world, and yet Christ shed all his blood and Mary was without stain. From the vast surplus accumulation supplied by their merits, the Church had the right to draw in granting remission to sinners from the penalties resulting from the commission of sin. The very term "keys," it was said, implies a treasure which is looked away and to which the keys give access.13171317    John of Paltz: Coelifodina in Köhler, p. 57. Nota in hoc quod dicit, claves, innuit thesauros quia omne carum clauditur et seratur potest tamen clavibus adiri. The authority to grant indulgences was shared by the pope and the bishops. The law of Innocent III., intended to check its abuse, restricted the time for which bishops might grant indulgence to 40 days, the so-called quarantines. By the decree of Pius X., issued Aug. 28,1903, cardinals, even though they are not priests, may issue indulgences in their titular churches for 200 days, archbishops for 100 and bishops for 50 days.

The application of indulgence to the realm of purgatory by Sixtus IV. was a natural development of the doctrine that the prayers and other suffrages of the living inure to the benefit of the souls in that sphere. As Thomas Aquinas clearly taught, such souls belong to the jurisdiction of the Church on earth. And, if indulgences may be granted to the living, certainly the benefit may be extended to the intermediate realm, over which the Church also has control.

Sixtus’ first bull granting indulgence for the dead was issued 1476 in favor of the church of Saintes. Here was offered to those who paid a certain sum—certam pecuniam — for the benefit of the building, the privilege of securing a relaxation of the sufferings of the purgatorial dead, parents for their children, friend for friend. The papal deliverance aroused criticism and in a second bull, issued the following year, the pontiff states that such relaxations were offered by virtue of the fulness of authority vested in the pope from above plenitudo potestatis — to draw upon the fund of merits..13181318    For the text of the bulls, see Lea III. 585 sqq. and Köhler, pp. 37-40. A bull ascribed to Calixtus III., 1457, also sanctions indulgences for the dead. It is accepted as genuine by Paulus. For Gabriel Biel’s acceptance of Sixtus’ assertion of power to grant indulgences to the dead, see Köhler, p. 40.

To the abuse, to which this doctrine opened the door, was added the popular belief that letters of indulgence gave exemption both from the culpability and penalty of sin. The expression, "full remission of sins," plena or plenissima remissio peccatorum, is found again and again in papal bulls from the famous Portiuncula indulgence, granted by Honorius III. to the Franciscans, to the last hours of the undisputed sway of the pope in the West. It was the merit of the late Dr. Lea to have called attention to this almost overlooked element of the mediaeval indulgence. Catholic authorities of to-day, as Paulus and Beringer, without denying the use of the expression, a poena et culpa, assert that it was not the intent of any genuine papal message to grant forgiveness from the guilt of sin without contrition of heart.13191319    Paulus, 97 sq., and Beringer, p. 11, either explain the expression to mean the penalty of guilt, as if it read a poena culpae delicta, or refer it to venial sins. See Vol. V. 1, p. 741. The Jubilee bull of Boniface VIII., 1300, was interpreted by a cardinal to include in its benefits guilt as well as penalty—duplex indulgentia culpae videlicet et poenae. Köhler, p. 18 sq., gives the text of the bull. John XXIII. confessed to have often absolved a culpa et poena. The expression was in current use in tracts and in common talk.13201320    It was used by Piers Plowman (see Lea: Sacerd. Celibacy, I. 444), by Landucci, 1513, "l’indulgenza di colpa e pena, Badia’s ed., p. 341, by Oldecop, 1516, who listened to Tetzel (see his letter in Paulus, p. 39), etc. Oldecop said that those who cast their money into the chest and confessed their sins were " absolved from all their sins and from pain and guilt." For other cases and a general treatment of the subject, see Lea, III. 67-80 John of Paltz, in his Coelifodina, an elaborate defence of indulgences written towards the close of the 15th century, affirmed that an indulgence is given by virtue of the power of the keys whereby guilt is remitted and penalty withdrawn. These keys open the fund of the Church to its sons.13211321    . Köhler, p. 59. Luther was only expressing the popular view when, writing to Albrecht of Mainz,1517, he complained that men accepted the letters of indulgence as giving them exemption from all penalty and guilt—homo per istas indulgentias liber sit ab omni poena et culpa. Not only on the Continent but also in England were such forms of indulgence circulated. For example, Leo X.’s indulgence for the hospital S. Spirito in Rome ran in its English translation, "Holy and great indulgence and pardon of plenary remission a culpa et poena."13221322    See Maskell: Monum. rit., etc., III. 372 sqq. These indulgences in England were printed on single sheets perhaps by Wynkyn de Worde. Such an English reprint announced an indulgence of 2560 days granted by Julius II. to all contributing to a crusade against the Saracens and other Christian enemies. The popular mind did not stop to make the fine distinction between guilt and its punishment and, if it had, it would have been quite satisfied to be made free from the sufferings entailed by sin. If by a papal indulgence a soul in purgatory could be immediately released and given access to heavenly felicity, the question of guilt was of no concern.

