The Protestant Interpretation of Biblical Prophecy, A Historical Alternative. Isaac Newton Protestant History 3 Interpretations Daniel Revelation Armageddon Audio Links Site Index
    Home ¬ Previous Page ¬ Of Indulgences

Book II - Chapter XV

Of Indulgences

To dispense a gift so inestimable as the pardon of sin, and derive no benefit therefrom on her own account, was not agreeable to the usual manner of the Papacy. At the beginning, Rome scattered with a liberal hand the heavenly riches, without reaping, in return, the perishable wealth of men. But it was not to be expected that a liberality so extraordinary and unusual should last always. In the thirteenth century Rome began to perceive how the power of absolution might be turned to account as regards the mammon of unrighteousness. Formerly men had earned forgiveness by penance, by fasting, by pilgrimage, by flagellation, and other burdensome and painful performances; but now Rome fell upon the happy invention by which she contrives at once to relieve her votaries and to enrich herself; in short, she proclaimed the doctrine of indulgences. The announcement spread joy throughout the Catholic world, which had long groaned under the yoke of self-inflicted penances. The scourge was laid aside, the fast was forborne, and money substituted in their room. The theory of indulgences is as follows:--Christ suffered more than was required for the salvation of the elect; many of the saints and martyrs likewise have performed more good works than were requisite for their own salvation; and these, to which it is not uncommon to add the merits of the Virgin, have been all thrown into a common fund, which has been entrusted to the keeping of the Church. Of this treasury the Pope keeps the key, and whoever feels that his merits are not enough to carry him to heaven, has only to apply at this ghostly depot, where he may buy, for a reasonable sum, whatever he needs to supplement his deficiencies.

In this market, which Rome has opened for the sale of spiritual wares, money is not less indispensable than it is in the emporiums of earthly and perishable merchandise. The price varies, being regulated by the same laws which govern the price of earthly commodities. To cover a crime of great magnitude, a larger amount of merit is of course required, and for that it is but reasonable that a larger sum should be given. The Roman Catholic Church teaches, that by the sacrament of penance the guilt of sin and its eternal punishment are remitted, but that the temporal punishment is still due, and must be borne either in this life or in purgatory. This is the doctrine of Trent, in support of which the fathers bring their usual proof, an anathema, "Whoever shall affirm that God always remits the whole punishment, together with the fault, let him be accursed."1 The same is taught by the modern theological writers of Rome.2 It is in this way that indulgences are useful. They procure remission of the temporal punishment, either in whole or in part, that is, the calamities inflicted in this life are alleviated, and the sojourn in purgatory is very much shortened. Some modern Papists, such as Bossuet, ashamed of the doctrine of indulgences, have sought to disguise it, or deny it altogether, by representing it as nothing more than a remission of ecclesiastical penances or censures. This is shown incontrovertibly to be a fraud; first, by the fact that indulgences are held to benefit the dead, whom they release from purgatory; and, second, because this account of indulgences is in plain opposition to the decrees of Trent on this subject, to the deliverances of the Roman Catechism, and to the doctrine taught in Dens and Perrone. The latter remarks, that "the power of forgiving every kind of sin by the sacrament of penance resides in the Church; and consequently the absolving priest truly reconciles sinners to God by a judicial power received from Christ." He repudiates the idea that it is a mere power of declaring that the sin has been forgiven that the priest exercises. The man, says he, who heals a wound or unties a chain does not merely pronounce the patient to be whole or the captive to be free; he actually makes him so. So the absolution of the Church is not the mere declaring the sin to be forgiven; it is the remitting or retaining of the sin.3The statement of Bossuet is in plain opposition, moreover, to the notorious practice of the Church of Rome, which, before the Reformation especially, kept open market in Europe, in which, for a little money, men might purchase the remission of all sorts of enormities and crimes. This scandalous traffic Rome unblushingly carried on till it was denounced by Luther. Since that time she has exercised a little more circumspection. She no longer sends trains of mules and waggons across the Alps, laden with bales of pardons. This branch of her business is now carried on by her ordinary bishops. The trade is too shameful to be openly avowed, but too gainful to be given up. Her hawkers have ceased to perambulate Europe; but her indulgences still circulate throughout it.

