Indulgences-A Profitable Business

 The Roman Catholic code of ethics and morality has throughout the centuries, like the gigantic pendulum of a worldwide clock, swung back and forth across the face of Europe from severity to laxity.

Personal confession developed as an instrument of control and the enforcement of discipline.  But many callused spirits found it a simple way to shed responsibility for sin and crime.  Theologians came up with another deterrent -severe penances administered in this life and the guarantee of horrible tortures in the next world-purgatory, in addition to hell.

But medieval spiritual ingenuity with a weather-eye toward the ever-present opportunities for money came up with a counterirritant.  It consisted of indulgences, and the things to which indulgences were attached, relies of the saints, objects revealed by God such as rosaries, scapulars, medals, and sacramentals: admittedly invented by the Church-holy water, blessings, candles and statues.

 And, lest the faithfuls belief in supernatural agony should wane, suffering souls were allowed to slip back from purgatory and helplessly wander the earth, and even the devils themselves escaped from hell to haunt the world  and possess the souls of men.

The penances imposed by priests varied according to their own spirit of charity or their feelings of sadistic lust.

We read of the recitation of certain prayers as penance for sins, or the donation of money to the priests or to the poor.  We read also of sinning women being forced to walk through town naked from the waist up or scourging themselves naked in the presence of the priest.  Even in our day, Catholics complain sometimes in print of the severity of the pennames imposed in the confessional.

Purgatory, as a temporary place and state of fiery torture, had as confusing and gradual a birth in the minds of the early theologians as confession itself.

 In 593 Gregory the Great in his Dialogues makes his interlocutor ask to be instructed whether it is to be believed that there is a fire of purgation after death, to which Gregory's answer is affirmative, but he limits it to trifling sins such as idle talk, immoderate laughter and the like, which are inseparable from human infirmity.  How crude as yet were the conceptions of such temporary punishment is seen in his stories of slaves working in baths, who were spirits condemned thus to expiate their sins. . . . Naturally the, growing belief was stimulated with the customary arts of forgery.  A letter was fabricated from Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, to St. Augustine, relating how a powerful sect of heretics sprang up who denied the existence of purgatory until the dead St. Jerome appeared in a vision to the holy priest Eusebius and told him to reaniniate three dead men whom St. Jerome had providently carried to heaven, hell, and purgatory, and who therefore were able to give full and accurate descriptions of the three abodes.  In the seventh century St. Eloi of Noyon has no doubt of the existence of purgatorial fire, based on the text 1. Cor. in 13, but his exegesis is literal.  It is a test through which every soul must pass; the wicked will go through it into hell, the just will overcome it, and if they have venial sins these will be burnt out; it will last until the day of judgment, when every one will be saved or damned.  This theory, however, seems to have bad little currency.,

 Many Church writers up to the time of the council of the Lateran in 1216 ignore purgatory, or give contradictory descriptions of it, its length of endurance or the kinds of crimes that it is designed to punish.  In 868 Aeneas of Paris made no mention of it, in his full and complete discussion of the differences between the Churches.  The following year, the canons and anathemas of the council of Constantinople maintain the same silence.  "It evidently was too uncertain or too trivial a question 11 states Lea, "to be ranked with the procession of the Holy Ghost, clerical celibacy, the character of the Lenten fast, shaving the beard, image worship, and the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome 2

 About 1160 a vision accorded to a dead man who revived relates that purgatory is a large and deep valley with ice on one side and flames on the other, the souls being tossed from one to the other; it is for those who postpone repentance and confession till the deathbed, and they will thus suffer until doomsday.3

 There is an old saying that the worst aspect about lying is that it takes so many subsequent lies to bolster the first one.

This is certainly the explanation of the superstitious fiction of indulgences. just as the Churches grasping for Innocent VIII mortgaged his papal headdress for 100,000 ducats in 1487.'

Modem Roman Catholic apologists cannot dismiss indulgences and their abuses with the glibness with which they shrug off the murders of the Inquisition and massacre of the Hugenots as "harsh measures necessary for a harsh age." If anything the exploitation, financial and emotional, of the faithful has increased in our day.

A casual thumbing of today's prayer books shows partial and plenary (complete) indulgences in abundance.  They are still widely granted by the Vatican for pilgrimages to shrines, Eucharistic Congress and especially for partaking in the Holy Years in Rome .

