The Indulgence Controversy

Light of truth

Without the Indulgence Controverosy, there could perhaps be no Reformation as we know it today. An indulgence is remission of the temporal punishment of sins, granted by the Church and effective before God. Indulgences had become an integral part of the penitential practices of the Church in the Middle Ages but the practice of indulgences went back to the eleventh century. Several factors contributed to the rise of indulgences. The introduction of private confession brought about a connection between confession and absolution, whereby the subjective performance of penance followed reconciliation and the distinction between guilt and punishment became clearer. Adaptations began to be made whereby penitential works were adjusted to the circumstances and abilities of the penitent and various kinds of penance could be substituted for one another and the Church could decide on such matters. These were prayers, alms giving or other charitable activities or activities benefiting the Church such as building of a Church or participation in a crusade. Whereas the atonement was concerned primarily with the canonical penalty, the absolution referred to the punishment in God’s sight. The indulgence united them, ecclesiastical penance and prayer for the remission of sin before God and it was an official act of the Church justified through the doctrine of the “treasury of the Church” of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints of which the Church has the key. Abuse was bound to follow with a multiplication of indulgences and ever lighter works of penance and an unscrupulous financial exploitation of them by the Roman Curia and territorial lords. Sin and the punishment for sin were distinguished and people were fleeing the punishment which was now made easy through payment of money, but not sin itself. It was all the more so when indulgence could also be gained for the dead.

Thus although the teaching in itself was theologically sophisticated and orthodox, in practice it had degenerated into a commercial enterprise as was the case with the “Peter’s Indulgence.” In 1505 Pope Julius II had began the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica and in 1507 he announced a Plenary Indulgence to finance this immense building project, the “Peter’s Indulgence,” renewed by Pope Leo X. In 1513 Albert of Brandenburg, a twenty-three year old youth became Archbishop of Magdeburg and Administrator of Halberstadt. And in the very next year he became the Archbishop of Mainz after the payment of 14000 ducats and another 1000 ducats as dispensation fee for this illegal accumulation of benefices. The Archbishop borrowed the money from the bank Fugger and the Curia itself suggested ways to pay it back. The Archbishop was to allow the preaching of Peter’s Indulgence in his dioceses for eight years and he could retain half the proceeds and the rest would go to Rome. So accompanied by the banking officials, the preaching began, on 22 January 1517 by Johannes Tetzel, a Dominican friar. It was a whole scale commercial transaction and a full-fledged scandal, to say the least.

Luther had during his lectures already criticized Indulgences and now once again he came out against it saying that the people are fleeing the penalties of sin and not sin itself. He presented his objections in detail to his own bishop, the bishop of Brandenburg, and Albert of Mainz, the Papal agent for the Indulgences, in his now famous Ninety-five Theses. He did not reject Indulgences but understood them in the framework of the sacrament of penance. Surety about salvation could not be obtained through Indulgences but through faith in the mercy of God and the Pope was wrong in misleading people. The theses were not meant to be made public which happened without Luther’ permission and knowledge and it led to the collapse of the entire Indulgence preaching with huge financial implications. Contrary to popular opinion, there was perhaps no nailing of the theses on the Church door. What took place probably was the normal University practice of inviting an academic debate by publishing it probably on the University bulletin board. This debate, unfortunately, did not take place but the theses received wide publicity. The traditional date given for this is October 31, 1517 which is kept as the beginning of the Reformation ever since.

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