the catholic church and indulgences -- 4/08/15

Today's selection -- from God's Bankers by Gerald Posner. One of the scandalous practices of the Catholic church was the sale of "indulgences" to raise money. Indulgences allowed Catholics to buy forgiveness for their sins with cold, hard cash. Most remember that indulgences were one of the primary reasons Martin Luther made the cataclysmic decision to leave the Catholic church and start the "Protestant" movement. However, few realize that indulgences were used by the Catholic church as a primary source of revenue for over a thousand years, and that the practice did not end as a result of Luther's protests:

"The cost of running the church's kingdom while maintaining the profligate lifestyle of one of Europe's grandest courts pressured the Vatican always to look for ways to bring in more money. Taxes and fees levied on the Papal States paid most of the empire's basic expenses. The sales of produce from its agriculturally rich northern land as well as rents collected from its properties throughout Europe brought in extra cash. But over time that was not enough to fuel the lavish lifestyles of the Pope and his top clerics. The church found the money it needed in the selling of so-called indulgences, a sixth-century invention whereby the faithful paid for a piece of paper that promised that God would forgo any earthly punishment for the buyer's sins. The early church's penances were often severe, including flogging, imprisonment, or even death. Although some indulgences were free, the best ones -- promising the most redemption for the gravest sins -- were expensive. The Vatican set prices according to the severity of the sin and they were initially available only to those who made a pilgrimage to Rome.

Satan distributing indulgences

"Indulgences helped Urban II in the eleventh century offset the church's enormous costs in subsidizing the first Crusades. He offered full absolution to anyone who volunteered to fight in 'God's army' and partial forgiveness for simply helping the Crusaders. Successive Popes became ever more creative in liberalizing the scope of indulgences and the ease with which devout Catholics could pay for them. By the early 1400s, Boniface IX -- whose decadent spending kept the church under relentless financial pressure -- extended indulgences to encompass sacraments, ordinations, and consecrations. A few decades later, Pope Paul II waived the need for sinners to make a pilgrimage to Rome. He authorized local bishops to collect the money and dispense the indulgences and also cleared them for sale at pilgrimage sites that had relics of saints. Sextus IV had an inspired idea: apply them to souls stuck in Purgatory. Any Catholic could pay so that souls trapped in Purgatory could get on a fast track to Heaven. The assurance that money alone could cut the afterlife in Purgatory was such a powerful inducement that many families sent their life savings to Rome. So much money flooded to Sextus that he was able to build the Sistine Chapel. Alexander VI -- the Spanish Borgia whose Papacy was marked by nepotism and brutal infighting for power -- created an indulgence for simply reciting the Rosary in public. The new sales pitch promised the faithful that a generous contribution multiplied the Rosary's prayer power.

"Each Pontiff understood that tax revenues from the Papal States paid most of the day-to-day bills, while indulgences paid for everything else. The church overlooked the widespread corruption and graft inherent in collecting so much cash and instead grew ever more dependent on indulgences. And as they got ever easier to buy and promised more forgiveness, they became wildly popular among ordinary Catholics.

"Indulgences were, however, more than a financial lifeline. They also helped medieval Roman Popes withstand challenges to their secular power. So-called antipopes -- usually from other Italian cities -- claimed they, rather than the pope elected in Rome, had the political or divine right to rule the Catholic Church. Although some antipopes raised their own armies and had popular backing, they never mustered the moral authority to issue indulgences. Repeated efforts over centuries by pretenders to the Papacy to package and sell forgiveness for sins failed. Few Catholics believed that anyone but the Roman Pope had the direct connection with God to offer a real Indulgence. And when the Pope's armies were called upon to sometimes crush an antipope, it was usually the flood of cash from indulgences that paid for the war.

"By the reign of Leo X -- the last nonpriest elected Pope in 1513 -- a growing chorus of critics condemned indulgences as a shameless ecclesiastical dependence. Leo, a prince from Florence's powerful Medici family, was a cardinal since he was thirteen. He was accustomed to an extravagant lifestyle by the time he became Pope at thirty-eight. Leo made the Papal Court the grandest in Europe, commissioning Raphael to decorate the majestic loggias. The Vatican's servants nearly doubled to seven hundred. Assuming the role of a clerical aristocracy, cardinals were called Princes of the Church. Leo had no patience for critics who demanded he curb the sale of indulgences. He tried silencing his detractors by threatening excommunication.When that failed, he pressed ahead with a futures market by which diminution was available for sins not yet committed. So much cash flooded in that he could build St. Peter's cathedral.

"Pope-Kings unvaryingly were scions of a handful of powerful Italian families. When one of their sons became Pope, the by-products of a Papacy often included rampant corruption, pervasive nepotism, and unbridled debauchery. The cash from indulgences mostly became a bottomless pit.

"The licentious lifestyle of the Papal Court and the widespread abuses in selling indulgences became a rallying cry for Martin Luther and the Reformation. Pope Leo responded by excommunicating Luther. One of the few benefits from the schism was that since Protestants condemned indulgences, the Holy See remained unopposed when it came to selling forgiveness to believers in Christ.

"The steady flow of cash became ever more important as the Vatican suffered from the repercussions of the liberal political and social upheaval that swept Western Europe in the late eighteenth century, climaxing in the 1789 French Revolution."


Gerald Posner


God's Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2015 by Gerald Posner


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