Looking into Catholic Indulgences as a Protestant

Looking into Catholic Indulgences as a Protestant June 22, 2022

I’ve wanted to learn about Catholic indulgences for a while now. Many Protestants, including myself, have heard poor opinions about what many believe was a dishonorable way to extol money from people. Learning about indulgences also meant learning about how they helped trigger the Reformation.

What Are Indulgences?

I found some more or less neutral definitions for indulgences on ThoughtCo and Britannica. Essentially, indulgences are assigned holy acts used to reduce one’s temporal punishment for sin.

Even after I did some research on Purgatory, the notion of temporal punishment (or, as Fr. Mike of Ascension Presents calls it, “consequences”) still throws me off a bit. Britannica pinpoints the term “temporal punishment” as another way of saying “penance”. In other words, “temporal punishment” is another way of saying “making amends in the aftermath of committed sins”.

Connotation is a big issue here, and this is bound to throw people off. It sure as heck threw me off!

From what I’ve read, indulgences originated not as “get out of Hell free” cards but as promises to hold ourselves accountable for our sins. When you obtained an indulgence, you created a note of accountability declaring your intention to make amends for your sins through specific faith-based actions.

This sounds like a great way to encourage and practice humility. The original form of indulgences likely helped individuals plan how to break off their ties to sin and stand stronger against temptations. I like that.

But the subsequent issue is why and how did indulgences become so corrupt at one point? While they’d been in practice centuries before the Reformation, it looks like a nasty spike in abuse around their usage directly inspired Martin Luther to write his famous 95 Theses.

The Effect of Indulgences on the Reformation

When indulgences became a means of procuring money in Luther’s home country of Germany, the fuse for the Reformation was lit.

Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, received authority from the archbishop of Mainz, who’d received permission from Pope Leo X, to sell indulgences in Germany. Pope Leo X wanted to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica and needed plenty of funding for this project. To this end, he employed Tetzel and others to promote the purchase of indulgences.

These indulgences came with a misleading message that their purchase, when indulgences originally had no price, would confer special grace. When people came upon men like Tetzel, they heard that these indulgences would alleviate the temporal price of sin. Not just for themselves but also for other loved ones who’d already passed away.

These indulgences were “plenary”, as in, they would revoke the temporal punishment for all sins. This, of course, must’ve amplified their appeal at the time.

I hope I’m getting this right. All of this seems to imply, if not outright state, that these indulgences removed the need for accountability for sins. “Just pay, and you’ll be okay!”

This round of indulgences stands in stark contrast to their original intentions. Knowing now that indulgences weren’t supposed to have an attached price makes this much worse. No wonder Luther condemned them so strongly.

Martin Luther’s Condemnation of Greedy Indulgences

Martin Luther despised how indulgences were promoted as a means of essentially buying one’s way out of Purgatory. Tetzel’s selling of indulgences dishonored their true purpose. Luther’s understandable contempt for this mishandling directly inspired his 95 Theses and declaration of disgust with the Catholic Church.

I found one Catholic take on Martin Luther that refers to him as a heretic most infamous for his rejection of papal authority. They argue that Luther was wrong for his views against the Pope’s ability to dispense grace.

The Pope issued a statement in 1520, Exsurge Domine, condemning Luther’s views and giving reasons to excommunicate him. This video below showcases a poetic portion of this statement:

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about Pope Leo X comparing Luther to wild beasts. While I know I’m saying this as a Protestant, it’s easy for me to think that Leo X reacted this way after Luther challenged his authority.

Not even National Catholic Register supports the notion of complete papal authority. They state that while the papacy usually gives good spiritual direction, Catholics aren’t obligated to comply if their guidance contradicts God.

I sure as heck wouldn’t want to obey a Pope who dishonestly disguised indulgences as a means of earning money. Even if his actions helped fund a beautiful building, Leo X should’ve funded the project through more honest means. His refusal to choose honesty is partly what fueled the Reformation.

Addressing Indulgences at the Council of Trent

The Catholic Church addressed the misuse of indulgences in one of the sessions of the yearslong Council of Trent.

Brittanica’s article on Trent states the Council’s intent that all financial abuses and hedonistic practices, such as what Pope Leo X did, would be disciplined. I found the exact section in the Council that addresses indulgences. It more or less states that the abuses behind indulgences had to cease while also condemning misinformation surrounding the practice.

