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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 30. The Sale of Indulgences.


St. Peter’s Dome is at once the glory and the shame of papal Rome. It was built over the bones of the Galilaean fisherman, with the proceeds from the sale of indulgences which broke up the unity of Western Christendom. The magnificent structure was begun in 1506 under Pope Julius II., and completed in 1626 at a cost of forty-six millions scudi, and is kept up at an annual expense of thirty thousand scudi (dollars).175175    On St. Peter’s church, see the archaeological and historical works on Rome, and especially Heinr. von Geymüller, Die Entwürfe für Sanct Peterin Rom, Wien (German and French); and Charles de Lorbac, Saint-Pierre de Rome, illustré de plus de 130 gravures sur bois, Rome, 1879 (pp. 310).

Jesus began his public ministry with the expulsion of the profane traffickers from the court of the temple. The Reformation began with a protest against the traffic in indulgences which profaned and degraded the Christian religion.

The difficult and complicated doctrine of indulgences is peculiar to the Roman Church. It was unknown to the Greek and Latin fathers. It was developed by the mediaeval schoolmen, and sanctioned by the Council of Trent (Dec. 4, 1563), yet without a definition and with an express warning against abuses and evil gains.176176    The Council incidentally admits that these evil gains have been the most prolific source of abuses,—"unde plurima in Christiano populo abusuum causa fluxit,"—and hence it ordained that they are to be wholly abolished: "omnino abolendos esse."(Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, II. 205 sq.) A strong proof of the effect of the Reformation upon the Church of Rome.

In the legal language of Rome, indulgentia is a term for amnesty or remission of punishment. In ecclesiastical Latin, an indulgence means the remission of the temporal (not the eternal) punishment of sin (not of sin itself), on condition of penitence and the payment of money to the church or to some charitable object. It maybe granted by a bishop or archbishop within his diocese, while the Pope has the power to grant it to all Catholics. The practice of indulgences grew out of a custom of the Northern and Western barbarians to substitute pecuniary compensation for punishment of an offense. The church favored this custom in order to avoid bloodshed, but did wrong in applying it to religious offenses. Who touches money touches dirt; and the less religion has to do with it, the better. The first instances of such pecuniary compensations occurred in England under Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury (d. 690). The practice rapidly spread on the Continent, and was used by the Popes during and after the crusades as a means of increasing their power. It was justified and reduced to a theory by the schoolmen, especially by Thomas Aquinas, in close connection with the doctrine of the sacrament of penance and priestly absolution.177177    Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., Pars III. Quaest. LXXXIV., De Sacramento Poenitentiae; and in the supplement to the Third Part, Quaest. XXV.-XXVIL, De Indulgentia. Comp. literature in vol. IV. 381.

The sacrament of penance includes three elements,—contrition of the heart, confession by the mouth (to the priest), and satisfaction by good works, such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimages, all of which are supposed to have an atoning efficacy. God forgives only the eternal punishment of sin, and he alone can do that; but the sinner has to bear the temporal punishments, either in this life or in purgatory; and these punishments are under the control of the church or the priesthood, especially the Pope as its legitimate head. There are also works of supererogation, performed by Christ and by the saints, with corresponding extra-merits and extra-rewards; and these constitute a rich treasury from which the Pope, as the treasurer, can dispense indulgences for money. This papal power of dispensation extends even to the departed souls in purgatory, whose sufferings may thereby be abridged. This is the scholastic doctrine.

The granting of indulgences degenerated, after the time of the crusades, into a regular traffic, and became a source of ecclesiastical and monastic wealth. A good portion of the profits went into the papal treasury. Boniface VIII. issued the first Bull of the jubilee indulgence to all visitors of St. Peter’s in Rome (1300). It was to be confined to Rome, and to be repeated only once in a hundred years, but it was afterwards extended and multiplied as to place and time.

The idea of selling and buying by money the remission of punishment and release from purgatory was acceptable to ignorant and superstitious people, but revolting to sound moral feeling. It roused, long before Luther, the indignant protest of earnest minds, such as Wiclif in England, Hus in Bohemia, John von Wesel in Germany, John Wessel in Holland, Thomas Wyttenbach in Switzerland, but without much effect.

The Lateran Council of 1517 allowed the Pope to collect one-tenth of all the ecclesiastical property of Christendom, ostensibly for a war against the Turks; but the measure was carried only by a small majority of two or three votes, and the minority objected that there was no immediate prospect of such a war. The extortions of the Roman curia became an intolerable burden to Christendom, and produced at last a successful protest which cost the papacy the loss of its fairest possessions.



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