Glossary

Indulgences


   The logic of indulgences is hard for moderns to understand, but in reality they make a great deal of sense. The whole concept of an indulgence is based on the medieval Catholic doctrine that sinners must not only repent of sins that they've committed, they must also confess these sins and pay some sort of retribution. You see, the problem with repentance and confession is that the only evidence you have of repentance is the sinner's claim to be repentant. Repentance is, like so many other Christian concepts, an internal state rather than an external action. The history of medieval Catholic doctrine is in many ways an attempt to find ways to present exterior signs for the interior state of the individual believer. Repentance was no exception to this. So in order for an individual to demonstrate that he or she is truly repentant and not just mouthing the words, the concept of "temporal punishment" was invented. In other words, the sinner needed to undergo some punishment or task; the sin would not be expiated until this was accomplished. Part of this temporal punishment involved doing "good works," that is, deeds that are charitable such as feeding the poor or caring for the sick. A truly repentant person would show that repentance by behaving in the most charitable ways towards fellow human beings.

   Sins that have not been properly expiated with temporal punishment land the sinner in purgatory. In fact, the entire concept of purgatory, which is invented in the late twelfth century, is that it is a place of temporal punishment. At the conclusion of this punishment, the individual soul passes into heaven.

   Now, here we'll take a short diversion from church history to economic history. In the latter centuries of the Middle Ages, the Europeans discovered mercantilism in a big way. Mercantilism is an economic activity in which goods are purchased in one place and then moved to another place where those goods are scarce, and sold at a much higher price. In the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, Europeans learned how to do this from Muslims and they took to it like a duck to water. From the twelfth century onwards, Europeans busied themselves moving all sorts of goods—salt, wool, sheep skins, and all sorts of new inventions—all over Europe and the European economy began to boom.

   This booming mercantile economy suddenly changed the way people traded things. For the most part, trade in Europe involved barter for most of the Middle Ages: individual goods were traded for other individual goods. I will give you one toilet for three chemistry textbooks. Mercantilism, however, put money into circulation in a dramatic way. By the late thirteenth century, most economic transactions were taking place with money and Europe shifted from a largely barter economy to a money economy.

   Now, since we live with money all the time, we really don't think about how strange it is. Medieval Europeans, however, did understand the strangeness of money and began to adjust their thinking and world view around this strange new phenomenon. (Money had always been around, it just hadn't been in wide circulation). You see, in order for money to really work, it can't have a use value, or then it would just be barter. If money had a use value, then its value would fluctuate wildly. Let's say that we used toilets for money. If you could buy three chemistry textbooks for one toilet, this would perhaps seem reasonable to you if you have had nothing to eat or drink in a day or two. If, on the other hand, you had just finished drinking a case of soda pop this morning, you'd probably be less willing to trade your toilet away at such a low price. So, in order for the trade value of money to be relatively fixed, not only must money be made of a material that is relatively rare, but money can't have any real value, that is, it can't have use value.

   This is an odd way of doing business. You can walk into a car dealership and hand someone several thousand pieces of paper with George Washington's face on it—pieces of paper that have no use whatsoever—and that damn fool will hand you a brand new car. And the only reason he'll do it is because he can take those thousands of pieces of useless paper and hand it to someone else who will then give him something back that is useful and valuable.

   Now follow me on this next argument. Money works, then, by substituting for real things. Do you understand? When you look at a sweater and see a price tag on it that says "$50," that means that you can substitute fifty dollars for that sweater. If you own a CD player that says "$50," that means that you can substitute fifty dollars for that CD player. Rather than trade your CD player for the sweater, you can sell the CD player and take fifty dollars instead as a substitute for the CD player and then use that money to purchase the sweater. In a money economy, then, money can be substituted for any object whatsoever.

   This was a long digression to explain indulgences, but bear with me as I put the two together. Indulgences were originally created by the church for one and only one reason: to collect money. The medieval Catholic church was the source of almost all social welfare and charity and all this social welfare and charity needed to be paid for. Beginning in the twelfth century, various hospitals and other organizations affiliated with the church would send people out begging for money—they were called proctors —begging for money, however, was not a highly effective way to raise money.

   In the late thirteenth century, the church came up with the idea of indulgences. In the spiritual life of sinners, indulgences function exactly the same way money functions in their economic life. Here's the logic: since the expiation of sin involves temporal punishment and this temporal punishment involves the doing of good works, why not substitute someone else's good works for the good works you're required to do? Why not pay someone else to do the good works demanded of you as temporal punishment?

   Church officials argued that clergy were doing more good works then they needed to; they had, you might say, more than good works in their spiritual accounts than they had sins to pay for. Why not sell them? So selling the good works of the church was precisely what the church did. With the approval of the pope, individual bishops could sell indulgences which more or less paid off any temporal punishment or good works that the individual believer had accumulated in the previous year. It substituted the good works of the Catholic clergy for the good works required of the individual believer. Proof of this substitution was in the indulgence itself, which was a piece of paper, like a piece of money or a check, that certified that the good works of the clergy had paid off the "good works debt" of the individual believer.

   Inspired by the need to raise money, indulgences reproduced the very logic of money. In place of the real thing (good works), indulgences substituted a completely valueless piece of paper. The only reason this worked is because everybody accepted this to be a valid substitution, just like everybody accepts money as a substitution for things that have value.

   Indulgences had their critics from the very beginning. With the invention of the printing press, however, indulgences could be printed in mass quantities (they had to be written out by hand in the Middle Ages) and became big business for the church. As business grew, so did criticism of the practice. Nowhere was criticism of the church more revolutionary than in northern Europe.


Discovery and Reformation
The Northern Renaissance
   The first hint of things to come were the complaints from Northern Renaissance thinkers such as Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus. Inspired in part by the spectacle of selling both indulgences and church offices, these two argued for a return to a simple church that was based primarily on faith and charity.


   The church, however, was forced to sit up and listen when Martin Luther (1483-1546) attacked the practice in his famous 95 Theses. He did not, however, stop with indulgences, but attacked the entire logic behind "good works." In part responding the the humanism of Erasmus, Luther rejected any exterior qualities of an individual as being relevant to that individual's relationship to God. Just as indulgences do not really mean that the purchaser has achieved good works, so good works do not mean that the doer is either repentant or faithful. The logic of indulgences, for Luther, indicted the logic of most church practices that relied on exterior behaviors, such as good works, rituals, and icons.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-12-97