The world changed on October 31, 1517 (five hundred years ago yesterday). That was the day Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was an act of defiance that ignited a theological war with the Roman Catholic Church—one that persists five hundred years later.
But those of us familiar with the historic hallmarks of the Protestant-Catholic divide won’t find them in Luther’s initial protest. His theses didn’t offer a treatise on the doctrine of justification, advocate for the authority of Scripture, or repudiate the false gospel of Rome. While those issues would later epitomize the heart of Reformation theology, Luther’s first salvo was provoked by the perverse Roman Catholic indulgence industry.
As we saw last time, Pope Leo X’s grandiose construction projects in Rome required an enormous amount of revenue. To that end, he authorized indulgences—the sale of God’s favor and forgiveness—to fill his coffers.
The Medieval World
By the sixteenth century, Roman Catholicism had created—and inherited—the perfect climate for its lies to thrive. Church members were predominantly illiterate. The Bible and church services remained cloistered in ancient Latin. Furthermore, only the highest ranks within the church hierarchy had access to Holy Scripture. The wall that existed between the common man and God’s Word was virtually impenetrable.
The religious powerbrokers in Rome reserved exclusive rights for interpreting Scripture as they saw fit and filtering that information down to regular congregants. Medieval churchgoers had little choice but to blindly follow Roman Catholic dogma—no matter how ridiculous the rules became.
Instead of a torrent of biblical truth, the peasants of Europe were selectively drip-fed Rome’s religious propaganda. Steeped in superstition, the people sought right standing with God through baptism, venerating saints, viewing relics, praying rosaries, and consuming the Eucharist. If the mother church claimed it could sell reduced sentences in the dreaded purgatory, there wasn’t really any other alternative than to believe such outlandish claims.
Death was a constant threat during the Middle Ages. Lifespans were drastically shorter than they are today. Severe poverty, contaminated water, and filthy living conditions were all conducive to an early grave. Medicine was primitive and shrouded in mysticism. It was common for parents to bury their children, husbands to lose their wives through childbirth, and plagues to decimate entire regions. The ever-present reality of death produced a culture that was fixated on eternal matters—specifically, absolution for their sins and escaping purgatory. That concern extended to their deceased loved ones, who they believed were languishing there.
In spite of their extreme poverty, the peasants were highly motivated to dig deep when indulgences were offered. They willingly parted with what little they had to gain early release from their looming future in purgatory. Pope Leo’s afterlife extortioners had a ready-made customer base.
Johann Tetzel fronted Leo’s indulgence operation in Germany. His sales pitch played on the fears and superstitions of the many who would gather to listen. Without a doubt, Tetzel’s biggest business came from his emotional pleas for the souls of deceased loved ones in purgatory.
Do you not hear the voices of your dead relatives and others, crying out to you and saying, “Pity us, pity us, for we are in dire punishment and torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance”? And you will not? . . . 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 immortal soul safely and securely into the homeland of paradise?  Walther Köhler, ed., Dokumente zum Ablassenstreit von 1517, 2nd rev. ed. (Tübingen, 1934), 125, 127. Cited in James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer, Fortress Press ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 103.
In pure monetary terms, Tetzel’s extortion of Germany’s poor was a resounding success. But as his entourage rolled on towards Wittenberg, an eruption was brewing.
Martin Luther was indignant when he found out that parishioners from Wittenberg were being conned by Tetzel. As a matter of urgency he wrote his Ninety-Five Theses in response to the rampant extortion. He decried the “lust and license of indulgence preachers” (Thesis 72), describing them as “hawkers of indulgences [who] cajole money” (Thesis 51). Thesis 86 boldly pointed out the cruelty of it all: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
Luther’s repudiation of indulgences circulated widely and rapidly provoked a huge backlash against Tetzel. While the money he raised was gladly received in Rome, Tetzel was no longer welcome. Facing hostility and hatred from every direction, he was forced to retreat to the confines of a monastery, and eventually died in seclusion.
Leo seethed with rage over the giant wrench Luther had thrown in his works. And the animosity escalated into full-blown anathema as the Reformation continued to gain steam.
The sale of indulgences was no longer viable, at least in the overt form Tetzel deployed. Nonetheless they have remained an integral Roman Catholic doctrine into the present day—albeit more discretely.
To this day, the Church of Rome still traffics in indulgences. They made a significant resurgence in 1967 when Pope Paul VI promulgated his Indulgentiarum Doctrina (Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences). While the Indulgentiarum Doctrina stated that indulgences were no longer for sale—“illicit profits”—it also affirmed Rome’s ongoing commitment to the doctrine. Paul VI went so far as to pronounce damnation on anyone who rejects belief in indulgences.
But the Church, in deploring and correcting these improper uses “teaches and establishes that the use of indulgences must be preserved because it is supremely salutary for the Christian people and authoritatively approved by the sacred councils; and it condemns with anathema those who maintain the uselessness of indulgences or deny the power of the Church to grant them.” (Chapter IV, Paragraph 8)
The document leaves no doubt that the Church of Rome still believes it has exclusive power to dish out God’s grace however and whenever it sees fit. Indulgentiarum Doctrina spells out precise formulas comprised of prayers for the Pope, hail Marys, confessions, contrition, and charitable works. And in a curious closing statement, the document reminds us just how much authority Rome believes it wields over God and His power, telling us that the new range of indulgences would take effect “three months from the date of publication.”
In 2009, the New York Times published an article announcing that indulgences are increasingly back in vogue among Catholics. It points out that while you can’t buy an indulgence anymore, “charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one.” Today the Pope even offers special indulgences for people who sign up as Twitter followers. Around the world, Catholics still hunt for ways to sidestep penance and purgatory. But for the most part, these modern indulgences are not the cash cow they once were for the church.
The sad truth is that if you’re looking for a modern equivalent to Tetzel’s indulgences, you’re far more likely to find it in Protestant circles today. As we’ll see next time, God’s grace and blessings are still for sale in a new and expanding religious marketplace.