Martin Luther  I
The Nature of Indulgences in the Catholic Church


[Among the perverse practices of the time], perhaps the most dangerous was the exploitation of indulgences, which actually touched off the storm of 1517 [Luther's 95 Theses]. The practice of indulgence as such was of long standing in the church. It is meant to be a remission of the temporal punishment that is imposed by the church authority as an outward sign of true contrition. Such remissions of sometimes very onerous punishments were granted as early as the seventh century;[ FN ] and the commutation into money fines conformed frequently to the rules of Wergeld as remission for punishments according to Roman law.

The custom was supplemented by the doctrine of the thesaurus meritorum, first developed by Alexander of Hales in the thirteenth century, which is the doctrine of an accumulation of "superfluous" expiation through the saints in the "Treasure of the Church." Up to this point, the system of indulgence was no more than a concession of the church to a civilizational environment that could hardly have become Christianized in the broad masses if the rigors of punishment of the early church had been retained.

The abuse began with the popular misunderstanding of indulgence as a remission, not only of temporal punishment but also of guilt; and in particular with the misunderstanding of plenary indulgences as a remission even of future guilt. Indulgences, especially when coming from Rome, could popularly be understood as entrance tickets to Heaven.

While one cannot say that this misunderstanding was deliberately fostered by ecclesiastical authorities, certainly the church did not take appropriate steps to counteract it with public effectiveness, or even to check the fostering of the misunderstanding by pardoners who participated in the pecuniary profits from the sale of such indulgences. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, the abusive exploitation of the misunderstanding had grown into a scandal of European proportions, involving huge sums of money and vested interests.

FN. Some examples of temporal punishments: the wearing of a hairshirt beneath outer garments for a period of time; the wearing of sackcloth and ashes as a public sign of penance for a period of time; a pilgrimage to a distant holy place, perhaps on foot; denial of meat for a time; denial of drink or sexual congress for a time; alms to the poor, perhaps at great personal disadvantage; resignation from public office; withdrawal from public life; retreat to monastic life for a period of time.-FJW Note.[ Back to Text ]

CW VOL 22 (HPI IV),
Part Five—The Great Confusion
Chapter 1—The Great Confusion I: Luther and Calvin
§4. The Ninety-Five Theses ,
p 229.

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