The Scandal of Selling Indulgences in the 1500's

This article is specifically about the The indulgences scandal of the 1500's. We have a separate article that offers an explanation of what Indulgences are. This article is about the scandals because that's what most people email us about. Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory.

If you've seen "Luther the Movie" you probably think some pretty awful things about Catholicism. Most secular historians would agree with Donald J. Levit, who writes for Reeltalk Movie Reviews. He said:

In 'Luther,' the reality of Martin Luther within sixteenth century temporal and spiritual complexity is dumbed down beyond recognition.

Some evangelical pastors "sell blessings" much like corrupt priests of the 1500's "sold indulgences"

Surprisingly, some of the loudest Evangelical critics of the indulgences scandal are approaching their congregations with very similar language to the corrupt priests of the 1500's, who Martin Luther criticized. When speaking about their ministries, they say something like:

"Now dig deep into those pockets for this most worthwhile ministry, it will be a blessing to you and your family!"

It was wrong for corrupt priests to sell spiritual things in the 1500's and it is wrong for Evangelical preachers to do now. There is a thin line between legitimate and blasphemous teaching in the area of money. On one hand, it is perfectly legitimate to say God looks with favour on a generous heart. (Mark 12:42) On the other hand there is a very human tendency of greed and manipulation, and sometimes motives are mixed and not entirely without merit. (i.e., building a beautiful medieval Catholic Church or Evangelicals wanting to build a huge mega church)

Martin Luther's Reform

Indulgences were a main spark that fueled the reform. Martin Luther was right when he said that there was abuse of indulgences. The Compendium to the Catechism says:

...Unfortunately the practice of indulgences has on occasion been improperly applied. This has been either through "untimely" and superfluous indulgences which humiliated the power of the keys and weakened penitential satisfaction or it has been through the collection of "unlawful profits" which blasphemously took away the good name of indulgences... (Indulgentiarum Doctrina, 8)

One of the drawbacks of being a 2000 year old denomination is that there is a lot of baggage. None of the Popes from 1599-1878 have been canonized as Saints (only Pious IX and Innocent XI have been declared Blessed). That indicates that the Catholic Church is not too impressed with most of its Popes during that time. Almost all of the early Popes are recognized as saints and there are a couple of Popes recognized as saints for virtually every other century in Church history.

The indulgences scandal was a bad scene. Dr. Art Sippo said:

There was a program to raise money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica and a plenary indulgence was offered.  A donation was asked for in proportion to one's earnings, but it was possible to gain the same plenary indulgence by prayers for the project and the usual conditions (confession, & communion)...SOME of the people sent to offer the indulgence to the peasants used slogans, over-simplified examples and other techniques to speak down to the crowds to entice them to make a donation. The priest charged with overall supervision of the offer in Germany was Fr. Tetzel. Luther attacked him in the 95 Theses and that was the start of the revolt.

The Pope launched an investigation. It was kind of a fiasco, which exonerated Fr. Tetzel. Yeah, it was a mess! John Pacheco says this:

The Pope (or the bishops in Germany) did not approve of the "selling of indulgences" ... there were abuses that priests and bishops did not correct and check. However, the Church has never taught that money remits temporal punishment for sin.

This 500 year old incident has become a theme that some Evangelicals pastors have repeatedly preached to their congregations about Catholics. This has caused much disdain for the Catholic Church in some Evangelical circles, even those with their own financial scandal, including some TV Evangelists. The Church is for saints and sinners and it is not surprising that some Church people have done sinful things. "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone." (Jn 8:7) "All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).

Related articles

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  2. The role of suffering
  3. The Pope - the power of the keys on earth?
  4. Indulgences, what are they?
  5. Justification by faith alone?
  6. Flow chart of Catholic doctrine
  7. Sheol, Hell and Hades
  8. Flowchart of Catholic Doctrine