Swimming the Tiber 35: A Serious Issue

Up to this point, most of my posts have included a humorous undercurrent (or at least I like to think so). I’m going to do my best to avoid that this time around. I need to spend a short post to talk about something very serious and recent when it comes to accusations against the Catholic Church: the clerical abuse scandal.

To be honest, I planned and wrote this post before Cardinal Pell was recalled to Australia to face charges on multiple counts of sexual assault of a minor while he was a seminarian (Victoria semi-recently lifted the statute of limitations on child abuse). I didn’t think this would be so completely topical, but suffice it to say this: If he is guilty, may justice be done to bring the victims as much peace as is possible, and if he is not guilty, may justice likewise be served by the dismissal of this case. But now let us return to this regularly scheduled post.

Between the 1950s and today, thousands of people in the United States, and more worldwide, have accused Catholic priests of sexual abuse of minors. In many of these cases, the allegations were known to Church officials and were not dealt with properly. Since then, a number of investigative reports have been released and the widespread problem has been brought into view.

There is no defense for this. There is no justification. There are two things: (1) to know why this happened (so we can prevent it in the future), and (2) to determine whether the Catholic Church is safe for my children.

Question 1 has been given fairly extensive study by Rome, by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), by the media, and by the public in general over the last 20 years. The problems were manifold, but I will try to summarize.

  1. Priestly sexual abuse of minors was not known to be widespread. Individual bishops in individual dioceses handled allegations against priests without much discussion among those bishops. This allowed the problem to continue relatively unchecked without an organized effort against it.
  2. Common medical opinion suggested that child abusers could be treated, cured, and returned to society. Although opposed early by some, there was a general idea at the time that men who abused children could, like alcoholics and drug addicts, be corrected and returned to ministry. This was obviously an incorrect assessment, and repeat offenders were allowed to access children again and continue their abuse.
  3. Some cases were specifically covered up. There have been anti-Catholic arguments that the Pope himself is personally responsible for every abusive cleric (he isn’t–see above about how these cases were handled generally), but there really were bishops who covered up abuse in their dioceses–again allowing repeat offenders to continue their abuse. This is unconscionable.

There have been other explanations by other people, but these seem to me the salient points.

Now to question 2: Is the Catholic Church a safe place for my children? The short answer is, “As safe as anywhere else, if not safer.”

In the first place, the Church has done a remarkable job of turning this around. They have acknowledged the problem and apologized for it, but more than that, they have taken steps to avoid it in the future. Every priest is evaluated closely for these tendencies before being put in a position. Educators, teachers, and anyone who looks after children (at, say, Sunday school or a church retreat) must undergo education, not only about the evils of abuse, but about how to spot signs of it in children. Children are likewise educated in Catholic schools. Every volunteer, paid employee, and seminarian undergoes background checks. Of course, every offender engages in a “first-time offense,” so background checks are not always productive. To avoid point 1 above, these investigations are taken not merely to the diocese but to Rome. Substantiated allegations immediately result in the laicization of the priest (defrocking, i.e., removal from the priesthood).

There are still problems, yes. Rome has a backlog of cases to investigate, for example. Priests, of all people, are called to a higher standard, and we should like to think that this would never happen at all. But remember that the Church has both sinners and saints in her ranks; some of the chaff are evil indeed, and we must be wary. Child molesters seek out places where they have access to children; the Catholic Church has many schools, but so does the government, and there’s no indication that priests are more likely to abuse children than others in similar positions of authority over children, whether at Protestant churches or in public or private schools.

Anecdotally, I taught at a public school for one year. In that time, a (female) special education teacher at the same school I taught at was fired after being charged (and later convicted) for sexual abuse of minors. I didn’t know her personally, but the number of children abused by adults in schools is staggering and should not be taken lightly just because there is greater media focus on churches.