If I were a Christian living in the time of the Reformation, I would’ve preferred that the Church took action against this corruption sooner. It shouldn’t have taken roughly 40 years after Tetzel’s misdeeds in Germany for a statement to come out. Pope Leo X never should’ve had the power to sell indulgences when they weren’t supposed to have an attached price in the first place.

I’ve been reading conflicting information about indulgences supposedly being free while Pope Leo X sold them to fund the Basilica. It’s bizarre, reading from Catholic sources, that Tetzel was an outlier when I read that Leo X authorized him to sell indulgences in Germany. What narrative should I believe?

Catholic Explanation of Indulgences

One of my favorite Catholic YouTube channels is Ascension Presents, which did a video on indulgences:

Fr. Mike points out that one of the consequences of sin is getting attached to it; we find it harder and harder to say “no” to it after the first time. We shouldn’t try to go at the healing process of overcoming that addiction alone, which is where God’s grace comes into play.

I like his analogy that indulgences are meant to strengthen your soul, similar to how physical therapy strengthens a previous wound. His description of what goes into an indulgence was also quite informative. It sounds like indulgences are supposed to be “accountability cards”,

He did a great job explaining this topic so that all audiences could understand. However, this message contradicts Pope Leo X deliberately selling indulgences to fund the Basilica. I understand Fr. Mike’s view that this could’ve been a misunderstanding, but I also take issue with the Church not clarifying this during Leo X’s era.

After all, alms and indulgences aren’t the same. Alms are freely given sums of money, while indulgences are acts of repentance for oneself or somebody who’s passed on. Pope Leo X never should’ve blended the two.

As a Protestant, I wonder, can other Church authorities overrule abusive papal actions? In this article from The Atlantic, a reader-submitted answer states that the Ecumenical Council has the power to remove popes from office. I wonder why they didn’t remove Pope Leo X after this indulgence fiasco?

Indulgences Today

In modern days, the Sacrament of Penance (Confession) is used to promote humility and remorse for our sins. Undergoing penance helps us let go of pride and instills a resolve to avoid repeating our transgressions.

The question is, of course, does the Catholic Church still use indulgences for this purpose? I found this video from Ascension Presents that answers this question:

I love Fr. Gregory Pine’s sense of humor in this video; it was refreshing and witty. Besides his great humor, I like that right out the gate, he addressed Fr. Johann Tetzel’s abuse of indulgences and the infamous quote he spoke about them:

“Every time a coin in the coffer rings,

a soul from Heaven springs.”

-Johann Tetzel

He nailed it, at least to me. Instead of dismissing the understandable concerns over how Tetzel sold indulgences, Fr. Gregory validated these concerns. I see his point that this era of abuse with indulgences shouldn’t be taken as an indicator that the entire practice is wrong.

Before watching this video, I wondered if indulgences somehow replace going to Confession. Fr. Gregory confirms here that no, indulgences don’t replace it. Indulgenced acts are meant to coincide with going to Confession a week before or after receiving the assigned acts.

That’s another tidbit I’m glad I heard here: indulgences are active acts of contrition. Fr. Gregory confirms that indulgences were never meant to be monetary purchases with no attached obligations. I’m thankful for his concrete answer to these questions.

Indulging in Understanding

All in all, I understand more about indulgences now while also understanding why Martin Luther created his 95 Theses. It’s truly a shame that Pope Leo X attached a price to indulgences when they originally never had one.

I wish more Catholic sources would handle this matter like Fr. Gregory Pine did in his video. It was a bit frustrating having to dig around for a solid, objective answer on the history of indulgences and their relation to the Reformation. Hearing from Fr. Gregory that, yes, Tetzel abused this practice was somehow gratifying.

As somebody who loves St. Faustina and her talks with Jesus about Divine Mercy, I wonder if the prayers Jesus taught her count as indulgenced acts? Fr. Gregory mentioned in his video that praying novenas counts as a plenary (covering all temporal punishment) indulgence. Would St. Faustina’s novena count, perchance?

I still have much to learn about Catholic spirituality, and ultimately, I’m glad I studied indulgences. While they have a shaky history, I can tell that their original intentions are to inspire us to practice humility and remorse for sins.

Featured Image by Image by Geralt/Pixabay

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