Swimming the Tiber 31: Sobald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt

Sobald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt,
die Selle aus dem Fegfeuer springt.
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
the soul out of purgatory springs.
– Johann Tetzel (allegedly), c. AD 1517

They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

– Martin Luther, the 95 Theses, #27

Noted as one of the instigating moments of the Protestant Reformation, the sale of indulgences by Tetzel and others continues to be cited as one of the Catholic Church’s greatest failings. The little jingle linking donations and indulgences is still quoted as an attack on the Church (even though there isn’t particularly strong evidence that Tetzel used it himself), and it seems to hit all the harder when you point out that Rome still makes indulgences available.

But it only seems that way.

The problem is manifold. First, most people don’t understand what indulgences really are. For most of the details, it’s easiest to read Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 4, Subsection X of the Catechism, which focuses entirely on indulgences, but if you’re not interested, I’ll sum it up:

Indulgences are tied to the sacrament of penance, which (you may recall) consists of temporal consequences for sin. That is to say, you must do penance to restore your relationship with God and the Church, even though you have already been forgiven your sins via the sacrament. While penance restores that relationship in short order (completing the sacrament), what remains are personal attachments to sin, or affections toward sin; this is called concupiscence, this desire for worldly things. Concupiscence must be removed from us via sanctification, which is usually a long process of fasting, prayer, and–if we die before it is finished–Purgatory (see Ephesians 4:17-24).

An indulgence is a gift of God’s grace, granted by the Church (via her authority to bind and loose sins), which lightens the burden of this process and speeds our sanctification. An indulgence can be acquired for oneself or for a fellow Christian, and since those in Purgatory are undergoing sanctification and are fellow Christians, indulgences can be acquired for them as well. There are also some distinctions between “partial” and “plenary” indulgences; the short version is that partial ones accomplish less. For many more details on indulgences, read the Indulgentiarum doctrina (Doctrine of indulgences).

It’s important to remember that an indulgence isn’t a “free pass”; without genuine contrition and a desire to do better, it accomplishes nothing. Receiving an indulgence means being given the grace to turn away from sin and pursue the will of God; and technically, you can’t even receive a plenary indulgence if you’re still attached to sin (see Indulgentiarum doctrina Norm 7).

So let’s bring it back to Tetzel and Luther. At the time, indulgences were granted… let’s say “easily.” Let’s say “too easily.” And “improperly.” That is not the case now; the granting of indulgences is restricted to proper and appropriate circumstances–and it’s no longer possible to receive a plenary indulgence for a donation and a smile.

It was of particular concern to me that the “sale” of indulgences amounted to “buying” your way into heaven. In the first place, indulgences do nothing to offset the eternal punishment of mortal sin (condemnation and separation from God), so no amount of money would help there. In the second place, “sale” is an improper term, as any act thus described would be simony (another mortal sin). So even if indulgences could be acquired through financial acts of charity (and it’s never that simple), the Church isn’t “selling” salvation.

Personally, I agree that the behavior of Tetzel and pastors like him needed to be reformed–but then, so did the Church, which is why indulgences have since been reformed. But indulgences are not a bad thing, and acquiring one can only help you. Don’t let Luther’s 500-year-old reactionism color your view of the Catholic Church; study and learn and figure these things out for yourself. (Or you can keep reading this blog, and I’ll try to help.)

Next week, we’ll move on to a much more thrilling time in Church history: the Crusades!

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