Long before the days of Tetzel, Wyclif and Huss had condemned the use of the formula, "from penalty and guilt," as did also John Wessel. In denouncing the bulls of indulgence for those joining in a crusade against Ladislaus, issued 1412, Huss copied Wyclif almost word for word.13231323    Nürnb. ed., 1715, vol. I. 212-267; Defens. quor. artt. J. Wyclif and the Reply of the Prag. Theol. faculty, I. 139-146. Wyclif fiercely condemned the papal assumption in granting full indulgence for the crusade of Henry de Spenser. Priests, he asserted, have no authority to give absolution without proper works of satisfaction and all papal absolution is of no avail, where the offenders are not of good and worthy life. If the pope has power to absolve unconditionally, he should exercise his power to excuse the sins of all men. The English Reformer further declared that, to the Christian priest it was given, to do no more than announce the forgiveness of sins just as the old priests pronounced a man a leper or cured of leprosy, but it was not possible for him to effect a cure. He spoke of, the fond fantasy of spiritual treasure in heaven, that each pope is made dispenser of the treasure at his own will, a thing dreamed of without ground."13241324    De schis. pontif., Engl. Works, ed. by Arnold, III. 1262. Such power would make the pope master of the saints and Christ himself. He condemned the idea that the pope could "clear men of pain and sin both in this world and the other, so that, when they die, they flee to heaven without pain. This is for blind men to lead blind men and both to fall into the lake." As for the pardoning of sin for money, that would imply that righteousness may be bought and sold. Wyclif gave it as a report, that Urban VI. had granted an indulgence for 2,000 years.13251325    Engl. Works, Arnold’s ed., I. 210, 354; De eccles., p. 561.

Indulgences found an assailant in Erasmus, howbeit a genial assailant. In his Praise of Folly, he spoke of the "cheat of pardons and indulgences." These lead the priests to compute the time of each soul’s residence in purgatory and to assign them a longer or shorter continuance according as the people purchase more or fewer of these salable exemptions. By this easy way of purchasing pardon any notorious highwayman, any plundering bandit or any bribe-taking judge may for a part of their unjust gains secure atonement for perjuries, lusts, bloodsheds, debaucheries and other gross impieties and, having paid off arrears, begin upon a new score. The popular idea was no doubt stated by Tyndale in answer to Sir Thomas More when he said, that "men might quench almost the terrible fire of hell for three halfpence."13261326    See Gasquet, Eve of the Reformation, p. 384.

It is fair to say that, while the last popes of the Middle Ages granted a great number of indulgences, the exact expression, "from guilt and penalty," does not occur in any of the extant papal copies13271327    James of Jüterbock in his Tract. de indulg. about 1451 says he did not recollect to have seen or read a single papal brief promising indulgence a poena et culpa. Köhler, p. 48. although some of their expressions seem fully to imply the exemption from guilt. Likewise, it must be said that they also contain the usual expressions for penitence as a condition of receiving the grace—"being truly penitent and confessing their sins"—vere poenitentibus et confessio.