Which returns me to my short answer to question 2 above: The Catholic Church is as safe as anywhere else, if not safer. The spotlight on the Church and her focused efforts and increased cooperation seem to me to make her even safer than, say, educational institutions with very little oversight. I fully intend to keep a wary eye over my children and to educate them thoroughly as I am able, especially as they get old enough to spend time in educational settings. That goes the same whether they are in a CCD class at the local parish, a parochial school, a private school, a public school, or with a tutor. “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” said John Curran (not Thomas Jefferson), and that applies to our free will as well as to our democratic liberties. It is our duty as parents to contend with the world on behalf of our children, as our heavenly Father does for us, and that responsibility does not end in even the safest place.

There is one more question that some will ask, though I do not: Doesn’t a scandal of this magnitude, from even your bishops and cardinals, prove that the Catholic Church is false and corrupt? The short answer is no. The medium version (I haven’t time for a lengthy one) is this: If we abandoned the Church every time one of her leaders was a sinful man, this whole Christendom thing never would have gotten off the ground. The objective Truth we find in Catholicism does not depend on the moral standing of her clergy (praise the Lord!), but rather upon the divine Word, who said that the gates of Hell would never overcome his beloved Church.

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Eppur Si Muove

Swimming the Tiber 34: Eppur Si Muove

Let Us grant you that all of your demonstrations are sound and that it is entirely possible for things to stand as you say. But now tell Us, do you really maintain that God could not have wished or known how to move the heavens and the stars in some other way? We suppose you will say ‘Yes,’ because We do not see how you could answer otherwise. Very well then, if you still want to save your contention, you would have to prove to Us that, if the heavenly movements took place in another manner than the one you suggest, it would imply a logical contradiction at some point, since God in His infinite power can do anything that does not imply a contradiction. Are you prepared to prove as much? No? Then you will have to concede to Us that God can, conceivably, have arranged things in an entirely different manner, while yet bringing about the effects that we see. And if this possibility exists, which might still preserve in their literal truth the sayings of Scripture, it is not for us mortals to try to force those holy words to mean what to us, from here, may appear to be the situation.

– Pope Urban VIII to Galileo Galilei, quoted
by Giorgio de Santillana in The Crime of Galileo

I do not therefore consider them [your arguments] true and conclusive; indeed, keeping always before my mind’s eye a most solid doctrine that I once heard from a most eminent and learned person, and before which one must fall silent, I know that if asked whether God in His infinite power and wisdom could have conferred upon the watery element its observed reciprocating motion using some other means than moving its containing vessels, both of you would reply that He could have, and that He would have known how to do this in many ways which are unthinkable to our minds. From this I forthwith conclude that, this being so, it would be excessive boldness for anyone to limit and restrict the Divine power and wisdom to some particular fancy of his own.

– Simplicio in Galileo Galilei, Dialogo sopra i due
massimi sistemi del mondo
, trans. Stillman Drake

The well-read among you may recognize the title of this post as the words of Galileo sometime shortly after his recantation of heliocentrism. You may hear the phrase in English (“And yet it moves,” referring to the Earth) as a petulant retort to an authority figure who denies your view (whether factual or not).

For what it’s worth, the Church has apologized for the way Galileo was treated. Personally, I don’t think it had to. The Church was, in the first place, eminently reasonable throughout the Galileo affair; in the second place, his treatment was among the most civil of anyone found guilty in an inquisition.

Galileo’s biggest problem wasn’t the Church; it was his contemporaries and colleagues. Copernicus was slow to publish his position on heliocentrism (which he dedicated to the pope) not because he was afraid of the Catholic Church, but because he could not answer the principal objection: that there were no observed parallax shifts in the stars (mainly because that technology wouldn’t be available for another couple hundred years). For the same reason, Johannes Kepler was poorly received by his contemporaries; one of those contemporaries, Tycho Brahe, rejected Copernicus’ model of the solar system (in favor of his own convoluted Tychonic system, where non-Earth planets revolved around the sun, but the sun still revolved around the Earth).

