As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.
--John Tetzel, Dominican indulgence vendor
1. What is an indulgence?
An indulgence is the full or partial remission of temporal punishment for sins after the sinner confesses and receives absolution. Under Catholic teaching, every sin must be purified either here on earth or after death in a state called purgatory.
2. How did the practice of dispensing indulgences begin?
The first known use of plenary indulgences was in 1095 when Pope Urban II remitted all penance of persons who participated in the crusades and who confessed their sins. Later, the indulgences were also offered to those who couldn't go on the Crusades but offered cash contributions to the effort instead. In the early 1200s, the Church began claiming that it had a "treasury" of indulgences (consisting of the merits of Christ and the saints) that it could dispense in ways that promoted the Church and its mission. In a decretal issued in 1343, Pope Clement VI declared, "The merits of Christ are a treasure of indulgences."
3. How were indulgences used in Luther's time?
In Luther's time, the pope delegated the privilege of dispensing indulgences. The Castle Church in Luther's Wittenberg, for example, was delegated the rare privilege granting full remission of all sins. Frederick the Wise, elector for the region of the Holy Roman Empire that included Wittenberg, took pride in a large collection of relics (over 19,000 holy bones and 5,000 other items*) of saints that supposedly provided the basis for granting indulgences that could reduce stays in purgatory by over 1.9 million years. These treasures were made available to believers on All Saints Day, November 1. By viewing the relics and making the stipulated contribution, the believer could reduce a stay and purgatory while providing much needed financial support for Castle Church and the University of Wittenberg.
Leo X, the pope in 1517, needed funds to complete the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Leo entered into an arrangement that essentially sold indulgence franchises that allowed the franchisee to retain about half the funds raised by selling indulgences in return for sending to Rome the other half for Leo's construction project. To encourage indulgence sales, Albert of Brandenburg, one winner of the privilege of selling indulgences, advertised that his indulgences (issued by the pope) came with a complete remission of sins, allowing escape from all of the pains of purgatory. Moreover, Albert claimed, purchasers of indulgences could use them to free a loved one already dead from the pains of purgatory that he or she might presently be experiencing. The going rate for an indulgence depended on one's station, and ranged from 25 gold florins for Kings and queens and archbishops down to three florins for merchants and just one quarter florin for the poorest of believers.
*The items in Frederick's collection included bones, teeth, hairs, and pieces of cloak and even a girdle from various saints. They also included a piece of straw and some strands of swaddling clothes from Christ's manger, a chunk of gold brought by one of the three Wise Men, a strand from the beard of Jesus, a twig from the burning bush of Moses, bread served at the Last Supper, and seven shreds from a veil sprinkled with blood of Christ. [Bainton, p. 53.]
4. What sermon about indulgences pushed Luther to act against indulgences?
In proclaiming the special indulgence offered by Albert of Brandenburg, indulgence vendor John Tetzel promoted it with a sermon that included a jingle of his own creation: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." Tetzel made his way through Germany, entering towns as part of a procession that included local dignitaries, a cross bearing the papal arms, and the papal bull of indulgence carried on a velvet cushion. In the marketplace of each town, Tetzel would offer this sermon:
Listen now, God and Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and those of your loved ones departed. You priest, you noble, you merchant, you virgin, you matron, you youth, you old man, enter now into your church, which is the Church of St. Peter. Visit the most holy cross erected before you and ever imploring you. Have you considered that you are lashed in a furious tempest amid the temptations and dangers of the world, and that you do not know whether you can reach the haven, not of your mortal body, but of your immortal soul? Consider that those who are contrite and have confessed and made contribution will receive complete remission of all their sins. Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends beseeching you and saying, "Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance." Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, "We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in the flames? Will you delay the promised glory?" Remember that you are able to release them, for as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and mortal soul into the fatherland of paradise? [Bainton, pp. 60-61]
5. What were Luther's main objections to Tetzel's sermon?
As Luther biographer Roland Bainton observed, Tetzel's sermon "marked the apex of unbridled pretensions as to the efficacy of indulgences." Although Pope Sixtus IV had offered immediate release to souls in purgatory, Tetzel dispensed with the previously imposed condition that the purchasers of the indulgences for the dead demonstrate their own contrition. As Luther saw it, no human can know whether the remission of sins for any individual is complete, because complete remission comes only to those who show worthy contrition and confession--and worthiness is known only to God.
6. How did Luther choose to make known his criticisms of indulgences?
Luther summarized his objections in the form of ninety-five theses for debate. The 95 Theses denounced the promise of springing souls from purgatory on the basis of a monetary contribution alone to the Church. Moreover, Luther challenged the right of a pope to grant pardons on God's behalf. The power of pardon, Luther believed, was God's alone. If, indeed, the pope had the power he claimed, Luther asked why he didn't simply exercise it: "If the pope does have the power to release anyone from purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish purgatory by letting everyone out?" Luther's complaints also went to the Church's justification for promoting contributions. He complained about "the revenues of all Christendom being sucked into this insatiable basilica" when there were much greater needs, including "living temples" and local churches.
7. What happened next?
The scandalous use of indulgences in the 1500s led directly to Martin Luther's attacks on Catholic doctrine and, ultimately, the Protestant Reformation which changed the cultural and political face of Europe.