Indulgences in the last century of the Middle Ages were given for all sorts of benevolent purposes, crusades against the Turks, the building of churches and hospitals, in connection with relics, for the rebuilding of a town desolated by fire, as Brüx, for bridges and for the repair of dikes, such an indulgence being asked by Charles V. The benefits were received by the payment of money and a portion of the receipts, from 33% to 50%, was expected to go to Rome. The territory chiefly, we may say almost exclusively, worked for such enterprises was confined to the Germanic peoples of the Continent from Switzerland and Austria to Norway and Sweden. England, France and Spain were hardly touched by the traffic. Cardinal Ximenes set forth the damage done to ecclesiastical discipline by the practice and, as a rule, it was under other pretexts that papal moneys were received from England.13281328    For the details which follow, the treatment by Schulte, in his work on the Fuggers, is the chief authority. This book contains a remarkable array of figures and facts based on studies among the sources.

In the transmission of the papal portions of the indulgence-moneys, the house of the Fuggers figures conspicuously. Sometimes it charged 5%, sometimes it appropriated amounts not reckoned strictly on the basis of a fixed per cent. The powerful banking-firm, also responding cheerfully to any request made to them, often secured the grant of indulgences in Rome. The custodianship of the chests, into which the indulgence-moneys were cast, was also a matter of much importance and here also the Fuggers figured prominently. Keys to such chests were often distributed to two or three parties, one of whom was apt to be the representative of the bankers.

Among the more famous indulgences for the building of German churches were those for the construction of a tower in Vienna,1514, for the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Constance, which had suffered great damage from fire,1511, the building of the Dominican church in Augsburg,1514, the restoration of the Cathedral of Treves,1515, and the building of St. Annaberg church,1517, in which Duke George of Saxony was much interested. One-half of the moneys received for these constructions went to Rome. In most of these cases, the Fuggers acted as agents to hold the keys of the chest and transmit the moneys to the papal exchequer. The sees of Constance, Chur, Augsburg and Strassburg were assigned as the territory in which indulgences might be sold for the cathedral in Constance. No less than four bulls of indulgence were issued in 1515 for the benefit of Treves, including one for those who visited the holy coat which was found 1512 and was to be exhibited every 7 years.13291329    Treves also boasted of a nail of the cross, the half part of St. Peter’s staff and St Helena’s skull.

Among the noted hospitals to which indulgences were issued—that is, the right to secure funds by their sale—were hospitals in Nürnberg,1515, Strassburg,1518 and S. Spirito, Rome,1516.

Both of the churches in Wittenberg were granted indulgences and a special indulgence was issued for the reliquary-museum which the elector Frederick had collected. An indulgence of 100 days was attached to each of the 5,005 specimens and another 100 to each of the 8 passages between the cases that held them. With the 8,133 relics at Halle and the 42 entire bodies, millions and billions of days of indulgence were associated, a sort of anticipation of the geologic periods moderns demand. To be more accurate, these relics were good for pardons covering 39,245,120 years and 220 days and the still further period of 6,540,000 quarantines, each of 40 days.

In Rome, the residence of the supreme pontiffs, as we might well have expected, the offer of indulgences was the most copious, almost as copious as the drops on a rainy day. According to the Nürnberger relic-collector, Nicolas Muffel, every time the skulls of the Apostles were shown or the handkerchief of St. Veronica, the Romans who were present received a pardon of 7,000 days, other Italians 10,000 and foreigners 14,000. In fact, the grace of the ecclesiastical authorities was practically boundless. Not only did the living seek indulgences, but even the dying stipulated in their wills that a representative should go to Assisi or Rome or other places to secure for their souls the benefit of the indulgences offered there.