The doctrine of indulgences, as explained by Leo. X., is, "That the Roman pontiff may, for reasonable causes, by his apostolic authority, grant indulgences out of the superabundant merits of Christ and the saints, to the faithful who are united to Christ by charity, as well for the living as for the dead. . . . . All persons, whether living or dead, who really obtain any indulgences of this kind, are delivered from so much temporal punishment, due, according to divine justice, for their actual sins, as is equivalent to the value of the indulgence bestowed and received." We might quote, did our space permit, numerous bulls of succeeding popes to the same effect, all showing that the Church of Rome holds that the matter of indulgences is the merits of Christ and the saints, and that they confer remission of sin and release from purgatory. We might quote the bull of Pius VI., published in 1794; the bull of Benedict XIII.4 in 1724; and that of Benedict XIV.5 in 1747; and the bull of "Indiction for the Universal Jubilee in 1825,"6 which grants, upon certain conditions, "a plenary indulgence, remission, and pardon of all their sins, to all the faithful of Christ." The Council of Trent strongly recommended indulgences as "salutary to Christian people," and anathematized all who should assert the contrary.7 But as the scandal of Tetzel was still fresh in the recollection of Europe, the council recommended no less strongly, discretion in the distribution of indulgences, and forbade all "wicked gains" accruing therefrom,--a decree that was to little purpose, seeing no priest would be forward to own that his gains, however great, were of the kind to which the Tridentine prohibition had reference. The Romish authorities, from the Council of Trent downwards, have been careful how they defined indulgences. Indeed, they have studiously involved the subject in obscurity. Their explanations remind us of the lucid reply given by a monk at Rome to a visitor in the eternal city, who asked him what an indulgence was. "An indulgence," said the friar, crossing himself,--"an indulgence is a great mystery!"8

Still, no reader of the least discrimination can fail to discover, through all the ambiguities and generalities by which Popish writers seek to conceal the grosser features of this most demoralizing system, that indulgences carry all the power we have attributed to them. Such is the virtue ascribed to them by Dens, who tells us that they not only stay the censures of the Church, but avert the wrath of God, and redeem the spirit from the fires of purgatory.9 The same is the doctrine of those books which have been compiled by the Church for the instruction of her members. It is asked in Butler's Catechism,--"Q. Why does the Church grant indulgences? A. To assist our weakness, and to supply our insufficiency in satisfying the divine justice for our transgressions.--Q. When the Church grants indulgences, what does it offer to God to supply our weakness and insufficiency, and in satisfaction for our sins? A. The merits of Christ, which are infinite and superabundant; together with the virtues and good works of his Virgin Mother, and of all the saints."10 We have alluded to the open and shameless manner in which this traffic in sin was carried on before the Reformation; and to that period must we go back, in order to see the awful lengths to which the doctrine of indulgences has been, and still may be, carried; and that, in point of fact, whatever distinctions Popish writers in modern times may make, it is an assumption of power on the part of the priests to pardon all sins, past and present,--to remit all punishment, temporary and eternal,--in short, to act in the matter of pardoning men with the full absolute authority of God. The preachers of indulgences at the beginning of the sixteenth century knew none of the distinctions of modern casuists, and for this reason, that they spoke before the Reformation.

"Indulgences," said Tetzel, "are the most precious and the most noble of God's gifts. This cross [pointing to the red cross, which he set up wherever he came] has as much efficacy as the very cross of Jesus Christ. Come and I will give you letters, all properly sealed, by which even the sins that you intend to commit may be pardoned.

"I would not exchange my privileges for those of St. Peter in heaven; for I have saved more souls by my indulgences than the apostle by his sermons.