But Galileo was so convinced he was right (he wasn’t, by the way–his model posited that the sun was the immovable center of the universe, and we know that it is not, but rather it orbits the center of our galaxy, which is itself moving) that he began to proclaim his scientific opinion as scientific fact without much evidence to back it up. His contemporaries (most of whom held to the Tychonic system and the rest supported the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian system) opposed him intellectually, but he really got himself into hot water when he touted this as ample reason to change the established interpretation of Scripture.

You see, in 1610, Galileo had his famous encounter with the moons of Jupiter through his telescope. That, along with the phases of Venus, disproved the geocentric model in his mind. (His contemporaries replied that the Tychonic system answered those objections just fine.) In 1611, a dear friend of his wrote to him, “I write because men like you are of great value, deserve to live a long time for the public benefit, and I am also motivated by the particular interest and affection which I have for you and by my constant approbation of you and your work.” (Maffeo Cardinal Barberini in a letter to Galileo Galilei on 11 October 1611, recorded in Le Opere di Galileo Galilei, Edizione Nazionale, Vol. XI (Firenze, 1901), p216)

Fast-forward a few years. Galileo belligerently accosted the intellectuals of the Catholic Church, with whom he had formerly had an accord. He flatly rejected that heliocentrism should be presented as a competing model (lacking further evidence); instead, he compelled Church authorities either to accept heliocentrism (and thereby change the traditional interpretation of Scripture, which they had no cause to do, since heliocentrism could not answer its toughest scientific opposition) or to condemn it as heresy (which they were not wont to do under the circumstances).

By 1624, Galileo was having regular meetings with his old friend, Cardinal Barberini–only now, Barberini was Pope Urban VIII. The pope took these meetings as an opportunity to share his own philosophy with Galileo (the first quote at the top of the page). The pope reasoned with him that, although Galileo’s opinions were very well thought-out, wasn’t it possible that God, in his omnipotence, could have done it some other way? (Surprise! God did. See above about the sun also being mobile.) 1624 is the earliest reasonable date for the quote at the top of this page from Pope Urban VIII. The pope promised to continue supporting Galileo, provided the man slack off a little on his zeal.

Galileo’s response was to write the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. The dialogue mostly follows three men: Salviati (who argues for Galileo’s views), Sagredo (who starts out neutral but quickly follows Salviati), and Simplicio (an ardent supporter of the Ptolemaic system). Just as Salviati was named for one of Galileo’s friends and Sagredo for another, Simplicio is ostensibly named for Simplicius of Cilicia (a 6th century commentator on Aristotle)–but even those of us who do not speak Italian can plainly see the double entendre with simpleton and the like. Based on his poor argumentation style and rapid loss to Salviati, the pun seems intentional.

Which brings us to the second quote at the top of the page, when Simplicio is used as a mouthpiece for the pope’s own view. Galileo even makes it obvious, in case you missed it–Simplicio heard this theory “from a most eminent and learned person,” and then he nearly quotes his one-time friend word-for-word.

The pope was still a man, and he had his pride. Getting on his bad side was not beneficial to Galileo’s argument; on top of that, the pope had plenty of political problems of his own. Galileo could not prove his position, but he insisted on changing Catholic teaching anyway; that way lies heresy, which is what he was ultimately accused of. After the inquest, he recanted (though popular legend, spreading almost as soon as he died, claims his petulant response) and was confined to his homes for the remainder of his life (not a dungeon).

Later (over two hundred years later, in 1838), Friedrich Bessel discovered stellar parallax, definitively proving the heliocentric solar system (but still not Galileo’s heliocentric universe). Bans of pro-heliocentric views had been completely lifted by 1835, even allowing uncensored editions of Galileo’s most audacious works. As with other scientific developments (more on that in a couple of months), once the majority of scientists support a particular theory, the Catholic Church respectfully allows its interpretation of Scripture to match God’s Creation.