Prayers also had remarkable offers of grace attached to them. According to the penitential book, The Soul’s Joy, the worshipper offering its prayers to Mary received 11,000 years indulgence and some prayers, if offered, freed 15 souls from purgatory and as many earthly sinners from their sins. It professed to give one of Alexander Vl.’s decrees, according to which prayer made three times to St. Anna secured 1,000 years indulgence for mortal sins and 20,000 for venial. The Soul’s Garden claimed that one of Julius II.’s indulgences granted 80,000 years to those who would pray a prayer to the Virgin which the book gave. No wonder Siebert, a Roman Catholic writer, is forced to say that "the whole atmosphere of the later Middle Ages was soaked with the indulgence-passion."13301330    Reliquienverehrung, pp. 33 sq., 60 sq.

An indulgence issued by Alexander VI., in 1502, was designed to secure aid for the knights of the Teutonic Order against the Russians. The latter was renewed by Julius II. and Cologne, Treves, Mainz, Bremen, Bamberg and other sees were assigned as the territory. Much money was collected, the papal treasury receiving one-third of the returns. The preaching continued till 1510 and Tetzel took a prominent part in the campaign.13311331    A full account in Paulus, Tetzel, pp. 6-23.

It remains to speak of the most important of all of the indulgences, the indulgence for the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome. This interest was pushed by two notable popes, Julius II. and Leo X., and called forth the protest of Luther, which shook the power of the papacy to its foundations. It seems paradoxical that the chief monument of Christian architecture should have been built in part out of the proceeds of the scandalous traffic in absolutions.

On April 18,1506, soon after the laying of the cornerstone of St. Peter’s, Julius II. issued a bull promising indulgence to those who would contribute to its construction, fabrica, as it was called. Eighteen months later, Nov. 4,1507, he commissioned Jerome of Torniello, a Franciscan Observant, to oversee the preaching of the bull in the so-called 25 Cismontane provinces, which included Northern Italy, Austria, Bohemia and Poland. By a later decree Switzerland was added.13321332    In a pamphlet entitled Simia by Andrea Guarna da Salerno, Milan, 1517, as quoted by Klaczko, Rome and the Renaissance, p. 25, Bramante the architect was refused entrance to heaven by St. Peter for destroying the Apostle’s temple in Rome, whose very antiquity called the least devout to God. And when the heavenly porter charged him with a readiness to destroy the very world itself and ruin the pope, the architect confessed and declared that his failure was due to the fact that "Julius did not put his hand Into his pocket to build the new church but relied on indulgences and the confessional." Paris de Grassis called Bramante "the ruiner,"architectum Bramantem seu potius Ruinantem. Germany was not included and probably for the reason that a number of indulgence bulls were already in force in most of its territory. A special rescript appointed Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, as chief overseer of the business in England. At Julius’ death, the matter was taken up by Leo X. and pushed.

The preaching of indulgences in Germany for the advantage of St. Peter’s began in the pontificate of Leo X. and is closely associated with the elevation of Albrecht of Hohenzollern to the sees of Mainz, Magdeburg and Halberstadt. Albrecht, a brother of Joachim, elector of Brandenburg, was chosen in 1513 to the archbishopric of Magdeburg and the bishopric of Halberstadt. The objections on the ground of his age and the combination of two sees—a thing, however, which was true of Albrecht’s predecessor—were set aside by Leo X., after listening to the arguments made by the German embassies.

In 1514, Albrecht was further honored by being elected archbishop of Mainz. The last incumbent, Uriel of Gemmingen, died the year before. The archdiocese had been unfortunate with its bishops. Berthold of Henneberg had died 1504 and James of Liebenstein in 1508. These frequent changes necessitated a heavy burden of taxation to enable the prelates to pay their tribute to the Holy See, which amounted to 10,000 ducats in each case, with sundry additions. By the persuasion of the elector Joachim and the Fuggers, Leo sanctioned Albrecht’s election to the see of Mainz. He was given episcopal consecration and thus the three sees were joined in the hands of a man who was only 24.

But Albrecht’s confirmation as archbishop was not secured without the payment of a high price. The price,10,000 ducats, was set by the authorities in Rome and did not originate with the German embassy, which had gone to prosecute the case. The proposition came from the Vatican itself and at the very moment the Lateran council was voting measures for the reform of the Church. It carried with it the promise of a papal indulgence for the archbishop’s territories. The elector Joachim expressed some scruples of conscience over the purchase, but it went through. Schulte exclaims that, if ever a benefice was sold for gold, this was true in the case of Albrecht.13331333    See his account of the transaction, I. 115-121.