"There is no sin so great that an indulgence cannot remit; and even if any one [which is doubtless impossible] had offered violence to the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, let him pay,--only let him pay well,--and all will be forgiven him.

"But more than this," said he; "indulgences avail not only for the living, but for the dead. For that repentance is not even necessary.

"Priest! noble! merchant! wife! youth! maiden! do you not hear your parents and your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the bottom of the abyss, 'We are suffering horrible torments; a trifling alms would deliver us: you can give it, and you will not?'

"At the very instant," continued Tetzel, "that the money rattles at the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory, and flies liberated to heaven."11

And even since the Reformation, and more especially in Countries where its light has not penetrated, we find this trade as actively carried on as ever, though without the extravagance and grossness of Tetzel. "I was surprised," says the authoress of "Rome in the Nineteenth Century," "to find scarcely a church in Rome that did not hold up at the door the tempting inscription of 'Indulgenzia Plenaria!' Two hundred days' indulgence I thought a great reward for every kiss bestowed upon the great black cross in the Colosseum; but that is nothing to the indulgences for ten, twenty, and even thirty thousand years, that may be bought at no exorbitant rate in many of the churches; so that it is amazing what a vast quantity of treasure may be amassed in the other world with very little industry in this, by those who are avaricious of this spiritual wealth, into which, indeed, the dross or riches of this world may be converted with the happiest facility imaginable."

"You may buy as many masses as will free your souls from purgatory for twenty-nine thousand years, at the church of St. John Lateran, on the festa of that saint; at Santa Bibiana, on All Souls' day, for seven thousand years; at a church near the Basilica of St. Paul, and at another on the Quirinal Hill, for ten thousand and for three thousand years, and at a very reasonable rate. But it is in vain to particularize, for the greater part of the principal churches in Rome and the neighbourhood are spiritual shops for the sale of the same commodity."12

The writer may be permitted to state, that on the cathedral gates in the south of France, particularly at Lyons, he has seen handbills posted, announcing certain fêtes, and promising to all who should take part in them, and repeat so many Ave Marias, a plenary indulgence; that is, a full remission of all their sins up to the time of the fête. Adrian VI. decreed a plenary indulgence of all his sins to whomsoever should depart out of this life grasping in his hand a hallowed wax candle! The same inestimable blessing did the pontiff promise to the man who should say his prayers on Christmas day in the morning in the church of Anastasia at Rome. Sixtus IV. granted an indulgence of twelve thousand years to every man who should repeat the well-known salutation of the Virgin, "Hail, Mary, &c.; deliver me from all evils, and pray for my sins." Burnet mentions that he had seen an indulgence for ten hundred thousand years.13 In other cases, indulgences have been granted to the person and his kindred of the third generation; so that it might be handed down to his posterity like an estate or other property. Nobles have obtained indulgences, including their retinue as well as themselves,--much as a wealthy man now-a-days, in travelling by steamer or rail, buys a ticket for himself and all the members of his suite. Such companies one should think, must have had a jovial journey to the other world, seeing, however many the debts of sin which they might contract by the way, they were sure of finding all scores clear at the end. Others have had blank indulgences given them, with power to fill in what names they pleased. The holders of such indulgences exercised a patronage of a very uncommon kind. They could appoint their friends and dependents to a place in paradise; in which, it would seem, there are reserved seats, just as in terrestrial shows, to which the holders of the proper tickets are admissible, however late they may arrive.14 There are also defunct indulgences,--the comfort of the dead, as well as of the living, having been studied. The process in this case is an extremely simple one. The name of the deceased is entered on the indulgence, and straightway a plenary remission is accorded him, and he is instantly discharged from the torments of the purgatorial fire.15 Indulgences have been affixed also to such things as medals, scapularies, rosaries, crucifixes. Of this we have a notable instance in the bull of indulgence granted by Pope Adrian VI. to certain beads which he blessed. This bull was afterwards confirmed by Gregory XIII., Clement VIII., Urban VIII., and ran in the following terms:--"Whosoever has one of these beads, and says one Pater Noster and one Ave Maria, shall on any day release three souls out of purgatory; and reciting them twice on a Sunday or holiday shall release six souls. Also reciting five Pater Nosters and five Ave Marias upon a Friday, to the honour of the five wounds of Christ, shall gain a pardon of seventy thousand years, and the remission of all his sins."16 These are mere gleanings. With a little industry one might collect as many facts of this sort as would fill volumes.17