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A Serious Issue

Swimming the Tiber 33: Nobody Expects It

Like last week’s post on the Crusades, I’m going to run down this history on this a bit and then point out why it can’t really be used to bludgeon the Catholic Church as much as people would like.

The Medieval Inquisition

In the 12th to 15th centuries, Church and State worked hand in hand. There was not even a semblance of separating them; the State was appointed by God, and the Catholic Church was the official faith of the day. Therefore, rebellion against the Church was rebellion against the State–if it offended God, then it offended the king, and if it offended the king, then it was treason. (This oversimplification makes it easier to lay out the background for those of us who live in tolerant modern societies with civil liberties unions and foundations that want freedom from religion.)

So, given that heresy was a crime against the State, whenever it came up, most civil law courts were quick to condemn (assuming the mobs let the accused reach trial at all). The Catholic Church, ever concerned with the souls of her children, formed the Medieval Inquisition to inquire and make sure that anyone accused of heresy was actually guilty. (The Church was, after all, the center of science, logic, law, and faith in the day; were laypeople fully qualified to determine whether someone was a heretic? Even if they could make that determination, would they show the restraint and mercy that the Church should apply?) So the original Inquisition, the one run by the Church, focused on making a real evaluation of guilt using strong legal standards set forth by Rome (especially in dealing with the Cathars and Albigensians).

But the 14th and 15th centuries saw the fracturing of power from Rome. Notable pre-Protestant protestants John Wycliffe and Jan Hus laid the intellectual groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. Monarchs, once devoted enough to Rome to become saints (St. Louis IX, king of France, died in 1270, and St. Ferdinand III, king of Castile, died in 1252), soon determined that they should manage their own kingdoms themselves, rather than being subject to the far-off pope. Spain was just as susceptible to this self-interest, but it had another societal struggle helping it along.


Spain had been conquered by the Muslim empire in the 8th century. War was common. To keep the peace, religious tolerance was more common in Spain than elsewhere (England and France both exiled their Jewish populations around the turn of the 14th century). But the rising anti-Semitism of the time wormed its way into Spain as well, leading a mob to force the local Jews to be baptized or die. Many of these Jews chose baptism and, even though forcing someone to be baptized under threat of death makes the baptism invalid, many of these chose to remain Catholic even after King John I of Aragon allowed them to return to their own religion.

These converts, called conversos, spread and began a wave of Jewish conversion to Catholicism. But these conversos were still Jewish culturally and chose to live that way. Many of them spoke of being better than other Catholics (because they were part of the Church but were also blood relatives of Christ). The Old Christian aristocrats and middle-class of Spain resented this as a slight against them, and the local Jews resented it because the conversos were abandoning their faith. Eventually, conspiracy theories abounded that conversos were secretly still practicing Jews and that their goal was to infiltrate the aristocracy, the kingdom, and the Catholic Church in order to tear them down from the inside.

The Spanish Inquisition

King Ferdinand II of Aragon (who was also, by marriage, Ferdinand V of Castile) decided it was time to look into these allegations, which became more numerous by the day. He got permission from Pope Sixtus IV to start a Spain-controlled inquisition, which was to have two priests involved as inquisitors. No sooner had Ferdinand appointed priests to the position than they were inundated with claims of heresy. Conversos were being accused left and right across the board; the allegations flew so fast that Ferdinand eventually became convinced that there must be some merit to the conspiracy theory–never mind that most of the accusations were for financial gain or personal vitriol. (Sound familiar?)

As things got out of hand, Pope Sixtus IV wrote a letter (in 1482, just four years after approving the measure) to his bishops in Spain condemning the Spanish Inquisition and encouraging them to be directly involved from that point forward. King Ferdinand replied that he would handle things himself, and if the pope had indeed suggested otherwise, he must have been under the influence of the conversos.