The bull of indulgences was issued March 31,1516, and granted the young German prelate the right to dispose of pardons throughout the half part of Germany, the period being fixed at 8 years. The bull offered, "complete absolution—plenissimam indulgentiam — and remission of all sins," sins both of the living and the dead. A private paper, emanating from Leo and dated two weeks later, April 15, mentions the 10,000 ducats proposed by the Vatican as the price of Albrecht’s confirmation as having been already placed in Leo’s hands.13341334    Schulte, I. 125. Leo’s bull of March 31 is given by Köhler, pp. 83-93. Even the Rom. Cath., Paulus, Tetzel, p. 31, goes as far as to speak of "the miserable business which for both Leo and Albrecht was first of all a financial transaction." To enable him to pay the full amount of 30,000 ducats his ecclesiastical dignities had cost, Albrecht borrowed from the Fuggers and, to secure funds, he resorted to a two-years’ tax of two-fifths which he levied on the priests, the convents and other religious institutions of his dioceses. In 1517, "out of regard for his Holiness, the pope, and the salvation and comfort of his people," Joachim opened his domains to the indulgence-hawkers. It was his preaching in connection with this bull that won for Tetzel an undying notoriety. Oldecop, writing in 1516, of what he saw, said that people, in their eagerness to secure deliverance from the guilt and penalty of sin and to get their parents and friends out of purgatory, were putting money into the chest all day long.

The description of Tetzel’s sale of indulgences and Luther’s protest are a part of the history of the Reformation. It remains, however, yet to be said, as belonging to the mediaeval period, that the grace of indulgences was popularly believed to extend to sins, not yet committed. Such a belief seems to have been encouraged by the pardon-preachers, although there is no documentary proof that any papal authorities made such a promise. In writing to the archbishop of Mainz, Oct. 31,1517, Luther had declared that it was announced by the indulgence-hawkers that no sin was too great to be covered by the indulgence, nay, not even the sin of violating the Virgin, if such a thing had been possible. And late in life,1541, the Reformer stated that the pardoner "also sold sins to be committed."13351335    An offer of this sort is referred to by John of Paltz (see quotation in Paulus): Tetzel, p. 136, and Paulus’ attempt to explain it away. The story ran that a Saxon knight went to Tetzel and offered him 10 thaler for a sin he had in mind to commit. Tetzel replied that he had full power from the pope to grant such an indulgence, but that it was worth 80 thaler. The knight paid the amount, but some time later waylaid Tetzel and took all his indulgence-moneys from him. To Tetzel’s complaints the robber replied, that thereafter he must not be so quick in giving indulgence from sins, not yet committed.13361336    One of the savory pulpit anecdotes bearing on indulgences ran as follows: Certain pilgrims, on their journey, came to a tree on which 5 souls were hanging. On their return, they found 4 had vanished. The one left behind reported that his companions had been released by friends, but that he was without a single friend. So, for the unfortunate soul’s benefit, one of the pilgrims made a pilgrimage to Rome, and the soul at once took its flight to heaven. "So may a soul," the moral went on to say, "be released from purgatorial fire, if only 50 Pater nosters be said for it."

The traffic in ecclesiastical places and the forgiveness of sins constitutes the very last scene of mediaeval Church history. On the eve of the Reformation, we have the spectacle of the pope solemnly renewing the claim to have rule over both spheres, civil and ecclesiastical, and to hold in his hand the salvation of all mankind, yea, and actually supporting the extravagant luxuries of his worldly court with moneys drawn from the trade in sacred things. How deep-seated the pernicious principle had become was made manifest in the bull which Leo issued, Nov. 9,1518, a full year after the nailing of the Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, in which all were threatened with excommunication who failed to preach and believe that the pope has the right to grant indulgences.13371337    The bull in Mirbt, p. 182.


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