So lucrative a trade has not been left to regulate itself. An apostolic tariff was framed, so that all who frequented this great market of sin might know at what price to purchase the spiritual wares there exposed. A book was published at Rome, entitled "TAXES OF THE APOSTOLIC CHANCERY," in which the price of absolution from every sin is fixed. Murder may be bought for so much; incest for so much; adultery for so much; and so on through the long catalogue of abominations which it would pollute our page to quote. Sins unheard of and unthought of are here put up for sale, and generally at prices so moderate, that few can say they are beyond their reach. This book, the most atrocious and abominable the world ever saw, sets forth and commends the wares in which Rome deals, and of which she claims a monopoly. Herein she unblushingly advertises herself to the whole world as a trafficker in murders, parricide, incests, adulteries, thefts, perjuries, blasphemies, sins, crimes, and abominations of every kind and degree. Come hither, she says to the nations, and buy whatever your soul lusteth after. Let no fear of hell, or of the anger of God, restrain you: I will secure you against that. "Take, eat; ye shall not surely die." So spoke the serpent to our first parents beneath the boughs of the interdicted tree; and so does Rome speak to the nations. "Ye shall not surely die." He was indeed a true limner who drew Rome's likeness in the Apocalypse, "THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH."

In some indulgences the Church exercises the power of absolution, and in others of simple loosing. The first has respect to the living; the second to the dead, whom the indulgence looses from purgatory, or strikes off so many days or years from the allotted period of suffering there. Indulgences are also divided into plenary and partial. The indulgence is plenary when the whole temporal punishment due for sins committed prior to the date of the indulgence is remitted. In a partial indulgence, part only of the temporal punishment is discharged: in this case the period is generally stated, and ranges from a day to some hundreds of thousands of years; which means that the person's future sojourn in purgatory will be less by the period fixed in the indulgence.18

Romanists have affected a virtuous indignation at the charge which has not unfrequently been preferred against them, that their Church has established a system of selling licenses to commit sin. They have denounced this as a calumny, because, forsooth, their Church does not take money beforehand, but allows the sinner first to gratify his passions, and then receives the stipulated price. But where is the difference? If Rome tells the world, as she does, that for a certain sum,--which is generally a small one,--she will grant absolution for any sin which any one may choose to commit, and if the person finds that he has the requisite sum in his pocket, has he not as really a license to commit the sin as if the indulgence were already in his possession? Besides, what does Rome say to those indulgences which extend over some hundreds of thousands of years? How easy would it be to buy a few such indulgences, and so cover the whole period allotted for suffering in purgatory; and not only so, but to have a balance in one's favour. In such a case, let the person live as he lists; let him commit all manner of sins, in all manner of ways; is he not as sure as Rome can make him, that they are all pardoned before they are committed? Here is a license to sin with a vengeance. Could the evil heart of man, greedy on all wickedness, desire an ampler toleration, or could larger license be granted by the author of evil himself? The foulest of the ancient polytheisms were immaculate and holy compared with Rome. Their principles tended to relax the restraints of virtue, and generally to debase human nature; but when did they proclaim to the world an unbounded liberty of sinning? When did they trade in sin? All this Rome has done. Although hell were to empty itself upon the earth, it could not inflict a worse pollution than this spawn of Rome. Though fiends were to walk up and down in the world, and with serpent tongue and hissing accents to prompt and solicit mortals, they could not lure and destroy more effectually than Rome's pardonmongers. When Rome took her way among the benighted nations, who could resist her offers? A paradise of sin on earth, and a paradise of happiness hereafter, and all for a little money! Yes; of all the evil systems which have arisen to affront God, to mock man, and to do the work of hell, Rome is entitled to rank foremost. Others have done viciously, but she has excelled them all. She has invented sin, taught sin, acted sin, and traded in sin; and so has made good, beyond the possibility of doubt or question, her title to the name which stood on the page of prophecy as at once the ominous harbinger and the compendious description of a system afterwards to arise,--"THE MAN OF SIN."