For the remaining 251 years of its history, the Spanish Inquisition was entirely Spanish and not the least bit Catholic. (Indeed, Sixtus’ successor wrote two letters to Ferdinand asking for more leniency without success.)

But what about the millions?
During its entire existence, records (though incomplete) suggest that around 150,000 people were investigated by the Spanish Inquisition, of which 3,000-5,000 were executed for obstinate heresy. Not millions.

But what about the torture?
Prisons are prisons, but the so-called dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition were so pleasant that there is some evidence of criminals blaspheming purposefully in order to be transferred to them. Torture was a tool of law enforcement of the time, and the Spanish Inquisition used it as well, though some evidence suggests they used it both less frequently and with less intensity than their civil counterparts.

No doubt the Spanish Inquisition was imperfect, and no doubt it both tortured and executed people who did nothing to deserve it. But for the most part, it was a political entity with political goals, not religious ones. It rejected the authority of the Catholic Church. Even as it reformed and improved under later Spanish kings, the image of cruel inquisitors remained–especially once German Protestants got a printing press, which enabled them to (yes, print Bibles, but also) print propaganda about a dark and cruel Spain, propaganda that–though thoroughly disproved among historians–persists in the popular mindset even today.

And, because some of you have been waiting for this since you read the title of this post…

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Eppur Si Muove

Swimming the Tiber 32: Some Damn Fool Idealistic Crusade

I’m not planning on delving into the Crusades very much. I’ve studied ecclesiastical history, but I’m not a historian, and certainly not with a focus on the Crusades. I think just war theory is important to be aware of, but I’m not an expert. Even if I were, I couldn’t make you an expert in a single blog post. And the more you read my posts about the scandals of the Church, the more you are likely to find the same explanation for each of them (<clickbait>it may surprise you, but it’s actually obvious!</clickbait>).

The Crusades

First, a glimpse at the history of the Crusades. You may recall that the Roman Empire, once covering about four-fifths of Alexander the Great’s empire, was by the end of the first millennium AD split into two empires (one centered in Rome, the other in Constantinople). In Rome, the Pope led the Latin-based western Church (the Roman Catholic Church). In the East, a final schism in 1054 separated out the patriarchs of that region from Rome’s authority. By 1095, both the Church and the Roman Empire had been split in twain, but both were threatened by the expansions of Islamic power. The Islamic empire had, under the Umayyad Caliphate two hundred years earlier, grown from Arabia to stretch to twice the size of Alexander’s empire. By the late 11th century, it was pressing on the borders of a weakened Rome.

In 1095, the Byzantine Empire was struggling with the expansion of the Turks and requested military aid from the West. Pope Urban II preached (especially in the Council of Clermont) on the importance of reacquiring pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land and supporting Constantinople against Islamic invasion. The first response was a crusade of impoverished people, probably eager to serve the Church and get remission for their sins; these people, unfortunately, lacked leadership and massacred Jewish communities en route to the Holy Land. In time, there was more organization, and the First Crusade began in earnest. By 1099, the Crusaders had sacked Jerusalem, where they slaughtered at least 3000 people, which was quickly exaggerated both by proud Latin sources and aghast Muslim ones. At any rate, the holy city was drenched in blood and littered with corpses, but the Crusade had been a success–Christians once again controlled the Holy Land.

Fortunately for the Crusaders, the Islamic empire had fractured. Sunnis of the east and Shia of the west were at odds, and there was no organized counterattack for the moment. Eventually, though, Muslim forces began to take back the “Crusader states” and by the mid-12th century, the Second Crusade had begun as an effort to retake the area. Of course, this resulted in more massacres of innocent Jewish bystanders in the Rhineland (which St. Bernard of Clairvaux, at least, disapproved of vehemently). The Second Crusade was ultimately unsuccessful.