 The despair of sincere Catholic writers of earlier centuries and the crimes and excesses of former times are relived in the Mardi Gras and similar excesses of modem Catholic countries.

 When, in 1274, the council of Salzburg adopted the heroic expedient of suspending all indulgences, it gave as a reason the enervation of discipline which experience showed that they occasioned in many places.  Perhaps even more damaging than this is the naive admission embodied in an argument frequently used in their favor-that they are particularly useful to those who are apt to relapse into sin, and would not be likely to abstain from it during the term of penance from which an indulgence relieves them, for penance to be effective must be performed in a state of grace.  Thus they released the sinner from restraint, and encouraged his evil tendencies by teaching him that prompt admission to heaven could be purchased without mending his ways.... Even more significant of demoralization is the admission made by Azpilcueta in his argument to prove that sins committed in expectation of an indulgence are none the less entitled to it.  We Catholics, he says, all commit sins which we would not do but for the assurance of pardon through penance, and the hope of impunity does not deprive the sinner of the benefit of the law-'

 A careful reading of these words, and of the original source material on which they are based, will make inescapable the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church did not strengthen people to tread the straight and narrow path to heaven.  Rather through purgatory, confession, indulgences, relies and the like, it smoothed and broadened the primrose path which it taught also leads to heaven.

An example of the gradual softening of Catholic discipline throughout the centuries may be seen in the eucharistic fast.  When I was a boy, a Catholic could not receive communion unless he had fasted from midnight on. The fast meant complete abstinence from food or drink, even water.  When I became a priest I learned the theological trick of using the varying time systems to fulfill the fast and still eat at the same time.  On a Friday evening, for instance, one may invoke daylight saving time and eat a ham sandwich at midnight (eleven o I clock Standard Time) because it is then Saturday, and one could also continue to eat and drink until one o'clock, Daylight Saving Time because by Standard Time it is not yet midnight on Saturday.

But whatever time we used we presumably fasted from midnight on.  Since many have left the Church, it has relaxed its discipline in order to keep more people from leaving it, and laws of fasting have been changed.  A Catholic has to abstain from solid food only for three hours before receiving communion; he does not have to abstain from water at all.

 A disturbing question as to when and whether water is sometimes a solid food was posed by a priest and answered in American Ecclesiastical Review.


 Question:     Does a person break the eucharistic fast by eating ice shortly before Holy Communion?  I am thinking particularly of one who takes a glass of water containing ice, and chews the ice.

Answer:       I believe it is sufficiently probable that unmelted ice can be called water to allow it to be chewed and eaten at any time before Holy Communion.  In other words, there is good reason to believe that the first norm of the 1953 rules for the eucharistic fast, declaring that 11 natural water does not break the eucharistic fast (cf.  Bouscaren, Canon Law Digest, IV, 275), can be extended to the chewing and eating of unmelted ice."

From the twentieth century back to earlier days, and we shall see how only the names have changed, the basic tenets remain the same:

 In 1778, Onofri describes the mobs which fill the churches on the occasion of indulgences, and exclaims, 'Oh, how much better would it be for them not to go there!  The tablet suspended over the door, 'Plenary indulgences and remission of all sins,' would be truer if it read 'Plenary permission to commit all sins,' for on such occasions great is the abuse of the foolish people.  Youths assemble there with arms, women with vanity, men with arrogance; there is music and dancing; quarrels, arise, passions are excited, there is slaughter of souls, if in no other way, at least with words, with looks, with sneers, with desires. is this the way, to gain indulgences, satisfy for sins?  Rather is it the way to to call down the lightning of heaven!. . .

In 1782 Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg ordered his priests to use every effort to prevent the scandals which frequently accompany occasions of obtaining indulgences.  Crowds come from distant places, abandoning their duties and idling through many days, passing the nights crowded together without distinction of sex; they rush to the confessional without contrition and distract the confessor, who cannot ascertain the disposition of the penitent or discharge his triple duties of judge, teacher and physician of souls.  Then the people pass in confusion to take communion, they recite the prayers for the indulgence, and, rejoiced at obtaining it, they hasten to have a good time in the taverns, and finally return home, believing themselves reconciled to God and able to abandon themselves to their old sins, for which they will subsequently again have so efficacious a remedy."