There is not a day in the year in which indulgences for any sin, and to any amount, may not be obtained; but the year of jubilee is marked in the calendar of Rome as a year of special grace. The jubilee was instituted in the year 1300 by Boniface VIII.19 It was to return every hundredth year, in imitation of the secular games of the Romans, which were celebrated once in an age. "A most plenary pardon" of all their sins was promised to those who should visit the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome. The same reward was to belong to such as, unable to undertake so long a pilgrimage, should pay a certain sum, and to such as might die by the way. He who sat on the Seven Hills gave commandment to the angels to carry their souls direct to the glory of paradise, since they were absolved from the pains of purgatory. To the priests it was indeed a jubilee. The multitude of pilgrims filled Rome to overflow; their wealth replenished the coffers of the pontiff. The most notorious sinners were transformed by the pontifical magic into saints, and sent away as pure as they came. From their long journey, which had taxed alike the limbs and the purse, they reaped, as Rome had promised they should, "a plentiful harvest of penitence." But most of all, it grieved the popes to think that a century must pass away before such another year should come round. It was not fit that the Church should so hoard her treasures, and afford to her sons only at long intervals, opportunities of evincing their gratitude by the liberality of their gifts. Considerations of this sort moved Clement VI. to reduce the term of jubilee to fifty years. It was found still to be too long, and was shortened by Urban VI.. to thirty-three, and finally fixed by Sixtus V. at twenty-five. Thus every quarter of a century does a whole shower of indulgences descend upon the papal world. The last return of "the year of expiation and pardon, of redemption and grace, of remission and indulgence," to use the terms of the bull of Leo XII., was 1850. The result is told by Gavazzi. "The late effort of Pio Nono to get up a pious enthusiasm, after the fashion of his predecessors, on the recurrence of the semi-secular year of 1850, had utterly failed throughout the Italian peninsula; and though he held forth one hand filled with indulgences, the other was too palpably armed with the cudgel of the Croat to attract the approach of his countrymen."20

But is not the prodigality with which Rome scatters indulgences among all who need or will receive them, a dangerous one? In these evil times, a great deal must be flowing out of this treasury, and very little flowing in. Is there no risk of emptying it? Day and night there rolls a river of indulgences ample enough to supply the necessities of the Roman Catholic world; yet century after century finds the source of this mighty stream undiminished. Here is another of Rome's wonders! The ocean itself would in time become dry, were it not fed by the rivers. Where are the rivers that feed this spiritual reservoir? Where are the eminent living saints of the Roman Catholic Church, whose supererogatory virtues maintain a balance against the infidels, socialists, formalists, and evil characters of all kinds which, it is now confessed, abound within the pale of Rome? We see all coming with their pitchers to draw, but none bringing contributions hither. We are reminded of those natural phenomena which have exercised and baffled the ingenuity of naturalists. We have here a phenomenon exactly the reverse of the Dead Sea, into which the floods of the Jordan are hourly poured, but from whose dark confine there issues no stream. And we have a direct resemblance in the Mediterranean, out of which a stream is ceaselessly flowing through the Straits of Gibraltar into the capacious bosom of the Atlantic, yet the shores of the former are ever full and undiminished. Doubtless in both cases there is a compensatory process going on, though invisibly. And perhaps Rome may hold, in like manner, that the rivers that feed her ocean of merit roll in secret, unseen and unheard. At all events, she teaches that it is wholly INEXHAUSTIBLE. A time will come when the mines of Peru and California shall be exhausted, and their last golden grains dug up. But a time will never come when the treasury of Rome shall be exhausted, and not a grain of merit more remain to be doled out to the faithful. What has she not already drawn from that exhaustless treasury! Not to speak of the kings, nobles, priests, and the countless millions of people of all conditions whom she has delivered out of purgatory, she has carried on with its help numerous crusades, waged mighty wars, raised sumptuous palaces, and built magnificent temples. The dome of St. Peter's remains an imposing monument of the exhaustless mine of wealth which the indulgences opened to Rome.21 Those magnificent Gothic structures that cover papal Europe,--what are they?