Shortly after, Saladin (the sultan of Egypt and Syria) led the caliph of Baghdad and Sunni Islam in a campaign that eventually saw Jerusalem fall. Pope Gregory VIII initiated the Third Crusade in 1187 to take it back–but the Crusaders never did. Despite advances under King Richard of England especially, the Crusaders ultimately came up short of their goal. A truce was negotiated to allow access for pilgrimages. A few more half-hearted attempts were made, but also failed.

It did not take long for Pope Innocent III to begin preaching the Fourth Crusade in 1200. This was, by far, the most disastrous crusade of all. The Crusaders quickly realized they lacked the manpower and funds to travel to Jerusalem, so they went to Constantinople instead. They conquered it–twice. The second time, they sacked it, pillaged it, and slaughtered its people. (You may recall that the First Crusade was ostensibly to support Constantinople against Turkish invaders. See how far we have fallen.) They never even tried to go to Jerusalem. Pope Innocent, for his part, excommunicated all of them.

There were more Crusades, but they’re usually skipped (for good reason). The Fifth did little. The Sixth only accomplished an unpopular treaty. The Seventh and Eighth were both led by King Louis IX–the Seventh targeted Egypt and failed; the Eighth targeted Tunis and failed. The Ninth Crusade was led by Prince Edward of England and resulted in a ten-year truce only. Thus, in 1272, the Crusades came to a close.

Some important things to note: (1) Lots of bad things happened during the Crusades. No one disputes this. (2) The religious fervor for the Crusades was accompanied by promises of forgiveness (via plenary indulgences, among other things) and the prospect of financial and political gain (a great general could gain a princedom in the Crusader states, for example). These provided further impetus, and the non-religious reasons often took precedence (especially, for example, in the Fourth Crusade).

Just War Theory

Just war theory is the examination of what constitutes (you guessed it!) a just war. The just war doctrine lays out the detailed results of that examination in practice by the Catholic Church. Just war theory predates Christianity, finding its roots in Roman politics (and the casus belli or cause of war), but most of its history lies with Christian theologians and ethicists. The phrase is first used in a Christian context in St. Augustine’s tome, De Civitate Dei (On the City of God), but Augustine does not lay out a set of regulations for determining whether a war is just. That takes another 900 years.

St. Thomas Aquinas writes three requirements for a just war in his Summa Theologiae:

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Psalm 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says: “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says: “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says:1 “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says: “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

– St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,
Second Part of the Second Part, Question 40, Article 1

Since then, the doctrine has been refined by the Church. The relevant paragraph of the Catechism reads as follows:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 5, Paragraph 2309

Now, we are free to evaluate retrospectively whether any of the Crusades met these measurements, but we must remember that (for the most part) these measurements did not exist during the Crusades. Aquinas lived in the 13th century, and his writings would not have been widespread early enough in his lifetime to judge any of the Fourth through the Ninth crusades on these merits. The just war doctrine proper, from the Catechism, is an even more recent delineation (20th century for its current wording). These measurements are much more appropriately applied to modern militaristic action and war. (The astute reader will have difficulty calling some recent wars “just” under these circumstances.)

So how does this apply to the Crusades? Well, it doesn’t quite. The First Crusade is probably the best candidate for passing the test, but many of the rest certainly do not. There is one important thing to consider alongside the Crusades, and I’ve already touched on it a few times: As I’ve mentioned before, the Church contains both saints and sinners, both the wheat and the chaff. Whether we should hold the wheat responsible for the chaff is up to you, but most of us do not condemn the holy angels for the actions of Satan.

I could also talk about intention (no one leading the charge wanted innocents to be slaughtered, but greed took precedence over piety in many cases) or the surge in vocations and holy orders that accompanied the Crusades (holy wars reinvigorated the interest of the laity in serving the Church), but that doesn’t change what happened. Some good things did come from the Crusades, but so did bad–but throughout all the wickedness done by people, we trust the Church never to falter. The gates of hell will not overpower her.

1 Technically not to be found in St. Augustine’s writings.

Swimming the Tiber 31: Sobald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt

Sobald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt,
die Seele 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!