Papal Indulgences/Indulgences for the Dead
Arguably the practice of granting Indulgences traces its roots to the earliest centuries of the Christian era. It is part of the elaborate and often complicated Roman Catholic system of penance. The Catholic Catechism describes it as, “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” .
It relies on a fabrication called the Treasury of Merit. Essentially, The Treasury of Merit is a spiritual respository of unused holiness merits consisting of the infinite Righteousness of Jesus Christ and those who have achieved sainthood. These accumulated but unused merits could be used by the Pope or an agent of the Church to reduce the temporal punishment for sin on behalf of a devout penitent. Initially, penitents could acquire an Indulgence by performing some form of prayer, devotion or act of charity. Over time, as the Church entered the Medieval period, Indulgences included acts of heroism and bravery for Christians who embarked on Crusades.
As the Church entered the late Medieval period, the Doctrine of Purgatory loomed larger in the Church’s thinking with respect to Indulgences. Purgatory, a non-biblical category, is the spiritual holding tank where non-sainted Catholics entered upon death. Their temporal sins precluded them for entering directly into heaven. In order to purge any remaining sin, Catholics could literraly writhe in agony for eons in the fires of Purgatory until they would be sufficiently cleansed to enter Paradise.
The issuance and sales of Indulgences during this period expanded to include not only temporal punishment but to reduce the time one spent in Purgatory as well. With the simple purchase of a certificate from a designated Church official one could reduce one’s time by tens of thousands of years. Tragically, by the time the Church enters into the period marking the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, the sale of Indulgences had further degenerated.
Pope Leo X saw Indulgences as a means to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He offered generous Purgatorial reductions to those who generously donated to this project. This spiritual pledge prompted Johann Tetzel (1465-1519) to adopt and implement some very aggressive marketing strategies. The most notorious was to sell Indulgences for the dead.
This practice consisted of extorting surviving parties of a deceased loved one to purchase an Indulgence on behalf of the one now dead. The deceased would be agonizing in the fires of Purgatory, the argument went, and as one who remained behind one could use their temporal resources to alleviate years of suffering.
This practice caught the ire of Martin Luther and received particular attention in his now famous 95 Theses. Thesis 28 is especially note worthy since Luther cites a quote that he attributed to Tetzel, “when a coin in the coffer rings a soul into heaven springs”. Luther rightly saw this abuse as offering grace,forgiveness and salvation as a commodity to bought and sold.