The monuments of the piety of former ages? No: love did not place a stone in any one of them. The power which raised these noble piles, full of grandeur and beauty though they be, was that of superstition acting on a guilty conscience. Every stone in them expresses so much sin. Their beautiful marbles, their rich mosaics, their gorgeous paintings, their noble columns and towers, bespeak the remorse of the dying sinner, who vainly strove by these expiatory gifts to relieve a conscience which felt sorely burdened by the manifold crimes of a lifetime. Again Rome has been compelled, by the necessities of these latter times, to betake herself to a resource which very shame had forced her to abandon. There are Italian exiles in London which she would have rewarded with a dungeon in their own country, but for whom she builds a church in ours. And with what? With the sins of papal Europe. An indulgence of a hundred days, and a plenary indulgence of one day, are offered by the pontiff to all who shall contribute an alms for its erection. A temple of piety! Faugh! The structure will be redolent of abominations of all kinds. So profitable does Rome find this California of hers. After all that Rome has drawn out of the treasury of the Church, she declares with truth that this treasury is every whit as full as it ever was; and she might add with truth, that when centuries more shall have passed away, and their unnumbered wants shall have been supplied, it will not be a whit more empty than it is at this moment.

1 Concil. Trid. sess. xiv. cap. ix. can. xii.

2 Perrone's Praelectiones Theologicae, tom. ii. p. 362

3 Perrone's Praelectiones Theologicae, tom. ii. p. 273, 274.

4 Theol. Mor. et Dog. Petri Dens, tom. viii. p. 429.

5 Ibid. p. 425.

6 Laity's Directory for 1825.

7 Concil. Trid. sess. xxv. dec. i., de Indulg.

8 Rome in the Nineteenth Century, vol. ii. p. 359.

9 Theol. Mor. et Dog. Petri Dens, tom. vi. p. 418. See also Keenan's Catechism on Indulgences, chap. i.: Grounds of Catholic Doctrine, chap. x.

10 Butler's Cat. lesson xxviii.: Delahogue, Tractatus de Sacramento Poenitentiae, p. 321.

11 D'Aubigné's History of the Reformation vol. i. pp. 241, 242.

12 Rome in the Nineteenth Century, vol. ii. pp. 267-270.

13 Burnet on the Articles, p. 228, fol. ed.

14 Gavin's Master Key to Popery, vol. i. p. 111.

15 Practical Evidence against Catholicism, p. 84.

16 Geddes's Tracts, vol. iv. p. 90.

17 Take a modern instance. It was announced in the public prints that on the 19th of January 1850, Cardinal Patrizi, vicar-general of the Roman Court, by public notification, informed the people of the Roman States that his holiness had prescribed a novene (nine days public prayer) to be celebrated in all parochial churches, in honour of the purification of the Virgin Mary. Seven years' indulgences, and as many quarantaines, were granted to the faithful for every time they attended these public prayers.

18 Perrone's Praelectiones Theologicae, tom. ii. pp. 417, 418.

19 Mosheim, cent. xiii. part ii. chap. iv.

20 Gavazzi, Oration xviii.

21 Michelet remarks with reference to the building of St. Peter's, that the Pope had not the mines of Mexico, but he had a mine even more productive,--old superstition.